A dazzlingly bright seasonal variation of a traditional Turkish treat
“I used to be absolutely all about this helva. Honestly, I was obsessed,” Cem says, pointing to a pale, earthy mixture sliced into slabs and covered in sharp green little nuts. This is halva, as we know and love it: a tahini-lovers vision of the addictive paste sweetened, solidified into slices and studded with pistachio halves.
It looks slightly sticky, slightly sandy and—to the initiated—truly scrumptious, handmade in Bursa, the first Ottoman capital, and brought by Cem’s uncle Graham Teale to the family-run stall, The Turkish Deli, in Borough Market. Yet no sooner have we opened our mouths to order it by the kilo than Cem interrupts: “But then I tried the yaz helma. And since then I’ve never given the original a second chance.”
He directs our gaze—not, to be honest, that it needs much directing, yaz helva being easily the most noticeable food at The Turkish Deli stand. Its lusty, almost unnatural shade of magenta would be alarming were there not adequate explanation for it in the form of the summery and intensely colourful sour cherries, from which the sweet also gets its name—‘yaz’ means ‘summer’—and its distinctive flavour: the sharp, juicy tingle of cherry juice cutting through the sugary paste like a breeze through the heat haze of a late summer’s day.
Rich and illustrious history
Though Turkish food has a rich and illustrious history, there is, Graham himself explains, not much that’s really known about yaz helva. “There is very little written history, but during the Ottoman times the confectionery chefs experimented with sweets from cultures within the empire to develop new variations to impress the sultans.”
Like the (still scrumptious) tahini-based helva Cem has spurned in its favour, this lurid seasonal variation still contains sugar and tahini, but it contains higher proportion of semolina and a liberal scattering of knobbly, buttery bits of walnut instead of the familiar pistachios.
“We currently only sell the walnut version with either cocoa or sour cherry—but we have plans to bring other types to the UK,” says Graham. There are, needless to say, “numerous variations”—but for now, both Cem and your Friday feeling delegates are satiated by this toothily sweet, smooth yet gritty, buttery yet strangely refreshing, slither of sour cherry yaz helva: the helva whose natural luminosity will live on in your retina long after the powerful sugar high it induces has drifted away.