Breakfast is very big in Turkey. So important in fact, that it is the only meal we ever serve on a boat that is so lacking in culinary aspiration that we don’t even have an oven in the galley – just a small ceramic electric hob with three tiny hotplates.
I took this photograph this morning, not on the boat, but at the little hotel where we occasionally go when the owners don’t need us on board overnight. (One day I shall show you our cabin and you will see why the hotel is such a welcome treat.)
As in an English Breakfast, there are important cultural as well as culinary traditions that govern the serving of a perfect Turkish Breakfast. As much as porridge, bacon and eggs, kedgeree, toast and marmalade and tea, are to an English Breakfast, so cheese, eggs, tomatoes, cucumber, olives, simit, (a circular ring of seeded bread) honey and jam are to a Turkish Breakfast.
At the very core of a Turkish breakfast is çay: tea. (It is pronounced as it is in India, to rhyme with sky: ‘chai’.) It is a ceremony that deserves respect and which is offered to guests in a show of respect. As all Brits know, making perfect tea is not for the faint-hearted or inexperienced, and so it is in Turkey. Whether it be brewed in a pre-warmed teapot with a tea-cosy for protection, or brewed in a teapot perched on a kettle of simmering water, both nations know that the measurement of tea leaves, temperature of the water, and above all, timing, are everything.
Which is why we caused some consternation with the owner’s wife, when we got it slightly wrong the other morning. Or at any rate, when we had a moment of cultural tea ceremony confusion.
Guests had been invited from the boat next door to join the owner and his wife for breakfast. The maid, who would normally have been in charge of overseeing breakfast, was away at her cousin’s wedding in Ankara, so it was all up to Skipper and me. The guests were due to arrive at something after 9.30 a.m. We – and unusually, the Owner’s Wife – had all been up since 7 am for this important event. Unfortunately we had woken up to the sight and sounds of a good Force 6, with 25 knot winds and waves slapping up over the pontoon and spray dousing the table in the cockpit with salty water. Great day for a sail, bad day for outdoor breakfast.
So the planned breakfast-on-deck became breakfast-in-the-saloon. This called for different table linen. I put away the prepared deck linen and dug out the saloon linen. Skipper set the table under the owner’s wife’s sceptical eye before going to the bakery to buy the correct bread: the Skipper and I have very recently been trusted in the selection of bakery goods.
In the meantime I had cheese and cucumber preparation under control, and the white bone china ready to go out. The cutlery I’d polished the night before. I cut strong white cheese into rectangles to a uniformly specific size as decreed by the Owner’s wife. I cut a wedge of yellow cheese into thin long triangles, after some confusion about rectangles and triangles that was lost in translation. (There will be more about this yellow cheese in another post: we have about eight kilos of it on board: it came from Bulgaria as a gift to the owner.)
There was another white salty cheese that came in a plait with the consistency of indiarubber, which was a bit more awkward. It didn’t conform to any geometrical rules, and it came apart as soon as it left its packet. The owner’s wife ordered slicing the plait. The plait chose falling apart. I stuck a kebab skewer through it. The owner’s wife liked that. So far so good.
I peeled baby cucumbers, no more than the length of my middle finger, and cut them in half lengthways; cherry tomatoes were rinsed and dried, and small black wrinkly olives decanted from a huge jar into a small bowl. Then I put out the jams and honey into more small white bowls. Skipper was back from the bakery and relayed everything up the stairs from the galley to the saloon table.
The owner meanwhile had returned from his early morning business meeting at the marina Starbucks at the same time as a lull in the strength of the winds. He declared we should eat outside after all. I put away the saloon linen and dug out the deck linen again; Skipper moved everything outside under instruction from the owner’s wife.
And then it was the moment for the all important tea…So, once the water had boiled, the tea was prepared in the small teapot that sits on top of the kettle. All we had to do was wait 10 minutes or so – no more than twelve, the owner’s wife reminded me – and then serve it. Turkish tea is served like cordial: you pour a moderate amount of strong tea from the pot into a glass and top it up with simmering water from the kettle to taste, whilst keeping an eye on the shade of dark malty amber that it should be.
