Baklava King Ömer Güllü

At four in the morning, after the call to prayer reverberates off the renovated façades of the Turkish city of Gaziantep, its residents are already stirring in the streets. Street vendors start up their grills as the early risers arrive for their first meal of the day. The ovens at Güllüoğlu, too, are now burning at full temperature, and the baklawa dough, almost iridescent in its thin composition, is rolled out by hands that have been repeating this daily procedure for many years. These are the masters – known among locals as the baklawa ustaları.

‘It takes about 10 to 15 years for a çırak, or apprentice, to become a baklawa ustaları,’ says Ömer Güllü, owner of the 1,600-square metre production facility and shop in Gaziantep. Not to be confused with the other Güllüoğlu branches (14 in all under the management of various members of the sprawling family), the franchise’s arm under Güllü stands out due to its adherence to the traditional methods of baklawa preparation – specifically the use of traditional stone ovens. Established in 1871 by Güllü Çelebi, Güllüoğlu’s fifth generation now runs separate baklawa stores across Gaziantep and Istanbul, and each is different from the other.

In a framed photo hanging on one of his office walls, a younger version of Güllü shakes hands with a member of Turkey’s Grand National Assembly presenting him with an award for traditional food production. ‘Whatever the methods were during the time of our father and grandfather, those are the methods we use today,’ he says before his phone rings. Holding it away from his mouth as he listens to the ear piece, Güllü smiles before explaining. ‘It’s a customer who wants 35 kilos of baklawa to take along on his business trip to Adana.’

Gaziantep’s history of baklawa lies in the pistachio trees that line the countryside outside the city borders. Between August and September the boz fıstığı – pistachios particular to Gaziantep – are collected at their most aromatic stage and compose the main filling of Güllüoğlu’s baklawa. ‘There are two things that this city is known for,’ says Güllü. ‘One of them is pistachios and the other baklawa.’

Yet, more than a dessert, baklawa has become an intrinsic part of Turkish and Middle Eastern culture, a ubiquitous gift, present in almost every human interaction. ‘From the crib all the way to the grave, there is baklawa,’ says Güllü.

Based on a system of apprenticeship, all of Güllüoğlu’s baklawa masters have undergone years of work to earn their place in the atölye, or atelier. Becoming a master is a process that enlists the community. ‘You’ll see a lot of baklawa shops in Gaziantep and most of the owners were trained right here in our kitchens,’ Güllü says, who himself worked as an apprentice at the age of eight. ‘You could say we’re training our own competition, but we’ve always been proud of offering this function of tutelage.’

By 1993, Güllü began managing his father’s three separate branches and by 2003, he united the entire operation under one roof in the current facility. ‘It was always my dream to bring all the branches together. Our philosophy did not change, but our production modernised,’ he says.

As Güllü speaks, a door nearby opens and a bakery rack is pulled across the marble floor. Round metal pans filled with the geometrically partitioned golden baklawa are pulled out of each shelf and carried downstairs.

‘From rolling out the dough, placing it into the pan, cutting the pieces, baking and adding the syrup, every stage of making baklawa requires mastery – we see our job as a kind of craftsmanship,’ Güllü goes on. ‘We also use the traditional stone oven, which necessitates a lot of experience because the heat inside is not uniformly distributed. So the pan must not only be turned on its own axis, but also along the circumference of the oven itself. Making baklawa is a team effort – a master may know all the necessary steps, but he can never make good baklawa on his own.’

Güllü pauses momentarily with a concentrated gaze. ‘My late father had a friend named Sayid, and one summer he bought 20 to 30 boxes of baklawa to take on his vacation. I asked him what he was planning to do with so many boxes and he said, “When I go somewhere nice, to a hotel for example, instead of giving the workers a tip like everyone else, I’d rather give them baklawa because then they know I made an effort.” It was then that I really understood the importance of baklawa.’

At the entrance to Güllüoğlu’s bakery, a young boy runs up to the automatic doors but pauses when they don’t open. Frustrated, he jumps about hoping the sensors will detect him. When they don’t, a group of workers laugh behind the counter until one finally opens the doors from the inside. Bending down to meet the young boy’s expression, he says, ‘When these doors open for you, you’ll be big enough to apprentice.’

Brownbook, July-August, 2016 

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