The exodus from the cramped urbanity of mega cities such as Istanbul to smaller towns by the Aegean coast are beginning to alter Turkey’s gastronomic scene. Not to mention the way in which people want to live their lives: simpler, more honest and most definitely closer to nature. Deeply rooted in the countryside, what ends up on the table is sourced directly from the olive trees and the sea, the labor of local farmers and the seasonal juices of the vineyard grapes. No place exhibits this nature-to-table movement more at the moment than Urla, a town in the Izmir province that’s endearingly referred to as the Tuscany of Turkey. The exceptional meze varieties at Yengeç used to be one of the main reasons to visit Urla, but nowadays young chefs, olive oil producers and winemakers have added an even thicker layer of gastronomic fortitude to the quiet and vast landscape of Urla’s farmlands, olive groves and vineyards.
So, who are these people making such necessary alterations to the concept of food and life in Turkey?
Teruar: Osman Serdaroğlu
It was a deep sense of dissatisfaction with his university studies in information systems that led Osman Serdaroğlu back to the place where he always felt most content: the kitchen. After advancing his skills from amateur to professional at MSA, Istanbul’s well-known international culinary school, he traveled to Parma, Italy, continuing his studies at ALMA (the International School of Italian Cuisine). He soon found himself in the Michelin starred kitchens of Chef Gennaro Esposito at the Ristorante Torre del Saracino and Chef Pino Cuttaia at Ristorante La Madia.
For Serdaroğlu it is the earth that sustains any kitchen through the growth and harvest of local produce by dedicated and passionate individuals. He founded Teruar in 2020 as an ode to the terra upon which his restaurant rests, the local farmlands where he himself carefully chooses his own seasonal ingredients. In the restaurant’s own garden, more points of inspiration grow constantly in the form of fragrant herbs such as thyme, basil and sage, as well as orchards ripe with tangerines, bergamot and saturn peaches…what ends up on the plate is a confluence of the gastronomic influence of his family, his time in Italy and the bountiful and fundamental food culture of the Aegean. That all of this is done in a space that’s starkly minimal (including rooms for overnight stays) is just another strategy to allow taste to reign, most notably the Aegean palatal building blocks: the local olive oil, seafood and herbs.
Od Urla: Osman Sezener
The love story between Osman Sezener and the kitchen began rather early, at the age of three, when he was already present behind-the-scenes at his father’s iconic Izmir pizza restaurant Venedik. He grew up in the kitchen and already had quite the education before later pursuing further degrees at The French Culinary Institute and the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. Upon his return, taking over the kitchen at Venedik and exploring his own style through catering events didn’t suffice and Sezener went one step further turning parts of his own summer home in an olive grove into a gastronomic experience: an Aegean chef restaurant based on the farm-to-table concept, a novel undertaking in Turkey back in 2018.
With an intimate view of the open kitchen, the restaurant’s namesake (which translates to ‘fire’ in Turkish) is made apparent through the preparation of dishes on the wood-fired open grill and oven. The chef is always present to present and talk about his dishes, which are composed of ingredients that come directly from the family plots and gardens or from some of Turkey’s most meticulous producers. For a chef whose mind is constantly sprouting new ideas for recipes, Od is a dream playground, a place for food lovers who can also choose to linger a bit longer among the Urla olive groves in the restaurant’s own guesthouse.
Hiç: Duygu Özerson Elakdar
When Duygu Özerson Elakdar and her husband formed Hiç in 2011, it became a kind of force of its own, a self-sustaining ecosystem that inspired others to follow suit. An olive grove and its production of natural olive oils, a restaurant and taste atelier plus cooking classes, and a line of handmade ceramics all based on the idea of less is more and nothing can be achieved without a deep and deserved respect for nature. Success was instant and grew internationally, confirming that Elakdar’s decision to leave her life in Paris behind (including a balcony festooned with lovely plants) to take on an olive grove with around 60,000 trees was very much the right life path.
Of course, it wasn’t easy, because a love for nature just isn’t enough to produce quality olive oil, especially in a place where the history of this particular liquid-gold goes back to around 3000 BC. Elakdar spent four years in Italy focusing on an education in olive oil tasting and production technologies and decided on a slow method of harvesting her own olives, natural and without pesticides, sustained by rainwater and powered by the sun. It’s then no surprise that the Hiç restaurant-–inside a more than 160-year-old renovated structure–prefers dishes that are stripped down to simple local ingredients and that its own line of ceramics stays away from unnecessary details, basking in the endearingly imperfect details of hand craftsmanship.
Urla Winery: Can Ortabaş
The vineyard that Can Ortabaş established in the 1990s is a revival of a wine culture that goes back thousands of years. His own story starts at the age of twenty with a sip of red wine at a small Italian restaurant in Germany, which directly led to many more glasses, a lot of reading and a personal wine cellar with around three thousand bottles meant to educate the palate and mind. The fact that the Izmir native discovered ancient terraces on his own family’s land was luck in its purest form, an opportunity to invest in something he already loved.
International grape varieties such as Carbernet, Merlot and Syrah, which were conducive to the climate, were initially imported, but over time, Ortabaş’s interest for Urla’s wine history fostered a dedication to local varieties. The Öküzgözü, Kalecik Karası, Boğazkere, Bornova Misket, Papaz Karası and Ada Karası grape varieties were revived and with some experimentation, the Urla Karası variety, which had all but died out, was rediscovered and put back in the glass, where it always belonged. The awards that have been presented to Urla Winery over the years are evidence of its success, as well as a production facility granted with a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certificate. The wine estate’s rooms and restaurant also speak of the Tuscan-style wine sipping vacation, but it is all very much deep in the Turkish countryside, backed up by history and sustained by love.