Ustun Palmie Patisserie in the historic Kurtulus neighbourhood bakes some of the city’s most famous Easter pastries and chocolates, serving the Greek Orthodox and Armenian communities and sustaining the city’s multicultural traditions.
Nestled in the Kurtulus neighbourhood of the cosmopolitan Sisli district, is a small, unassuming pastry shop. At first glance, the displays and shelves of Ustun Palmie are stacked with usual Turkish patisserie fare-- cakes, chocolates, crispy grissini, savoury pogacas and soft acmas.
But come Christmas and Easter, crowds of customers greeting each other in Armenian, Greek and Turkish hint at the uniqueness of this shop, and of continuing traditions from an Istanbul past.
As the world speeds towards online shopping, Ustun Palmie likes to do business at its own pace. The elderly in the community come in person, or place orders by phone, as they have been doing for years. The TikTok-themed ringtones reverberate through the shop, and co-owner Hulya shares how much she loves these multilingual chatterings in her shop.
For decades, Istanbul’s Rum (Greek Orthodox) and Armenian communities have frequented the various pastry shops of Fehmi Yildiran, a Turk who is famous for his Paskalya coregi, or Easter pastries.
A symbol of abundance, the soft, aromatic, and slightly chewy loaves have a central role in the Rum community’s Easter festivities: it is served at churches after Easter mass, and gifted to family, friends and neighbours alongside dyed eggs.
Though a version of the loaf can be found at almost every local bakery in Turkey, the bread at Ustun Palmie has almost a legendary status among not only Istanbulites, but those around the globe.
Fehmi Yildiran credits his Rum teachers.
“I learned everything I know from my masters,” he explains.
“In those days, the best corek came from Lozan Patisserie, which is where I started as an apprentice.”
Born in 1938 in Turkey’s Bolu, Yildiran set off to Istanbul in search of work when he was fourteen. His brother helped him secure an apprenticeship at a pastry shop in Beyoglu.
“Back then, the only pastry shops [in Istanbul] could be found in Beyoglu,” he says, reminiscing the pomp and grandeur of a Beyoglu of decades past. “And you couldn’t just walk into Beyoglu swinging your arms like nowadays, you had to get [dressed up]!”
At the time, he recalls that there were only 26 patisseries in all of Istanbul, and all were owned by members of Istanbul’s various religious and ethnic minorities.
It was in those years that he developed a close relationship with the Rum, Armenian, Jewish and other communities in Istanbul, and particularly with the Rum community.
He got married and settled his family in Beyoglu's Tarlabasi. Both he and his daughter, Hulya Yildiran, who currently co-runs the patisserie with her brother-in-law, recall those days fondly.
“I feel very lucky that I grew up where I did, I didn’t learn discrimination,” Hulya says, recalling a time when neighbours and friends of different backgrounds celebrated each other’s holidays.
“We loved each other, we went to each other’s houses, celebrated our holidays together,” Fehmi says. “I learned to eat and drink well from them!”
“But now, most [of them] have left, and we’re left [continuing this job], you see how it is,” he says with sorrow.
Today, only a fraction of Istanbul’s Rum community remains, almost all of whom live in various districts of Istanbul, including Kurtulus.
From the 1942 wealth tax, levied disproportionately on the non-Muslim communities, to the September 6-7 1955 Istanbul pogroms and the 1964 decree on Greeks in Istanbul, much of the Rum population has fled to Greece. Today, it is estimated that there are around 2,500 Greek Orthodox residents in Istanbul.
A little over a decade ago, Yildiran once again opened a patisserie, Ustun Palmie, meaning Superior Palmie-- this time in Kurtulus.
The Rum community that remains, as well as the other residents of the neighbourhood, frequent his bakery. Ustun Palmie continues to send coreks to the Patriarchate, dozens of churches and aid organisations.
Kurtulus, one of the oldest continuously-inhabited areas in Istanbul, was once known as Tatavla, from the Greek word meaning “horse stable” as its wide meadows and creeks made it ideal for grazing horses.
Over the years, a distinctive culture emerged in Tatavla. By the middle of the 19th century, explains Huseyin Irmak in his memoir From Tatavla to Kurtulus, what was once a poor labourers’ village became a boisterous, dynamic and dangerous town (in)famous for its taverns, music, vegetable gardens, roughnecks and crime.
It was also the location of Istanbul’s own pre-Lent carnival, Baklahorani, a cousin of the Brazilian and Venetian Carnivals, which lit up the neighbourhood until the 1940s.
Istanbul has changed a lot since then, as has Tatavla.
In 1929, a fire swept through the neighbourhood, destroying most of it. During its reconstruction, it was renamed Kurtulus, meaning “salvation.”
Today, Kurtulus is home primarily to Armenians, as well as a small Jewish community. Relatively newer populations of Kurds and Anatolians have been arriving since the 1970s, as well as more recent international immigrants.
The Rum community is small, but thriving.
It is still the Lenten period for the Orthodox community, who celebrate Easter in May, but this week marks the Holy Week for the Armenian and other Christian communities, and Kurtulus is alive with the hurried preparations for Easter on Sunday.
The heady fragrance of corek, which is the only pastry Ustun Palmie makes during the Holy Week, perfumes the street, as does the scent of roasted eggplants from meze shops preparing for Sunday’s feasts. The local decoration shop is stocked with rabbit figurines and colourful eggs.
This year, like last, Easter won’t be the same — another celebration stifled by the pandemic. Churches are still shuttered, and the Saturday lockdowns, which had been suspended for some time, would be reinstated this week, the government announced.
With conversations tinged with sadness and frustration, the patrons of Ustun Palmie have carried on with their preparations, trying to make the best of Easter despite the circumstances.
Telephones continue to ring nonstop with orders of Paskalya coregi, and grandparents continue to visit the shop, picking the most beautiful from among the chocolate rabbits and eggs, sure to delight any child.
And Ustun Palmie continues baking corek.