On a hot summer day in Finike, best known for its oranges, the symbol of the town, my Turkish friend and I were walking down the aisle of farmers markets where the bright colours of fresh food mingled with their delicious scents creating a fairy-tale like atmosphere that completely absorbed us. For a moment a stallholder, who was an old and cheerful man, stopped us and invited us for Turkish tea. He said that our hippie-like look had attracted his attention. In the middle of the conversation that had begun with this stallholder, I began to look at what he was selling, seeing this, the stallholder began to talk about his goods in Turkish. I was waiting for the translation of this by my Turkish friend, but they themselves were preoccupied with looking at me and laughing. In the end everything became clear; what he sold was Harnup Pekmezi and what the old man was telling my friend was what the reputation of this product was known for – heightening arousal and sexual drive.
However, this Viagra effect doesn’t come from pekmez, but harnup. Pekmez is a boiled fruit juice, honey-like, and typically made from grapes. The Turks use almost all Anatolian fruits such as mulberries, pomegranates, apples, plums, rosehip, sugar beets, pears, watermelon, carob bean and so on. Zile, Kırşehir, Gaziantep and Hatay regions are famous for producing the best pekmez in Turkey. It is important however, to not get confused on the naming of this juice, which varies from province to province. In Gaziantep, pekmez is named ağda, çalma in Kırşehir, bulama in Balıkesir and masara in Maraş province. In other lands of surrounding the Mediterranean Sea pekmez has a further array of names, such as arrope, mostarda, vin cotto or petimezi…
The production of Pekmez by the Turks dates back to the 11th century when they first arrived in the Anatolia region, the homeland of grapes, and learnt how to produce wine from the local Christians. As time went by the production of wine was replaced by production of grapes, but still the wine production continued, even during the Ottoman period. Pekmez would become the Turks favourite method to sweeten their dishes and sweets. In a short time they would begin to obtain pekmez from almost every fruit that contains glucose. It was only in the 1950s when the demand for sugar increased greatly and the production of pekmez therefore decreased across the country. Nonetheless, pekmez remains one of the most important traditional foods produced in Turkey.
I can say that making pekmez is not a difficult process, and such is the case that Turkish women in rural parts of the country still prefer to make pekmez by themselves. It is made by boiling the juice of fruits until it becomes suitably thick. For this, you start by squeezing the fruits by mortar to collect the juice, and this obtained liquid is then heated for around 15-20 minutes at 50°-60° Celsius. While it is being cooked, you add marl, a type of sterile white soil, to clarify the liquid and neutralise the acidity (it’s said that 1-5kg of soil is sufficient for 100kg of grape juice). The liquid syrup is then cooled and strained through a cloth, and poured into another saucepan to be boiled on a low heat. Thus, the sugars inside of the fruits are overcooked, which changes the taste and makes the colour of the mixture darker. Finally, cool it and down and place in a jar!
Pekmez is usually made from September to October, the period of time that grapes are ripening in Turkey. It’s also noteworthy that ‘pekmez’ is made by boiling the juice of whatever fruit is available, but without any sugar. On the other hand, ‘syrup’ is made by sugar combined with water. We see then how syrup and pekmez are two different things.
Pekmez is considered an extremely healthy food which is used as homeopathic medicine because it contains natural sugars like glucose and fructose which is a source of nutrition that supports the body. In approximately 100 grams of pekmez there are 60 to 70 grams of monosaccharides (simple sugar molecules) which are directly absorbed into the blood, without having to be digested and provide excellent energy for your body (300 calroies for 100 grams of pekmez). Furthermore, pekmez meets most of the daily requirements in vitamins and minerals, especially calcium, iron, potassium and magnesium. Due to the fact it contains high amounts of sugar, pekmez must be consumed very carefully by diabetics!
There are many tasty ways to consume pekmez. It’s either served alone or you can mix it with a thick sesame paste called tahini. The result is a sweet and savoury cream that you can spread on bread. You can also drizzle pekmez over Turkish yoghurt. Some Turkish women still use pekmez instead of sugar in their baking recipes. Pekmez is used in recipes in for some types of helva and desserts. It’s also the main ingredient of pestil, a dried fruit roll up, which is very similar to churchkhela, a traditional candy originating from Georgia.