It’s been two years now that I happen to be in Lebanon and Syria during fig season. I didn’t plan it. It just happened but this meant that I could eat kilos and kilos of the most amazing figs; and more importantly, I could also feast on dozens of the tiny little creatures that feed on them.
Now, many of you will be horrified at the thought of eating little birds but I have to confess that I’ve been eating them from when I was a tiny tot, albeit a chubby one — always loved eating. The birds I ate then were shot by my uncles. I often accompanied them on their shooting expeditions, up in the mountains where the fig orchards were. And while they did the killing, I would go round looking for ripe figs to eat straight off the trees — the main reason why I went with them. Once my uncles shot several dozen birds, we’d drive back home and I’d help my mother, grandmother and aunt pluck and gut the tiny bodies, still warm from having just been alive while my uncles lit a charcoal fire. We kept the birds’ heads on but snipped the beaks off. Then we washed and seasoned the birds before threading them onto metal skewers to grill them over the charcoal fire. Every now and then we took the birds off the heat and pressed their bodies against pita bread to soak up the fatty juices. Then came the moment of ecstasy — a little exaggeration here although not far off — when I popped one whole little bird after the other into my mouth and crunched on the heads first to release the juicy brain.
At the club d’Alep: holding a little bird for Anna Sussman to snap
There has been talk for quite some time now of the birds becoming endangered, and of course, shooting them is illegal in Europe (although I did once eat ortolans in France) but this doesn’t stop them from being on the menu year after year, both in Lebanon and Syria. Here are a few photographs I shot in the last month. The best birds were not at Halim in B’hamdum, the temple for these creatures, but at a rather disappointing new Lebanese restaurant in downtown Beirut called Lebnaniyet (ex La Posta) where the birds were just perfect despite the fact they had been sautéed (I prefer them grilled). Everything about them was right: the size (not too big and not too small), the amount of fat (enough to make them really moist without them being too greasy), and the chef had kept the heads on — they take them off now at Halim.
The different sizes you can order at Halim’s
a little out of focus but it gives you an idea of how many birds get served night after night at Halim’s
When they are grilled, the birds are served on marquq (handkerchief) bread
Or you can have them sautéed in pomegranate syrup
The simple mezze at Halim’s, with my beautiful mother looking a tad out of place in the modest café.
I guess I should really feel guilty and not eat these tiny creatures but they are one of the most heavenly foods ever, and to use a cliché, you only live once!
No Facebook, and no You Tube. For two weeks! Not that I am addicted to either but it came as a real surprise. I thought Syria was opening up. Lucky I didn’t have much time for either. I had two groups, one after the other, the first with several food writers, all listed now in the Baghdad Cafés guest book — the café is a delightful stop on the way to Palmyra where you can listen to the owner play wonderful music on a funny tin string instrument.
I won’t describe all that we did during these two weeks but I thought I’d tell you about some of the highlights. The most exciting, at least for me, was our second dinner at the Club d’Alep where we watched three whirling dervishes dance.
We were lucky. We happened to be there at the same time as members of the Académie de la Gastronomie Libanaise and my friends at the Académie Syrienne de la Gastronomie had laid on the show for them. They had also ordered, as a main course, the pièce de resistance of the club: a selection of shish kebabs, served spiked into a glittering serving platter in the middle of which is a real fire. Quite spectacular.
Sadly, we missed the breakfast at Maison Poche, a fabulous European flat in a caravanserai in the heart of the old souk of Aleppo — we had to leave early for Apamée and Krak des Chevaliers and we couldn’t fit it in. But before that, we had a great day at Maria’s, a rare Syrian woman chef, who does cookery demonstrations for my groups in her house, showing how to prepare various Aleppine specialities, including cherry kababs (see recipe below), one of the city’s signature dishes.
The cherry kababs were delicious, but even more delicious was the young beauty I found in Serjilla, a fabulous dead Byzantine city south of Aleppo. We went there after Qal’at Sem’an (St Simeon) with possibly the most irritating guide ever who kept complimenting me on my newly acquired amber & gold worry beads hoping that, in good Arab fashion, I would give them to him. No such luck. In any case, as we walked around the wonderful ruins, I came across the most beautiful child I have ever seen during my travels in Syria: blond, green-eyed and just like the models you see in magazines. Totally gorgeous, and what’s more, perfectly aware of her beauty as you can see from the way she posed for the photographs.
I wanted to do a Madonna and adopt her on the spot but she said she was happy with her family. So, I gave her and her brothers money. The elder brother immediately swiped her share. I tried to return it to her but she wasn’t too worried. She assured me he would save it for her. Not so sure. I will find out when I am back there in the autumn, and perhaps I will ask her again if she wants to move to London. I am not entirely serious! Cherry Kababs Kabab bil-Karaz If there is a dish that symbolises the cooking of Aleppo, this has to be it. There are several versions. Maria grinds the cherries before cooking them while my friends Lena Toutounji, who has one of the best tables in Aleppo, and May Mamarbachi, the creator of the first boutique hotel in Damascus, the wonderful Beit Mamlouka, both leave the cherries whole. Maya very kindly gave me cherries from her frozen stock so that I could test the recipe. I am not sure if fresh sour cherries are available in the US but Jeffrey Steingarten, who was with me on a previous trip to Syria when Maria demonstrated the dish, declared that the Syrian sour cherries were the same as those you buy dried in the states. If you can’t get them fresh, simply soak dried ones as indicated below and use as with fresh ones. Serves 4 For the meatballs (kabab) 1 lb minced lamb ½ tbsp sea salt ½ teaspoon 7-spice mixture (or allspice) 1 tbsp unsalted butter For the cherry sauce 2 lb fresh sour cherries, pitted (or 1 lb dried sour cherries soaked overnight in 2 cups water) 1 tbsp sugar 1 tbsp pomegranate syrup To finish 2 tbsp unsalted butter, 2 to 3 pita breads, opened at the seams and cut into medium sized triangles ground allspice 3 tbsp finely chopped parsley 4 tbsp pine nuts 1. Mix the meat with the salt and spice mixture (or allspice) and shape into small balls, the size of large marbles. Melt the butter in a large frying pan over medium heat and sauté the meatballs until lightly browned. 2. Put the cherries, sugar and pomegranate syrup in a saucepan large enough to eventually take the meatballs and place over medium heat. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to medium low and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the meatballs and simmer for another 15 minutes. 3. Melt half the butter in a small frying pan over medium heat. Add the pine nuts and sauté, stirring constantly, until lightly golden. Be sure not to burn them. 4. To assemble the dish: spread the pita bread all over the serving platter, coarse side up and making sure the pointed ends are nicely arranged on the outside. Melt the remaining butter and drizzle all over the bread. Sprinkle with a little allspice. Spoon the meat and sauce all over the bread. Sprinkle the chopped parsley all over, then the sautéed pine nuts. Serve immediately.