A small storefront in Istanbul’s Bebek neighbourhood called Meshur Bebek Badem Ezmesi (The Famous Bebek Marzipan) sells delicious marzipan (almond paste) sweets a family has been making for five generations.
Meshur Bebek Badem Ezmesi (The Famous Bebek Marzipan) was established 116 years ago in Istanbul during the Ottoman era, before the Turkish Republic even existed.
A Turkish man and a Greek woman whose wish to marry was at first not approved by their families (but who later consented) set up a little shop to sell marzipan and candy in Istanbul’s Bebek village.
Mehmet Halil Bey was originally from Mudanya in Bursa and Anastasya Hanim was from Arnavutkoy by the sea in Istanbul.
According to the book 'Istanbulum: Tadim-Tuzum, Hayatim (My Istanbul)' by Turkish-Greek author Meri Cevik Simyonidis, Mehmet Halil Bey came to Istanbul to study. While in the city, he fell in love with Anastasya and the two set about convincing their families to give their blessing.
Anastasya’s father eventually gave his consent on the condition that the couple live in Istanbul.
Simyonidis learned of the story directly from Mehmet Halil Bey’s daughter, Sevim Isguder.
Mehmet Halil Bey’s father, who was a candymaker in Mudanya, helped set up Meshur Bebek Badem Ezmesi in Istanbul in 1904, selling marzipan, almond cookies (acibadem kurabiyesi) and hard candy (akide sekeri).
The couple went on to have four children: two boys and two girls.
When Mehmet Halil Bey died his eldest daughter Sema was 14 and his younger daughter Sevim was two. Anastasya Isguder took over the shop, preparing marzipan, cookies and Easter cakes with the help of her children. Her two sons died young, while the girls grew up helping her run the shop for twenty years before Anastasya Hanim got sick.
Sevim Isguder, despite swearing she would not take over the shop due to the toll it had taken on her hardworking mother, went on to do just that in 1957 with her elder sister Semai. Semai died in 2003, while Sevim would head the business until her death in 2019.
Sevim Isguder, who never married, told Simyonidis in 2011 that the shop had become “her lover, her child, her husband, her family, her everything.
“And the return?” Sevim Isguder asked
“Our marzipan has become famous beyond Turkey’s borders with customers and regulars coming from all over Turkey and from around the world.”
Now the shop is being run by the fifth generation of the family, who quit their own careers recently in order to continue the legacy of their great aunt Sevim Isguder. Cousins Ismet Eymen Isguder, 38 and Eda Altug Ayartepe, 41, are actively involved in the day-to-day operations of the one-of-a-kind shop that has no branches or franchises.
Eymen Isguder tells TRT World that he and his cousin are still learning the ropes, stepping in at both the production department and the storefront. He says while his father Mehmet Ali Isguder and aunt Semra Isguder Altug stop by the store to impart their knowledge, they as the fourth generation, prefer to leave the business to their children, looking for some rest in their golden years while providing their full support to Eymen and Eda.
Eymen Isguder says years ago his father had to abandon his honeymoon in order to help Sevim Isguder with production for the Eid holidays, that’s how dedicated the family was to the family business.
Eda Altug Ayartepe stresses that the marzipan is still being made by hand, with only the shells of the almonds being removed by machine as an exception. She emphasises that production techniques and the recipe have not changed since the death of Sevim Isguder, as they have trusted employees working behind the scenes –– employees who have been with the store for thirty years and who produced marzipan even when Sevim Isguder was too sick to come to the store during the later years of her life.
Asked about the secret to the store’s continued success, Ayartepe says it’s that the taste of their handmade marzipan that hasn’t changed in decades. Isguder mentions that they refuse to buy cheap imported almonds and use only the best almonds from eastern Turkish cities such as Elazig, Diyarbakir and Malatya. Ayartepe adds that because there are no additives to the marzipan, whose only ingredients are almonds, sugar and a touch of water, it only lasts about a week to 10 days in a cool place.
The cousins say there is much work to do. They are planning to switch to cardboard shopping bags instead of the classic brown plastic ones for better presentation of their product, for one thing. Sevim Isguder was more old fashioned, they say, and had scoffed at such suggestions, telling customers what’s important is the product inside. She had also shunned credit cards, which the cousins say they gladly take.
Eymen Isguder also adds that there is a brand new Instagram page and there will soon be a website for the family company that never had a social media presence before.
The young generation has big dreams for their little store of exquisite products, including marzipan, pistachio paste, and various chocolates and types of candy. Enthused about their work, they hope to honour the legacy of their ancestors and add to the store while keeping what’s good about it.