Dining and Traveling in Marmaris Turkey
While exploring Marmaris, Turkey, I drove slowly, trailing a woman pulling a wheeled trolley. It was Thursday and I hoped her destination was the weekly market that had drawn me to this tidy resort city on the southwestern coast of Turkey.
Soon h she merged into a stream of pedestrians flowing toward a concrete structure covering an entire city block. At 10:30 a.m. the Marmaris Thursday market was in full swing, arcades packed with shoppers perusing tables heaped with produce, cheeses under glass and seafood glinting in the sunlight.
I was traveling the region having been inspired by a cookbook, Aegean Flavours, written by Turkish chef Didem Senol, whose penchant for cooking in season is on display at her Istanbul restaurant, Lokanta Maya, and her tiny cafe there, Gram. Many of the book’s recipes are informed by the time Ms. Senol spent heading the kitchen at her father’s hotel, the Dionysos, on the Bozburun peninsula near Marmaris, where she shopped the city’s market and others in the region.
When a vendor knows you she’ll pull something special like a jam or a cheese from beneath her stall. And so we planned a spring trip centered on those markets, which are especially abundant with foraged leafy vegetables this time of year, and the restaurants that best make use of them.
But just 10 days before our trip Ms. Senol, seven months pregnant, e-mailed that her doctor had nixed travel. She urged me to go anyway, guided by introductions and a list of her favorite spots.
I flew from Istanbul to Izmir and drove the easy 154 miles south to Marmaris, where I met Ms. Senol’s father, Ahmet, and his wife, Rim, at the market.
While Ahmet bought seafood for lunch, Rim and I shopped. Spring was in full bloom: thumb-size morels and globe artichokes hung by their stems over mounds of young favas and peas. There were bunches of mallow, cress, purslane, dandelion, nettles and chicory, and bundles of pencil-thin wild asparagus.
A heady perfume hung over a row of wooden bins filled with strawberries. We tasted pine and flower honeys, and I bought half a dozen Marmaris pogaca, flaky rectangles filled with mild fresh cheese. It was an auspicious beginning to my quest.
After a 45-minute drive along a corkscrew road, I arrived at Dionysos, where Ahmet and his staff were readying lunch, a test run for the season’s start in three weeks. At a table set outside the kitchen we ate smoked mackerel pâté and early pink tomatoes dressed with purple basil and Dionysos’ own cold-pressed olive oil; kirmizi karades (the shrimp I’d spied at the market) in a light, bright tomato sauce; and sole fillets, rolled and skewered with bay leaves and lemon and grilled over wood.
Almonds, another Aegean crop, flavored ice cream served with strawberries. “Not quite there yet,” Rim said of the strawberries, pushing her plate aside, though I finished mine.
The next day I backtracked toward Marmaris and turned south for Selimiye, a fishing hamlet curled around a glassy bay. After several passes I found Sardunya, a low-key restaurant (there is no signage) right on the water, with comfortable rooms set around a fruit tree-shaded garden behind.
At sunset I sat by the water and sampled a dozen meze. The most memorable featured vegetables I’d coveted in Marmaris: turp otu (wild radish leaves) blanched with vinegar; earthy chard; samphire cooked to retain its bite and dressed with lemon, crushed garlic and Mr. Ozdenir’s own olive oil; and sari kiz otu, a bitter green tamed by sweet caramelized onions. Grilled octopus straight off a neighbor’s boat, served simply in a pool of olive oil and dusted with dried thyme, was as yielding as butter.
Saturday brought the longest leg of my trip, but first I detoured to Datca, on an arid peninsula just north of Bozburun. After passing acres of almond groves, I found the Saturday market, where cagla, the tart, crispy green almonds that enjoy a sliver of a season, were sold next to bags of mature nuts and almond-stuffed oven-dried figs. I cobbled together a picnic — Bergama cheese, dense village bread, tomatoes and unsalted black olives — and hit the road for Urla, a one-street town with a cozy harbor on the Cesme peninsula, some 230 miles north.
In the morning I met Ahmet’s school friend Hasan Yamanlar for Urla’s fish auction, which happens every morning (weather permitting) beneath an octagonal canopy steps from the boats. Then I walked five minutes to what Ms. Senol had described as “one of the most inspiring markets” she’d ever seen.
More surprises awaited that night at Yengec restaurant on Urla’s harbor, popular for its tremendous meze selection. Trying all 102 was out of the question, so I picked a few: nettles “cooked” in isot pepper, wild fennel simply dressed with lemon, and kaya korugu, a succulent known in English as rock samphire, brined in verjus.
In ancient Tire, an inland town some 25 miles from Ephesus, my guides at the Tuesday market, said to be Turkey’s largest, were the Cakirs — father Lutfi and son Serkan — of Kaplan Dag Restoran. Twenty years ago Lutfi, an accomplished baker of breads and pastries, opened the restaurant on a hill above town and began serving local cuisine, which bears influences from Crete.
As I followed him through the upper narrow lanes along which the market spread, vendors with 50-pound sacks of wild greens beckoned.
At Kaplan Dag I helped prep the sevketi bostan, a spiny thistle I’d become somewhat obsessed with after sightings at every market on my itinerary; it would be boiled, mixed with lamb and enriched with avgolemono.
At lunch the dish, which highlights the unique flavor of the thistle — it fell somewhere between artichoke and asparagus — complemented cold meze: rice-stuffed squash blossoms; a surprising salad of uncooked nettles mixed with chiles, tomato, whey cheese and dried mint; roasted small onions dressed with olive oil and sprinkled with dried thyme and piney melengec leaves. Tire kofte — minced beef molded to a skewer, grilled and then sautéed with tomatoes, crushed red pepper and plenty of butter.
Dessert was milky fresh ricotta-like lor topped with sweet mulberry preserves. If I returned in the summer, Serkan said, I’d find a vendor at the Tuesday market selling cups of snow collected from the top of a nearby mountain and drizzled with syrup made from the same fruit. I was already plotting my return to this enchanting city.
IF YOU GO
Reservations are recommended on weekends and during the summer high season (May to October).
Dionysos Hotel (Kumlubuk; 90-252-476-7959; Dionysoshotel.com.tr). Restaurant reservations required. Daily prix fixe about 115 Turkish lira a person, $51 at 1.60 lira to the dollar, including wine.
Sardunya (Selimiye; 90-252-446-4003). Meal for two, without drinks, about 100 lira.
Yengec (Urla Iskele, Izmir; 90-232-752-1152; yengec-restaurant.com). Meal for two, without drinks, about 105 lira.
Kaplan Dag Restoran (Kaplan Village, Tire; 90-232-512-6652; kaplandag.com). Meal for two, without drinks, about 75 lira.