How the Bal-kans got its name. Bal and apricots for breakfast in Istanbul

circular honeycombs stacked on a tray

Honeycomb for sale at the Istanbul spice market

I’m writing this at Istanbul airport, on my way home after a mini-break of honey. Honey has been a fine golden thread running through our meals and our shopping, and connecting me here in the Ottoman capital, with the food I’ve grown used to in Pristina. If you’ve lived in Kosovo then on a visit to Turkey there are plenty of things that seem strangely familiar, or familiarly strange. Along with some of the customs and architecture, and the domination of coffee and hospitality as the grammar of each day, one of the things that made Istanbul feel half-known to me was the vocabulary. From learning Albanian and Serbian I discovered there were little nuts of recognizable vocabulary in the honey flow of mystifying Turkish. (I was most pleased with myself when I rang down to the reception of our hotel to ask for an extra duvet. The ‘English’ – in fact, of course, borrowed from England’s own occupiers a millennium ago – word confused the receptionist. Could we have a ‘quilt’ then? No, she didn’t know that word either. In desperation I tried ‘Albanian’. Did they have a jorgan?

Ahh, a yorgan! It arrived at our room a few minutes later).

Pots and plates and cushions and carpets, puddings and pistachios, ‘come on’ and ‘slow down’, ‘again’ and ‘not at all’, ‘just so’ and ‘that’s enough’, aubergines and guns, the word for customer, the word for guest… all were left in Kosovo by the Ottomans and were greeted by me as old friends as we bumped through the crowds of foreigners here. It turns out I know quite a lot of Turkish. And there’s been one word I’ve used repeatedly over the last few days in the markets, in the restaurant and, most recently, as I sat down to breakfast this morning.

The word bal, the first syllable of the name for the peninsula where we live, is the Turkish for ‘honey’. I knew this because the story goes that when the Ottomans arrived in the Balkans, they saw immediately the rich, fertile land, with its luscious wildflowers, and they knew this would be a land of honey, and named it as such. Only later, as they fought to subdue the territory, did they realize that this region, a land of blood, had another side. And so the Bal-kan peninsula gained its second syllable, the Turkish word kan, meaning ‘blood’.

Angelina Jolie and I have both seen the powerful resonances in this etymology – me in my book, Travels in Blood and Honey; becoming a beekeeper in Kosovo, which was published last April (yes, long before any announcement of Angelina’s film) and she for her directorial debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey which premiered two months ago.

As a vegetarian I prefer my meals to contain more honey than blood, and this morning, after a short appetite-whetting walk to Aya Sofya, I sat down to a honey-soaked bowl of apricots. Cut with spoonfuls of yoghurt, the golden fruit gleamed in its honey anointing and it tasted fabulous. It was an appropriate farewell as I prepared to leave a country which seemed steeped in bal. But of course it wasn’t really goodbye – there are some things you can take with you when you travel, and stashed in my rucksack was a pot of honey… watch this space.

My Travels in Blood and Honey; becoming a beekeeper in Kosovo (2011) is published by Signal Books and available through bookshops and on Amazon.

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2 Responses to How the Bal-kans got its name. Bal and apricots for breakfast in Istanbul

  1. What a nice revelation that you knew more words than you thought you did while here! Apricots soaked in honey?! With yoghurt?! The perfect breakfast! xxx

  2. Pingback: Travels in Turkey’s honey | One hundred days of honey

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