Through the Grain Fields of Kars

Written by Katie Parla on August 3, 2013

semsa kars
Şemsa channeling her inner Ceres.

Today I profiled a Milan fashion blogger for a British publication. Already under normal circumstances, a puff piece like this would have driven me to the verge self-harm. But in light of my recent visit to Kars, the profound pointlessness of the aforementioned subject was even more acute. Writing something that truly does not matter takes me to a dark place.

The only solace I found while writing empty words about a vapid person was that I could later turn my attention to this post. Perhaps I won’t do justice to my experience in Kars; I am still processing the gravity of the days I spent in and around that remote Anatolian town. But at least I will be writing about people, places and things that matter.

allium kars
A lone allium flower among the emmer.

When I landed in Kars last week, the place immediately felt familiar. At first I thought the sensation was brought on by sleep deprivation. My mind was racing, I hadn’t slept for 30 hours and I had taken four flights to reach the small town in far eastern Turkey. And this was after 4 days of partying researching wines at L’Auberge de Chassignolles. Frankly, I felt a bit insane. But in the days that followed, I realized the familiarity was real. I had met Kars before.

My introduction came in the form of Şemsa Denizsel’s sourdough bread. Loaves of the stuff have crossed my lips, sometimes slathered in butter, or soaked in glistening sweetbread fat, once with sliced tongue and horseradish and many times toasted and fashioned around melted ewe’s milk cheese. In each case, the bread was made from the stone ground wheat of Kars. The place was already part of me.

ilhan abi kars
İlhan Bey taking a break among rows of red barley.

Şemsa, the chef and owner of Kantin in Istanbul (not to mention my therapist, personal shopper and sister-mom), recently embarked on an ambitious bread program. Her flatbreads and sourdoughs are exceptional and the product of research at her restaurant in Nişantaşı and baking facility in Fulya. Şemsa’s insistence on high quality, small production organic flour made from heirloom wheats led her to İlhan Koçulu, a Kars native, cheese producer, museum curator and biodiversity activist.

Şemsa appealed to İlhan Bey to show her Kars’ grain fields. She invited her staff along, as well as Tuba and me. During our time in Kars, İlhan Bey guided us through the grain fields, intensifying our intimacy with heirloom wheats with each passing stride. Literally. Wheat infiltrated every item of clothing and, in some cases, beyond.

ilhan abi field
İlhan Bey collects wheat in the fields.

This intimacy was exactly what we were after. “Ever since I started baking bread, I have wanted to see the place where it comes from,” Şemsa explained. “I wanted to walk in the fields and touch the whole grains with my hands. I wanted to put the wheats side by side and see their differences and unique qualities.” When Kantin receives shipments from Kars, the grains have already been stone-ground at a water powered mill. This trip gave her and her team the opportunity to feel and see their raw materials.

miller kars
The miller with his simple but efficient machines.

But above all, the trip restored our hope in (to quote environmental journalist and force of nature Simran Sethi) conservation through consumption and the prospect that small economies can benefit from traditional agriculture. Thanks to the Anatolia Foundation and the support of people like İlhan Bey and Şemsa, 400 families and 12,000 acres of land are dedicated to growing certified organic heirloom wheats; these figures have more than doubled since the Foundation launched their grain campaign in 2007.

semsa grains
Total rock star.

You can support the movement, too, wherever you are, by eating food made and grown by real people on clean land. And if that pursuit isn’t more important than tips on where to find vintage Prada in Milan, then I don’t know what is.

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