Fehmi Yıldıran remembers how, growing up in the Anatolian town of Bolu, every spring he and the other children used to boil eggs and dye them red using onion skins. He didn’t find out what the tradition was about until 1952, when he turned 14 and packed his bags for Istanbul with dreams of becoming a chef.
On arriving in the metropolis, Yıldıran found himself captivated by life in the glamorous Christian neighbourhood of Beyoğlu, where Greeks, Armenians, Jews and Turks lived cheek by jowl. He was eventually taken under the wing of Yorgo Fotiadis, a Greek pastry maker, as his apprentice.
“That’s when I found out that painting eggs was something Rum [Istanbul’s Greek community] did for Easter, to represent Jesus’s blood. For some reason, we did it at home too. I learned so much from Yorgo… He was my best friend, and he changed my life,” the 83-year-old said.
Fotiadis’s speciality was paskalya çöreği, or Easter buns – a brioche-like bread blending the sharpness of mahlep, a bitter and aromatic spice made from cherry seeds, with the fresh, cedar-like flavour of mastic gum harvested from trees on the Greek island of Chios.
Three strands of dough are braided like hair, glazed with egg and milk, sprinkled with sliced almonds, then baked until the surface darkens to a nutty brown and the smell of fresh bread fills the air.
Despite the increasing hostility between Ankara and Athens, and a 1955 pogrom against the Greek minority in Istanbul, Yıldıran and Fotiadis worked together happily for years, providing the city’s Christian communities with the Easter treat and other cakes, pastries and chocolate the year round.
Their time together came to an abrupt end, however, in 1965, after the Turkish government announced the year before it would bar Rum from certain professions and expel more than 50,000 people to Greece.
Fotiadis was one of the deportees. With just one week to pack up his life, he was forced to sell the business to young Yıldıran and leave for Athens, where he had to start all over again.
“It was a very uncertain and difficult time. I lost so many friends who had to leave,” Yıldıran said, sitting behind the counter at Üstün Palmiye Pastanesi, the latest iteration of his patisserie. The shop has been located in the Christian neighbourhood of Kurtuluş since 2005, and is now run by his daughter and her brother-in-law.
Yıldıran’s eyes are wet with tears as he thinks about the past. “It’s just politics. The politics got in the way,” he said. “There was no hostility between the people and between friends.”
Despite successive diplomatic crises and military confrontations between the two countries, Yıldıran and Fotiadis’s friendship endured, and the pair were able to pay several visits to each other until Fotiadis died in 1996.
As owner of the shop, Yıldıran was determined to keep the spirit of Rum Istanbul alive – as he is doing again this Easter. While many shops around Istanbul sell paskalya çöreği, Yıldıran’s are renowned as the best – which he says is because Üstün Palmiye is the only bakery left still using real mastic imported from Greece.
Pictures of his mentor and the glamour of 1950s Istanbul still peer down on customers in the busy run-up to Good Friday for the Armenian and other Christian communities (the Greek Orthodox church will celebrate in May).
Yıldıran had to stay away from the shop last year due to the pandemic, but is clearly delighted to spend a few hours chatting with family, colleagues and customers during the Observer’s visit: the five bakers pinching and pulling dough in the kitchen greet him like a military commander for clambering down the stairs to see them.
The phone rings constantly as Yıldıran’s daughter, Hülya, runs around filling orders for the patriarchates, churches, schools and people who want to gift paskalya çöreği to friends and neighbours. Customers greet each other in Armenian and Greek as she juggles answering calls with tying up the buns in white and gold paper and red curling ribbon. Post-it notes of orders cover the wall behind the counter.
“We usually sell 3,000kg this week, or around 9,000 buns. I get here early in the morning but even up until a few years ago I’d arrive and my dad would already be here, putting the çöreği into the oven.
“These days I have to send him pictures and updates throughout the day because he’s always asking after this customer or that customer, how everyone is,” she said.
“We’re a Muslim family, but the Christian community are our lifelong friends. We grew up together. Their numbers are smaller, but we’re always here for them. We’re a part of it.”
Just 2,500 Rum are estimated to still live in Istanbul, a city home to 17 million people. But Turks also make up a big part of Üstün Palmiye’s customer base.
“My wife found out about the shop from social media last year. Now she and Hülya are friends and we’re obsessed with the çöreği. It’s delicious and the history is so special,” said Ismael Baldish, 42, who picked up two loaves.
“My office is nearby, which is good, because we’d still come all the way from Beylikdüzü otherwise.”
“I’m just a boy from the village,” Yıldıran said. “But I learned from the Rum, from the people who made up old Istanbul. Now I am an ambassador.”