Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Scents of Summer (Final Part, Istanbul)

Being deliriously in love with spices, smells, exotic flavors and the hustle-and-bustle of the market, it came as no surprise that I fell in love with Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar. Located in the central Eminonu district, it is known as Misir Carsisi (Egyptian Bazaar), due to the fact that most of the spices sold there in the past were imported from Egypt. The bazaar is housed in a beautiful domed building featuring three grand entranceways. Inside, a plethora of small, vaulted shops line both sides of each crowded walkway, their vibrantly colored, densely displayed wares creating a spectacular explosion of color for the eyes to feast upon. But it is not just the eyes that feast; truly, for a lover of scents the first step inside Misir Carsisi is like stepping into a heavenly world of aromas so pervasive in the air around you that it almost feels as though you’re bathed in them. So beautiful is the experience, that I returned there daily during my visit just to revel in the atmosphere. It became my happy place.

The only way to try and approximate a description of what this place smells like, is to give you an idea of what is sold there, and keep in mind that almost every shop (with only few exceptions) generally sells the same type of things. Spices are of course the most commonly sold good, and what immediately catches the eye. The variety is astounding: curries, colorful mounds of different peppercorns, star-anis, different sorts of sesame, saffron from all corners of the world (Spanish, Iranian, Indian, Turkish, Greek, Moroccan….), salep powder, chilies and cardamoms, cumin and mint, garam masala, oregano, basil, peppermint, cinnamon and clove and so, so much more than I could ever imagine or remember, including various fabulous mixes to perfectly spice any kind of dish. Shredded, sliced and diced vegetables are sold by the kilo from large sacks, a perfect solution as a base for soups and casseroles. Aphrodisiacs of questionable effect are sold everywhere, either alone with some sort of reference to Viagra (I can’t read Turkish, but I’d presume they’re being advertised as a natural Viagra) or in tea-blends meant to be used by couples, often cheekily labeled as Love Tea, an extremely pungent mixture whose scent will somehow penetrate through airtight containers and contaminate everything else you are carrying with you. Baskets are filled with all manner of dried fruit, from the more traditional figs, dates, bananas, apricots and carobs to the more exotic kiwis, mangos, pineapples and papayas. Berries are not missing from the mix of course, and since I find them a perfect snack when those sugar cravings hit, I left with bags of dried mulberries, cranberries, cherries and strawberries. Yum! The tea lover should feel right at home at Misir Carsisi as there are a myriad varieties and blends to explore. While you probably won’t find Pu-ehr or Baozhong tea here, forget about being a purist and delve in the magical world of fabulously flavored Turkish teas: Lemon, Orange, Jasmine, flower-bud, apple, berry, fruit and blossom mixes… the list goes on and on. My favorite (from the ones I tried) was the apple tea, a lovely, tangy, sweet-and-sour tea that is simply delightful. Are you getting a waft of the lovely bazaar aromas yet? But wait, there’s more! Spicy and fruity yes, but also candied and sugary, because the bazaar is also filled with traditional Turkish confections! There are rows upon rows and heaps upon heaps of all kinds of Turkish delight, big or tiny all dusted with the finest of powdered sugar and starch. And stranger sweets yet: rows of beautifully prepared rolls, made of something like melted marshmallow which is paper thin and then rolled around delights such as nuts, chocolate, coffee, coconut or mixes of the above. They produce a heavenly, sweet, roasted aroma and taste even better, soft, fluffy and slightly warm when fresh. Then there are these enormous, mound-shaped sweets made from any sort of sticky sweet (dried fruit syrup and pulp, nugat, honey etc) and filled with nuts. These are made in large buckets (from which they take their round, mound-like shape) and taste absolutely delicious! Nuts and seeds are also being sold everywhere, as are some slightly out-of-place delicacies such as caviar and pastirma (a very pungent, air-dried meat, mostly made of either camel meat or beef which is covered in an almost jelly-like film of cumin, garlic, fennel and hot red paprika). Try to imagine all of these smells combining together and there you’ll have it, the scent of Misir Carsisi, the pungent with the soft and fluffy smelling, the sweet with the sour, the spicy with the flowery, the candied with the fruity… Pure, absolute bliss. And if you, like me, love busy, colorful places where humanity congregates, haggles, shouts, negotiates, laughs, smiles and whistles, this will probably become your happy place too when you visit.

