Friday, August 14, 2009

Wild Orchid Ice Cream

Readers of this blog may remember my enthusiastic review of Eric Hansen's book, "Stranger in the Forest," a thrilling account of the author's walk across Borneo in the company of two (Stone Age) Penan guides. It is a book I liked so much that I mass-mailed it as a gift to many friends on my Christmas list last year. Currently, I am reading another of Hansen's spectacular books, this one called "Orchid Fever," about the scented fragile flowers which grow in the farthest corners of the earth, and have become the focus of a massive orchid trade, interwoven with issues of plant politics, endangered species, and the colorful but often weird people who are attracted to the world of orchid esoterica. Hansen's writing is uniquely infused with living energy, and I, for one, can't get enough of it.

There is a chapter in "Orchid Fever" that absolutely captivates me, all about a Turkish dessert--an ice cream made from wild orchid tubers, milk, and sugar. The mixture is first frozen, then beaten with metal rods, and eaten with a knife and fork. The taffy-like texture is so elastic it can be stretched and used as a jump rope. This last little detail is just the sort of thing that lights up my surrealist psyche, which grows fat on unlikely juxtapositions that make even a cockroach laugh.

Hansen managed to convince the editors of Natural History magazine in New York to send him to Turkey, so he could investigate orchid ice cream and write a story. (My kind of guy, my kind of project.) What he discovered is, not only can you jump rope with this versatile dessert, but according to experts, it can also heal the spleen, prevent cholera and tuberculosis, facilitate childbirth, stop your hands from shaking, and improve your sex life. It is also thought that wild orchid ice cream is a cure for the love-crazed. It's taste can be enhanced by the addition of baklava, chocolate, crushed roasted hazlenuts, ground pistachios, and fresh strawberries. Yum.

Once Hansen arrives in Turkey, he visits Ali Uster, a well-known ice-cream shop in Istanbul that has been run by Ali Kumbasar and his four brothers for twenty-eight years. There he has his first bite of the orchid ice cream of Turkey--and loves it. The basic ingredient of orchid ice cream is SALEP, a whitish flour milled from the dried tubers of certain wild orchids found along the edges of the Anatolian plateau, which happen to resemble the testicles of a fox. The name SALEP DONDURMA literally means "fox testicle ice cream." It was first made in Anatolia in the sixteenth century in a town called Maras in the Taurus mountains.

Hansen travels to Maras, in order to learn more about the tradition of making SALEP DONDURMA. There, he meets Mevlut Dogan, a well-dressed Turk with a four-foot wide handle-bar mustache, the tips of which are fastened to the shoulders of his suit jacket with brass safety pins. Dogan takes Hansen to the most elegant DONDURMA shop in town, where he is able to observe the whole process of making orchid ice cream from scratch. Three hundred years ago, donkeys brought snow and ice down from the mountains to use in freezing the DONDURMA. Now it is produced by stainless-steel machinery and gelato-makers imported from Italy. Once inside the shop owner's office, Hansen sees a framed photo of a young boy jumping rope with a length of orchid ice cream.

Reading something like this makes me want to hang around on our planet. Bear with me, please, when I tell you that orchid ice cream is the perfect antidote for the nausea I feel when observing my fellow human beings paint Hitlerian mustaches and Nazi swastikas across the lovely face of our president. Seeing that has the effect of making me want to fill my pockets with stones and walk straight into the river, like Virginia Woolf did, never to come back. Our president deserves so much better than defacement by an artless mob. If I had any wild orchid ice cream, I'd definitely offer him my plate.

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