I find myself in the southern Aegean on a stout wooden sailing vessel known as a gulet. My original holiday notion was to visit a few Greek Islands. But the Turkish Turquoise Coast was thrice recommended by a few nautical souls familiar with this part of the world. I have come here to swim, scramble through antiquities and foremost to enjoy the Mediterranean food, so simple and delicious.
From the moment I step onto the gently-rocking wooden deck, I know I have made the right decision. The Greece and Turkish Islands mix here, a scattering of rocks bound by Lycian origins. On this gulet, I can see not one or two but many islands, some uninhabited, others dashed with white-washed villages and a few habituated long ago by the ancients.
We sail forth surrounded by ruins and azure bays; I gain my sea legs and a robust appetite.
Each morning begins with plump finely skinned tomatoes, cucumbers, and strong tea. Sheep feta, string mozzarella, and goat cheese bleat at me from platters. Wrinkled black olives spill forth adorning my plate like a string of black pearls. Golden yolks run against thick dark bread. Black-figs beckon to be bathed in mounds of Greek yoghurt.
I breakfast heartily and then take a dip and a dive. The waters are warm and incredibly clear. I view ancient stones and white edifices beneath me. Small silver fish jump in unison escaping predators of a grander magnitude. A turtle raises her elongated neck from the water and vanishes.
Suddenly an apparition—the oldest wizened man that has ever appeared before me oars up in a small wooden blue and white boat. Beside him, his wife bescarved and equally aged holds up a small plastic bag of brown eggs. While I flounder about, this ancient couple is eager to make some commerce. Do I want eggs or pomegranates with my swim? Neither I’m afraid because of my lusty breakfast. They row slowly towards the next moored gulet with high hopes of a sea sale.
All too quickly, it is time to mast the sails and baton down the hatches. We sail a few hours cutting thick cobalt waters. We pass ruins and stone buttresses as old as memory itself, traveling with lassitude. There really is no hurry, nothing to bother about, only sun and wind and sparkles of light on the Aegean. Emails go unanswered, and the world melts away.
So many cultures passed here leaving behind their unique culinary heritage. They came from Africa and Asia, Italy and Greece; they mused traditions in a symphony of flavors we now call Mediterranean cuisine.
I have come for this.
The midday meal is upon us. With it comes the taste of many cultures, of seafarers and sailors. A platter of white pearled couscous languishes in a creamy cheese sauce. A hearty lamb stew with aubergine, tomato, and elongated peppers comes piping hot in a round paella skillet. There’s always a salad of fresh tomato, cucumber, and sweet white onion accompanying a basket of bread and sweet butter.
Yoghurt salads of every variety are served forth with fermented fervor. The simple Turkish ‘Cacık’ (JAH’- juck), or yoghurt with cucumbers and herbs, is a staple at every meal. It’s easy to make with simple ingredients. Thick yoghurt is whipped vigorously into a frothy consistency. A mélange of finely diced cucumber, garlic, dill weed, mint, and oregano are swirled about. The mixture is put to chill before serving. That is the basic recipe, but the variety of ingredients runs wild. By adding red peppers and dill weed, it becomes savory. Crushed beetroot will render it psychedelically pink; another version adds finely grated carrots throughout.
We conclude the feast with the simplicity of walnuts, grapes, and mandarins.
For seven days, I am rocked against bony islands of the Turks and Greeks. Ancient battlegrounds, fortresses and forgotten citadels lay crumbling on the cliffs above me. This turquoise sea, once the cradle of western civilization, was also the birthplace of Mediterranean cuisine.
It was a great human migration around the Aegean, where they harvested fish and planted barley and lentils. They fought and traded, planted wheat, and made bread and beer. They built castles and fortresses. They worshiped goddesses of love and quaffed vessels of wine. Here, the ancient Greek poet Homer wrote the “Iliad.”
The fires of my culinary imagination are kindled. I go forth ready to dip flatbread in mounds of hummus, to stuff eggplant with spicy lamb, and layer pistachios, honey, and butter against ribbons of phyllo.
This gulet journey has changed me, slowed me down and bestowed in me a deep appreciation of ancient flavors. I come away a bit bronzed and fully satiated by the fruits of this Aegean adventure ready to cook and to eat more.
If you want to know more about gulet adventures, don’t be afraid to ask me for a few recommendations—an Aegean adventure may be awaiting your palate.