Tag: star of the east

The eternal city on two continents: Istanbul, part 1

© CartoonStock

For this year’s vacation Ellen and I were supposed to go to beautiful Burgundy, France. Already in January I rented a nice, rustic holiday house there where I (of course) could smoke inside. About a week before leaving I took a look at several weather websites and was not amused. Auwtsch, it was going to be rainy every day in Burgundy and even colder than in The Netherlands… I told Ellen and immediately her face became like the weather it was going to be. I don’t mind sitting inside somewhere for a week. There was a hearth, I could smoke, read etc. But Ellen needs to be able to go out, take long walks and she hates rain. Later that day she sneered that in Seville (where we have been before) it was going to be sunny and warm. Ok, that did it for me. I cancelled the holiday house and went searching for a location where the weather would be better. Seville was an option but we had been there before (twice) and the flight times were very inconvenient. Then I thought about a place I always wanted to visit, the eternal city on two continents (Europe and Asia), formerly known as Byzantium and Constantinople: Istanbul. It ticked all the boxes. It was going to be sunny and warm there, lots of things to do and see (after all I have a love for the (romantic) Middle East) and the flight was not too long. Ellen immediately said yes when I proposed it.

© Tobaccoreviews

Day 1
In the train on the way to Schiphol Airport I closed my eyes and imagined I was on the once famous Orient Express. Which got me slightly annoyed because the evening before I had turned my tobacco closet upside down in order to find a tin of Cornell & Diehl Star of the East Flake (with beautiful artwork of the Orient Express with mosques on the background) I thought I had to take with me. Sadly I could not locate it so instead I went for a tin of Sutliff Bosphorus Cruise. Also very fitting. In the plane I already got in the Middle Eastern mood. Ellen and I were sitting in the same row but the seat in the middle of us was taken by a very handsome young Muslim woman, wearing elegant clothes and a headscarf. When we were up high in the blue sky the sun was scorching the aircraft, it became hotter inside. Suddenly the woman began taking off her first layer of clothing and then even a second. Out of respect I did not plainly look but in the corner of my eye I could see she was doing it in a way so that she retained her dignity as a Muslimah. She even did not remove her headscarf! And her odour.. She smelled like exotic spices mixed with only a hint of musky sweat. I am a bit ashamed to say this but it almost was an erotic experience. Later she fell asleep practically against my shoulder, so sweet.

View from the roof terrace of the Dersaadet Hotel

When we arrived at Sabiha Gökçen Airport the best option to go to the hotel was to get a taxi. Sadly Turkish cab drivers are well known to try to scam foreigners. I wished there was an app like the Bluebird one I had in Bali where you could order a taxi, see which driver you were going to get, afterwards leave a review and get a mail in which you saw the route you drove and the amount of money you paid. We took the first cab we saw and crossed our fingers. Luckily taxis in Turkey are not expensive. The starting tariff is 4.50 Turkish Lira (± €0.65) and per km 2.50 Lira (± €0.35). I very roughly knew the route we had to take, the E80 highway to Istanbul, about 1 hour and 50 km to the hotel. After almost 1.5 hours, 73 km and going over some toll-road (which we of course also had to pay) we finally arrived at our destination: Hotel Dersaadet. Which I had picked because of good ratings/reviews and the central location in Sultanahmet, the old city. At the reception desk my foul mood about the cab-ride disappeared like a puff of smoke. We were welcomed warmly with a hot glass of apple flavoured çay (tea) and some Turkish delight sweets. If I had any stress left it went away when I later smoked a pipe on the panoramic roof terrace of the hotel with stunning views of the Sea of Marmara and the Asian side of Istanbul.

Hippodrome

Day 2
We had a busy but exciting day ahead of us since we were going to visit some of the major old “highlights” of the city. Normally a long time before the trip I would have read everything I could find about the subjects in such a way that I was able to almost professionally guide Ellen and myself through them. But now I only had less than a week and besides, I am on holiday, come on, no need to extra pressure my brain there. So before we left via a tip from the hotel I booked a private tour guide for a day, the charming miss Didem Tan. We met in the morning in the hotel and she said “You are a rare breed nowadays. Very few Dutch come here now. These days it are more Russians and Asian people.” Which could be correct because on the streets we heard a lot of Russian and saw many Asians. The reason I kept more or less before me, politics is not a nice subject.. First on the to-go list was the ancient Hippodrome which is now called Sultanahmet Meydanı (Sultan Ahmet Square). Only a few fragments survive today under which the mighty Obelisk of Theodosius, the stripped Walled Obelisk and the mysterious Serpent Column, brought from the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. We came to Istanbul during Ramadan so the square was covered with wooden benches and tables where people could enjoy the iftar (the evening meal with which Muslims end their daily Ramadan fast) at sunset. Next was the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, better known as the Blue Mosque. I was really looking forward seeing it having recently watched the Turkish Netflix The Protector series where you see some great shots of the breathtaking building. Sadly the outside and especially the inside were under heavy renovation which totally killed any magical vibe. Almost nothing from the beautifully decorated ceiling and walls could be seen.

