It’s this time of the year again when everyone is getting excited because desert truffles are back in season. Well, at least in Syria and Lebanon whereas they are just over in the Arabian Gulf — I missed them by a week or so. Not that I was so sad to miss them. I can’t say I am a great fan of these prized nuggets of the desert. They are more about texture than either aroma or flavour, and the annoying thing is that however well you clean them, there will always be a few grains of sand left to spoil the bite.
But I did have them once, at the house of a friend in Aleppo, when they were not only totally delicious — stewed with meat and served with the most divine rice flavoured with cardamom — but also without any grit. She had used truffles that are much bigger than those in the pictures here which I snapped last week in Damascus, and the girls who helped her in the kitchen spent a lot longer cleaning them. There wasn’t a single grain of sand.
You can, if you want, buy them already cleaned but they never clean them well enough. They don’t want to lose any of the weight as they are very expensive, although nowhere near as expensive as either the black or white ones. In any case, I will not be buying them, either cleaned or still covered with earth. But if you are, ask for the darker truffles that are imported from Algeria. My Damascus grocer assures me they are far superior to the local ones. I guess they must be. They are twice as expensive.
I was on my way to the Iranian embassy in Bir Hassan, a funny area of Beirut where luxurious towers are built right next to hovels. Well, perhaps not quite next door but a street or two away, and I have to admit that I almost prefer the downmarket areas. They remind me of my life in Beirut before the war, when the city was not so over-developped and when street vendors pushed their carts, piled with seasonal produce, through the smartest and poorest quartiers alike, shouting at the top of their lungs: “yalla ‘a batikh’ (come and get watermelons) or yalla ‘a kussa (come and get courgettes) and so on. Their calls changed with the seasons and my siblings and I could almost guess, from listening to them, what my mother would cook that day.
As you know, I am pretty familiar with camel meat but when I recently posted a link on facebook to an article on camel burgers in Dubai, my lovely friend Charles Perry (who is the leading expert on medieval Arab cookery) left a comment about a recipe he had for camel hump. I had seen the hump for sale at my camel butcher in Aleppo but I had never seen a recipe for it. So, I asked Charles for his. Sadly, he couldn’t find it — it had gotten lost between computers — but as usual, he sent me lots of information and other recipes; and I thought it would be great to have him do a post here about how camel meat was used in medieval times. Here is his post with some photographs that I shot in the souks of Aleppo.
Charles Perry: Last May, Anissa blogged about visiting a camel butcher in Damascus and making camel kebabs. That was a new one on me – I’d only heard of camel being cooked in elaborate stews. It’s how they cooked camel in the Middle Ages.
Camel meat was reasonably popular back then, popular enough for doctors to gravely warn against eating too much of it (in the manner of doctors throughout the ages). They held it to be “heating” and to “engender thick blood,” and declared it suitable only “for those who do exhausting labor.” Or suffer from “hot stomach” and diarrhea, oddly. Read more >
I have a love/hate relationship with Beirut. I hate the traffic and how people drive. I hate all the towers sprouting right against the lovely old Ottoman houses or worse, going up where they once stood. And I hate the general feeling of lawlessness. Not that the city is dangerous. Far from it. Just completely unregulated. On the other hand, I love the sea and the fact that even in February, you can sit in a cafe or restaurant right by the water and not even feel a tinge of cold. But above all, I love Hanna and his sensational ice cream.