A sweet taste of the past

A new TG4 documentary recalls the famous Turkish delights from the Hadji Beyshop in Cork, says Colette Sheridan

ONE of Cork’s most famous delicacies is the subject of a forthcoming TG4 documentary entitled Hadji Bey: Milseáin na Tuirce i gCorcaigh. Presented by Catherine Foley, the programme tells the story of how Turkish delights were introduced to the city by an Armenian Christian who spotted a niche market for his product.

Harutun Batmazian, who had left Turkey because of religious persecution, was living in London with his wife, Esther, when he decided to showcase his product at the Great Exhibition in Cork in 1902. Such was the success of his visit that he settled in Cork and set up his business in the city. Hadji Bey, which means ‘a prince from the east’, developed iconic status and in its heyday, was supplied to Buckingham Palace and also sold in Harrods in London as well as Macys and Bloomingdales in New York. A version is now made by Urney Chocolate in Kildare.

Batmazian and his wife had four children. They lived on Cork’s Lower Road and the business initially operated from a premise opposite their home in St Patrick’s Terrace, the shop then moved to MacCurtain Street. Batmazian’s granddaughter, Dolores Cunningham, recalls the shop/factory as being like an Aladdin’s cave. She still has an old ledger book used in the business. “It’s got the names of famous customers such as Jack Lynch and various visiting dignitaries who used to call to the shop and order boxes of Hadji Bey.”

But the Batmazians’ experience of Cork was not entirely happy, says Harutun’s grandson, Derek O’Sullivan. “My grandfather experienced racism here during World War One. The British were fighting Turkey and just because my grandfather’s product was called Turkish delight, there was an assumption that he was Turkish. The Armenian Christians were actually being slaughtered by the Turks. That’s one of the reasons why my grandfather got out. He had to issue a letter explaining his origins, which was circulated to the general public in Cork.”

The business was passed on to Batmazian’s son, Eddie, in the 1930s. Derek worked with him for a period in 1960, but on Eddie’s retirement in 1971, it was sold to Ogilvie and Moore in Cork. Hadji Bey ceased to be produced in the late 1980s.

Urney Chocolate, run by Leo Cummins, bought the brand last year. “We always wanted to bring it back,” says Cummins. “It was one of the old brands that we had accumulated over the years. Now, it’s our premium product. It has a secret recipe. The main ingredients are sugar and corn starch. It’s a matter of slowly boiling it over a long period. There are no shortcuts. It’s very labour intensive.”

Cummins says that, historically, most sales of Hadji Bey were at Christmas. But with the growth of nostalgia for retro confectionery, as well as the proliferation of premium food outlets, Hadji Bey is experiencing a new lease of life.

The Turkish delight comes in different fruit flavours with the rose flavour being the most popular. The oils and flavourings used in the sweets used to come from all over the world.

In the old days, Hadji Bey traded on being an exclusive product. In the TG4 documentary, Professor Alan Titley, recalls the luxurious quality of the confectionery which was particularly popular with older and often wealthy people.

The documentary includes footage of Cork filmed by British-based cinematography company Mitchell & Kenyon in the early part of the last century. Historian Diarmuid Ó Drisceoil also paints a picture of the 1902 city that Harutun arrived in. He talks of the busy port of Cork and the people — and horses — that walked the streets.

Hadji Bey is very much a part of Cork lore. As Dolores says: “Billa O’Connell always refers to it in pantomimes”. The ‘prince of the east’ who came to Cork all those years ago has left a great legacy.

* Hadji Bey: Milseáin na Tuirce i gCorcaigh is on TG4 on Sunday at 9.30pm and will be repeated next Wednesday at 11.30pm

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