Hagia Sophia

For me one of the highlights of the trip was seeing and visiting the magnificent Hagia Sophia. When I was a boy I had art class on high school and one of the subjects was architecture. There I heard the story of the building and saw pictures, which totally mesmerized me. Some of the perks of having a licensed private guide in Istanbul is than you can bypass waiting queues, which speeds up the process of visiting something tremendously. We were quickly inside and one of the first things you see is the large Emperor Door, which is said to have been made out of wood from Noah’s Ark, with above it a brilliant mosaic of Christ as Pantocrator. Then when you go over the molten wax looking doorstep you walk into the jaw-dropping building’s main space. Famous for its dome, huge nave, marble pillars (some come from the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), gold mosaics and coverings of great artistic value. In fact it is so richly and artistically decorated (I also loved the two large alabaster Hellenistic urns that were transported from Pergamon) that I could easily understand why emperor Justinian proclaimed: “Solomon, I have outdone thee!” I won’t go further into describing Hagia Sophia, you just will have to see it for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.

Imperial Hall

Next on the list was the subterranean Basilica Cistern, which you can know from movies like From Russia with Love and Inferno. Normally you can see the mysterious mirror reflection of the 336 columns in the water but due to an ongoing renovation it was all dry.. Luckily the eerie, dark atmosphere, otherworldly Hen’s Eye column and the Medusa head column bases made up for it. Our bellies grumbled a bit so it was time for lunch. Didem directed us to the famous Pudding Shop (Lale Restaurant) where we had an ok meal. Personally I thought the food was not that great and the price was on the high side. Soon we were off to the last and biggest stop of the day, the enormous Topkapı Palace, the main residence and administrative headquarters of the Ottoman sultans. Having seen Muslim architecture at the Alcázar of Seville, Mezquita of Córdoba and the Alhambra in Granada (Ok, all examples of Moorish architecture, not Ottoman architecture, but nonetheless..) my expectations were almost off the scale. Skilfully we were guided by Didem through the vast complex. Renovation seemed to be a keyword here also because parts of the Harem and Imperial Treasury were closed. Damned, I really wanted to see the famous Topkapı Dagger, the ebony, walnut and gold-plated thrones, the valuable Spoonmaker’s Diamond etc. etc. Oh well.. Despite that there was more than enough to look at. Like the Pipe Room of the Tressed Halberdiers (consisting both of servants used to provide general services to the palace and the Harem and of soldiers forming a part of the sultan’s household troop) where puppets with chibouk pipes were placed. Of course the Imperial Hall was impressive with all the beautiful decorations under which blue-white Dutch ceramics. One of the strangest rooms was where the relics were kept. There the Qur’an was being recited continuously by a mufti and you went like “Oh, there’s Moses’s Staff, and there David’s Sword, oh, a footstep, tooth and hair from Muhammad!” It all felt a bit unreal walking past those legendary relics.

A very rare sight, Ellen smoking!

After the tour we were knackered but satisfied, Didem did a great job. Later that evening we went out or dinner. One of the downsides of being in the heart of the tourist district is that there are many (often foreigner catered) places to eat who range from “mwah” to “ok”. A good one is hard to find and an excellent one, well, don’t make me laugh. Ellen and I walked some streets away from our hotel when on a corner we saw a nice looking restaurant with a small terrace beside it called Lale Sultan. Being tired from a day of sightseeing we decided to look no further and sit down there. And boy that was a good choice! The owner Mehmet and staff were friendly and with everything we ate we had something like, whoah, that’s tasty! On top of that we got a free dessert, çay and a trinket that wards off the evil eye. Needless to say that most of the other nights we went there. Afterwards I wanted to go for a nargile (waterpipe). Just past the Lale Sultan there was a café where we could sit, drink and smoke. It took a while for the staff to prepare the nargile but then I was in for some Middle Eastern smoking heaven. And not only me, even Ellen enjoyed it a while, a rare sight! Smoking a nargile is not that different from smoking a pipe. Once you get into a rhythm the (apple-flavoured) smoke comes evenly. After an hour of smoking I felt the nicotine creep up and we decided to go. Apparently an hour was a short time because when we had walked away I looked back and saw the staff enjoying the nargile I paid for. Oh well…

