Thursday, March 29, 2012

Finding your kin

I had the good fortune last week to receive an invitation to the Kinfolk Social, a celebration of community, food, and craft, at The Green Building in Brooklyn. I went solo, hoping that like-minded nice people interested in meeting others would allow me entry to their conversations. They did.

The Green Building, a long, lofted barn-like space was lit by three golden chandeliers and enough candles to warm the place. Eucalyptus leaves were strewn from the rafters above, creating a canopy over the long communal table. After enjoying a family-style vegetarian meal, the group welcomed a larger crowd, doubling the size of the Kinfolk fans, the local crafters and artisans, and the writers and photographers who spend their time in the support of these artists.

Kinfolk, possibly the most beautiful quarterly magazine to hit limited shelving in recent years, celebrates this coming together. It inspires a slower pace, an appreciation of tastes, smells, decor, and place. Above all, it wants to create community. And that Sunday night supper in Brooklyn helped do just that. There were Brooklyn-made cheeses, chocolates, specialty beers and cocktails, slate serving platters, ceramic mugs and teapots... a true celebration of the talent our neighborhood possesses.

This was great timing, for the Times had run a quick story in the Sunday magazine the week previous, highlighting the artisans that are moving beyond pickles and knitted caps and becoming specialists in more specific manufacturing. The author, Adam Davidson, argued that this was true capitalism, as Adam Smith wrote it could be, for maximum efficiency there must be specialization. I make the cheese, you the bread, he’ll make the oven. Together, we all have grilled cheeses. If we each make our own parts to the grilled cheese puzzle, the process is slowed. This is ironic, isn’t it? This craft movement occurred in the first place because we wanted to get off the high-speed, high-pressure life style that thrives on quickness, access, and expediency. We focus on slowing sufficiently to focus on one thing, one thing we feel a connection to, and in doing so, we hasten the efficiency of the whole, as long as enough people slow to focus on their specialties too. There are holes in this argument, sure, but in a general manner, Davidson is right to point out the true expanse of this movement and its effect on our economy. We are moving in a direction of specialization by choice, we are making the crafts that we want to, not working in an assembly line of gadgets. We are, in becoming more passionate economic participants, creating a healthier, happier economy. Slowly, sure, but doing so nonetheless. This makes me so excited. I love to think that if we all gather together with our special talents, that we recreate this marketplace with our ideals and expectations in the proper place.

On that note, read this blog:
Sure, it’s a love letter to a husband on an anniversary, but it’s the point behind it that rings true to me- we can find a way to support one another (in craft, business, and love) and keep a bit of old-fashioned charm alive.

Winter Comforts

I’ve been holing up a bit since settling in Brooklyn. Not only because I spent all of my money in Europe in the last few months, but because it’s winter. It’s grey. And today, it’s even raining. I spend so much of my time working in the restaurant that in my time off, I’m so tired that my bones hurt. This results in those few down days being spent wearing loose knits while tinkering in the kitchen.

Last week, for the first time, I made lamb chops. I’ve never much been a fan of lamb, or rather, it’s never excited me the way I see some people fawn over it. I figure, if it incites such love in some people, I’d better let them have it. However, I had a crazy experience a few years back where as my dinner partner finished their lamb chops, I was overwhelmed by a need to suck on the lamb bones. I know that sounds like an inappropriate share, but it must’ve been a deficiency of some sort in my own diet that caused it, and last week, I wanted those lamb bones again. I seared the chops with Herbs de Provence, fresh thyme, and grey sea salt. Paired with roasted purple carrots, beet greens, and fingerlings that I seasoned with whole garlic cloves still in their wraps, a bit of rosemary, olive oil and more sea salt, it was simple, comforting and delicious.

This morning I broke down the chicken I baked on Sunday, saving the bones and au jus to make a stock. It’s simmering now with carrots, onions, rosemary, thyme and celery, making a wonderful perfume for the apartment.

