12
Mar

desert truffles-5 copy

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.

desert truffles-cleaned & not cleaned copy

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.


1
Mar

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.

xmas card 3

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 >


2
Jan

lone-testicle-copy

Long ago, when I was doing the Sotheby’s works of arts course, I wanted to be a photographer, really more than an art expert. So, I got myself a beautiful Nikon, a couple of lenses, a tripod, a remote control shutter clicker or whatever that thing is called, a beautiful canvas bag to carry my gear and I started taking photographs. Lots of them.

My role model was Edward Weston. I loved  his strange close-ups of vegetables that didn’t look like vegetables, although I was not interested in photographing food in those days. I loved eating but not cooking. I didn’t want to be domesticated and I wouldn’t cook for my poor lover of the time who had to eat cheese and toast most evenings — he didn’t seem to mind.

In any case, we had this lovely property in the south of France, near a river where there were beautiful rock formations; and every day, I would go out with my camera to take close-ups of rocks, earth, tree trunks, whatever looked beautiful and likely to end up looking not like it was in close-up. But I quickly realised that I was no Edward Weston and even when I took photographs that were good, I would find a photographer had done them before. So, I put away my camera, using it only for my course work and concentrated on learning about art.

Recently, I got a new camera. A friend set it for me with a special close-up setting and I started taking close-ups again, this time of food. One day, as I walked down the souk in Aleppo, I saw this lone testicle sitting on a butcher’s block. The butcher was very amused with my photographing it again and again. He didn’t know that I was once quoted as saying: “I love brains and testicles” (in the context of talking about offal of course) with some journalist picking up the quote, saying I was a girl after his heart. Anyway, I was skyping with a friend tonight, and as we were discussing sex and middle aged lesbians, she reminded me of the quote, and I remembered my picture of the lone testicle.

So, I thought I would do a blog and post my photograph and one of Weston’s of a pepper. I like my picture, especially that little fleck of parsley and the slit on the skin but sadly, I am still not likely to produce any shots like Weston’s! Nor will I ever. Still, I am having fun with my new camera and its new close-up setting.

weston_pepper_number30

©Edward Weston — Pepper, 1930

How to cook testicles:

The testicle in my picture belongs to a lamb and it hasn’t been peeled yet. Normally the butcher would do that and the nick you see at the top is where he must have started making the incision before he got distracted. It would have run along the length of the testicle for him to peel off the skin easily to reveal creamy flesh with no trace of blood. He will then cut it into slices along the length or into wedges. I prefer slices because the thickness is more or less the same all over and I can control the  cooking. You don’t need to do much to testicles. Some people recommend blanching them like sweetbreads or brains before frying them, but no one does that in Lebanon. I just dredge the pieces in seasoned flour, shake the excess off and then fry them in butter for one minute on each side. Be careful not to overcook them or they will go rubbery. I always squeeze a little lemon at the very end. Et voilà, just as good as brains or sweetbreads. Perhaps even better.


31
Dec

menengiç 5 copy

I discovered this extraordinary drink last year. I was walking through the bazaars of Gaziantep (or Antep as the Turks like to call it or ‘Entab as the Syrians do, a lovely town in south eastern Turkey which is a mini Aleppo, complete with a smaller Citadel) when I stopped in front of a sack full of pretty small dried berries, some blueish and some red which I had never seen before. I asked the vendor what they were but naturally, he only spoke Turkish and sadly, I don’t. Rather annoying but I was meeting my friend Filiz Hosuokoglu, the reference in Gaziantep for all things culinary, and others — her father and brothers have a lovely gold jewellery shop where I got my lovely grape earrings — for lunch and I bought a bag to show her and ask about them.

menengiç berries

She explained that they were wild pistachios used to make a caffeine-free coffee that looks like Turkish coffee, but isn’t – it has a resinous quality to it and a mouth feel that is definitely an acquired taste. After lunch, Filiz took me to the most divine old-fashioned cafe, Tahmis, to taste menengiç. Sadly, the café is being restored now and the old man in the picture below will no longer run the café when it reopens.

cafe tahmis copy

I was intrigued and I thought I would introduce my friends and students to it. What I omitted to do was ask Filiz how to use the berries I had bought. It wasn’t until I returned to London that I realised I couldn’t use them as they are. They needed to be processed and I couldn’t do it. People buy menengiç ready-processed in jars or cans with the berries already roasted and crushed into a kind of dark, thick and wet substance.

So, no menengiç coffee until I had a jar of the processed berries. Now, I am sure I could have bought one at any of the Turkish shops in Green Lanes, north from where I live, but it wasn’t the same thing as bringing one back from Gaziantep. Luckily it wasn’t long before I was back in Aleppo, which is about two and a half hours drive from Gaziantep. Once there, I hired a car with the most sullen driver ever and took along my lovely friend Anna (who is about to take a sip of menengiç in the last photograph). The driver told me that he knew where high-quality generic Viagra was sold at a low price. We stayed in the same boutique hotel where I normally stay, Anadolu Evleri, two lovely old houses in the old part of town, round the corner from the bazaars. Everyone there is charming, Tim who is the owner, his family and the staff; and they also are extremely helpful. As soon as I explained to Tim that I needed to find out more about menengiç, he brought out the jar you see in the picture below, and asked one of his lovely young men to make us some. Anna asked for hers to be made with milk while I had mine plain. To tell you the truth, neither one of us liked it much but it is definitely worth trying, at least once. Happy new year.

menengiç 1 copy menegiç 2 copy

menengiç 4 copy menengiç anna

How to make Turkish coffee or menengiç:

The method is the same for both. Ideally you need a rakweh which is the Arabic name of the little pot with the long handle and spout in the picture above but you can easily make your coffee in a small saucepan. Measure out the number of coffee cups you would like to make by pouring water in a demi tasse (one cupful per person) and pour the water in the rakweh or saucepan. Add a heaping teaspoon of either very finely ground coffee (there are many good Lebanese brands with Najjar being one of the best known) or menengiç per each cup of water, and depending on how sweet you like your coffee, omit the sugar altogether (I always have it sadah, meaning without sugar; wassat means medium and helou, like my name, means sweet) or add up to a teaspoon per cup.

Mix and place over a medium heat. Bring to the boil but be vigilant. The coffee will boil over, so, watch it closely as it starts rising and take off the heat just as it is about to boil over. Let the coffee settle, then boil again. If you like foam on your coffee, two or three boils will be enough. If not, boil several times until there is no more foam. The method is the same for menengiç except that you will not really have any foam. Enjoy.