View from the boat

Day 3
The weather was a bit more clouded but ideal for a Bosphorus cruise! Ilhan from the hotel reception had it arranged together with me, very handy. I don’t like boats (seeing a boat passing by already makes me seasick) but Ilhan assured me it would be ok. At the end of the morning we were picked up by a small bus with other tourists, mainly noisy Russians all wearing the same “Istanbul” shirt. At the harbour we waited for the boat until we heard some music in the distance which quickly grew louder. It turned out to be our ship with hip Turkish techno music blasting at full volume out of the speakers. So far for my romantic idea of a quiet Bosphorus cruise. On the boat the noise luckily was turned down and the guide took over. With a funny accent he told us all about the sights we saw on the river banks. And I have to say, it was a relaxed trip, no sea sickness and the breeze was refreshing. There also was a photographer who took pictures of all the passengers. I got a bit suspicious (Didem told us that Turks never actually steal your money but certainly try to hustle it out of you) but Ellen thought it was fun. So to the amusement of an elderly Asian couple beside us (I already noticed in Bali that for some reason Asians find my fat bald head hilarious) we posed in all kind of manners.

View from Rumelihisarı fortress

After a while we moored at a jetty so we could visit the mighty Rumelihisarı fortress. The complex was commissioned in preparation for a planned Ottoman siege on the then-Byzantine city and build in only 4 months and 16 days. All by all it was nice to see and after some climbing the views were very good but to me it was not really noteworthy. Back in the boat the photographer approached us again. In the time that we visited Rumelihisarı he had printed out all the pictures he took and put them in a book which he gave us to see and moved to the other tourists. The photos were good but not that good that I would buy one. So I quickly took some snapshots of them with my smartphone. Later when the photographer came back I understood that 1 picture would cost us €7. €7!!! I can have a full meal for that money in Istanbul! I declined and did not feel like bargaining. But he had seen me taking pictures of the photographs and insisted I deleted those from my phone. Which I did, I showed it to him. What he did not know was that after I delete a picture it is saved for 30 days on my phone. Hah! I hustled the hustler! Don’t feel sad for the man, he sold many pictures to the noisy (and quickly getting pissed drunk) Russians. In the end when we had some more time to look at the snapshots we did not like a single one and I permanently deleted them all.

One of the entrances to the Grand Bazaar

When the cruise was done we were dropped off near the Spice Bazaar. In one of the streets there we had a tasty lunch consisting of a dürüm filled with döner kebab and some veggies and my first Türk kahvesi (Turkish coffee) of the trip. After that we went looking for the enormous Grand Bazaar because I wanted to buy some Meerschaum pipes. Finding the “covered market” is not too hard, just go towards the omnipresent Süleymaniye Mosque and almost directly beside it the bazaar is located. It was a weekday, Ramadan, but still the narrow streets and alleyways were bristling with activity. I had found a Meerschaum Pipe shop in the bazaar on internet but navigating there was a different story. I discovered that Google Maps did not really work in the covered market..

Looking at some Meerschaum pipes

After some walking and watching at all kinds of displayed wares I knew I was getting close. One of the salesmen saw I was looking for something and approached me so I asked him where the Meerschaum shop was. “Aaahhh, Meerschaum! Over there!” He pointed to a nearby small shop, basically a glass desk with some glass shelves behind it all filled with indeed, Meerschaum pipes. Not the one I was looking for but ok. When I asked Didem before about buying things in the bazaar she said to first compares prices if you wanted to buy something. Fine, I was not going to purchase anything there, I was just going to ask how much the pipes were. I had to buy 2, one for myself and another for pipe-smoking friend Mark who knew I was going to the Grand Bazaar. The salesman showed me some fine high quality block Meerschaum examples and I picked out 2. One beautifully decorated with a silver rim for me and one “golf-ball lookalike” for Mark. He gave me a price, saw my face and immediately made a “special” price. I calculated a bit in my head and thought “Fine, I now roughly now the prices.” I thanked the not so happy man (no one likes to see a customer go) and said I was going to look elsewhere.

