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Sweetness and light: The art of Baklava

 September/October 2003 issue

If you have a sweet tooth, baklava is probably one of your favorite desserts. Made of layers of thin dough, filled with pistachio nuts and smothered in delicious and sticky syrup, the small pastry squares have become symbols of Turkish confectionery the world over.

The Güllüfamily has contributed to this success for several generations. Güllü Çelebi first opened a production plant in Gaziantep in 1871, after being taught the secrets of baklava in Damascus, as he stopped on his way to the Hejaz.

Nejat Güllü, who owns the 7,000 square-meter "Baklavacı Güllüoğlu" manufacturing plant in Kağıthane, is a fifth-generation descendant of Güllü Çelebi, and he has made it his mission to produce the best quality Turkish confectionery using the most modern methods. Being a man of vision, he wants people all over the world, not just around Turkey, to be able to enjoy his products.

The huge factory, which opened in 2001, boasts state-of-the art technology. "Some of the machines here are unique in the world," says Nejat Güllü, who also mentions with obvious pride his ISO quality standard award. "I had them designed especially for us."

Baklava is only one of many items of confectionery the company produces and exports. Turkish delights -lokum- come in dazzling colors with pistachios, hazelnuts or walnuts, covered with sugar or coconut. In all some 60 different kinds of lokum are produced here. The 150 employees at the plant also manufacture classic Turkish desserts like tel kadayıf (shredded wheat with nuts and syrups) or pişmaniye, also known as candy floss. Full milk specially chosen for its creamy quality is used to make delicious top quality ice cream. Starting with four basic ingredients - flour, pistachio nuts, fat and sugar - dozens of colorful and tasty desserts are produced.

Most of Baklavacı Güllüoğlu's products are exported and sold successfully in the United States, in Great Britain and other European countries, as well as far away locations like Australia. But because fresh baklava contains perishable ingredients, what is exported is a dry version of the original, sold in pre-packaged boxes.

Nejat Güllüis currently working on a project that will allow gourmets to enjoy the taste of freshly baked baklava anywhere in the world. For the past two years, he has been trying to develop a line of products that will be shipped frozen, and baked after they reach their destination. Fresh pastries, baked daily, will be sold through franchises around the world. "There are 11 different steps in the production of baklava," Güllüexplains. "Nine of them can be completed here. All that will be left to do is to bake the baklava and to add the syrup."

The project is already at an advanced stage. The company representative in London, Ekmel Kaya, believes it is a sure winner. "Because of our name, the quality of our products and our competitive prices, we are already doing very well in Britain. The project to send frozen baklava that will be baked on site will be very successful." In London alone, some 1,000 outlets - mostly grocery stores - sell Baklavacı Güllüoğlu products. Initially the clientele was mainly composed of Turks and members of other minority ethnic groups, such as Arabs or Greeks. Westerners initially felt baklava was too heavy, explains Nejat Güllü, but many people who have visited Turkey have developed a taste for it, and the clientele has expanded.

Güllühas been involved in the production of baklava since his early childhood. After working in the family business in Gaziantep, his father had set up Istanbul's first baklava production facility in Karaköy in 1949, but illness later forced him to return to the city of his birth. Nejat Güllü, while still at school, was already learning the family trade. "Until I finished high school, I went to school in the winter and worked in the summer. I learned the job working alongside my uncles," he says.

By the time Nejat Güllüfinished high school and moved to Istanbul to study economics and management in 1968, he was ready to continue the tradition and run the family business in Karaköy. "I am one of six children," he says. "Four of us are in the baklava business."
In 1986 he left his father and his brothers, and set up a separate business. "I wanted to introduce new products and aim for export," he says. His Baklavacı Güllüoğlu Company now has ten branches, nine of them in Istanbul, one in Bursa.

Nejat Güllü's ability to adapt to the needs of the market and to introduce modern methods explains his success. "Tastes have evolved," he says. "At the time of my grandfather, two or three people could sit down and eat their way through an entire tray of baklava. They even sprinkled sugar on top. People did not think of calories or cholesterol in those days." Nowadays people are more health and weight conscious, and they want lighter desserts. "We have lowered the amount of fat in our baklava. People count calories." Baklavacı Güllüoğlu has even developed a recipe for a diet version of baklava, suitable for diabetics or people watching their waistline, which contains no sugar or cholesterol. Animal fat is replaced by olive oil.

But the very best baklava is made using the fat extracted from goat and sheep's milk. "Cow's milk does not produce the same result. We use milk from sheep and goats raised near Urfa. They eat kekik (thyme) in the field and it gives their milk a special flavor." Pistachio nuts are of course brought from Güllü's region, Gaziantep. "No other pistachios can match the ones produced in the Barak area."

Nejat Güllüchose to introduce technology and automation in his factory, to ensure the highest standards of hygiene and quality. "If you sprinkle nuts by hand, there will always be areas where there is a bit more or a bit less. The same goes for the size of baklava," he says. Thanks to machines, a higher level of precision is achieved and quality remains constant. The manufacturing plant in Kağıthane has a lab, where the quality of the fat used in the production of the pastries is constantly controlled.

Rolling out the dough - or "opening" the dough, as Turks say - is however one job that no machine can perform with the expertise of a trained confectioner. To produce light and flaky baklava, the dough is spread until it is so thin that you can read through it. "The thickness of the dough should be 1/10 of a millimeter," he says. "Baklava is made of 30 to 40 layers of dough."

After traveling abroad several times, unsuccessfully trying to find a machine that could produce dough thin enough, Nejat Güllücame to the conclusion that it was a mission impossible, and he would have to continue to rely on the work of experts trained at his factory. "I usually hire people when they are young, around 16. They learn the same way I did. They start as dishwashers and they end up as usta (master)."

Some 20 people in the factory are employed just to "open" the dough, which is one of the key stages of production. "It is hard work. You need strength in the fingers and in the wrists," he says.

Güllüadmits that producing baklava is not an easy job. To ensure that the baklava on display in the shops is always fresh, production is done at night. "We only sell our baklava the first day. It is still good for consumption the next day, of course, but our customers expect the best." But despite the unsociable hours and the hard work, his enthusiasm shows no sign of abating. In fact, his son has recently joined the family firm. With succession now assured, Baklavacı Güllüoğlu will continue to delight its customers for years to come.

Baklavacı Güllüoğlu
Mandra Caddesi No. 32 Kağıthane
Tel: (212) 321 34 34

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