Friday 27 March 2009


Something you have to know about the way Turks consume alcohol is that, similar to the Spanish, it's rarely done without some kind of food. Even a local bar will usually provide a snack next to your beer. Drinking without eating is seen as uncouth. The most common accompaniments to a drinking session are salted popcorn or cerez.

Popcorn we all know and love. It has a heroin-like addictive quality, costs nothing and the salt ensures you're perpetually thirsty. All perfect ingredients for a landlord to guarantee you'll keep quaffing booze.

The alternative to popcorn is cerez (pronounced cherez). This is simply a general term for nuts of any kind. Though more expensive than popcorn, nuts are equally addictive and thirst provoking. Yet nuts are somehow classier. More importantly, nuts are entertainment. I'll explain...

Put a bowl of mixed nuts in the middle of several groups of drinkers and I bet the order of consumption will be identical. I will now go through the order and identify each nut:

1. The pistachio
King of the mixed nut bowl. Tasty, expensive and nail-breakingly entertaining. Put two bowls on a table. One filled with shelled and one with unshelled pistachios. I promise everyone will want to pull them apart themselves. Why? Because the process of breaking them open is fun! OK sometimes part of the shell gets under your nail and spears salt into your flesh but that's the gamble. Pre-shelled don't taste as good - fact! Pre-shelled don't seem as fresh - fact!

There's no doubt the pistachios are first to be picked out of the bowl of mixed nuts because, ultimately, everyone knows they're the most expensive.

2. The peanut
Usually extremely salty and still wrapped in their paper-thin, brown jackets, the peanuts are a welcome alternative to the rich, complicated pistachio. You can flick these directly into your mouth without taking your eyes off the belly dancer.

Most Turks will, however, roll them between their fingers over an ashtray to remove the salty casing but this is really just a token gesture to a healthier lifestyle.

I did once go to a nightclub where tables were given monkey nuts. My god, you should have seen the excitement. Half an hour into the night, the floor was covered in shells and the bowls empty. Something so simple yet memorable. We must have washed down a couple of kilos on our table of four alone.

3. The cashew
Rarely found in your average bar. These are supremely expensive. Shelled by far eastern toddlers and flown over individually, they cost a premium and so seldom seen. This is the truffle of the bar snack.

4. The Almond
Turks so want to peel these but can't so they take them home and soak them in water. Personally I just shovel them in. But the problem with almonds is they can get a little sickly. You've got to pace yourself. If you're ever on a Turkish drinking binge and you begin to feel queasy, it's the almonds. Honest.

5. Roasted sweetcorn
Yep, you've never heard of them and actually they're relatively new to Turkey. These are corn kernels roasted with spices. Morish, crispy and delicious. However, because of their distinctive taste and crunch, those unaware of their presence in a bowl of cerez can often looked a little startled.

6. The hazelnut
Turkish hazelnuts are enormous. I remember Christmases at home with a bowl of hazelnuts and a nutcracker. All that hard, dangerous work and the reward was a tiny, chewy, pea-like nut. In Turkey, you need a sledgehammer and a welding mask. One of these bad boys could feed a family for a week.

I can't remember if I told you the story of the Black Sea sailors who were moored in Kusadasi harbour last winter to dig an underwater trench. My nan took pity on them and started sending me down to their ship with tea and soup. After a few days bags of hazelnuts began to appear tied to my nan's front door. The reason was, the Black Sea coast is famous of hazelnuts and, by all accounts, the sailors cabins were stupid with them.

7. The sunflower seed
OK this isn't exactly found in the bowl of mixed cerez. Sunflower seeds are usually something served at home while watching 'Deal or no Deal'.

I have fond memories of years watching Newsnight with my parents. My dad cracking away at a bowl of sunflower seeds and my mum perpetually complaining about the 'monkey-like' noise. Happy days.

8. The pumpkin seed
OK now we're back on track with the mixed cerez. These are a classic inclusion. Much like the pistachio, these provide Kinder Surprise style entertainment for the alcoholic.

To open, the pumpkin seed is place sideways (sharp end first) between the front teeth. Clamping down forces the seed to start opening. Then while the seed is partially open, a special tongue (similar to a budgie's and one only found in Turks) darts into the shell and scoops out the seed. I am successful in 1 in 76 attempts. Usually I get frustrated and eat the whole sodding thing, shell and all.

9. The white chickpea
Surprisingly hard. After each one there's always the question "what broke there? The nut or my tooth?". It's your average chickpea in a suit of armour. Be aware that, when eating these, your lips will turn white with powder. This is important if you're in a venue with UV lighting.

10. The brown chickpea
Famously, the cerez choice of Ataturk. Most Turks, however, tend to leave this particular nut until last. Easy to eat but tastes like grouting. If eaten in quantities exceeding 4, the mouth can become dangerously arid leading to a need for immediate lubrication.

Did you ever imagine there was so much hidden in the bowl of mixed nuts sitting in the middle of your bar table? Forrest Gump once said that 'life is like a box of chocolates'. Well my cousin offered me a Turkish translation as I drifted into my early thirties a single man. "Billy", she said "girls are like a bowl of cerez. First the pistachios are taken. Then the peanuts, hazelnuts and almonds. As you hit your late twenties, the remaining pumpkin seeds begin to dwindle until all you're left with is a bowl of brown chickpeas. But if you look carefully you'll find a few pistachios that no one has been able to prise open". There's hope for us yet.

So there you have it, the tradition of cerez. You should now be armed with enough information to look like a native as you plough into your 18 pints of Efes Pilsner in your Nottingham Forest football shirt before climbing onto the bar for a swift Macarena.

Personally I can't eat them. They give me awful gas.