Topic: Turkish Delight by Irene Tudor

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Irene Tudor's entry in the 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition.

Athina posing in a garden – Istanbul TurkeyArchived version here.

The kitchen benches are scrubbed clean.  Bottles of Spanish olive oil stand near the stove, jars of Turkish artichokes, a bowl of tomatoes and salep.  I pick up the pale blue box I’ve never seen before.  My aunt smiles.

“Ah, salepi, after so many years.  In Poli in the winter, how we looked forward to it.  It warms your soul…” 

Her hazel eyes shine when she says Poli, for Constantinoupoli, the city of Constantine - the old Greek name for the Turkish city where she and my father were born and raised - once the seat of the Byzantine Empire, a centre of Greek culture, language, the Orthodox church. Now called Istanbul. 

Salepi.  With hot milk and vanilla and cinnamon.  In the street the vendor would call out ‘Salep, hot sweet salep’ and the women would go down with glasses to be filled...”

The aroma from the pot steaming on the stove is unfamiliar to me. I lift the lid and peer inside, surprised to see a combination of artichokes, peas and other vegetables, a dish my mother cooks. But this smells Middle Eastern.

“We used to have this often in Poli,” she says and as she lists the spices she’s put into the sauce and we discuss food, I see another strand of Turkish culture emerging from the folds of Greek.

Athina – posing at a client’s house after a fitting Istanbul TurkeyMy father and aunt had always denied any Turkish influence in their lives, Greek lives – survivors through decades of international power-play, wars, persecution, poverty and famine. But Turkey had been their home.

Too late for me to retrieve anything of this from my father, though when my partner and I were having dinner at a Turkish restaurant in Cuba St one night - we’d eaten there several times before - the elderly owner, hearing I was of Greek descent, mentioned how a certain Greek man, a friend, had visited often.

Yes, my father.  They’d played backgammon, drunk coffee and chatted in Turkish. Chatted?  I only know food and swear words in Turkish, Dad used to say.  Secrets. Now, my aunt is all that’s left.

“A cognac?”

The accent is more French than Greek. They’d lived in the foreign quarter where French was spoken and Russian counts sauntered through the ballrooms, palaces and restaurants in Europe’s finest fashions. This style had captured her heart. Her clients had included European princesses, she said.

“At this time of day?”  

But it’s the custom on a visit.

Through the doorway the dark buffet under the mirror in the dining room holds sets of glasses - apricot, pale green, all decorated with gold - and Turkish coffee cups dwarfed beside an English tea set. The gold brocade of the chaise longue, now faded, is piled high with red-tasselled cushions and French Vogue magazines from the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. On the wall nearby, a striking woman poses actress-style in black and white against a Grecian column, satin robe draped across a firm body, gleaming hair over one shoulder.  It still captures my imagination as it did when I was a child..

My aunt looks up at the photo into that other world and sighs, shaking her head from side to side. From this angle I can see her cheekbones still have their edge.

It’s warm here in the kitchen - the flame licks back and forth across the bottom of the gas oven, nuzzling a dish of soutzoukia, bullet-shaped mince patties nestled side by side in rows, exuding more spices into the air.  Outside, the hail lances through the cabbage tree and rattles on the window above the bench.  But on the dining-room side, sun shines in a blue sky. 

She picks up the salep packet.  A woman and child are building a snowman in deep snow.

Poli was so beautiful in the winter, covered in snow.  And in the summer you knew it was summer... we’d have picnics on the islands in the Bosphorus. Here… this weather...” 

 Athina – at work among the fabrics in the atelier- Istanbul Turkey

We are sitting at the Formica table. The camellias I brought her are lying on the bench, their heads tipping backward into the sink. I usually loathe this kitchen; it feels unloved, an afterthought.  Today it seems different. 

“Have you got a vase, Theia, and I’ll put the flowers in water for you.” 

As I arrange the flowers she pulls herself up using the table as a brace and shuffles across to get a hand-sized box from the buffet in the dining room.

“To have with the cognac. Come.” 

Down the dingy hall, past dark wooden half-closed doors to the sitting room, door always shut.  I follow her in. Ornate settees covered in white sheets; ghost sheets, I’d thought as a child.  On every flat surface, icons of the saints and the Virgin Mary, photos of dead relatives, all reflecting flames from the floating candles beside them.  And by every photo, flowers. 

