Before the Bodrum peninsula was touted as the next St. Tropez for its concentration of yachts, nightclubs and celebrities, this crescent of Aegean hamlets was a beloved haven for Turkey’s artists, writers, farmers, sailors and the Istanbul beau monde. Steering clear of the crowds and glitz, one experiences what brought people to this exotic enclave in the first place at the Ada Hotel in Göl-Türkbükü, a village on the northern end of the peninsula, favored by Istanbul society for its small restaurants, shops along the water, and remnants of traditional Turkish life.
An Ottoman-style villa built around hundred-year-old olive trees, the hotel has fourteen rooms facing the sea furnished with rugs and antiques from the personal collection of Sureyya and Semiz Vedat, the Ada’s owners. Plans for expansion were thwarted by the proprietor of the olive grove adjacent to the Ada’s property, an incredulous farmer who refused to sell asking, “Where would my cows graze?” The Ada has since expanded with guests able to stay at the Ada Ez, a one-room extension of the hotel with a private restaurant in a stone tower dating back to the sixteenth century.
Bodrum is a food lover’s paradise. I think the essence of Turkish cuisine emanates from the geography of Istanbul where the Bosphorus, the strait dividing the city in two, is both the border between Europe and Asia and the sole waterway joining the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. The sense of standing at the crossroads of the world captures the way Turkish foods blend Mediterranean staples—olive oil, lamb, eggplant, fresh fish, honey and almonds—with the warm spices of the Orient—cumin, cloves, chiles, and cinnamon. It reaches its apogee in Bodrum, since nowhere in Turkey is the produce and seafood fresher or more abundant.
During our stay, we visited Bodrum’s Friday bazaar, stopping at a small restaurant called Urfa for Lahmacun, thin crust pizza topped with minced lamb, cumin, tomatoes, parsley, peppers and esot, a black chili from Turkey’s border with Syria. Beloved by local pop stars and footballers, Urfa, looks like a hole-in-the-wall, but serves some of the most flavorful food in the country.
Gallery: Photos of Turkey
In the market, we peeled the green fruit from a fresh walnut before purchasing Persian cucumbers, baby eggplant, and an array of peppers, along with wild sage to steep into tea. We sampled dozens of olive varieties, ranging from light and briny to cured and herbaceous. At the cheese monger, we tried goat, cow, and sheep’s milk feta, until finally he turned to us holding a cheese called Kasar, which he described rapturously as stinky and runny like Fontina without the nuttiness. We tasted honey made from pine needles as well as honey from the nectar of oregano flowers, which a chef recommended drizzled on bread with buffalo ricotta, olive oil, and chopped mint.
Touring Bodrum by boat and anchoring in coves with water so clear you can see the starfish, it became evident why the local fish tastes so pure and fresh. For a classic Mediterranean seafood experience, the harbor-side restaurant Sait in Yalikavak is a boisterous local favorite; a perfect meal might include feta, watermelon and tomato salad, grilled octopus, and roasted sea bass. The five-table restaurant Sheanai, in Göl-Türkbükü promises a more intimate and offbeat evening; the beautiful young owner dresses like Tinker Bell and serves an exquisite stew of shrimp, curry, peppers and bay leaves on the dock outside her home. If you are in the mood for lamb, at the Ada you can look down at the sea while enjoying a shank braised in sweet spices served on a bed of eggplant purée.
Bodrum is home to the Tomb of King Mausolus, one of the world’s original seven wonders. It is also two hours from Ephesus, the capital of Asian lands in the Roman Empire, where one can still see remnants of residences with ornate mosaics and central heating, a library connected to a brothel by an underground tunnel, and an amphitheater with the capacity to seat twenty-five thousand people. With such a strong connection to ancient Rome, it is no wonder that a wine culture continues to thrive nearby in Turkey’s North Aegean islands. Bottles from Corvus Vineyards made by the prominent Turkish architect Resist Soley on Bozcaada are among the finest offerings.
In many ways, Bodrum’s foods are best showcased at breakfast. At the Ada Hotel this means fried eggs with plump marigold yolks accompanied by fresh baked olive bread and individual bowls of feta cheese, honey on the comb, cucumbers, olives, and tomatoes. The flavors are intense and unadulterated, and seem to be heightened by the sea air and the scent of tropical flowers in the garden.
Like a private residence strictly for summer, the Ada Hotel is open from May to October. By early September the sea is warm and the mandarin oranges and cactus fruit have begun to replace the summer crowds. We wanted to linger, stay on just a little longer. The hotel staff must have sensed how we felt. As we left the Ada, the manager threw a bucket of water behind our car, a time-honored ritual for wishing guests a safe trip and a speedy return.
Braised Lamb Shanks—Ada Style
Turkish sheep graze on wild thyme, which lends the country’s lamb dishes extraordinary depth of flavor. The combination of thyme and sweet spice in the braising liquid captures the spirit of the Turkish kitchen. The meat will be fork tender and highly aromatic.
6 tbsp, Olive oil
2 White Onions, roughly chopped
4 Lamb Shanks, trimmed
8 Tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
6 cloves Garlic, minced
12 sprigs Thyme
4 Turkish bay leaves
2 tsp. Cumin, ground
1/4 tsp. Cloves, ground
1/4 tsp, Cinnamon, ground
2 cups Hot water Salt and pepper to taste
Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven over moderate heat. Add the onions and sauté until the onions are soft and golden, about 8 minutes. Remove the onions and set aside. Return the Dutch oven to the stovetop and working in batches, brown the lamb shanks on all sides. Return all the lamb shanks to the pan. Add the onions, tomatoes, garlic, thyme, bay leaves, cumin, cloves and cinnamon. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the hot water. Bring the sauce to a boil, then reduce the heat until the sauce maintains a gentle simmer. Cover on the Dutch oven and allow the lamb shanks simmer for 2 hours. After 2 hours, remove the lid and simmer for another 30 minutes. Test the lamb to see that it is fork tender. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve warm with the eggplant purée.
This sweet and creamy purée is the perfect accompaniment to roast lamb or chicken.
3 tbsp. Lemon juice, fresh
3 Eggplants, large
1/4 cup Flour
1/2 cup Gruyere, grated
4 tbsp. Butter
1-1/2 cups Milk Salt and pepper to taste
Prick the skin of each eggplant with a fork a dozen times. Place the eggplants directly on a hot grill or under a broiler on a sheet pan. Grill or broil, turning occasionally, until the skins are black and blistered.
Preheat the oven to 425°F. Place the eggplant on a clean sheet pan and roast for an hour. Let the eggplants cool for 20 minutes, then place them in a plastic bag and refrigerate for 2 hours, until cold. Remove the eggplants from the refrigerator. Cut them in half. Using a large spoon, scrape the flesh from the eggplants into a colander. Use the back of the spoon to press the eggplant flesh against the side of the colander to remove excess water. Transfer the eggplant to a food processor, purée and set aside.
Pour the milk into a small saucepan over low heat. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the flour to the sauté pan and whisk constantly until the flour is golden brown, about 5 minutes. Add the milk, whisking constantly until the liquid is smooth. Add the Gruyere and continue to whisk. Once the cheese has melted, add the eggplant purée to the sauté pan and simmer for 8-10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve warm with the braised lamb shanks.
Sophie Helene Menin writes about food and wine, sense of place and the pleasures of the table. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Departures and Saveur, among other publications. She lives in New York City.