As enticing as the atmosphere as well as the smells, sights and sounds themselves of the Misir Carsisi might be, it holds in fact, an even bigger lure to make it a definite must-see for the perfume lover. The heart of the Spice Bazaar holds a precious gem: the Arifoglu perfume shop and its perfumer, Orhan. Arifoglu sells an incredible variety of perfume oils, absolutes and tinctures as well as a number of raw materials, solid waxes and powders. Can I just say Perfume-Lover’s Heaven? There are two Arifoglu shops inside Misir Carsisi, but the one closest to the Golden Horn entrance, where Orhan works, is the one that you really should visit as it has the most variety and of course, because it has… Orhan! If you wish to see as many of the raw materials as possible and spend some time with the oils and perfumes as well, be prepared to spend several hours here and hope that it’s not a very busy day. This place is truly amazing. It is also good to know beforehand that Arifoglu sells both natural and synthetic products. And yes, this is a Turkish market, so be prepared for the fact that you cannot come right out and ask “Is this synthetic” much in the same way that you cannot ask “Is this bag a real YSL or a fake?” inside the Kapalicarsi (Not that there are any real YSL bags in Kapalicarsi, just to clear things up!). It is simply not done and all you’ll achieve is to get people mad at you. How to tread these waters? What is good Bazaar etiquette? First of all, be an expert. That is, know beforehand how something smells and looks like if you don’t want to get caught out. Believe me, there are no merchants in the world that are better than the Turks, and their expert eye will know whether you know. I know this is hard (or even impossible), especially when it comes to rare materials such as musks, ambergris etc. you might not have had the chance to smell, but really, it is the only good way. Second, spend time there and show that your interest is serious and that you respect the staff’s expertise. Third, well, be liked by the staff. If you manage to get them to know you and like you, you might gain access to things that otherwise remain hidden behind doors, drawers or cupboards. Again, do not ask for any hidden, better stuff, but gently, yet confidently hint at the fact that you are looking for that which is a little more special. I am sorry if all this sounds a little bit mystifying and/or irritating, but it is simply the way it works. Now on to the treasures!

Just about every single-note oil you might wish to possess either to wear on its own or to use in your personal blends and layering experiments can be found here: Vanilla, Melissa, Myrrh, Saffron, Hay, Olibanum, various musks and a rainbow of roses from Istanbuli to Damaskus, as well as various other flowers and woods, amber mixes and ready-made blends, and beautifully perfumed massage oils. I’ll stop here, because it would be impossible to list every beautiful, gorgeous-smelling product Arifoglu sells. All I’ll say is that the musks and musk blends that this shop sells are astoundingly beautiful. Take-my-breath-away kind of beautiful. There are also gorgeous ready-made blends, often given names that might lead you to think they are dupes, while they are actually beautiful, original perfumes in their own right. An example would be Pleasures, a dusky, husky, fruity-floral blend on a base of musk and powder, which aside from having the exact same name as Este Lauder’s best-seller, bears it no other resemblance at all. Aside from the obvious attraction of the perfumes, one should definitely visit Arifoglu in order to have a personal perfume made just for them by the talented Orhan, who mixes absolutely gorgeous, one of a kind blends. Orhan, sweet, gentle, intuitive, patient, talented, and full of love, respect and passion for perfume is by himself a good-enough reason to visit Istanbul. What perfume lover doesn’t dream to have a scent made just for them? Based on your likes and dislikes and through trial of various blends he creates, together you can slowly approximate the perfect personal blend - Parfum sur Mesure, for a price that won't break the bank. Just as pleasurable is of course giving Orhan full freedom to create for you what he thinks would suit your personality (if you’ve had the time to get better acquainted). He did this for me on my last day, and the result is a beautiful perfume I treasure. Orhan will also blend a perfume based on specification, that is, with ingredients chosen by you. I created such a perfume for a close friend, and it gave me the chance to not only ‘play perfumer’ for a day, but also to buy a gift that is not only truly unique, but also truly from me.

Images: The first image of one of the Spice Bazaar's shops was sourced from Wikipedia. The rest is from the author's own collection.


fantastic said...

what a dream it would be to visit! and those sweets looks so amazing...

The Daily Connoisseur said...

I love exotic spices... there is something so romantic about their scent. Another evocative and wonderful post... Thank you xo

Ines said...

All I can say is wow! :) And I need to visit Istanbul.

PinstripedZebra said...

Orhan is such a character, it was so much fun to watch the exchange between him and his costumer!

And the thought that there are any real brand products sold in funny!


Flora said...

OMG, that perfume shop, my fantasy come true! I would so like to meet Orhan!