Hanging Gardens (a Turkish inspired, non-alcoholic aromatic quince cocktail)
In which I explore one half of my familial background the way I know best: through how it tastes.
Quince is not a pick and eat fruit, and requires a lot of cooking before its woody flesh, denser than a baseball, renders down to something edible. It is one of many foods that has always made me wonder who was the first person to persist in transforming something clearly inedible into food. But one inhale of the fuzzy, chartreuse raw fruit’s luscious and heady perfume, and you can understand why someone was determined to try.
Like my paternal grandfather, quince originated in the Caucasus Mountains and then spread westward to the Mediterranean, and has grown wild and cultivated across the Middle East and North Africa, where it is used in everything from meat stews to delicate dessert jellies, ever since. The first time I made quince was from a very simple dessert recipe in Classic Turkish Cooking1, which I bought after my Turkish grandmother died and I realized no one was going to make sigara börek for me anymore if I didn’t learn to make it myself. Until quite recently, with an influx of Monsanto crops that have replaced some fruit orchards, like many of the mulberry trees, and Bursa’s black figs and peaches, Turkish fruit was truly without peer. I remember as a child eating lemons in my grandmother’s Istanbul kitchen, because the juice was not just sour but sweet and fragrant, eating entire mixing bowls full of tart vişne cherries and spitting the pits off the balcony at my grandparent’s beach condo, and running to the sink as the first bite of a nearly red peach sent juice running down my arm. Despite its incredible quality, fruit is very rarely used in traditional Turkish desserts, where flaky phyllo pastries and milky puddings dominate after dinner. Or perhaps it is because the fruit in Turkey was so delicious that there was no need to develop cooking techniques to concentrate the flavor and juices of fruit in pies, tarts, and cobblers.
Fruit drinks, on the other hand, are abundant in Turkey, and sherbet originally referred not to a frozen treat half-way between ice cream and sorbet, but to lightly sweetened fruit cordials. When I decided to make a quince cocktail, I started by modifying the recipe in Başan’s book to make a delicious, lightly sweet but full bodied quince syrup. From there I wanted to capitalize on and complement its intense perfume by incorporating other fragrant Turkish fruits, flowers, and spices into the drink.
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My first thought was Melati, with its intense pomegranate flavor, though I had already used it in Persephone’s Passport, and I felt like it would overwhelm the quince. I didn’t want anything too bitter, but the sweet and round flavor of the quince syrup needed something to give it a little bite. Rasāsvāda’s Bergamot Rose Zero-Proof Spirit Restorative is sour from citrus, but with a huge floral perfume to add to the fragrant quince. This is no shy lemon-lavender infusion, but a big bouquet of rose and geranium, with tons of citrus peel, and a bergamot that’s much more assertive than even a strong Earl Grey tea. Rose and bergamot, both, are used in Turkish cuisine and drinks, so Bergamot-Rose fit the profile I wanted exactly.
Mixing the two together, I knew I was on track to something sublime; the aromas complimented one another perfectly, but they definitely needed something to mellow the combination. In perfume, one adds carrier oils or alcohols to the the strong essences and extractions, elements, so I needed some kind of non-alcoholic spirit as a base for these two to flavor. I started with zero proof rum and gin, neither of which worked; the rum was too sweet and caramel, which cranked up the comparative bitterness of so many citrus peels in the Rasāsvāda, and the strong juniper of gin completely clashed with the rose and geranium. Next, I tried Lyre’s Absinthe, but while the fennel scent was lovely with the quince, citrus, and flowers aromas, the taste was equivalent to accidentally getting perfume in your mouth when you’re spraying it on in a hurry. While agave is hardly native to the Fertile Crescent, I took a chance on Mockingbird Non-Alcoholic Agave Spirit, a zero-proof and adaptogenic tequila alternative, and the smooth, warm, woody flavor really softened the sharp edges of the Rasāsvāda, and turned the volume up on the sweet, lighter floral of the quince syrup.
The drink was improved, but still too bright; it needed something earthy added to ground it.
My first thought was bitters, as that’s the standard bartender’s tool for tying flavors together, but there was more than enough bitter in this flower-citrus peel accord. I’d been preparing for an interview with the head of Wine Proxies at Acid League for a forthcoming article (I’ll let you know when it’s live), so I had been studying a lot of past and current Wine Proxy ingredients. In every bottle, some varietal or varietals of tea were used to give the drink body. Of course! The tea would provide a tannic finish that would be astringent on the tongue but not as stripping as citrus, and would add an earthy element that wouldn’t be aggressively bitter.
And the best part was that it fit the concept of the drink beautifully!
