Unfazed by nine recent cavities and one root canal, I headed for Istanbul hell-bent on the sweet stuff. There were the occasional savory distractions out on the streets—wheeled carts piled with grilled-mackerel sandwiches or ring-shaped breads encrusted with sesame seeds—but my prime destination was Karaköy Güllüoğlu. Nadir Güllü, the fifth-generation keeper of the shrine to the greatest baklava in Turkey, greeted me with theatrical gestures in place of English. Head thrown back and eyes half-lidded in pleasure undimmed by decades of eating and making the national dessert, Nadir wafted the buttery perfume of his factory toward himself with athletic sweeps of his arms.
His staff—dusted white, down to their eyelashes, with the starch in the air—bowed with hand over heart as their boss imparted good wishes for the work ahead. In Turkey, this pastry commands arduous devotion. A “master” must pledge lifelong commitment, as serious as marriage, to baklava; to spread your efforts across multiple foods is considered a breach of loyalty. As Güllü told me, with a translator’s help: “The man who uses his hands is a laborer. The man who uses his mind is a master. But the man who gives his heart to the passion is a craftsman.”
And the person who has discovered that not all baklava is cardboard or mush—a revelation I’ve had living in Berlin, near the city’s robust Turkish community—is likely a zealot. At Güllü’s urging, I helped him lay down sheet after sheet of silk-like dough on a buttered tray. “Very, very, very,” he chanted amid streams of rapid Turkish, his way of conveying the extreme care taken by a baklava maker at every stage of the process. The dough must be rolled so thin that a newspaper could be read through it. The butter must come from sheep grazing at high altitudes. Temperatures—of the room, oven, syrup—must be adjusted according to the weather. Experts recommend that workers shower every two hours during the summer to avoid overheating the room.
Most important, the pistachios must be grown in the magic climes of Gaziantep and plucked from the tree before they’re ripe, to deliver their subtle aroma and tender, sweet essence. (Local folklore holds that during one government official’s visit to Antep, as the city is sometimes called, he was served soup, rice, baklava, and ice cream—all with pistachios. “Can I please have a glass of water without pistachio?” he said.) All around me in Güllü’s kitchen, piles of Kermit-green grounds—Karaköy Güllüoğlu uses almost 400 pounds a day—glowed with chemical intensity against the gray countertops.
I would have liked to make the pilgrimage to the revered birthplace of fıstık (the Turkish word for “pistachio,” which is also slang for “hot babe”), but Gaziantep lay more than 500 miles away, in southeastern Turkey.
And there was much to learn from Murat, Güllü’s 26-year-old son, who helps with the business. Spear the pastry with your fork, Murat instructed, and you should hear the top layers—crackly and paper-thin, separated by pockets of air—crashing into each other. Probe deeper, and discover resistance where pistachios and layers of dough sit glutted with syrup: a precarious blend of delicacy and sticky density.
Later that March day, teeth still throbbing from the sugary extravagances of the morning, I stumbled upon a rally against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian party—a reminder that pastries aren’t exactly a priority for a country in domestic political turmoil and in international limbo, its long quest for membership in the European Union still stymied. But baklava is facing its share of travails, too. The green gold, now in short supply, has become a contentious commodity. In the past year, the price of Antep pistachios has approximately doubled, rising from about $20 to about $40 a kilogram; that has cost Karaköy Güllüoğlu an additional $200,000 since the start of 2014.
Bad weather and the plant’s biennial cycle made for an unusually low yield of Antep pistachios. But nature isn’t the only force behind the scarcity—and the politics of pastry-making turn out to be part of Turkey’s identity crisis. Back in 2006, some 200 protesters took to Istanbul’s streets: incensed baklavacı. The EU had released a poster featuring its members’ signature desserts and delivered yet another blow to Turkey, the spurned nonmember, by pairing Cyprus with baklava. “Baklava is Turkish,” the protesters’ banners reportedly declared. “We will not allow Greek Cypriots to feed it to the world.”
Around that time, a pistachio “promotion group” was created to fight competition from abroad, and the results have only recently started to show: chocolate and candy producers are using more of the ingredient, leaving less to go around. In turn, speculators have seen an opportunity to hoard. Ask Güllü or any other shop owner in the city, and he’ll tell you: some baklavacı are skimping on pistachios in their recipes, or settling for lower-quality grounds (smuggled from Syria or Iran, it’s rumored). But not the purists at Karaköy Güllüoğlu. A thriving institution like theirs can afford to raise its prices. Güllü has also been waving his arms on behalf of another cause: as a leading member of Turkey’s Baklava and Dessert Producers Association, he has joined in calls for government regulation of speculators—so far to no avail.
But in Gaziantep, vigilance on behalf of the revered pastry has brought victory. Last year, the local Chamber of Industry secured protected status from the European Commission for Antep Baklavası, to fend off lowly imitators of the real thing. It is the first Turkish product, and the only baklava, with this designation. Having tasted the finest, I can understand the elitist impulse. But my sympathies, I admit, lie with the counterprotesters back in 2006 who waved banners with this message: “Baklava should unify us, not divide us.” My feeling exactly as I left Istanbul, flecks of green snagged in my shirtfront.
From top: Karaköy Güllüoğlu uses almost 400 pounds of pistachios a day; Nadir Güllü at work with his dough; protesters rally against Turkey’s ruling party.