Women make traditional Turkish breads in an Istanbul restaurant.
Turkey is one of those places where there seems to be almost too much history. This is where the Trojan War and the Battle of Gallipoli took place, where the Byzantine Empire rose and fell, where the apostle Paul was born, where Hittites, Bythinians, Thracians, Greeks, Romans, Turkomans, and Ottomans built cities and empires. It was once called Asia Minor, and it has long been a crossroads for the world.
When I visited Turkey, I was on my own. A friend had recommended a great little hotel in the Sultanahmet section of town. The Hotel Tashkonak (www.tashkonak.com, if you want to see it—see particularly Rooms and Facilities) was lovely and incredibly well located—a five-minute walk from the Blue Mosque, 8 minutes from Haggia Sophia, and 15 minutes from the Topkapi Palace. It is a refurbished, 250-year-old Ottoman mansion, with Byzantine ruins in the garden and a view from the roof of the Sea of Marmara. And the reasonable room rate included breakfast (Turkish breakfast—yogurt, cheese, bread, olives, tomatoes, coffee—yum). Continue reading
Mercado de los Abastos in Oaxaca, Mexico
Bread seems like a pretty basic food, sort of an irreducible minimum on which one builds. But bread is actually quite complex, and it was not the first thing people did with cereal grains. For a big chunk of early human history, grains were simply parched on hot stones or pounded to a rough powder and boiled into gruel or paste. (In fact, in many regions, these food forms are still important, from the foofoo of West Africa to the tsampa of Tibet.) Scholars believe that the first time people realized they could put the paste on the hot stones, producing a simple flatbread, was likely the late Stone Age. And just as gruel and paste persist to the present day, so do classic, stone-cooked flatbreads, from Mexican tortillas to Scottish oatcakes to Chinese pancakes.
It actually took several millennia and a bunch of technological advances to get the world to the place where bread as we know it was even a possibility. First, a variety of wheat had to be developed that could be easily husked. Wild wheat must be roasted to remove the husk, but heating wheat denatures the grain’s gluten-forming proteins. No gluten, no rising. The first settlements we know about arose in areas where wheat grew wild, so it seems that wheat first domesticated humans, and then, returning the favor, humans began to domesticate wheat. This jump likely occurred between 8000 and 7000 BC in the region that is now Anatolia, Iran, and Syria. It is not known exactly when that ideal, easy-hull wheat was bred, but it was likely among the first traits people tried to develop during the domestication process. Continue reading