Though in the Western world Turkey is synonymous with coffee, Turkish people don’t actually drink very much of it. Turkish coffee is the default when you order kave, but it is both an absolute pain in the ass to make (more so to make well) and very much an acquired taste, as the extremely fine grounds are in the finished drink, creating a sediment that takes up roughly half the volume of the very tiny cup.2 If you want what we think of as regular coffee you have to order filtre kave— literally “filter coffee”— and while it’s not at all impossible to find in Istanbul, there are still plenty of restaurants that don’t serve it at all. But tea you can get anywhere. And I mean anywhere. Waiting for the ferry from the European side of Istanbul to the Asian side? Someone will sell you tea while you wait, and you can sip it while sitting on a set of table and chairs made from wooden shipping crates that are probably a century old, weathered black from the combination of sea salt air and car exhaust from the road that runs along the Bosporus. Shopping for a rug in the Grand Bazaar? You will be absolutely plied with tea until you’re so caffeinated that you’re vibrating. The tea is always served in a tulip shaped glass on a curved saucer with a tiny spoon for stirring your sugar into it. I don’t remember who said it, but I once read that the tinkling of tea spoons against glass tea cups is so ubiquitous in Turkey that it could be the national anthem.
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Since strong, black, bergamot infused tea is the default flavor of çay in Turkey, I tried Earl Grey first. It seemed the natural pairing, but the bergamot of Rasāsvāda was so much stronger that there wasn’t much the tea brought to the overall composition other than to water it down. Then, because cinnamon is frequently used with quince, and the combination of rosewater and cinnamon isn’t at all unusual in Middle Eastern cooking— especially spice and flower abundant Persian cuisine— I tried Harney & Sons Hot Cinnamon Spice. And oh, did we have a winner.
The magic of perfume, to me, is not necessarily in being able to pick out every note of a composition (though that can be fun!), but to breathe it in as a whole that evokes a time and place, a type of person, a story. For me, that’s what the best non-alcoholic cocktails do, as well, and suddenly I had a drink that tasted like a fantasy of the ancient Middle East. Fragrant and warming, like an extravagant garden glowing in the incomparable light of the Mediterranean sun. A drink that can evoke 1,001 warm nights of night blooming flowers, even while one is suffering the 100 nights of bitter winter in the Northeast. It’s not a summer drink at all, but a drink that comforts you with the promise of summer, with blossoms and gardens and abundance and beauty.
So I named it Hanging Gardens after the perhaps mythological, perhaps real, but certainly fabled hanging gardens of Babylon. And I served it in a tulip shaped Turkish tea glass, though it would certainly work just as well in a 5 ounce Nick and Nora or coupe glass.
Quince season is short— from October to December, so we’re at the tail end of it now. The fruit will last, refrigerated, for maybe 3 weeks, but the fragrance and bright pink color of the cooked syrup will diminish with each day it sits in the fridge. Because this drink does take some advance preparation, I suggest making the syrup for this recipe as soon as possible, and storing the finished syrup in the fridge rather than the raw fruits. There isn’t much sugar in this recipe, as compared to your standard simple syrup, because something about the seeds (pectin? I’m not a fruit expert) gives the cooking liquid a rich, almost gelid body, so I’m not sure how long it will last with a low ratio of fruit to water to preserve it. I’ve got some in the fridge that is 2 weeks old and is as azalea pink and delicious as it was the day I made it, but I can’t promise that will be the case in a week.
You can also throw the strained fruits and seeds in the blender to make a rosy-coral puree that is texturally identical to fruit sorbet at room temperature, and as fragrant and delicious as the syrup, so even if you don’t make the drink, grab some quinces and treat yourself to this dessert.
Recipe: Hanging Gardens
2 ounces Harney & Sons Hot Cinnamon Spice Tea (see note about steeping), chilled
¾ ounce Quince Syrup (recipe below), chilled
¼ ounce Rasāsvāda Rose Bergamot, chilled
Combine Mockingbird, tea, quince syrup, and Rasāsvāda Rose Bergamot into a mixing glass, stirring with a bar spoon until all ingredients are completely incorporated into one another. (You may use ice for this, but if you’ve chilled them, it’s honestly not necessary.)
Pour into Turkish tea glass or Nick & Nora glass to serve.
NOTE: To brew the tea to proper strength, pour 6-8 ounces of boiling water over one bag of Harney & Sons Hot Cinnamon Spice Tea. Let steep for 10 minutes. Remove tea bag, squeezing as much liquid out of it as you can into the cup, and allow to cool at room temperature. When cool, move to fridge to chill.
Recipe: Quince Syrup
2-3 quinces (each should be about the size of a softball)
2 cups water
6 tablespoons granulated raw cane sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Thoroughly wash the quince fruits to remove the greyish fuzz from the skin. Using an apple corer, if you have one, core each quince. Separate the seeds from the cores, reserving the seeds, and cut each quince in half. (If you do not have an apple corer, cut each quince in half lengthwise, from the narrow stem to the round bottom, and cut out the cores with a paring knife, again reserving the seeds.)