I’m working for a new website, writing about food and artisans. It seems promising. I’ll be researching artisanal sodas this week, made in my Brooklyn backyard, by people likely to be as excited as I am to be cooking and tinkering, making one's life and career out of what makes you happiest.

Opportunities that come, and what to do about them...

I have twice visited a heavenly farm and world-renowned restaurant in the past two weeks. I watched heritage breed geese settle in to their new home, piglets with long curly tails fighting for their lunch. There were cows scratching their hides against trees while others lingered in a free-flowing brook. The cleanest and most beautiful chicken coop I have ever seen was the home to a hundred or so laying hens. Irrigation drip lines fed into drinking dishes for these hens, and they squabbled around, chatting and napping in the fresh hay. I have wanted to come here for years. The farm is among the best in the nation, the educational and sustainability driven non-profit is one I’ve always admired.

The restaurant runs on these fields, serving their pork and carrots. It is recognized as one of the best, it is a Chez Panisse, it is a French Laundry. I am honored to be offered a position.

The trouble is, it’s a position in a field from which I’m trying to be released. You know, when you’ve stayed too long in a position that comes naturally and easily, but isn’t necessarily using your full potential and passion (that’s right, bartenders and waiters, I’m looking at you!)? I’m hoping to just be a writer one day, a writer that focuses on food security, responsible agriculture, healthful eating, food systems and food rituals around the world. I do not want to be a waiter/writer forever. Every time I take a new opportunity in a restaurant, I’m one step further from being only a writer. These are adult decisions; hard to make and definitely hard to know if you’ve made the right one.

I don’t think I’ll take the position offered though. It is not a guarantee that this one will feed into the one I’d hope to have on the farm and in the office. And it’s too risky to add more of my writing time to my waiting time; I’ve waited long enough.

Baia Nicchia Farm starts Artisanal Seed Company

I used to spend hours picking peppers, tomatoes and squash for Fred Hempel. His greyhounds would run around the fields, startling the chickens and causing us to pause our harvesting to watch their speed and grace. We’d get there early in the morning, dew and frost making leaves shimmer above the crackable ice on puddles not yet burned away by the sun. I wear farm clothes: old t-shirts, ratty corduroys, sweatshirts with hoods, fingerless gloves, a hat and Wellies. By the time I’ve picked my first crate of tomatoes, the hat, gloves and sweatshirt have been thrown aside.

Fred owns Baia Nicchia, or Bay Niche, an organic farm that supplies to CSA subscribers (private purchasers of a weekly box of whatever is in season) and Bay Area restaurants. He sells at farmer’s markets and caters dinners on the farm. The farm, located in Sunol Agricultural Park, lies to the far end of a long driveway lined with persimmon trees I still dream about. There’s a brook behind the farm and the water temple anchoring the far end of the road. The temple was built in 1910 to honor the Bay Area’s connection to its watershed in the Sierra Nevada mountains. This land is leased from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and is used by farmers and government officials both. Fred cultivates a large portion of the land, growing and breeding plants that perform especially well in the East Bay microclimate.

As a biologist, Fred uses his expertise in genetics to choose seeds with characteristics that ensure high yields, disease and pest resistance, delicious flavor, and attractiveness. He does all of this by watching the plant grow, eating lots of the fruit it produces, and saving seeds. Ok, maybe there’s a little bit more to it, but observation is the primary key. By choosing wisely, Fred is able to tailor seeds to the Bay Area grower.

Herein lies Fred’s latest project; he’s starting a seed business called Artisan Seeds. His project is being funded through generous donors (yours truly included) on the website Kickstarter. His first seeds for sale will be six of his striped tomato varieties, two mustards, and three peppers, the mustards and peppers being Ethiopian varieties. Through collaborating with a local Ethiopian pepper seller, Fred has found these plants to be ideal in flavor and well-suited for growth in the region. Through Artisan Seeds, Fred is offering the following Ethiopian varities: Highland Kale seeds, Highland Mustards, Mareko Fana peppers (the backbone of Berbere spice), Mareko Fana Red peppers, and Mitmita peppers. Fred is bringing even more biodiversity to his fields, and in doing so, he’s expanding the palates of pepper eaters far and wide.

