Black Sea - part cookbook, part travelogue of author Caroline Eden's journey from Odessa in Ukraine to Istanbul and Trabzon in Turkey – is a gem

Istanbul, Post Magazine

After reviewing Caroline Eden’s wonderful Red Sands (2020), about the award-winning author and journalist’s travels through Central Asia, I immediately looked for more by her. In Black Sea (2018), Eden documents her travels from Odessa, in Ukraine, to Istanbul then Trabzon, in Turkey – three cities along the Black Sea.

You might wonder (as I did) why Eden didn’t just go all the way around the Black Sea, instead of stopping at Trabzon. Fortunately, she anticipates this. “For this book, I first thought about circumnavigating the entire coast,” she writes in the prelude. “But it felt more natural to bookend the journey with two of the Black Sea region’s most interesting and lyrical cities: Odessa in southern Ukraine and Trabzon in northeast Turkey.

“Both are mythical, multilayered places ultimately shaped by their maritime positions, one relatively new (Odessa was established in 1794) and one truly ancient (Trabzon, formerly ‘Trapezous’ and ‘Trebizond’, has Greek trading roots dating back to 7th century BC).

“The third key city in this book, forming a neat centre point, is Istanbul. Not on, but satisfyingly close to the Black Sea, connected to it by the throat of the Bosphorus, just beyond Giant’s Grave, a hallmark hill for boats coming in from the sea.

Istanbul, Post Magazine

The Bosphorus and buildings in Istanbul, one of the three cities Caroline Eden visits in Black Sea. Photo: AFP

“This multilayered city, one that can feel like a conservative village one moment and a cosmopolitan megacity the next, is full of people from the Black Sea: cooks, fishermen, hamam owners, bakers, musicians and taxi drivers. It is the ultimate Black Sea diaspora.

“It is also, arguably, the world’s greatest kitchen,” Eden writes.

Istanbul, Post Magazine

The cover of Black Sea: Dispatches and Recipes – Through Darkness and Light. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

“Of course, there are plenty of places of interest and remarkable traditions lying between Odessa, Istanbul and Trabzon. Not only cities but also smaller towns and settlements, all with very different atmospheres but connected to one another by the sea. We will stop at many of these, too […]

“Wedged between ocean and land, all of these Black Sea destinations have something of the frontier about them. Something setting them apart from their host countries.

“Odessa, on the Slavic fringes of the former Soviet Union, is part of Ukraine yet distinct from it, with a cuisine influenced by Jewish and Italian traditions and a spoken language that is often not Ukrainian, but Russian inflected with Yiddish.

“Constanta, on Romania’s Black Sea coast, was Tomis to the ancient Greeks and today is home to one of the Black Sea’s largest ports. Varna [in Bulgaria] has a glorious Roman baths complex and a grand museum housing the world’s oldest gold, while the cuisine of Turkey’s huge Black Sea region, I found out, has a geography all of its own, full of smoky and buttery flavours, quite unlike anywhere else.

“The Black Sea offers waterways and land routes leading east to China; south, to the Middle East and the Mediterranean; west, to eastern Europe, and north, to the Baltic Sea. However you look at the Black Sea on the map, its strategic importance cannot be denied.”

As with Red Sands, it’s a pleasure to read Eden’s beautiful, evocative prose in Black Sea; the recipes are a bonus. They are varied, and include Italian street polpette (Eden writes, “Odessa’s first restaurateurs were Italian and, for a while, their meatballs and spaghetti became the dish of Odessa”), citrus cured mackerel with gherkins, trolley kebab, Circassian chicken, Black Sea borek, monastery soup, raspberry buttermilk tart, and poached apricots in rose water.

​Like what you read? Look for more food and drink in SCMP Post Magazine.

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