There followed some tense-nail biting five minutes or so as the owner’s wife peered anxiously out of the saloon window to see where our guests were and watching with deep mistrust as the winds grow stronger again. The owner relented and gave in to her wild-eyed pleas and sanctioned moving breakfast back to the saloon table. I dug out the saloon table linen again; skipper moved everything inside under instruction from the owner’s wife; I put away the deck linen – you know the drill
But at nine minutes into the brewing deadline and with no sign of our guests the tea was potentially in jeopardy…
Finally, with two minutes to go, the guests were seen leaving their boat, leaning into the wind and clutching a gift bag and each other, getting blasted by the sea. Skipper was sent out along the passarelle to help them up and they were ushered in to the saloon. The poor owner’s wife was now beside herself, calling for towels to dry the guests and worrying about the tea at the same time.
Skipper and I dabbed at the guests with vast bathing towels and got them to sit down. The wife was a small and drab bedraggled bird, with only her bright eyes and grateful smile for decoration. Her husband was a peacock to her peahen, splendidly dressed in a sparkly black silk shirt, white trousers with red braces to hold up the huge expanse of material that spanned his enormous belly, and white patent leather shoes. They are something big in the fashion retail industry.
It was quite a party.
At bang on twelve minutes in, tea was served. The owner’s wife came down to the galley and critically assessed the first glass of tea – made by an english galley girl. The colour is crucial. To her surprise – and mine – it turned out at exactly the right shade of dark malt whiskey that it resembles.
I poured the four glasses to be taken up by Skipper and set to cutting different breads and took those up in baskets. When Skipper had given the breakfasters their tea glasses he came back down and started on the preparation of egg frying, another important element of Turkish breakfast.
Now Skipper does cook perfect fried eggs. Even in the view of our owners, he’s got those eggs down…
Skipper started frying: two frying pans on two hotplates, two eggs to a pan, eggs on plates in relays. I cut more bread. I refilled tea glasses. And at just the critical moment before Skipper would want me to bring each plate close to the frying pan to minimise the dangers of eggs bursting, I cut right through my finger with the bread knife. Or sawed, rather.
“Not because I wanted to.”
“Look out, you’re dripping blood all over the bread.”
“I’ll put the bits in the bin.”
“Bread or finger bits?”
“Get a plaster on. How am I supposed to do the plates and the eggs at the same time?”
It wasn’t the time, as I mentioned later to Skipper, to discuss this. Fingers bleed profusely when they’re cut. It never fails to amaze me how much blood a finger can contain, and big gloops of my shiny red blood were dripping over the cutting board, the simit bread, and the floor. I grabbed the kitchen roll and disappeared to the nearest bathroom with the first aid kit.
Luckily the owners and guests stayed above and were oblivious to the juggling of the egg crisis and the bloodbath that was going on in the galley.
But if I hadn’t sawed through my finger the tea problem would never have arisen.
With the eggs successfully on the table and while I was sealing my finger in plasters and white electrical tape, Skipper had used his initiative. Now, Skipper fries eggs: I make Turkish tea. As I mentioned earlier, with Turkish tea you pour dark strong tea into the glass up to less than half way full, and then add the hot water from the kettle to that until you’re happy with the colour. But Skipper had unwittingly topped up the tea-pot with more water, as we would do in England. When the owner’s wife came down to ask for more tea for the guests, she went as pale as the tea that came out of the pot. Consternation all round; the owner was summoned and our incompetence declared. How though to save face in front of the guests? Explanations were given, the owner soothed his wife and said they would just have to wait for the tea to brew. There was a certain amount of silence at the breakfast table while it was all glossed over as one of the quirks of hiring foreign staff: the eccentricities of the English and their odd tea making habits.
The maid will be back very soon. I don’t expect we shall have guests for breakfast again until she returns.