The wild heart

The wild heart

Sevtap Yuce
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Alicia Taylor

The weather is getting colder. My father buys a ton of wood and two tons of coal and we hope this will be enough to last us all winter.

It is time to get the soba ready. Our soba sat in the living room. You might call it a pot-belly stove, but I call it a top-belly stove, with a round opening on the top to feed the wood and coal through. My mother would get up early in the morning and light the fire and place the çaydanlık — a larger teapot - on top, full of water. After that she would prepare the breakfast and get us ready for school. The fire would burn all day to keep the house warm and give us a warm home to return to. At the end of the busy day the fire would burn bright enough to make roasted chestnuts on top for our after-dinner treat. Mum would be sure to cut a sliver from the nut so it didn’t explode while cooking. When the nuts were brown enough, we had to take them from the soba and peel them hot, to make sure the second skin came away easily. Pop them into your mouth and yummmm.

In those cold days of winter, fire was part of every Turkish home.

In the warm days of spring and summer, we would go on picnics, and still the fire was at the centre of it all. For us, going on a picnic didn’t mean just packing a basket. We had to load the car (a big black and red Chevrolet) with the küçük tüp (a small camping gas burner), the mangal (a barbecue), the çaydanlık, plastic bottles for collecting fresh spring water, all the meat, all the salads, the plates and tea and, of course, a bottle of rakı. It all goes into the car — sisters, brothers, with the cutlery, the blankets — and off we’d go. We would drive for an hour or two to find a pınar, a freshwater spring, and park the car under the shade of a big tree.

Out would come the blankets and plates, cutlery, glasses and our food. We would turn on the car radio and listen to music, and my father would take charge of the barbecue. (It’s not so different here in Australia!) We would make the salads; Turks love their salads. We’d chop everything into bite-sized pieces — the tomatoes, the green peppers, sweet tender cucumbers, the flat-leaf parsley, then add a little lemon juice and a drizzle of olive oil. The adults would drink some rakı … maybe drink-driving was not such an offence in those days.

The rakı gets poured, the fire burns.

My father would cook the meat, and I have to tell you it was amazing. We would eat, laugh and cry. And then we would fill up the plastic bottles from the pınar and take the water home for our tea. Oh my god, those teas — I have never tasted the same. All the food, all the meat, all the salads, never tasted the same.

Maybe those experiences made me who I am, made me so deeply involved with food, which I would like to share with you from the bottom of my heart. Probably that is why I love cooking and sharing every little mouthful. I could never sit at a table with a whole plate just to myself, without saying, "Taste this, what do you think? I think you are going to love it …" Those experiences also gave me skills to survive for the rest of my life. So when I look at a piece of meat today, or a tomato, or an eggplant, I smile and my imagination goes wild. Oh my god, what can I make with these beautiful treasures? I might chop the eggplant, fry it in a little olive oil, add some tomatoes, salt, pepper, and a whole lot of love.

Back then, at those family barbecues, my father — my baba — would be the one to light the fire, the one to cook the meat, to drive the car, to get us home.

Kamber Yüce, my baba, was born in 1937 in Çorum, a small village four hours north of Ankara. One of six boys, and one sister. Their father, my grandfather, supported the family by grinding the villagers’ wheat. The people of the village would collect the wheat from the fields, boil it and bring it to my grandfather, and he would grind it on a big, round stone to make cracked wheat — what we call today burghul, or bulgur. He would take the husks off on a big stone and walk his big horse around and around and around. He would smoke constantly, like a chimney — so he kept the fire going, even while he was working. They would all sit down for dinner, all on the floor — the father, the mother, six boys and the girl. The food would be served on a tray, with flat bread used as a spoon, in a small shovel shape. They would have a little meat, and some vegetables grown by my grandmother, Zülpi. My father said if he really liked the dish, he would pretend to spit on the food; his brothers and sister would pull away and he could eat the rest of the meal in peace.

He told me that one day he came across a bunch of women who were making bread. He was so hungry he stole a piece of bread off them and tried to run away. One of the women was so angry she started chasing him, then she threw a knife and it hit him on the shoulder. That was probably the only thing he ever stole in his life, but my father said it was worth it, because the bread tasted so good! Even though he had such a hungry fire in his belly, he was the most decent human being I’ve ever met, and became an honest, hardworking breadwinner … rather than a bread-pincher!