Baia Nicchia is trying to raise money in increments of $3,000, enough to put another variety to market. Pledging any amount gives you a packet of kale seeds, but the incentive to donate more to the cause is great. The more you donate, the greater the prizes: other varieties of seeds and more of them, tins of organic, grey dog tea (grown on the farm and named for the dogs I remember so fondly), an invitation to a dinner catered on the farm, and the end-all reward, naming a new breed of tomato.  

Donate to Fred now, help bring obscure and delicious vegetables to the masses.

photo credit Fred Hempel

The Superbowl of My Future

I’ve just relocated to Brooklyn, the next step in my search for a sense of place and home. I am forever searching, my romantic comedy mind convinced that there’s some place that will ground me and cement me to a community forever. Haven’t found my heart’s home yet, but haven’t given up hope.

The irony of my endless search culminated in the unlikely combination of Superbowl teams this year. We knew the Raiders wouldn’t make it, Oakland having been my home of many, many years, but when San Francisco lost to New York in the playoffs, I knew my California days were really over. Let me note at this point, that I don’t give a hoot about football, but the teams listed all over the news and internet over past weeks have been the teams of my homes. I couldn’t ignore that I thought they were fighting for my future. And California had just lost me in this race.

So, the true test was between New England, the place of my birth and my home for the last 1.5 years, and New York, my newest home and maybe where I will spend the future.

It was a good game, wasn’t it? I really felt like both teams wanted to win, to win for me, obviously. With such a tight score throughout, I watched, rapt in the dual unfolding in front of me. Clearly, whoever won this game was going to reveal where my true home lies. There was a lot on the line.

While Tom Brady threw many a pass at my destiny, New England didn’t hold on tightly enough. New York won. In my life, and in football, New York came out on top. I had already known the outcome, I guess, since I left New England behind last month, and should have wagered accordingly. It was the only time I’ve ever known how a bet would turn out. A missed opportunity there, sure, but maybe it’s better that way. The Cosmos can still send me their messages about the future, however ridiculous the medium. 

We made the largest BLT I’ve ever seen, with crispy strips of bacon, herbed, garlic aioli and the freshest tomatoes you can find in NYC in the winter (they were still not good enough). My friend Liza came with individual jars of three-meat chili, Jenna and Mitch made football shaped deviled eggs and french onion dip, because Superbowl is really just an excuse to eat chips and dip for dinner. That, and apparently, a contest that decides my fate. Go Giants?

The French Heart

Monday morning I woke up to a phone call from my mother. Pepère died last night...

I packed up the cat, emailed my boss, attempted to pack clothes (5 pairs of pants, 2 sweaters and 1 will that work?), and hopped in the car. Pepère had had a successful hip replacement followed by an equally successful heart attack. It’s unfair to go in to relieve a pain, succeed in relieving it, then be blindsided by your broken heart.

He’s here with my Memère in this picture, just after they were married, 67 years ago. At dinner on Monday, she whispered to my mother, “I keep wondering why he’s not coming to dinner. Why isn’t he sitting down to eat?” She only has moments of lucidity, and that, surprisingly, was her way of saying that this would be an adjustment, that she will wonder where he is for a long time.

Their last name is Francoeur, loosely translated to French Heart, and it was his French heart that took him away.

