Poppies: A sight to savour

 

by Recep Peker Tanıtkan

 

 

 

A feast for the eye – and indeed for the stomach – awaits visitors to a swathe of provinces in western Anatolia. This is the ancestral home of the delightful opium poppy, grown here not for the ambiguous pharmaceutical properties of its pod but for the wholesome nourishment of its seeds.

 

 

Crimpled crepe petals - bright red or patchy white, pink and magenta - fussing around bright contrasting organs above serrated fingery foliage. A single flower on a proud upright stem up to 1.5m high. Neither a giant of nature nor a dwarf, yet instantly recognisable as papaver somniferum – the opium poppy. An annual plant of delicate beauty which has forged enormous strategic, sociological and medicinal upheavals over the centuries. And nowhere more at home than in Turkey, where whole fields in bloom continue to offer a striking early summer spectacle.

 

The flower will make way for a bluish or greyish green capsule or pod. Scratched with a knife or needle at 1-3 weeks, the pod yields a milky substance which soon stiffens and hardens and can be processed further to obtain opiates like morphine – also the raw material for heroin – and codeine.

 

The poppy is considered to be native to Southeast Europe and Western Asia, from where its cultivation and use notoriously spread eastward with the assistance of Alexander the Great and later Arab traders. Today it is legally sown and harvested in several inland provinces of western Turkey – and above all in the province of Afyonkarahisar, which takes the afyon in its name from the Turkish word for opium.

 

From Hittites to heroin

 

The language of the Sumerians suggests that the poppy plant was known as long ago as 5000BC. From the second century BC onwards, the plant is said to have been traded by Egyptians and the sea peoples of Cyprus. On display at Afyonkarahisar Museum are stone reliefs and even coins bearing illustrations of the poppy, allegedly remaining from the time of the Hittites.

 

Poppy cultivation was first described by botanic pioneer Theophrastus (372-287 BC). In classical times, preparations of opium were used as sedatives and soporifics by sovereigns and the privileged classes. Towards the end of the second millenium, medical applications multiplied, particularly after the isolation of morphine in 1803. But at the same time widespread “recreational” use caused social problems in Europe and Asia. In the mid-nineteenth century, Britain went to war with declining imperial China over opium trading “rights”. In 1874, heroin was invented. The 20th century brought systematic control of narcotic drugs.

 

Age of prohibition

 

In Turkey, poppy cultivation and production was prohibited in 1971 but renewed in a controlled way in 1974-75. Cultivation is permitted under licence in fifteen provinces, but 75% of poppies are grown in Afyonkarahisar, Burdur, Eskişehir, Isparta, Kütahya and Uşak. Even the cultivation of the poppy as an indoor plant is subject to authorization. The scratching of the poppy plant and production of opium paste has been abandoned, and the success of the policy has been held up as a model for the world.

 

Given a modicum of heat and light, the lighter-coloured poppies of the kind common in Turkey yield the best afyon for use as an analgesic, antispasmodic, soporific, anesthetic antidiarrheal or antitussive. But the plants are tradditionally grown here for the culinary virtues of their seeds and oil.

 

Culinary uses

 

Poppy seeds – haşhaş or, locally in Afyonkarahisar, Kütahya and Uşak, haşgeş - are most commonly encountered as a nutty flavouring for breads, pastries and other sweet and savoury delicacies. Most pastane will have such items in stock, but the home baking of the Turkish poppy belt takes some beating.

 

A twisted pastry roll filled wıth a lentil, potato or cheese mixture and smeared in poppy seed oil before cooking is known in Eskişeshir as haşhaşlı dolama. Similarly, in the Afyonkarahisar district of Emirdağ and its environs, a napsack-shaped börek known as bükme, is made out of baklava-style flaky pastry which has been poppy-oiled, folded and shaped prior to the addition of a filling of boiled lentils, salt and spices. A variation known as ağzıaçık is usually filled with cheese and watercress.

 

Bread and jam

 

The same unique taste is to be encountered in lokur , a speciality bread enriched with walnut and poppy-seed sold in Afyonkarahisar and Eskişehir. For those with a sweet tooth, a haşhaş “halva” is produced by mixing the seeds with molasses which has been thickened over heat, then beating dollops of the mixture between flat stones to crush the seeds and produce thin, rollable slices.

 

Only the imagination limits the uses to which the poppy plant can be put, from a hot poppy brew or the faintly bitter fragrance of a deep pink poppy jam to soaps and cosmetics enriched with poppy seed oil.

 

 

 

(DIPLOMAT  - June 2005 -  Ankara)