"SO you're here for anchovies," said the bartender at Sehrazade, a shadowy spot in Unye, Turkey, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
With his boxer's nose and stern mien, the beefy man looked more gangster than barkeep. But when I told him why I'd come to this small town on Turkey's Black Sea coast, he showed a softer side. He nodded slowly and reached into his pocket for a phone.
Twenty minutes later a uniformed schoolboy burst into the bar (397A Hukumet Caddesi) with an aluminum baking pan. My new friend took the pan and placed it before me, removing its lid with a flourish and releasing a plume of steam. Inside was a little over a pound of lightly charred anchovies, each no longer than my pinkie, stacked dorsal fin to belly along wooden skewers.
"Eat, eat!" he urged, squeezing a wedge of lemon over the fish and dislodging them with a knife into juices pooling at the pan's bottom. I never did learn where they came from ("a kitchen nearby" was all that he would reveal), but they were spectacular: fresh and firm, briny and pleasingly oily.
They weren't my first anchovies of the day, nor would they be my last in the week to come. I was on a pilgrimage of sorts, inspired by an anchovy obsession, one shared by many Turks. For connoisseurs of hamsi, as anchovies are called in Turkish, the fat-padded specimens netted from the frigid Black Sea trump those taken from the Sea of Marmara, south of Istanbul and the Bosporus. The Black Sea season -- which usually starts mid-autumn and runs through February -- has been keenly anticipated for centuries. In the mid-1600s, the Ottoman traveler Evliya Celebi wrote that in the port of Trabzon, on the coast's eastern half, "fishmongers at the wharf ... have special trumpets made of elder-tree wood. They only have to blow on these trumpets once and, by God's dispensation, if people praying in the mosque hear it, they will immediately leave their prayer and come running for the hamsi." Today, locals settle for feasting on the fish as often as the season will allow, often twice a day at its height, when hamsi are as cheap as 3 Turkish lira (about $1.70) per kilo.
Driven by that sort of passion, my plan was a hamsi-fueled road trip along a 300-mile stretch of Turkey's central Black Sea coast, with stops en route to sample the best of the catch, which turned out to be delicately seasonal -- available one day, then not the next.
My journey kicked off on an unpromising note at the airport outside Samsun, a 90-minute flight from Istanbul, when a car rental clerk said that unseasonably warm weather was reducing the size of this year's catch. Sure enough only Marmara hamsi were to be had when I arrived in the port city of Giresun, 110 miles east. Still, at Yetimogullari Restoran (Gazi Caddesi, Findikkale Arasi; 90-454-212-0839), where chandeliers, mirrors and sleek white leather upholstery are an unlikely backdrop for wood-oven-baked breads and home-style soups and stews, baked hamsi with onions, long green chiles and tomatoes served as a good warm-up.
The next day brought leaden skies, a cold drizzle and a brisk wind from the north: unpleasant for the traveler, perhaps, but perfect for harvesting hamsi. Walking uphill from Giresun's port to the ruins of a Byzantine castle, I passed fishmongers displaying the fish in red carts, courting customers with shouts of "The anchovies have come!"
After a quick tour of Giresun's fish market, a small L-shaped collection of open stalls a block from the harbor, I headed to Emre Balikcilik (51 Fatih Caddesi; 90-454-212-7200), a fish shop and cafe where the day's catch is cooked in an open kitchen. Turken Tunan, who owns the spot with her husband, is a specialist in tava, a regional technique for preparing fish. She dipped my anchovies in corn flour, arranged them in a spiral formation in the pan and sautéed them over high heat, flipping them like an omelet midway. They were fantastically crispy, fragrant thanks to the corn flour and not at all oily. For her buglama ("Not hamsi for this, but bluefish," she noted) Ms. Tunan laid paper-thin slices of garlic and peeled and sliced tomatoes over the fish, sprinkled them with crushed dried red chile and added a shocking amount of butter. After 15 minutes on top of the stove, the tomatoes had melted onto the fish, which now swam in a luxuriously buttery tomato sauce.
From Giresun I drove west, diverting right after Ordu from the main highway to a sinuous stretch of two-lane blacktop marked by small harbors clogged with fishing trawlers. On a grassy peninsula I came upon a 19th-century Greek Orthodox church built on the site of a temple dedicated to Jason of the Argonauts. A bit farther on, I stopped for worship of a different kind at Vonali Celal (Caka Tunel Mevki; 90-452-587-2137), an endearingly quirky restaurant perched over the sea, appended to a half-century-old pickle shop.