Filling Bellies

Comfort Food

I have been sequestered in the kitchen in recent days. As the family descends to say goodbye to our grandfather, Pepère, I aim to feed the masses, to make it so no one has to think about what to make, what to eat. It’s an attempt to make my mother’s time easier, for she’s normally the one to organize each meal, to execute each plate and to exhaust herself in the meantime. Judging by her thin frame, this hasn’t been her priority in the last few weeks. While she cares for my grandmother, Memère, I bake a chicken with French herbed butter, I make pâte brisee and file it all into a casserole dish for a chicken pot pie (kale, sweet potatoes, carrots, celery, tarragon). I make salads: tortellini (tomatoes and sunflower seeds), tuna (with balsamic and dill) and egg (aioli and a bit of dijon) for lunches during these busy days, brownies with walnuts for dessert, lentils and barley. I make breakfast rice- jasmine rice with cinnamon, golden raisins, milk and vanilla. I follow up with chicken stock simmering for hours on the stove, pizza with homemade dough and sauce, rocket salad with shaved pecorino. We drink a bit of wine; we soothe our frazzled edges. Tomorrow, Turkish coffee and a coffee grounds reading; my mother and I will awaken to the future in more ways than one.

Monday, March 26, 2012

And Then There Were Rugs: A Shopping Adventure in Cappadocia

We wander down a curved road, past fairy chimneys and surrounded by the rugged yet smooth mountains, to the Gallery Cappadocia. Turkish rugs are on display outside, a few men chat off under a tree, having a tea and a cigarette. We say merhaba, and inquire if they are open. We are escorted through giant, carved, wooden doors and into a room that changes everything.

Before us sit eight women on low, pillowed stools. They are dressed comfortably, with stripes and patterns calling out. They all wear headscarves. Tea cups sit beside each stool, they chat and gossip amongst one another. Before each of them is a loom; wide complicated looms with vividly colored skeins of braided yarn hanging from the tops, white threads upon which the rug will be knotted hang tautly from top to bottom, numbering in the hundreds. At the base of each loom is the first steps of a Turkish, handmade rug, coming to fruition one knot at a time. We have entered through the back door, startling these women out of their daily routine, reminding them that their craft is worthy of praise and photography.

Weavers of Turkish Rugs, Julia Frost photo credit.

The owner of the shop, Sadi, meets us in the weaving room. He can tell by our gaping mouths that we were not expecting to see these women at work. While we adjust to the shock of seeing the weavers at the looms, he describes their craft. They train to weave these rugs their entire lives. They begin to learn very young, for they will weave a rug for their wedding. This rug is an investment and an asset, providing a both a financial foothold for the new couple and something to sell, should they ever need the money. This rug is also a wish list, for it offers the weaver the chance to put children, good fortune, a strong husband, and anything else in their cards. Sadi describes the difference between the yarns that are used—wool, cotton, silk— and shows us the difference it makes in a carpet’s appearance. He describes the double stitch that makes Turkish handmade rugs appreciate with age: demonstrating with a string wound around his fingers, he shows how the knot winds around the cotton base (he shows two strands with two fingers), ends coming through the center to be exposed as the color and weave in the pile of the rug. As traffic over the rug occurs over time, the knot is tightened by the friction and pull of steps over the exposed ends. The outcome is a stronger rug with more vibrant color as the years pass by. These rugs, Sadi says, will increase in worth as they age.

Rug in Process, Julia Frost photo.

Trimming after each row, Julia Frost photo.

He welcomes us further into the building, hall after hall and room after room, filled to the rafters with rolls and stacks of rugs. He shows us bags for draping over donkeys and camels, pillowcases, runners, throw rugs and tapestries. Each carpet that is unrolled is increasingly impressive. Sadi begins to have fun. He has two of his employees running from room to room collecting more intricate and worthy rugs for our viewing pleasure. We ask Sadi about his business, wondering just how big this operation is. He has 35 employees, more in the high season, and pays livable wages, thanks to subsidies from the government to support their handmade, artisanal craft. This thereby ensures that this historical and unique, creative knowledge will be passed down from each generation forward, something that we found quite telling of the Turkish government’s values.

Carpet Heaven. Julia Frost photo.

