By Anna Iltnere
Jason, hero of Greek mythology and leader of the Argonauts, voyaged there to claim the Golden Fleece. There, also, Mark Twain ate his favourite ice-cream and Russian filmmaker Sergey Eisenstein, who was born in Latvia, filmed Battleship Potemkin. The Black Sea, like the countries arrayed around its shores — Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia and Russia — resists conventional history. In its waters, time holds its breath and thousands-of-years-old shipwrecks resist decay.
British writer Caroline Eden’s new book Black Sea: Dispatches and Recipes Through Darkness and Light is a sensory exploration of the region and its post-Soviet countries. It follows the success of her debut book Samarkand: Recipes and Stories from Central Asia and The Caucasus, co-written with Eleanor Ford in 2016.
The book’s essays, recipes, and vibrant photographs give you a visceral experience. The history can be as thick and dark as Black Seastorms, but ashore, streets are filled with joyous culture. A Synagogue of Lemon Sellers, slices of sorrow-tasting Antonovka apples in the tea of a famous writer, Gogol’s Marinated Mushrooms, and Tsar Nicholas II’s imperial gala menu almost made me turn the pages with my tongue. Even Battleship Potemkin is food-related: the sailor’s borscht is ruined when maggots are discovered in meat meant for soup, and a mutiny erupts. A belly is a place where we experience anger and fear, too.
“The Black Sea, overflowing with intrigue, often feels as though it is the pivot of the geopolitical world,” writes Caroline Eden. This morning, as I transcribe our interview, there is news of Russian forces firing upon and seizing three Ukrainian navy vessels in the Black Sea. It might look like a lake on a map, but this inland sea, a birthplace of barbarism, connects more than mere shores: “In hope, and in fear, thousands have crossed this sea.” As Timur, a Tartar and retired Black Sea captain, tells Caroline Eden, “The Black Sea is big storms, no harbours, and no escape. You have to sail. No choice.” One of the book’s chapters is titled The Black Sea of the Mind.
You wrote that you became obsessed with the Black Sea on a Summer holiday. What drew you to it?
I first glimpsed the Black Sea through a grimy bus window, close to the Turkish port city of Samsun, in 2013. We’d witnessed a serious road traffic accident and the sudden view of the sea’s gentle lull and rise calmed nerves. That instance stayed with me, turning into a Black Sea obsession, because as well as experiencing the soothing power of the sea, the waves also brought with them an intense feeling of spiritual heaviness. An unbroken migration route over hundreds of years, the Black Sea has witnessed, consumed and absorbed much hope and despair, serving as a watery escape course for those fleeing persecution: Muslim highlanders forced out by the Russian Empire, families escaping the Crimean War and thousands of anti-Bolsheviks, loyal to the Tsar, known generally as White Russians, who sailed across the Black Sea from the ports of Odessa, Novorossiysk and Crimea, to Constantinople’s docks.
It’s the intensity of the atmosphere in towns and cities close to the shore that initially drew me in, then the complex waves of migration and the sea’s — modern and ancient — history of darkness and light.
“What the sea can give you, no one else can,” says Elena in your book, the last fisherwoman in Bulgaria. You talk about the spirit of the Black Sea as “undeniably magnetic”, less a backdrop for local lives, and more a stage. Why do you think that is?
Despite geo-politics, land borders and division there is a connectedness between many communities who live and work around the Black Sea. By their very nature, watery borders are less fixed and less stable than hard land borders and regardless to differences, the sea is shared by the communities that live on or by it. It feeds, it employs, it inspires. Like the proverb that says, “the Black Sea has only three safe harbours: July, August and Sinop”, the fishermen and fisherwomen, who feature in the book with their tell-tale raw-boned hands, all spoke animatedly of storms that plague the sea, its various shades, including “the colour of mourning”, but they spoke, as well, of their respect and love for the sea, too. For many others, of course, it is a place of simple pleasures: of swimming, of romance and family holidays, of buckets of summer berries piled high at the roadside.
You use food as a lens to look at other things. Black Sea in not just a book of recipes, although they are included. What does food mean to you in discovering new cultures? And which dish from this book you prepare most often at home in Edinburgh?
Food — in restaurants, in markets and in home kitchens — unlocks a culture (social history, trade, economy) and the recipes included are intended to enrich the stories within the book, offering another physical dimension to the travel writing. Some are based on literature, though most reflect local ingredients, people I met and flavours that I researched and experienced.
Like with any book that includes recipes, a few have become real favourites: the light raspberry buttermilk tart, the tomato and paprika ‘bus station breakfast paste’ and the walnut candies, similar to marzipan.
The Black Sea is dense with stories from the past. At its deeper levels, the water is old, as there are no strong tides to move it. It's also literally filled with history, shipwrecks almost stopped in time and preserved because of the oxygen deprived waters. Can this be felt, I wonder? Does time feel somehow different when traveling the cities along the Black Sea?
Below 200 metres, the Black Sea’s oxygen-free water chemistry supports no life and prevents organic decay, which makes it the perfect environment to preserve. The maritime archaeologists who are examining the Black Sea shipwrecks – who have found Genoese and Venetian trade ships, Cossack assault ships and Ottoman boats – are proving that the Black Sea has an unbroken pattern of trade, going back at least 2,500 years. But there are plenty of lesser-known historical quirks and surprises above the waves, too: there was the former colony of Swiss winemakers who settled in Bessarabia in the 1820s and, in just three years, cultivated 100,000 vines, packing their newly built cellars full of barrels. There was once a separate branch of the Byzantine Empire set up at Trapezus, Trabzon, on the Black Sea in the 13th century. Under its leader, the Grand Comneni, it controlled southern Crimea, and when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, after forces barraged its walls for 40 days, the empire of Trebizond remained unconquered for another eight years. Up the coast in Bulgaria, I saw the world’s oldest worked gold, dating back 6,000 years, in a museum in Varna.
Your journey along the Black Sea is filled with literary references, especially in the chapter about Odessa, in the Ukraine, where many writers have lived. Which books were your favorite to return to, when imagining the past of the places you visited?
To name one: Isaac Babel’s Odessa Stories, and specifically, the new Pushkin Press edition, translated by Boris Dralyuk, which came out during my research. It quickly became a guide and a companion. As a city built on the grain trade, Odessa had an enormous ‘free port’ which saw not only a great flow of exotic goods, but also a mosaic of different people, too, all of which contributed to the city’s collective psyche shaped by deal-making, louche living and literature. Odessa Stories is witty, surprising and full of amusing food references. Of course, Babel was not a ‘food writer’ but he wrote staggeringly well about food – the emotions that surround it, the headiness of it, the swindling of it…
What draws you to former Soviet Union countries?
Other than rich literary traditions, unique architecture and interesting food culture, it’s the chance for genuine adventure, long train rides and the chance to occasionally try and improve my (poor) Russian. One day, I’d like to visit Nida, on the Curonian Spit. Close to the border of Russian exclave Kaliningrad, I wonder what it was that inspired Thomas Mann, the Nobel Prize-winning German author of The Magic Mountain, to own a summerhouse there
Anna Iltnere, based in Jūrmala, Latvia, is a regular contributor to The Island Review. She has opened a Sea Library by the Baltic Sea, focused on books about the sea. Coming from a family of artists, architects and actors, and formally a journalist covering the Baltic, Russian and Scandinavian contemporary art scenes, she now follows her passion, the sea.