Suleyman, the younger brother of the restaurant's eponymous founder, led me past sagging shelves displaying hundreds of brining jars, housing everything from yellow cherries and sour plums to whole cloves of garlic and stuffed eggplants. At a table warmed by the wood stove I ate a top-notch hamsi tava, which arrived garnished with singed slices of onion and long green peppers. Also noteworthy: Black Sea dishes like small griddled corn breads, eaten with sautéed pickled Romano beans; and a frittata made with tiny local onions called sakarca. Next up was Unye, where I passed the hours between anchovy sampling by admiring the town's impressive collection of Ottoman mansions, shopping at its old-style copper shops and strolling along its long stretch of seaside promenade.
The morning after my impromptu feast at Sehrazade the weather turned springlike -- and the hamsi disappeared. I made do with a solid buglama (I was learning that there are as many versions of this dish as there are Black Sea cooks) featuring thick slices of bonito at Iskele Restoran (67 Hukumet Caddesi; 90-452-323-4469), a sleek businessmen's hangout overlooking the beach, then pushed west.
The 160-mile drive to Sinop was the most punishing of my trip, an unlovely four-hour slog through roadwork and a mess of overpass construction in downtown Samsun. But the effort was rewarded in Sinop, whose lovely old town bends around a small working harbor lined with teahouses made for idling, all bookended by the crenelated ruins of a citadel possibly dating to Roman times.
Physical beauty aside, Sinop's top attraction is Okyanus Balikevi (Kurulus Caddesi; 90-368-291-3650), a family-owned restaurant overlooking the harbor. It's where I ate some of the best hamsi of my trip.
There, I met Mert Kanal, whose grandfather opened Mevsim Balikcilik, Sinop's oldest fish shop. (The shop's current location makes up Okyanus's ground floor.) Sinop had not seen hamsi for days. The locals were about to go through withdrawal, Mr. Kanal implied; he was waiting for a delivery from Zonguldak, another coastal town. "Fish is fish, but hamsi is hamsi," he said.
The kitchen at Okyanus, overseen most of the time by Mr. Kanal's mother, displays a reverence for the fish in pitch-perfect versions of hamsi izgara, grilled parsley- and onion-marinated anchovies, hamsi tava and, occasionally, hamsi kofte. Ms. Kanal's baked hamsi pilavi, a single-serving deep clay dish lined with butterflied anchovy fillets filled with parsley-seasoned rice, is a masterpiece.
About midway to my next stop, Inebolu, I stopped at Gullusu Aile Canli Balik (on the main highway; 368-684-8046), where Rahmi Pamuk pointed to a fishing boat docked beneath his restaurant. "My son catches them, we cook them," he said. "It doesn't get fresher." It was tava for lunch again, but this time made with hamsi caught just hours before. Dressed with lemon, the jagged-edged wasabi-hot salad green called tere accompanied the fish beautifully.
I arrived in Inebolu, a sweet hill town of blood-red timber houses, to find hamsi everywhere: in the fish shops, on wooden carts parked on its narrow lanes, displayed in cafes and restaurants. But the next day at Ine Balik & Et (11 Haci Mehmet Aydin Caddesi; 90-366-811-4123), whose upstairs dining rooms overlook a bakery, a fish shop and a two-chair barbershop, I ate a local specialty called pilaki (which needs to be ordered an hour in advance) made with sarikanat, a small bluefish. Baked in an oval clay baking dish, the fish lolled in an opulent sauce both buttery and redolent of the sea, much like escargot. I longed to try the dish -- and the restaurant's grilled fish sandwich, and its simple lemony fish soup -- made with hamsi, but they were again not to be found.
I lingered in Inebolu for two days, hoping for hamsi. On my last morning I took in the town's rollicking Saturday market, an orgy of prepared foods and fresh produce from surrounding villages, then went for tea to Hanimeli Cafe (10 Ismetpasa Caddesi). The previous day I'd spoken of my quest with Esen, the cafe's owner and a ferociously good cook.
"The hamsi have come," she said as I walked in. Ten minutes later, as I tucked into another heap of gorgeously golden corn flour-dusted fried fish, chagrin gave way to contentment. Hamsi hunger appeased, but never sated, I contemplated dinner.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.