He unrolls rugs seen in movies (The King’s Speech used one just like his), and rugs whose design was destroyed after the rug was completed, ensuring that only one rug of it’s kind will ever be made. Rugs given as gifts from Turkey to other countries, rugs commissioned by royalty, rugs that are transparent when put up to the light (pure white silk is completely see-through). We see kilims, tribal rugs, Noah’s Ark inspired, geometric, and floral motifs. We see bright colors, muted colors, and the most beautiful carpets we’ve ever seen. Sadi describes the vegetable and plant dyes used to create the colors: tobacco, saffron, walnut husks, indigo, chamomile, onion skins, sumac, and beets, and even cochineal beetles for the deepest red dye.

"The most beautiful carpet you will ever see" we are told... Julia Frost photo.

Mind-blowing intricacy, Julia Frost photo.

We become more enamored of this process. Tea is offered, we accept. My friend is the first to take her shoes off, wanting to feel these rugs more intimately beneath her socked feet. I feverishly write notes, not wanting to miss a word of Sadi’s explanations. We photograph like we’re doing a magazine spread. I have a moment, realizing that if I gave him my preferences and price range, that I may buy a rug today. But I needn’t offer that information, he is reading my mind. He puts aside the one-of-a-kinds, realizing that he has a waitress and a caterer looking at his inventory, and shows us smaller rugs. He brings out old and new, tribal and floral, and begins telling us prices. We sip our tea, squat to touch the softness of the rugs, try not to gasp as beautiful pieces change color in the light. We are unsuccessful.There are 50 rugs laying before us.

I'm getting serious, now. And taking notes. Julia Frost photo.

My friend nearly buys a rug that would live in a dining room (once she has one…) for the rest of her life. I nearly buy one that has beautiful blues, reds and a tribal motif that includes rivers, camels and staircases to heaven and hell.  But then the game changer arrives. The helper, rug in hand, enters the room smirking. I can tell the air has changed. With a slightly dramatic gesture, he unrolls and then holds up the rug for me to see. He picks up one corner, lifts it deftly with his right hand up and then flicks it to the right, sending the rug flying horizontally into the air and turning it 180*. Like the flip of the rug, I experience a flip of my belly, get the chills, and know that I’m going home with a Turkish rug. My shoes come off, I step on to the carpet, accept a second tea, and shake Sadi’s hand.

Tea, an essential part of the process. Julia Frost photo.

My friend is more conflicted than me. She wants four of the rugs and can only buy one. Her process involves a less visceral reaction and a lot more talking through it. She justifies, and then retreats, from high prices. She wants something for the dining room, but then wants it next to her bed. She loves the bright colors, but keeps going back to the muted ones. Then, Sadi calls for one more rug, and when it is unrolled for her, the others seem to wash away. Her socked feet are on it in seconds, and there is no more deliberating. We’ve just gone on an innocent walk today, happened upon a rug weaving gallery, and now, we’ve made the type of investment most people make only after much thought, research and planning.

My rug, approximately 30to 40 years old, shines vibrantly in the light. The designs on it are likely from an eighth century nomadic tribe from the Antalya region in southern, coastal Turkey. It is made with wool from only the neck hair of sheep.  The design includes symbols that speak to the priorities and beliefs of the tribe. Camels line the border, representing transportation, endurance, wealth and good fortune, eagles sit in the corners for freedom, stairs up to heaven and down to hell. Rams horns for masculinity and virility, and if read another way, the horns turn to female arms akimbo for female strength. Three leaves represent the offspring from their union, arrows for more fertility, scorpions to protect from their sting, and the famed Turkish evil eyes.

The game changer. I was done for. Julia Frost photo.

The evil eye, a glass souvenir now synonymous with travel gifts from Turkey, are among the oldest symbols in the region. My rug, which has five evil eyes repeated over and over again, was originally described to me as five prayer mats, representing the five prayers Muslim’s make each day, a description that I loved. However, these designs predate (or coincide too closely with) the birth of Islam, and the likelihood of rites and practices of a new religion making their way symbolically to nomadic rugs is nil. This proves then that my rug has evil eyes all over it, not prayer mats. The legend surrounding Evil Eyes is that they ward off naysayers and their bad mojo; my friends described it as if you are happy, beautiful or having a string of good luck, someone with a jealous disposition may comment on it, causing your luck to change. If you are protected by an Evil Eye, your good fortune is safe, if unprotected, your luck disappears. So, needless to say, with 200 evil eyes on my rug, I’ve got my luck covered.