Place quinces cut side up in a wide, heavy bottomed pan or pot. Sprinkle the sugar over the fruit. (It’s OK if some gets onto the bottom of the pan.)
Scatter the seeds around the quince halves on the bottom of the pan.
Stir the water and lemon juice in a mixing cup, and pour over the sugared fruits.
Bring the liquid just to a boil, and immediately cover the pan and reduce heat to low.
Simmer the fruit and liquid on low for 2-3 hours, spooning some of the pan juices over the fruits every 15-20 minutes and recovering. DO NOT LET THE LIQUID BOIL.
As the fruit becomes soft and the color transitions toward pink, press down with the back of the spoon to split and break up the fruit into smaller and smaller chunks.
Once the color of the liquid and fruit flesh have become a dark, reddish pink and you feel no resistance when you press down on a chunk of fruit with the back of your spoon, remove the pan from heat, and let cool, covered, for 30 minutes to an hour.
When cool, strain syrup through a fine mesh strainer, but do not press down on the fruit pulp and seeds. You want the clear liquid, not the puree.
Store syrup in refrigerator in an airtight jar.
In anticipation of the release of the new film adaptation, I finally got around to reading Dune, which I was surprised to find I really enjoyed— so much so, I’m now on the 6th book in Frank Herbert’s series. I say surprise because, several years ago, my best friend and I watched the 1984 David Lynch adaptation and hated it, found it not just confusing but somehow simultaneously gross and boring. Lynch’s film is almost nothing like the book.
The new film is a closer adaptation in almost every way, but it still feels, to me, almost nothing like the book, because they stripped most of the Middle Eastern influence out of the world and culture of the new film. The new film is mostly faithful to the story (or at least the half of it they filmed) and the technology looks extremely cool, but the comfortable, complex, undeniably Middle Eastern-ness that I enjoyed in the book is nowhere to be found.
I’ve only been to Turkey a few times and I did not know my Turkish grandparents well, because most of my life they lived in Istanbul. My parents divorced before I was even old enough to be conscious, and I lived with my WASP, many-generation-Tennessean mother, and rarely saw my dad, who lived in different cities and states for most of my childhood, and who moved back to Istanbul seventeen years ago (though we do talk on the phone every Sunday). I never learned the language— ironically, my mother who spent 8 months in Turkey long before I was born, while my dad did his military service, and has had almost no cause to use it in 40+ years, still knows way more Turkish than I do; I can order food and tea and coffee, and call my relatives by their correct titles, but that’s about it. But even with my very diluted cultural identification, the Middle-Eastern-ness of the books was a huge and distinct part of, as the kids say these days, the vibe to me, so much so that I was shocked to discover Frank Herbert had never lived there (though he made allusions to Arab friends in interviews, and his reading list for post-Ottoman Middle Eastern politics was extensive, to put it mildly).
Haris Durrani, who is half Pakistani, but unlike me, is a practicing Muslim and grew up in the faith, has written a beautiful long essay on the subject, “The Muslimness of Dune: A Close Reading of ‘Appendix II: The Religion of Dune’” that is a wonderful and in depth exploration of both the culturally Muslim references in the book, which I did pick up on, and the religiously Islamic ones, which I didn’t, and I absolutely recommend it even if you’ve neither read the book nor seen the movie— though fair warning, it is the rare scholarly essay that may very well make you want to do both. He also wrote a shorter op-ed for the Washington Post after the movie came out and confirmed the anxieties he expressed in the original essay given some of the comments of the filmmakers in advance interviews, and it is a good companion piece to the longer essay.
And, of course, if you just want to pick up several thousand pages of books about a kind-of Middle Eastern-ish culture living on a desert planet in the far (and eventually farther) future, you could always read the whole Dune saga, but I think it would take you more than a single non-alcoholic cocktail or two to get through all of them. But what’s to stop you from having half a dozen when they’re zero-proof?
Until next week, as they say in Turkey, Hoşçakal!
This seems to be out of print, but you can find it at Abe Books. The author, Ghillie Başan, has just put out another Turkish cookbook this year, but I have no idea if it is good, because I haven’t read it, yet. (Though please, if you feel inclined, pick it up and tell me all about it.)
I do have a taste for Turkish coffee, and if you do, too, I encourage you someday to travel to Istanbul and have it at Mandabatmaz in a tiny alleyway off of İstiklal Avenue, where they make the best Turkish coffee in the world. The name means “a water buffalo would not sink in it,” and the grounds are so perfectly blended with the water that it has the texture of thick hot chocolate and I literally licked my cup clean, which is not just rare, but unheard of with Turkish coffee.