The two Meerschaum pipes I bought with the tin of Bosphorus Cruise

A few turns later I finally found the shop I was looking for, but no one was there. The guy opposite it had the number of the salesman and called him. Soon he came and let me see his pipes. Some were very beautiful but all or too big or too small. In the end he smiled and asked me to follow him. “Ok, probably we go to his storeroom or something like that.” I thought. After some more turns I had to laugh out loud because he led me, and was pointing at, the first shop I visited where the salesman was grinning diabolically. Of course I had to then haggle down his “special” price. After a while of going back and forth I gave him my final amount. Nonono, I can’t do that, thisthatsuchandsuch etc. Fine, I shook his hand again and walked away. “Hooo!” I heard behind me “When I shake hands with someone that means the deal is done, I accept your price.” Yesssss!!! While feeling high from the bargain I was almost literally pulled in the shop of another vendor, his business was scarves. By chance I was looking for a light, summer one. I am not sure what happened then, it is all a bit blurry, but in the end I walked away with an in my eyes  beautiful scarf and an annoyed Ellen who said I paid way too much and that I should have listened to her…

Click here for part 2 in which I visit the Istanbul Pipe Club.

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Latakia Lover

Latakia

Latakia tobacco

Yes I admit.. I am a lover of the dark leaf that many pipe smokers love and even more wives and girlfriends hate: latakia. But I did not always like it..

fire_curedFirst something about latakia. What is NOT used in the process of making it is camel dung.. Many people think that because of the odour it gives when it is burned. Also latakia is not a ready tobacco. It is an oriental from which the leaves are hung above a smouldering fire so long that the leaves go from a light colour to dark brown or even black. Hence the name, the dark leaf.

Part of the Latakia port in 1935

Part of the Latakia port in 1935

Like so many things the discovery of latakia was unintentionally. Somewhere in the 1800’s in the northern part of Syria near the port city Latakia a bumper crop of tobacco was left in the storage attic of a house for many months where it was exposed to household fires and smoke. The following spring the unique flavouring and taste of the left behind tobacco was discovered. At the beginning of the 20th century latakia was used to spice up the then popular Turkish cigarettes. Later when ordinary domestic cigarettes rose in popularity the use of the dark leaf declined. Now it is only found in pipe tobacco blends.

There are 2 kinds of latakia: Syrian and Cyprian.

Shekk-el-bint leaves drying

Shekk-el-bint leaves drying

Syrian latakia is derived from a tobacco leaf known as “shekk-el-bint.” When it is harvest time the plant is cut and the leaves and flowers are laid on the ground to dry in the sun. When they have dried they are taken to storehouses, where they are smoked for a period of 13 to 15 weeks. The smoke is made by primarily using nearby hardwoods and pines, probably from the Baer forest, such as Aleppo pine, Turkey oak and Valonia oak. Also lesser amounts of other aromatic species like Lebanon cedar and Greek Juniper were used. When all is ready the tobacco is known as latakia and is referred to by the Syrians as “Abourihm,” which translates as “king of flavour”. Regarding taste Syrian latakia has a mellow, wine-like, wood-like character. Famous writer Charles Dickens was a big fan of Syrian latakia: “Syria provided the finest tobacco  in the world, the Latakia, in the neighbourhood of the ancient and renowned port of Laodicea (Latakia) at the foot of Mount Lebanon. And as Syria provides the finest tobacco in the world, the Prince of Syria, the Emir Bekir, had the reputation one most deservedly, of furnishing to his guests a pipe of tobacco far more complete than any which could be furnished by any rival potentate in the East.

Prime example of a blend with Cyprian latakia: Penzance

Prime example of a blend with Cyprian latakia: Penzance

Cyprian latakia comes from a Smyrna or Izmir-type tobacco plant that is known as “Yellow Cyprus.” The Yellow Cyprus leaves are harvested by de-stalking them and are made on long poles to be hung in a tobacco shed. The leaves are then smoked over open smouldering fires. These fires are made from hardwoods, some pine and aromatic shrubs and woods such as prickly cedar and myrtle. It has been reported that the Mastic shrub is primarily used in the smoke generation for Cyprian latakia. The following formula may approximate the shrubs and woods used for the fire/smoke-curing process: Mastic 90%, Myrtle 4%, Stone pine (this one or this one) 4%, Cypress 1%, Other 1%. The taste of Cyprian latakia is more assertive, sweet and leathery.

blendingWhen you mix latakia with other tobaccos you have to be careful. Although some others like to smoke it almost pure.. With percentages around 3% to 5% you just start to notice latakia. The sweetness of the Cyprian variant comes alive around 10%. The wine-like character of the Syrian variant begins to emerge at 10% to 12% until it dominates the blend around 30% to 35%. The maximum of Cyprian latakia is around 40% to 50%. However, higher percentages (60%) are possible but then a very skilful blending hand is needed.