There are four layers of the evil eye. In the very center, a tiny black dot represents the evil. Surrounding that is a turquoise circle of sincerity, then a larger ring of white for innocence, then the largest ring, the one that encompasses the whole, is a dark blue, symbolizing the divine. Religious intonations aside, I love that for centuries the Turkish people have been warding off evil by suffocating it under virtues. And to see the evil eye glass in each house, each café and restaurant, one can easily see that this is not a tourist trap, it is a true, ancient, original belief that defies the ages. Now, I too have protection and a piece of a beautiful ritual to forever remind me of this moment.

And then there were rugs. Julia Frost photo.

After signing the back of our rugs, we leave the Gallery Cappadocia, astonished at our brashness in purchasing but trusting in our decisiveness. In six to eight weeks we’ll have our rugs back in Massachusetts, but in the meantime, we sip a tea and come down from the rush of such an experience.

Gallery Cappadocia
Gaferli Mah. 50180 Göreme, Nevşehir, Türkiye.

Heading to Asia for the afternoon

Without planning it, I was lucky enough to arrive in Istanbul a few days before their Republic Day, October 29th, the anniversary of the country’s constitutional amendment that made it its own state. There were an inordinate number of flags flying from every building, strung across streets, and in front of homes. I had thought that there was just an incredible sense of pride for the Turkish, and wasn’t totally wrong; apparently the number of flags displayed were only slightly inflated for the day.
It was on this day that I made my first journey to Asia. It’s an easy thing to do here; you can say, a little dismissively, that you’re going to Asia for the afternoon.  It’s a twenty-minute ferry ride from Karaköy to Kadiköy, and yes, distinguishing between the two neighborhoods is half the battle when given verbal directions.  This transcontinental journey costs two Turkish lira each way (roughly $1.06 at $0.53 to the lira) and offers some of the best views from the Bosphorus of both sides of the city.

Aya Sofya from the ferry

I was going to meet my soon to be new friend Ayşe and her friend Victor, visiting from Oakland, CA, my old home. Ayşe was raised in Cambridge, MA and Berkeley, CA, mirroring my own background, and whose family owns the best cheese shop ever (that’s right, I said that), Formaggio Kitchen. Victor, a bartender, seemed to bring this whole, random meet-up into the cosmic realm; he works with old friends of mine and we know a lot of the same people, but we had never met. Now, in this small world, we meet in the unlikely location of Istanbul.

I arrive on the Asian side and realize I have no idea what they look like. I text her, tell her what I’m wearing. I tell myself that, “we’re all Oaklanders, we will recognize one another.” And five minutes later, I see with distinct clarity two of my people coming directly towards me. Their hair, his mustache, the clothes…we knew on first glance that we were cut from the same cloth.

Me, going to Asia

Ayşe leads us through the hilly and cobbled streets and alleys of Kadiköy. We roam through bookstores, looking at Turkish language history books, romances, and comics. Their extra-wide newspapers from decades ago, some from before the Alphabet Revolution of 1928 changed their written language from the beautiful Ottoman script to the extended Latin alphabet, are preserved in plastic sleeves. We spend a lot of time looking at records with old-fashioned covers featuring artists we do not know. Victor buys comics, created in Turkey, for his nephew in Spain. We lose all concept of time looking through baskets upon baskets of old photographs and postcards. I buy a postcard, addressed to Miss Georgina Wilson at Rose Cottage, complete with a Shakespeare quote and a stated hope that she is feeling “fit” today, from her “new relation.” It has too much charm to pass up, and it was postmarked 1908. We linger longer; Ayşe practices her Turkish with the cute shopkeeper.

