Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Supreme Picnic

Excerpts from a delightful account of a Turkish picnic, written by Penelope Chetwode (Lady Betjeman) decades ago-

"After an interval of thirty years, I returned to India in 1963 by the overland route.  A young doctor friend bought a second-hand Volkwagen Dormobile from a farmer near Wantage and proceeded to make a green roll-up tent on his mother's sewing machine - which has never worked since.  The tent, fixed to the roof of the vehicle, could be unrolled and set up as a roomy lean-to-shelter within five minutes of arriving at any camp site.  The cooking was done in it on two primus stoves, and there was room for three people to sleep on the ground while two of us slept in the Dormobile.

In those far-off days petrol cost the equivalent of 20p a gallon, and by the time we reached Delhi the captain (as we called the doctor) calculated he had spent about a hundred pounds on it after driving some five to six thousand miles.  We took two months to complete the journey since we wanted to do as much sightseeing as possible in Turkey and Iran, and foodwise our life was one great picnic as we had all our meals al fresco except when we spent a few nights in great cities like Istanbul, Ankara and Teheran.

The cooking was done on the primus stoves because the captain had been informed that gas cylinders were unobtainable in many places on our route, and that wood was virtually non-existent throughout Turkey and Iran.  I well remember meeting two Swiss boys who were traveling to India on a Vespa and had planned to buy food on their way and cook it on bonfires.  Since there was no wood lying about in the treeless wilds of Anatolia they were almost starving – they had to fill themselves up in restaurants in the towns they came through and had hardly any money left.

Primus stoves are so fierce that the ideal pot to use on them is a pressure cooker.  I used to cook our supper in one every night, so that we could usually eat within an hour of setting up camp.  We eventually got rather bored with  the mutton we bought in the Turkish bazaars and thought that chicken would be a welcome change.  Accordingly, when we came to a town called Nevsehir, crowned by an Ottoman fortrss, we tried to make some men understand that we wanted to buy some poultry, but they took us to the police station!  There we began to flap our arms up and down and cluck loudly, and everyone laughed and understood perfectly…

...We now found ourselves in the most extraordinary landscape in the middle of Cappadocia: for about twenty miles through a valley, erosion has left huge cones about a hundred feet high, some of which look like decaying teeth, others like towers, needles and pyramids formed of ashes and rock.  These are collectively known as the Rock-cut Monasteries of Cappadocia because, during the seventh and eighth centuries whole communities of Christians settled in the area and cut out of the rock churches and monasteries which they decorated with wall paintiungs.

We found a wonderful camp site at the head of the valley in a small sandy field with superb views…
But to return to our supper picnic on the evening of our arrival.  I decided to prepare a supreme de volaille by cooking the elderly tough little chickens in the pressure cooker, and the rice in an open saucepan on the other stove.  After half an hour I wanted to let the pressure down quickly so that I could get on with making the sauce out of the stock.  In the centre of a pressure cooker is a weight; when you lift it off it makes a violent hissing sound which always terrifies me, so I asked the captain if he dared to do it.  He immediately removed not just the weight but the whole lid, whereupon the cooked birds leaped high into the air and disappeared in the inky blackness of a moonless night!

We were all mad with disappointment at being thus deprived of what had promised to be one of the most gastronomically exciting picnics of our journey, but we did not give up hope.  For the next twenty minutes we all crawled about on our hands and knees and, with the aid of two very feeble torches, we finally ran them to earth – quite literally, for they were covered with the dusty grey soil of the region.  Undaunted, we plunged them into a bucket of water and, while the girls washed and jointed them, I made a delicious sauce supreme with fat, flour, the stock a little dried milk powder, and the juice of half a lemon.

We finally sat down in a circle round our old hurricane lamp to a scrumptious meal of chicken and rice and sauce and green beans that we had bought in the market at Nevsehir, followed by delicious little white grapes and all washed down by unadulterated spring water.  Water in Turkey is famous for its excellence.

I think our Cappadocian chicken picnic was the best we had on the whole trip, all the more for being so hard won.  I was also very proud of the jam roly-poly I made when we were allowed to camp in the harem of Xerxes in Persepolis but that, as Kipling would say, is another story..."

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