Ice Cream, Orchids and Things

Orchis boryi at Bourazani in Epirus His stainless steel pick gleamed and twirled as he drove it into the barrel in front of him. With a deft twist of his wrist he cleaved off a shining chunk from the creamy-white mass inside and brought it up to the cone in a sweeping arc that was more toreador than ice cream vendor.

Orchis mascula in foothills of Mt Menalon

"Dondurma, dondurma . . . Kaimaki, kaimaki", his voice split the air with the same sharpness as his pick on to which he had impailed my ice cream, dangling it before me with mischief in his eyes.

As I reached to take it he flipped the cone upwards and away from my grasp. Confused, I tried again, and again but on each attempt he had that cone dancing beyond my reach.

Just as I was about to concede defeat he appeared to take pity on me, took the ice cream from his pick, and offered it to me inside a serviette. With a magician's sleight of hand he had slipped on another cone and so the instant my grip tightened he lifted the ice cream clear leaving me holding the empty one.

(To view first hand a true master of the dondurma at work click on here.)

Orchis laxiflora at Kedros Plateau on Crete Orchis fragrans on Mt Ambelos 

It was all good natured fun, the vendor had performed with precision and flare and well, I was the fall guy. It had been good for business, it had drawn a crowd, but I wonder if any of those watching  knew that the key ingredient to this performance was an orchid, or more precisely an orchid from the genus Orchis.

This genus is a large and polymorphic one ranging from Europe through to North America. Its name is derived from the Greek word, "orkhis", meaning testicle, because the bulbs bear a strong resemblance to them, and, as you would expect, a number of species, in particular, O. mascula, have been used as an aphrodisiac.

Orchis sitiaca on the Kedros Plateau

The pulp derived from these orchids is known as Salamisri and has a long history of use as an alternate to arrowroot and coffee and as a medicinal tonic. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was exported to England and Germany from Turkey as dry starchy flour called Salep which was thickened in water, flavoured with rose water or orange flowers and served as a drink called Saloop. It was gradually supplanted by coffee but for a time it was very popular and Charles Lamb in his writings on London makes reference to a Saloop Shop in Fleet Street.

 Orchis pauciflora on Kedros Plateau Orchis provincialis in Taygetos Mts  

Salep or salepi is also used in the making of the stretchy, chewy, traditional Turkish ice cream called Dondurma, which literally means “freezing”. It is sold from barrels by street vendors who churn it regularly with a long handled paddle to keep it workable and who use the same implement to entertain and tease customers by performing tricks when serving them their cones. Its popularity in Turkey and surrounding countries is causing a decline in wild orchids, especially the Orchis species, O. mascula and O. militaris and led to a ban on the export of this key ingredient.

Orchis simia on Kedros Plateau Orchis papilionacea on Kedros Plateau

The same type of ice cream is sold in Northern Greece under the name Kaimaki but we have never come across it. However, we have become acquainted with some incredibly handsome Orchis on our travels in Greece and we have showcased just a few of these in this post. We sincerely hope that none of them end up in a tub of ice cream!

Many thanks to Susan Jarick for the images in this post.


Please note because these plants are under strict CITES regulation they are not available for sale in Australia. However if you are interested in seeing them in the wild, along with a wealth of other beautiful flowers, then watch this space. As from next year we are planning to offer guided tours to Crete and other destinations in Greece. So if a Greek adventure is the something you've dreamed about, or maybe you simply want to walk in an ancient land brimming with myth and legend, then this could be for you. Further details will be posted soon.


Great photos. You are having a great trip, I envy you. I enjoyed the story and film of the dondurma at work, great story! Thank you for sharing your trip and your adventures with me. I have downloaded the images of both your e-mails; if that is okay with you! Enjoy your trip. A wise person is a travelled person. Looking forward to your next adventure. Please travel safely. Regards Ron.

Hi Ron,

Thanks, glad you liked it. I believe Shane Delia may have mentioned dondurma on last week's episode of his Spice Journey to Turkey on SBS. I am pretty sure he will mention saffron and Crocus sativus in coming weeks. How could he not!

I am home now and just launched my winter catalogue.

Cheers, Marcus