We head to lunch next door at Çiya Sofrası Restaurant. I had read about this place; the New York Times and Istanbul Eats (the website and book to refer to when visiting the city) both call Çiya some of the best food in the city. And this is an eating city, so such a recommendation is not to be ignored. Çiya Sofrası has mostly vegetarian dishes, set up on giant hot plates flanking both sides of the entry. The left side has pots lined up on this hot plate, varying sizes and contents. Without labels, the diner just points and judges by color, contents, smell. Of these twenty or so pots, Victor and I entrust Ayşe to get us a proper Turkish spread. We eat lentil soup with tomato puree and dried oregano, pastries stuffed with ground lamb and fennel seeds, stewed chard with herbed yogurt, köfte (ubiquitous Turkish meatballs), fresh flatbreads, braised eggplant with peppers, and a light, brothy, vegetable soup. We add the spicy red flakes (aptly called “soup and salad mix” at the Spice Market) one finds on any Turkish table to our dishes, making the flavors pop with the additional heat.

The spread from Çiya Sofrası

As with any Turkish meal, or moment, there is tea. Black tea, served in an hourglass-shaped glass on a tiny white saucer with gold and red embellishments, served with a sugar cube on the side and a tiny spoon. The clinking of spoon against tea glass will forever be audible in my mind after so much tea on this trip. We also drink şerbet, a juice made from fruits, flowers, or flower oils. It has long been a customary drink in this region and other Muslim countries, acting as a festive and delicious drink in places where alcohol is forbidden. So popular is şerbet that its praises have been sung by both Lord Byron and Francis Bacon, and terms of affection in the languages of this region stem from its base. Words for sweetheart, cuties, and even the verb “to drink” link back to this word (

Something awesome must be happening down the street

We head out for the rest of our very full day—we are off for a shave and a hamam—but that’s a story for another time.

Bosphorus Bridge seen from the ferry

Cappadocia Brings You (Way) Back In Time

The man that prepared our lunch sits to play the bağlama in front of the refrigerated display case. He is young, in his twenties, with slightly sunken cheeks and evidence of an acne-strewn adolescence. He is very tall and has dark, floppy hair and a solemn look in his eyes. Next to the shop’s proprietor, a jubilant man named Refik; this man is as shy as can be. Refik owns Nazar Börek Gözleme, a local lunch spot in the center of Göreme, a small, picturesque village in the region of Cappadocia, Nevşehir province. We were about to be serenaded in this tiny lunch spot, by none other than the prep cook.
He begins to tune and strum the bağlama while Refik still chats and charms the crowd. We are three tables eating lunch. The guitarist begins a melody; a song is recognizable. He then begins to sing in the clearest and most soulful tenor, his brow even furrowing in his effort. We are shocked and stop eating. Refik likes this; he knows this boy is talented. Refik begins playing the drum, joining in on the chorus singing back up. We are entranced by this young man’s voice, astounded that we are eating lunch in a Turkish diner, being serenaded by our twice-talented cook.

Gözleme, fresh village bread and soup of the day

Their next song nearly makes us dance. We nearly dance (over lunch of soup and gözleme)! Instead we tap our feet, attempt to clap in rhythm, something we clearly didn’t do because the prep busboy tried to get us to follow his lead. Again, we are shocked by the depth of this voice.

Refik begins to play

They play one more, the Belgian woman behind us attempts a dance; the clapping is spirited beyond anything a lunch counter normally sees. The songs are upbeat, sung with heartfelt and melodic lyrics, and they are sung because they are beautiful, not for charm or entertainment. I write and scribble in my notepad, floored by this truly genuine display. Everyone has put their forks down. We are all speechless, mouths agape in awe.

The cook with a haltingly beautiful voice.

