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18
Nov

Leighton Session 2-31 copy

Well, I am nearly at the end of my residency in Leighton House. There is still one more visit to my kitchen for people to see where and how I work. It has been a great adventure and I loved being a chef in a museum. Fortunately, it wasn’t only me who did, but also everyone who came including my lovely new young intern who helped me with the pickling session. Shame I had not met her for the demo proper last Saturday when I made beautiful dips. Luckily, I had my gorgeous Nuria helping me and the lovely Kit Oates taking the beautiful pictures in this post, not to mention sweet Noe who was making sure everything went smoothly.

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23
May

ful medammes copy

Another great trip to Syria with a wonderful group. We had great fun despite being driven by possibly the most stubborn and moronic driver ever. He and his uncomfortable bus (supposedly VIP) were the low point of an otherwise lovely trip.

As usual, the food was delicious with one of the great hits being breakfast at my favourite fawwal (ful medammes specialist) where lovely Hajj Abdo makes the best ever ful medammes. Like Hanna, Hajj Abdo is a wonderful old man who’s been making ful medammes for over fifty years; and he is still personally in charge of the making and serving of his speciality. Here he is in action. What you see him doing in this clip is what he does, almost non-stop, from 7 am to 3 pm every day.

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23
Sep

Everyone knows and loves halva. Well, perhaps not everyone loves halva but most people know it, the tahini one that is. Still, despite halva being fairly common now, few people know how it’s made. And I have to admit that I didn’t except for the one time, many many years ago, when I made  it following a recipe from Leslie Kenton’s  Raw Energy, and after I nearly broke my food processor trying to grind the sesame seeds, I ended up with a halva that bore no resemblance to any  I ever had — there are other types of halva but more on that in future posts. In any case, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I finally saw halva being made, and what a revelation that was. I was being taken round the old souks of Aleppo by a wonderful character and a friend now, Hassan Khoja who is the burly man in the first video below, when we stopped at the shop of a friend of his, Omar Akesh, who sells tahini and halva which he produces in a sprawling and rather medieval space behind and above his shop. The only thing I knew then was that shirsh al-halaweh (meaning the root or vein of sweetness in Arabic, or plain soapwort root in English) was used in the making of halva (it is listed as one of the ingredients) although I wasn’t quite sure how. So here is what I found out.

[vimeo]http://www.vimeo.com/6714556[/vimeo]

First you need tahini, and to make tahini, sesame seeds have to be roasted, soaked, hulled and pressed, all of which are done by Omar’s men in the upstairs room. Then the soapwort roots have to be boiled to produce a brown liquid which when beaten miraculously turns into a brilliant white foam (because of the saponin). This foam is then mixed with sugar syrup to produce a meringue-like dip called natef, which is also served with karabij halab, a crumbly  ‘cookie’ filled with pistachio nuts. In fact, the natef that goes with the karabij is slighly different from the natef that is used in halva but I can’t remember the proportions now — somewhere I have notes telling me the ratios. The natef is made in a kind of tin machine/beater (sadly the only part of the process which I didn’t manage to photograph or film) and once it’s ready, it is mixed with the tahini. The mixture is then processed in three different stages. First it is churned as you can see in the video above. Once the halva maker judges it ready to be beaten, he attaches a huge wooden pestle to an automated arm which will drop it into and lift it from the mixture at a regular pace, while he goes on scraping the halva from the sides and pestle to ensure perfect blending.

[vimeo]http://vimeo.com/6714660[/vimeo]

And now comes the final stage, which is the kneading of the halva. The mixture is transferred into a beautiful large metal bowl with a round bottom so that it can be rocked back and forth, and the halva maker kneads the mixture until it is smooth before portioning it out and packing it in plastic boxes.

[vimeo]http://www.vimeo.com/6714805[/vimeo]

At Omar Akesh, and elsewhere, you can buy halva plain, or you can choose the more expensive version with pistachio nuts. The nuts are usually pressed on the outside of the halva cake but there is a more luxurious version with more pistachio nuts that are kneaded into the mixture. Here is a close-up of  soapwort as well as a few shots of the sequence of events in the making of halva.

shirsh el-halaweh 3 copy

halva 1 copy halva 2 copy halva 4 copy halva 7 copy halva - kneading 1 copy halva - kneading 2 copy halva - kneading 3 copy halva - kneading 4 copy

halva - weighing & packing copy