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Food writer Nicola Miller embarks on a search for answers about the origin of a refreshing Turkish drink called a Churchill



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This story about a non-alcoholic lemon soda drink from Turkey that goes by the name of ‘Churchill’ has been percolating in my brain for months after I first encountered the drink at Wilcrofts, a café in Bury St Edmunds.

In Turkey, it goes by the name, ‘Çörçil’. After a lot of research, I have yet to ascertain a definitive answer regarding the drink’s origins and its name and because of this, I postponed writing it up because I felt self-conscious about not reaching a conclusion. Then I realised that you cannot always come to one, and the process is as important as the outcome.

When I messaged Caroline Eden, author of three food and travel books about Central Asia, to ask her about the Churchill, she had just arrived in Turkey and was sitting with friends in an Instanbul café. At that point, I knew absolutely nothing about it other than an educated guess that it was a drink for hot climes, which nonetheless might feel very familiar to British people accustomed to the flavours of Lemsip or lemonade. “I think Izmir is the key for where it came from (if such a simple thing can have a source per se),” she said. So I contacted Sıla Özsümer at the Izmir Chamber of Commerce, who told me that this drink was believed to have originated in local coffee shops. “It is prepared by mixing mineral water (that we call soda, but it is different from your soda), lemon juice and salt,” she told me.

Wilcroft's Churchill (54497113)
Wilcroft's Churchill (54497113)

Pre-covid, I might have dreamed of a commission that paid well enough to fly me to Bastinl in the province of Izmir, where many local cafés and bars serve the drink. I’d have asked lots of questions, drunk a lot of Churchills, paid a local guide and translator to assist, and returned with a lovely story. Instead, post-lockdown, I am sitting at my desk surrounded by books about Turkish cuisine, a large paper map of Izmir, at least 50 open tabs on my screen and some photos and notes from my last visit to Wilcrofts. (Sadly, my emails to the café owner went unanswered.)

Wilcrofts serve their Churchill in three ways. My first order arrived in a frosted and ribbed glass tumbler crowned with citrus foam, its colour going from the palest of lemon to amber-tinged yellow at the base of the glass. This, I discovered, was because the café had added a teaspoon of dark, runny honey, which I later learned is not traditional in Izmir. The second time I ordered it, post-covid and in need of something to slap my taste buds awake, the honey came on the side for me to add myself. The first sip made me jump – it is meant to – and then tiny droplets of honey whooshed up the straw and burst in my mouth. Being a citrus lover (I adore sour, sharp flavours), I ordered my third Churchill unsweetened, and that was my favourite because this seems to be how it is commonly served in its homeland.

Çörçil is a papercut of a drink, but it’s meant to be. “Turks love adding lemon juice to mineral water as a healthy drink alternative for the digestive system,” Ozlem Warren, the international cooking teacher and author of Ozlem’s Turkish Table tells me. It seems the Churchill is a drink for a hot country where hydration and rehydration are a priority, functioning as both preventative and cure for a host of ailments, including headaches and over-indulgence.

Gamze Ineceli, a food culture researcher based in Istanbul, concurs. “Çörçil, aka Soda Limon as most Turks would call it, originated in Karsıyaka, Izmir,” says Ineceli. “Or so goes the story. It was founded by Ahmet Pendikli, a man who owned and managed a place within the fishermen shelters in Karsıyaka – an area of Izmir.

“He used to make the drink (a family recipe from ancestors) for himself and his family members, claiming it was good for headaches and nausea and (although this is never written or referred to), I can well imagine they had hangovers from the night before from too much raki,” she says. “In any case, because of its gorgeous citrus aroma, delicious-looking foam and thirst-quenching assets in warm weather, the customers wanted to drink it as well and kept coming back for it.”

“Some say it was invented by a man in Izmir whose name is Churchill Ahmet. It’s definitely a drink associated with that city. . . ‘Churchill Ahmet’ not so sure,” Eden told me at the beginning of my research. Everyone I spoke to agreed that the story might be apocryphal, and I couldn’t find a definitive answer to where the drink got its name. “Ahmet’s nickname was Çörçil Ahmet. . . I don’t know exactly why. . . could be due to the post-war popularity of Churchill, and the chances are high that Ahmet was an admirer,” Ineceli tells me. “Everyone referred to him as Çörçil. Çörçil Ahmet has passed away, but he has a street named after him in Karsıyaka Izmir.”

Winston Churchill’s popularity in Turkey was posited as a source of the name by several other sources. One even suggested that Churchill’s restorative effects would have helped its namesake, who was partial to a stiffener or 20 and no doubt paid the price in hangovers. An online source described the drink as one which Ahmet would make for his family and, “after another customer saw it and asked for the same, it became a phenomenon”, and its fame spread beyond the town of its birth. “This flavour originated in Izmir, but now it has become a beverage recognised by all of Turkey,” wrote journalist Ugur Yuzgulec back in 2017. However, Ozlem Warren tells me she “wouldn’t describe it as a traditional drink in Turkey unlike Turkish tea, cay, Turkish coffee, Boza – a fermented drink Ayran (yoghurt mixed with ice cubes, salt, mint), Salgam – pickled turnip juice – and Raki.”

I’m going to encourage West Suffolk-based readers to visit Wilcrofts and try it themselves. The rest of you should check out your local Turkish café and ask the staff if they can make you one. (Apparently, it is a well-known ‘off-menu’ item, ordered by regulars whenever they feel a little peaky). Gamze Ineceli has kindly offered me her recipe, which, she says, “is very simple but just some details to watch out for.” The quality of the salt is important (Ineceli uses cave salt from Çankırı, “but something like Maldon would work beautifully as well,” and the sparkling water should have a lively, naturally-carbonated fizz. Watch out for artificially-carbonated water, she cautions. Choose unwaxed lemons; using the zest makes a difference to the aroma. “At the bottom of a glass, press a few slices of lemon with a nice full dash of salt and add the juice of one large lemon. Top slowly with sparkling water, stirring while adding 200ml of water. Sometimes, I add a few leaves of fresh mint during the pressing process, and it should be served very cool. If using crushed ice, add it before sparkling water.”

What about the honey, I ask? “No, never!” she tells me. “With us, it’s always those ingredients – honey seems very alternative for that drink.”

Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale

Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Online Food Writer Award 2020