A few years ago, my mother was quite ill and I spent a fair amount of time in Beirut, first making sure she got the right treatment then helping her recover. Quite naturally, this disturbed my London routine including who washed and ironed my thousand and one white shirts – those of you who know me, know that I only wear them. This may be a shallow consideration given the gravity of the situation but I needed to look impeccable regardless. This is where Sabah, a rare person, came into my life. She had just opened a dry cleaning place down from my mother’s home, and I took my first lot of shirts to her. Women in Lebanon are very fashion conscious (well, in a very Lebanese sort of way!) and few would consider wearing the same clothes two days in a row let alone have a uniform. My white shirts intrigued Sabah. She couldn’t understand why I had so many! I also intrigued her. She knew my mother but had never met me. But she was very well disposed towards me because of my mother, and became even more so when I told her I wrote about food.
It is nearly two years since I have been back in Lebanon and the first thing that struck me when I got home to my mother was how much better all the fruit tasted from that I buy in the Lebanese shops in London. I had asked my mother to buy me all that was in season and being the wonderful mother she is, she stocked up on custard apples, jujube, fresh dates and pistachios, khaki, pomegranates and peaches, all of which I adore and all of which I buy in London when they come into season. However, none taste as good there as they do here. Perhaps it is because of the long absence. Or more to the point, perhaps it is because of the time the fruit spend in transit. It could also be the quality. What is exported is possibly not as good as what is sold locally. All I can say is that I will make sure from now on that I go to Lebanon when my favourite fruit is in season. I missed the figs this year. My mother said something very interesting when I asked why she hadn’t bought any. Apparently, they turn sour as soon as it rains. The word in Arabic is ‘bi hammdo’. I never knew that and next year, I’ll be there before any rain spoils the figs!
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!