Gourmand Cookbook Award-recipient authors Neşe Aksoy Biber and Berrin Bal Onur followed their passion and built their culinary journeys with productivity and creativity, always bringing something new to the local and traditional. We talked to the duo about their new books and much more.
You’re not only prominent authors of valuable books in the Turkish gastronomy scene but also two close friends. How did you meet and find yourselves on the same path?
Our paths crossed at Sabah Magazine Group in the early ‘90s when the media industry was starting to take shape in Turkey. Within the developing dynamism of the communications industry, our professional capabilities and friendship grew. Shaped by our travels in Turkey and abroad, our vision guided our dreams. Our shared passion for gastronomy and interest in disappearing local and traditional delicacies encouraged us to found Antre Gourmet in 2000 as a celebration of Turkish cheese. This was a brand that valued local and traditional cheeses and products; it became a source of inspiration that reached the foundation of cultural values and opened a window into the future. We travelled all across Anatolia to discover new delicacies and local products for Antre Gourmet, which was looking for cheeses and local produce from people who believed in the contribution of rural development to a country’s future and were as rare as their crops grown in formidable lands. We put our passion for research and learning, enriched with our experiences, into our first book Peynir Aşkına. We continue to follow the same path with the lessons we have learned from our books, our passion for learning, and our belief in food that is laden with culture.
Compared to your early experiences, what do you think has changed? Is there anything new?
The 2000s, when we founded Antre Gourmet, marked a period when urban consumption habits began to change, embracing industrial products imposed upon by modernization. These years, when local and traditional products failed to find a place in professional kitchens or homes and biodiversity decreased, were also the beginning of a process during which small or local producers lost power in the face of the global economy at an alarming pace. Consumers had very little interest in local and traditional products. The limited group that did fit a profile with a medium-to-high average in age, an advanced palate, and open to or at least interested in new or traditional delicacies. A myriad of reasons threatened our local and traditional product diversity and production capability including the lack of collectives among producers, increasing challenges regarding agriculture and animal husbandry, reduced natural resources, decreasing youth population in rural areas, the lack of licence systems for geographical indications, changing palatal habits, and loss of cultural memory. Antre Gourmet followed the history of traditional cheeses from past to present and helped carry them into the future by preserving their qualities. It became one of the pioneering voices to raise awareness for the use of local and traditional products in both professional kitchens and homes. Twenty-five years later, local and traditional products have become the highlight of marketing campaigns, even for companies of industrial production. Traditional food systems have begun to garner attention in Turkey, following suit with the rest of the world. While restaurant and hotel menus include more local products and recipes, chain markets have improved their product portfolio in this regard. Pandemic has only increased this attention. As trends began to focus on new delicacies and discoveries, cities as an extension of local and traditional culture, and products and culinary styles, along with the opening of departments of gastronomy at universities, instilled a sense of interest in food and beverages within youth culture. The rising interest of customers naturally heartened producers to keep up with the new times and to start working with monitorable quality systems.
After cheese comes olive! How was your book Zeytin Ülkesi Balıkesir born?
Our first book Peynir Aşkına, which has reached its fifth publication and keeps a record of 52 cheeses from the seven regions in Turkey, was published in 2015. Afterwards, we got together with Balıkesir Metropolitan Municipality to work on a book, as the first example of the concept of Turkey’s local products, that focused on the cheeses of a single city. A two-year survey revealed a treasure of 50 types of cheese from the region, compiled and published in our book 50 Peynirli Şehri Balıkesir. It was selected the world’s best book in its category at the 2019 Gourmand Cookbook Award. During our travels, we were highly impressed by the richness of products and recipes in the region. Every district and village in Balıkesir has its own local products so we aimed to create a bridge into the future by recording olives and breads as two of the city’s most significant assets in gastronomy. With 12 million olive trees, 150 thousand tons of olives, and 20 thousand tons of olive oil, Balıkesir is one of the olive cultivation centres in Turkey, and we toured the region with olives in mind. Our study between 2019 and 2021 aimed to determine the current status of olive cultivation in the region and to make a record of its value, potential, and cultural heritage in Balıkesir. Throughout the process, we did 170 interviews and scanned a wide range of literature with hundreds of scientific research, books, and articles to write the book Zeytin Ülkesi Balıkesir.
The book examines not only the city of Balıkesir but also its local history of olive cultivation in relation with cultural, social, and economic aspects. What surprised you the most during your research?
As a country situated around the Mediterranean, Turkey is a prominent olive oil producer and boasts a unique position in terms of quality and quantity in production. We observed that this richness wasn’t reflected in consumption amount or habits. When the obstacles along the journey of olive and olive oil from agricultural production to the industry were combined with legal mishaps in inspection and management mechanisms, Turkey didn’t provide olive, one of the world’s most valuable products, with its due significance. Due to the increasing distance between food and its resources and the advancing rate of food insecurity, we produced a product as miraculous as olive oil yet became one of the countries that consumed very little. During our two-year journey around Balıkesir, we were first-hand witnesses to how the region’s high-quality olive oil was produced and how olive offered healing and flavour to locals. We hope that this miraculous product receives the attention it deserves by building a closer relationship with its producers, lands, and culture.
Do you have a new project after cheese and olive?
We will conclude our visit to Balıkesir with a book on bread. We asked about bread, which is a major point of concern for the global scene of gastronomy and of contention among various schools of healthy living, to local families and esteemed establishments in Balıkesir. We recorded their traditional recipes for bread. Almost all the villages in the city boast local variations of bread made with sourdough and ancestral seed flours. Thanks to its diversity, Balıkesir demonstrates how it will preserve its leadership in preserving the heritage of bread, along with cheese and olive. Renowned for its geography, climate, and diversity of people, Balıkesir and our trilogy of books on the city’s cheese, olive, and bread will help us complete our dream of presenting a model city.
You’re a member of Turkey Research Network for Local Products and Geographical Indications. Locality is one of the key foundations of sustainability. How would you comment on the future of gastronomy with this in mind?
When Cicero said, “We don’t let the people beyond the Alps cultivate olive and grapes so that our olive groves and vineyards are more precious!” he may be emphasising one of the earlier implementations of geographical indication. Forming strong ties with their local region, geographical indications are special, quality, and characteristic products that reflect the knowledge and capabilities, from past to present, of a group of people living in an idiosyncratic ecosystem. With high recognisability, these products are taken under protection in many countries around the world with “Geographical Indication Licence.” As one of the countries with great potential in terms of geographical indications, Turkey has seven licences within the European Union. From this perspective, Turkey is quite behind. Turkey Research Network for Local Products and Geographical Indications makes efforts to raise awareness. Gastronomy evolves through past information. Geographical indications bear great significance as products that could be the food of the future because they harbour both the memory of the past and the possibilities of the future.