Peterson Old Dublin

Peterson Old Dublin

I first read about latakia in Janneman’s Pijpenboek. I was growing a bit tired of all the aromatic tobaccos I was smoking. I wanted to taste something new. And I got just that.. My first choice of a mixture with latakia was Peterson Old Dublin simply because it was the only one that the Rokado tobacconist had in stock. At home I anxiously opened the tin and smelled the contents. Whooaahh!!! My nose went open instantaneously. What the……. “Does anyone smoke this??” I thought.. “Wel ok, let’s give it a try.” I picked a Peterson (how fitting), filled it up and lit it. Whooaahh again!! Like smoking wood from a fireplace! I did not really enjoy that first bowl but I was intrigued. After a couple of pipes I liked it a bit more but I still had some reservations. On a visit in Germany I bought a tin of Dunhill Nightcap. “Let’s try that one, maybe it is better.” Well, it was not.. Way too much nicotine for me at that point. I got sick and put the latakia mixture tins aside.

PS_BSA couple of months later a pipe of me was fixed by a fellow pipe-smoker from Belgium. As a payment he wanted tobacco in stead of money. I knew he liked latakia and I wanted to give him something special. So for the first time I ordered some blends from The States. Peter Stokkebye Balkan Supreme and McClelland 3 Oaks Syrian to be precise. Balkan Supreme came in a zip-lock bag which I put on a shelf in the kitchen. One evening I sat in the living room and suddenly I smelled something very nice. “What is that??” I wondered. I followed my nose to… The zip-lock bag with Balkan Supreme. Of course I could not smoke it, it was the payment for the fixed pipe. But when I visited the fellow pipe-smoker I asked if I could try the tobacco. And luckily I could. It was di-vine! Quickly I ordered a bag of Balkan Supreme for myself.

Old tin of Balkan Sobranie

Old tin of Balkan Sobranie

From then on my love of the dark leaf and the search for new (and vintage) latakia mixtures began. In the time that followed I was able to smoke classic vintage mixtures like Balkan Sobranie Original Mixture, Balkan Sobranie Mixture 759, State Express London Mixture, De Graaff Kegelbaan, Smoker’s Haven Exotique and many more.

Nowadays recommended latakia mixtures are:
– 4noggins: Britt’s Balkan
– Ashton: Artisan’s Blend*, Consummate Gentleman*
Balkan Sobranie Original Smoking Mixture (by J.F. Germain)
– Charles Faimorn: Lancer’s Slices
– Cornell & Diehl: Star of the East flake, Red Odessa
– DTM: Midnight Ride, Bill Bailey’s Balkan Blend, Old Ironsides
– Dunhill: Nightcap*, Early Morning Pipe*, Standard Mixture Mellow*, My Mixture 965*, London Mixture*
– Esoterica Tobacciana: Penzance, Margate
– GL Pease: Abingdon, Lagonda, Westminster, Odyssee, Samarra, Ashbury
– Hearth & Home: Magnum Opus
– HU Tobacco: Brullende Leeuw, Balkan Passion, My Special One, Olaf’s Favourite English, Khoisaan, Masai, Tuarekh, Tigray, Zulu
MacBaren HH Vintage Syrian
– McClelland: Frog Morton, Blue Mountain, Wilderness, Old Dog
Peterson Old Dublin*
– Peter Stokkebye: Balkan Sasieni, Balkan Supreme
Presbyterian Mixture
– Rattray: Black Mallory*, Red Rapparee*
– Robert McConnell: Scottish Blend*
– Samuel Gawith: Squadron Leader, Skiff Mixture, Perfection*
Sillem’s Black (one of the only aromatic latakia mixtures)
Solani Blend 779 Gold*

* Available in The Netherlands

UPDATE 15-06-2017:

IMG_0762

Cyprian pipe maker Yiannos Kokkinos and my friend

Recently a good friend of mine went on holiday to Cyprus. Amongst other things he wanted to score some Cyprian latakia. After a visit to pipe-maker Yiannos Kokkinos he was directed to the West of the island to a village called Neo Chorio. Because there, in the Akamas region between Neo Chorio and the town of Polis were the tobacco fields where the Yellow Cyprus was grown. WAS grown yes. Several locals said in interviews (my friend had an interpreter with him) that 10 to 15 years ago tobacco production stopped in Cyprus. According to them nowadays the “Cyprian” latakia is produced in the Izmir region of Turkey. Afterwards it is shipped to the Turkish part of Cyprus where it is sold to tobacco brokers as Cyprian latakia. Luckily the quality has not been compromised because of this, I mean, I have not hear anyone complaining that their Cyprian latakia blends tasted worse than before. This story has been confirmed by Per Jensen of MacBaren.