Then we went out to see the Maras peppers in the field. Strolling through the rather haphazard rows, a grower explained the timeless appeal of his product. “This dry climate, which has just enough rain, is ideal for them,” he said proudly. “That, and the soil, give them their flavor. People have grown them in other places, but they don’t taste the same.”
Just then a man dressed in a short-sleeved white shirt and gray pants walked briskly across the field to join us. Kemal Belpınar turned out to be from a local branch of the Turkish Ministry of Agriculture, and he excitedly told me about possible future projects: increasing the crop by using hybrid seeds from Spain; starting the peppers in the richer soil of Adana and transplanting them here; perhaps even adopting a method pioneered by the Israelis of treating the peppers with chemicals so they all ripen simultaneously and therefore can be picked by machine.
Despite my efforts to appear approving, I think he saw the dismay in my face. To me, it seems like they are starting down a path—standardization, mechanization, selecting and growing plants for ease of harvesting and shipping rather than for flavor—that we in the United States went down long ago and are now trying to reverse.
But there is no evidence of this trend in Yaylak. As we drive into the village, we see no other cars, only donkey-drawn carts. Indeed, the sole mechanical device immediately in evidence is a kind of oversize meat grinder set up on the porch of a tiny store. This, it seems, is for making salça.
I ask what preparation is necessary before the peppers are dumped into the grinder. After a long, muttered conversation among several of the men, we are led into an interior courtyard. There, a group of women (noticeably absent from the small crowd that has gathered in front of the store) sit around a cloth spread out on the dirt. Grabbing peppers from piles behind them, they split them open with a whack of a wooden mallet, clear out the seeds with their fingers, then rip the peppers in half and toss them into blue plastic buckets. Visibly uneasy in our presence, they nevertheless work with the grace and fluidity born of repeating the same motions they have made tens of thousands of times before.
When the buckets are full, the men take them around to the front of the building, where a boy of about 16 switches on the grinder. He begins to dump in the peppers, and almost instantly my lungs are seared with fumes so harsh that even when I walk 20 feet away, I can’t stop coughing. It’s like the vegetable equivalent of tear gas. The boy, meanwhile, calmly feeds bucket after bucket of peppers into the maw of the grinder, not so much as blinking at the fumes.
The next step on the road to salça will be to add a bit of olive oil to the puréed peppers, then spread the mixture out in large round metal pans on the rooftops, where it will dry and thicken in the sun over several days as it is scraped and turned. “It is the sun that gives our peppers their sweetness and that dries the paste,” says Aksoy. Finally, salt and extra-virgin olive oil are stirred in, and the coarse paste is ready to eat.
I am promised a taste, but first there is another stop. “They are going to slaughter a lamb for you in Hacılar,” Aksoy announces. Only strenuous protests manage to persuade him to call and dissuade our hosts. But when we arrive, after a stroll through another field of drying peppers, we are ushered into the home of a village elder. There, in a large room layered with thick carpets and lined with pillows, the boys of the family lay out a feast: fresh-killed chicken, its flavor astonishingly deep and clean; rice pilaf larded with currants and pine nuts; still-warm whole-wheat flatbread with an amazing texture, at once grainy and tender; thick homemade yogurt studded with cucumber from the garden outside the door; çoban salatası, the classic “shepherd’s salad,” here flavored with sweet-sour pomegranate molasses; a huge platter of sweet green grapes; the salted yogurt drink known as ayran; and, of course, tea. It is only after we begin eating that we remember that this is Ramadan, and none of our hosts are able to share so much as a glass of water along with us. Yet they urge us to eat. “We like people with an appetite,” says one of the man’s sons.
It is an incredible meal, and an equally inspiring setting. I ask Aksoy about the room, much fancier than the rest of the dwelling. “It is the misafirhane, the guest chamber,” he replies. “This is where peace is created. When a guest comes, they give everything they have.”
After we leave the room and start to say good-bye, another boy comes to us with a small bowl of salça. I take a dab and put it in my mouth. There is no heat, just an unusually sweet and pure version of the Maras’s bright flavor, with a slightly musky, vegetal undertone. In a second, though, the heat blooms, not just in the back of my throat but throughout my mouth. It’s not intense, but it’s strong enough to make me laugh. The villagers gathered around all laugh, too, an expression of shared pleasure but also of pride. This is perhaps the best gift they could have given—my obsession has been justified.