Kaymak, a rich buttery cream, is often eaten at breakfast time. But Istanbul is down to just one dairy shop that produces it traditionally, with their own fresh water buffalo milk.
I’m wandering the narrow, twisting cobblestone alleyways around Galata Tower in Istanbul’s historic Karaköy neighborhood, and I’m completely lost. I’m looking for Haci Hasan Fehmi Özsüt Muhallebıcisı—better known as Karaköy Özsüt—a tiny dairy shop that’s become one of my favorite stops in Istanbul over the course of recent visits.
“Kaymak? Özsüt? Kaymak?,” I ask passersby, each time met with a knowing smile and a finger pointing around the corner or up the hill. The family-run store has become something of a pilgrimage site for its kaymak, a rich buttery cream that Karaköy Özsüt makes from fresh water buffalo milk. Often likened to clotted cream, the comparison only goes so far, doing considerable injustice to kaymak’s velvety texture, delicate tang, and rich mouthfeel.
Finally, a kind soul walks me to the storefront and I discover the reason for my confusion: The shop, which had been in the same location since 1915, moved last year to a new storefront a few blocks away, at the foot of Istiklal Street.
Karaköy Özsüt serves a variety of dairy products, as well as a full Turkish breakfast featuring its own buffalo sausage, but the signature dish here is bal kaymak, in which the cream is served in a pool of local honey, still dotted with bits of honeycomb. It’s slathered on hunks of soft bread, a messy combination that takes time to eat, giving me a chance to sit down with owner Fehmi Özsüt, the third—and possibly last—generation of his family to run the demanding business.
“When you have a family business that’s been around for a long time, there’s a reason,” he says, gesturing to the line at the counter. “Many of our customers have been coming for 10 years or more, and some come from around the world.”
But circumstances arising over the past few years have forced Istanbul’s last remaining water buffalo dairies to close one by one, and Özsüt faces the same challenges. In short, there is not enough land for water buffalo herds to continue to roam in what’s left of the forests around Istanbul; they’ve been pushed out by the city’s swelling population and sprawl. Özsüt has had to move his own herd further and further out; six years ago he bought land in Tekırdağ, two hours away on the Sea of Marmara.
Buffalo are also notoriously touchy, even emotional, he tells me, with their milk production reduced by anything that upsets them. “It’s a lot of effort and you have to pay attention all the time, so you can understand why no one wants to do it anymore,” he says.
Özsüt is equally passionate about the painstaking tradition of kaymak preparation, which calls for simmering the fresh buffalo milk on low heat in a wide pan until the cream rises into a thick skin. The skin is skimmed off and cooled in layers with ice, giving kaymak its unusual slippery texture. Keeping the heat below 85 degrees allows some of the bacteria to survive, developing its characteristic touch of sourness.
When the question of pasteurization, a controversial topic in kaymak discussions, comes up, Özsüt is direct. “Many people now use pasteurized milk for kaymak so it lasts longer, but it kills the flavor, or they add other things to preserve it and it tastes like plastic,” he says. “Kaymak shouldn’t last more than 24 hours. It’s safe if it’s made in a clean, sterile kitchen, which we do.”
Due to the scarcity of buffalo milk, most kaymak sold in markets nowadays is made with cow’s milk, and many consumers have gotten used to the change. But Özsüt will have none of it. “It is only real kaymak when made from buffalo milk,” he says firmly, noting that buffalo milk contains more protein and minerals than cow’s milk and twice the fat, an important factor in kaymak’s texture.
Erdogan takes issue when I tell him about Özsüt’s insistence on the superiority of unpasteurized water buffalo kaymak. “I use only pasteurized milk products out of hygiene concern,” he says, adding he doesn’t think pasteurization interferes noticeably with the taste. And indeed, the kaymak at Çırağan Palace is delicious—creamy and sour-sweet, though it lacks the smoothness of Özsüt’s. Another plus: he serves it with four varieties of Turkish honey and several traditional jams.
Erdogan’s kaymak is made by Istanbul-based Emirgan Sütiş, a small chain of dairy sweet shops that uses 70 percent buffalo milk and 30 percent cow’s milk. “To me, that’s a good combination, without a heavy feeling,” he says.
Meanwhile, back at the shop, Jeremy, Özsüt’s son, has arrived. He spent much of his youth in the United States and has recently returned to Turkey to help out at the store, filling the glass cases with yogurt, kefir, and kaymak. Asked if he will be taking over the business, he glances over at his father with a bemused look.
“I am trying to help out,” he says, handing me his phone to show how he has begun developing the shop’s limited social media. “But get up every day at 3 a.m.? I don’t know. It’s complicated, and there are many challenges. Check back in a few years and see if I’m still here.”