When Kamber was seventeen, he fell in love with a beautiful young girl, Hatice. They married and had my beautiful sister, Güfer. They started up a little corner store, the Yüce Bakkalı, and lived next door, surrounded by cherry trees, apple trees, pear trees — any tree that was in the garden was beautiful, and bore edible fruit. And they were in love.

Hatice fell pregnant again, but died in childbirth, when Güfer was just two years old. The hospital told my father that not only did he lose his beautiful wife, but also his baby daughter. He was devastated. The only thing that kept him going was my lovely sister.

Some time after his beloved Hatice passed away, Kamber met my mother, Makbule. She was sixteen and he was twenty-seven. A few years later, I was born. He always wanted to have a son — then my brother Murat was born, two years after me. And my brother Ferhat two years later. (Obviously my parents had something about two years.)

When we were growing up, my father was the sole breadwinner, and provided everything we needed. In those days women stayed home and looked after the children, cleaned the house, and prepared food for the harsh winter to come. In the early days of my childhood my baba sold fruit and vegetables. I remember him bringing home the most amazing peaches, which I still have never tasted anything like. Some nights after work he would bring home the most beautifully roasted spatchcock — just one, mind you. Oh my god, it tasted so good. You may be sitting there thinking, how can one spatchcock feed a family of six? But it did and it tasted incredible.

Later my baba also had a kahvane, or café. Back in those days, about forty years ago, only the men went to a kahvane, to play backgammon and drink endless cups of tea. Life was good.

Then my father’s favourite brother, Ha¸sim, was killed when he was thirty-one. When Ha¸sim died, my father had to take over responsibility for Ha¸sim’s taverna. (In the taverna would be a lot of meat dishes from the fire, some beer, maybe some rakı, a lot of music. There are amazing dishes from his time at the taverna that I will share with you a little later on, if you hold your horses …) As well as looking after Ha¸sim’s taverna, my father also had to look after Ha¸sim’s wife, and their two daughters and son, as well as his own family.

Perhaps those were the days that put more wrinkles on his forehead, and why he came home at night and smoked endless cigarettes and drank countless cups of tea.

Just twelve months after his brother’s death, we were about to go for a picnic with the whole family and all our relatives. But baba had a stroke. He couldn’t move his left side. We fed him a lot of garlic, lovely yoghurt, and no salt. We loved him to bits, and he got better. We had a very happy family; my sister married and had a son, Volkan, who baba adored; baba even shaved Volkan’s eyebrows, so they would grow into strong Turkish eyebrows. Today Volkan has amazing eyebrows, but not much hair on top. And now he has a son and a daughter, my father’s great-grandchildren.

In 1985, my father decided to visit his parents in Çorum, and to take my brother Murat with him. While he was there, my baba had a massive heart attack, and he died. He wasn’t even fifty — so young. Sadly, my brother Murat was also taken away too young. He was kidnapped and executed in Iraq on 2 August 2004, the day before his thirty-fifth birthday, leaving behind twin boys and a daughter. I miss him so much.

My father was the most fiery, most honest, and most kind man I have ever known. Oh my god, I have to tell you, did he have fire.

I wish I could sit with him now. I remember him sitting there those nights, smoking endless cigarettes, drinking countless cups of tea. I wish I had known what was in his mind. Was he worried about how we would light the next fire, or what we would eat next? I wish he could answer all my questions, and I wish I had all the answers for them.

But all I have is memories of cherry trees, pears, apples, and the juice of the most beautiful peaches I’ve ever tasted in my life running down my arms.

I suppose my father passed on a lot of things. One of the things he passed on to me was his passion. That fire still lives in my belly and, hey, we all know how fiery the Turks are! Now you know where it begins.

I was still a teenager when my father passed away. But time goes by, and I married and moved to Australia. Years later I wrote my first cookbook, Turkish Flavours, and then my second cookbook, Turkish Meze … and then I thought, hey, I will take you all back to where it all started. Show you where I came from, show you what it was like.

And so I went back to Turkey, and to the city of Ankara, where I grew up.

I went back to where our old house once stood, only to find there were only three walls left standing. There was nothing left.

But where the soba used to be, where my mother lit the fire every morning, every winter’s day, there were three women, sitting on the floor of my old house. One had the fire burning, sitting where the soba was, making bread with the others, to feed their family.

After all these years, the fire still burned.

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