Her mother’s has a lone orchid.

Elsewhere, flowers are a-riot, bursting from overfull vases, jostling for space on the furniture. Yellow broom and roses tumble across the wide window-sill.  My camellias sit primly in cut crystal beside a fall of yellow wattle from the Wairarapa.  Under our feet, like the fading complexions of grand old ladies, Turkish rugs with tattered fringes cover most of the carpet.

She reaches behind the vegetation on the mahogany china cabinet, producing a gold decanter. I’m sure it’s been lurking there since I was a child. I can see dark shapes in the bottom.  Cherries, she says. One of her specialities. When she pours into the tiny matching glasses the liquid is dark and fragrant. Then comes the cognac.

She lifts the lid off the small hexagonal box she’s brought in and prises open the paper wrapping as if she is opening something precious.  And inside, like jewels cocooned in cotton wool, pale green and rose coloured cubes, almost translucent, wobble in their nest, covered in icing sugar.

“Loukoumi - here, real pistachio.  And rose.” 

Turkish Delight. It melts warm in my mouth and I let it loll around on my tongue. The thick sweetness is a good foil for the sharpness of the cognac. Liquid velvet with a sting.

Athina – outside her house Hohiria Rd Hataitai Wellington 1970.The phone rings in another room.  I get up but it stops as I reach it; that old black contraption, alone in the middle of the cutting table.  The dressmakers’ model in the corner is draped in silk, gold fringing with a criss-cross border pinned to one edge.  The rest of the fringing spills from a brown paper parcel on a chair.  I look at the stamp. Postmark Istanbul. 

In the alcove by the window seat, the electrified Singer treadle machine, black and gold paintwork scratched with years of use, sits waiting for its companion of over half a century..  Bolts of fabric rest in every corner. This is the room I remember most; a monument to her talent.  Wives of Governor Generals, Prime Ministers, and foreign ambassadors stood here, tried on their one-off garments, watching in the long mirror as she adjusted, pinned, tacked. The sign on the house, long gone, advised Athina ~ Designer Dressmaker ~ Paris Models.  Madame Athina, to her customers..

“I’ll put on the coffee,” she calls and I drag myself away.  Greek coffee. I dare not call it Turkish.  But it’s the same. I offer to make it, but even now she doesn’t trust me to do it properly.  Coffee, sugar, water. The surface forms thick and golden as she stirs, holding the long-handled briki over the flame until the liquid just starts to rise up the sides. 

She pours it slowly into the little cups so that the gold stays intact; the mark of expertise is the quality of this kaimaki.  Crema is the word for it now, in café society. Getting a good husband could depend on it, my aunt had told me when I was a child.  She’d stood over me like a strict governess though I could hardly reach the stove-top; stir forty times, in one direction, then take the spoon out and don’t touch it again. Her special method.

You’ll make a good wife, my father’s friends would say when I handed them their coffee, crema floating golden, velvety and unbroken on the top..

She’s got younger as we’ve talked; the eyes alive again, even the lines clearing from her face.  Only the shuffle is still there. In my head, this early childhood memory: a curvaceous woman, deep cleavage, bending to kiss me, eau-de-cologne floating around her.  High heels, painted toenails.  Stylish clothes. Yes, in that New Zealand of the early nineteen-fifties where tall poppies were an inch high and fashion magazines arrived months out of date. My parents wanted to blend into the Kiwi world. Don’t speak Greek in the bus.

I glance again at the actress-style photo as the old woman in the black woolly hat shuffles with me to the door.  We embrace. She watches, waving, as I descend the wooden steps and walk down the path onto the suburban Wellington street.

 About the Author and subject.

Author Irene Tudor was born in Wellington and has a BA in English Literature from Victoria University.  She is a member of NZSA.  Both parents are of Greek descent - her father was born in Istanbul, Turkey and arrived in NZ as a Displaced Person after WWII and her mother was born to Greek immigrant parents.  Athina Vassiliou started her career in fashion at the age of 14 when she began an apprenticeship in design and needlework.  Her work featured intricate handwork, beading and embroidery.  She immigrated to NZ in 1953 to join her brother and died on 2 August 2003.


This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:

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Turkish Delight by Irene Tudor

First Names:Athina
Last Name:Vassiliou
Place of Birth:Constantinoupoli