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We are unabashedly fanatical in our love of hamsi, or anchovies, a late fall/wintertime specialty whose arrival we eagerly await each year in Istanbul, where the tiny fish are most commonly served pan-fried, grilled or in pilaf. But as any hamsi aficionado knows, for the best anchovy-eating in Turkey one must go directly to their source: the country’s Black Sea coastline, where the catch is brought in.

Writer-photographer duo Robyn Eckhardt and David Hagerman recently did just that, chronicling their journey in words and photos in a delightful travel piece published last month in The New York Times. The creators of the highly regarded food blog EatingAsia, Malaysia-based Eckhardt and Hagerman are frequent visitors to Turkey. In “A Turkish Anchovy Quest on the Black Sea,” Eckhardt describes their mission:

“I was on a pilgrimage of sorts, inspired by an anchovy obsession, one shared by many Turks. For connoisseurs of hamsi, as anchovies are called in Turkish, the fat-padded specimens netted from the frigid Black Sea trump those taken from the Sea of Marmara, south of Istanbul and the Bosporus. The Black Sea season – which usually starts mid-autumn and runs through February – has been keenly anticipated for centuries.”

Finding fresh hamsi on their road trip along a wide swath of Black Sea coast proved more challenging than anticipated, however, due to atypically warm weather in Turkey this fall that delayed the start of the hamsi season and made for inconsistent catches. The trip thus became as much about the quest as the fish itself, and also offered the chance to explore the attractions and quirks of Black Sea towns such as İnebolu, “a sweet hill town of blood-red timber houses.”

We recently caught up with Eckhardt, who shared a glimpse of what things were like behind the scenes. “We had been on the Black Sea in early October 2011 and the hamsi catch was phenomenal,” she told us. “It was crazy; fishing boats were giving away bags of the fish at port, they brought back so many tons on each trip out. We planned this year’s trip for around the same time. Early October comes – no hamsi on the Black Sea. We ended up pushing back our departure four times. During our week on the ground, the hamsi came and went. Every morning, I woke up praying that we’d find hamsi at the markets and at restaurants. It didn’t always work out but … in the end, the journey was as compelling as the fish.”

Eckhardt also offered some tips for anyone planning their own trip to the Black Sea to eat hamsi. “Rent a car. It’s a bit expensive (as is gas) but you need to be able to stop and investigate when a place looks interesting. We had no prepared itinerary for this trip, by the way.” And, she says, make sure to allow plenty of time. “Don’t plan to bomb through three or four towns in as many days. In İnebolu and Sinop especially, you’ll want to linger, and when restaurant owners get to know you, they’ll often cook you something special.”

As fond as Eckhardt is of hamsi, she recommends that travelers also “branch out with other fish. That is one upside to this year’s trip: I was ‘forced’ to eat a lot of bonito and kalkan (turbot), which I completely ignored last year. I may have missed hamsi, but I didn’t exactly suffer.” Finally, she points out that if you’re looking for “piscine nirvana” on the Black Sea, summer is not the time to visit.

The full anchovy story can be found on the NYT’s website, here. For a slideshow with more fabulous photos of scenes from the trip and life along the Black Sea, visit Hagerman’s blog.

If you can’t get out of Istanbul to try hamsi on the Black Sea, check out Culinary Backstreets’ favorite six venues in the city for filling up on the silvery little fish.

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VlarsonAnsel Mullins

Published on January 14, 2013

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