I have recently moved to Sicily in search of sunshine and a place that reminds me of home (Lebanon & Syria) but where I do not have to worry about ISIS! I am being facetious of course but Italy seems a safer bet than the Middle East these days and the great thing about Sicily, apart from the fact that it is very beautiful with lovely people and lovely food, is that the produce is just amazing, and pretty much the same as what I was brought up on, seasonal and supremely flavourful. So, I am now ensconced in Trapani which I like to compare to Beirut but cleaner and better organised, until that is my house is built, and not far from where I live is the mercato dei contadini, ie. farmers market that happens every Saturday; and this last Saturday one of the farmers had the most amazing cicoria or hindbeh that took me straight back to my mother and Jamil, my wonderful driver in Beirut who sadly is no longer with us, who used to bring my mother the most amazing bunches of freshly picked hindbeh which she would then cook in olive oil. And even though my fractured toes are still not completely recovered, I bought some to make myself some hindbeh following my mother’s recipe.
When I wrote my Lebanese cookbook more than 20 years ago, sumac was still a relatively unknown ingredient, unlike now when almost everyone knows what it is, and more to the point can find it fairly easily. Anyhow, my mother told me all about how it is picked and dried, and then ground and I put all the information in the book together with how if you picked it from the wrong plant, you could die. Thank goodness for my mother being the fount of knowledge on all things culinary in Lebanon because I had never seen sumac either on the plant, or being dried and until recently, I only knew it in its ground form. But one day, a few years back, I was walking through souk el-Attarine in Aleppo and I found stalls selling sumac on the branch (‘ala al-‘anqoud as it is described in Arabic) and whole berries after they have been rubbed off the branch; and one guy was selling it ground with the seed and ground without — I honestly could not tell the difference. And two years ago, I found it being sold on the branch driving through the south of Lebanon . However, it is only two days ago, that I finally saw the whole process.
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.
If I could put my loft on a magic carpet, fly it to New York and land it somewhere in Chelsea within walking distance of Union Square, I would do so in a heartbeat. I love the city. It is actually my favourite! And I love Union Square Farmers market and wish we had something similar in London. It is not that we don’t have enough farmers market. We have plenty. But what they don’t offer is the tremendous variety that you find in Union Square. Take the top photo for instance: beautiful, graceful hands picking okra from a selection of red and green ones. As some of you know, I was brought up in Lebanon and Syria where okra is a common vegetable but I had never seen red okra before. Nor for that matter fat okra as pretty as those with the reddish tops in the picture below. It is not my favourite vegetable but if I lived in New York, it would certainly become one. At least at this time of the year.