They eventually put the instruments aside and resume their places and roles in the restaurant. It is as if it never happened. My friend and I are still too stunned to talk about the tiny desk concert we just experienced, or in our case, tiny deli case concert. The cook goes back in the kitchen. Refik makes the rounds, clearing plates, chatting about the food. He speaks English with us (Turkish with his employees, French with the Belgians) and explains that he’s also fluent in Danish, Swedish, and German. He says he’s working on Chinese, and I can’t tell if he’s joking.

Feeling as if these men can obviously do anything, we ask Refik to tell us where to go to see a cave church. He leaves the restaurant, lifts a postcard from the shop next door, and comes back. “I will send you to my parent’s house, they live in a cave. I was raised in a cave. I am a cave man,” he jokes. He draws a map, complete with following rivers and continuing on after the road ends, and tells us to find the fairy chimneys we see on the post card. He circles the church (second to last from the right), circles his parent’s house (center), and shows us his old house (second to the left). His parents hold the key to the church, just go there and meet Fatma and Hasan. “They will make you some tea and show you in.”

Where the paved road ends...
The tips of fairy chimneys

We make our way to the dusty road past busting grapevines and go deeper into the Mars-like landscape. We cannot believe our continued good fortune. Each step in this journey becomes more and more fabled. These fairy chimneys jut out of the landscape like torpedoes. These are the reason that this area has been protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The chimneys are formed from centuries of erosion over volcanic deposits, forming not only the giant torpedoes but a surrounding ring of mountains that look like smooth but deeply ridged sand dunes. The entire place is tan and turns the most beautiful colors in the sun. The chimneys, and the carved houses in the mountains and the underground cities have largely been used as religious safe havens over the years. The ancient region of Cappadocia, now largely recognized as the current day Nevşehir province, has been inhabited in one way or another, since 400 BC. Over years of conquest and occupation, the area was used for refuge from religious persecution, for Christian worship, and for protection from the elements.  Now, what remains of these formations are used as homes, hotels, relics, and tourist attractions, in addition to a few remaining as mosques. It is a singular experience to hear the call to prayer coming from a 2,500 year-old piece of volcanic ash, now shaped a bit like a submarine.

Keys to the Church

We climb the stairs to the tiny doorway, and sunlight streams in from above. This cave, thousands of years old, was carved and painted 1,500 years ago by Christians, making it a tiny place of worship. The paintings are still clear, although obscured by the etchings and graffiti of bored kids. The art portrays Jesus and Mary, prophets and wise men, horses and animals. There are the top supports of pillars coming from the ceiling like stalactites, with no pillars below. We sit on the one remaining stalagmite base and take in our surroundings. We were, Julia and I, raised with and without, respectively, the influence of religion in our lives. I think we have slightly different experiences in this church.

Painted ceiling of the interior

Cave church interior. Julia Frost photo.

I climb up to the second level, peering out of the carved windows. This is an incredible view. I watch the sun flirt with the mountain in the distance, the atmosphere changing color. I listen to the wind whipping and singing against the mountains. Julia joins me, eyes wet and without words. The weight of our circumstance is unbelievable, unforgettable. We nearly freeze as we watch the sun set; it snowed the night before and this night was no warmer. We climb down eventually and make our way silently to the house.

Tunnel to the upper level of the cave church. Julia Frost photo.
View from the top

Fatma greets us, speaking perfect English, and serves us chocolate ganache-filled biscuits we’ve come to love and apple tea. We sit there for an hour, chatting and warming ourselves by the fire. The kid in me keeps reminding me that I’m sitting in a cave with cave people. I try not to giggle or think about The Flintstones. I take a photo of Fatma and Hasan sitting on their carved wrap-around and pillowed couch, surrounded by rugs she has made. It may be the best photo I’ve ever taken.

Fatma and Hasan, surrounded by rugs she made in their fairy chimney home

We comment on Fatma’s woven booties, which we know are homemade. She spreads out her collection of doilies, lace napkins, embroidered tablecloths, scarves, children’s vests, and booties. We each buy a pair of booties and hug our new friends goodbye, using the booties as mittens for our cold walk home.