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Wash your cares away – in a hammam

June 3, 2014
The hammam at the Ciragan Palace Kempinski in Istanbul. Review by

Image © Ciragan Palace

Lying supine on a heated marble slab, feeling a bit vulnerable because I’m topless, a delicious wave of water is poured over my body. Until this moment I would never have imagined that something so simple could feel so divine. Through a steamy veil, I gaze at a ceiling of carved marble stars; tiny lamps and vessels adorn marble arches; huge pestle-shaped sinks are filled with a roar by copper taps, overflowing onto the white marble floor. Water flows in luxurious abundance that you appreciate especially when you’ve lived in a desert country. New age Arabic music thrums in the background as my charming masseuse Aisha, clad in bikini and a short wrap, applies a scrubbing mitt with sweeping pressure.

I’d glimpsed the steamy depths of hammams in Damascus, doorways mistily illuminated in the dark narrow streets and yearned to enter the intriguing domes of the Sulphur baths in Tbilisi but didn’t have time to visit either. On this, my second trip to Istanbul, I was determined to try the original Turkish Bath invented by the Ottomans (and distinct from the Romans and Greeks). Trip Advisor reviews of the top ones recommended in Lonely Planet were pretty terrifying; they ranged from perfunctory, production line massage, to crowded rooms of nakedness, to filthy, festering water and even more unsavoury shenanigans. A friend with impeccable taste who lives in “Da Bul” recommended hammams in the Ritz Carlton and Ciragan Palace Kempinski and as I was staying at the latter this sealed the deal.

Hammam Ciragan Palace - review of hammam My Custard Pie

The infinity pool by the Bosphorus

The cost was pretty eye watering for 50 minutes even compared with the top spas of Dubai but use of the gym and wet areas including an indoor and outdoor pool (the latter infinity to the Bosphorus) are included even for non-residents so I guess you could make an afternoon of it. Some relaxing heat in the sauna and steam, followed by vigorous jets of the jacuzzi (its aqua beauty slightly flawed by a few missing tiles) went a long way to lengthening the distance of my shoulders from my ears. My friend and I were welcomed into the hammam and submitted ourselves to the directions of the two masseuses who proceeded to wash, scrub and oil us.

Lying prone I felt a light warmth of scented airiness coat my body; I opened an eye to see a white duvet-sized blanket of tiny bubbles wafting high over Sarah which fell to envelop her in a soft, soapy cloud. The oil used for a shoulder, face and head massage reminded me of the smell of orange Spangle sweets and I submitted to dexterous kneading and stroking.  Sitting up to have my hair washed and conditioned, rinsed with water poured from a copper jug, I felt like Medieval royalty. The warm ritual was finished with basins of slightly cooler water poured over from head to toe, invigorating but completely acceptable for someone as acclimatised to Middle East temperatures as I am. Wrapped in a thick robe while sipping tea, in a coma of relaxed bliss, I didn’t regret the extravagance for a millisecond and could gladly witness the interior of an authentic 17th Century hammam fully clothed. A white-knuckle-ride taxi drive to the airport a couple of hours later had me longing to return as soon as possible.

Details of the Ciragan Palace spa here. You can choose from the Pasha Treatment; 40 min 130 EU, Sehrazat Treatment (which I experienced); 55 min 165 EU or the VIP Treatment; 80 min 500 EU (prices correct at date of article). Reviews of other hammams in Istanbul here, here and here.

Where to find a hammam in Dubai

‘Morrocan Bath’, a treatment of steam room followed by a scrub, is very popular in Dubai. Many advertise as hammams but I’m not sure if any are authentic. Al Asalla Spa at Dubai Ladies Club, The Jebel Ali Hotel Spa, the Talise Ottoman Spa at Jumeirah Zabeel Saray and the Oriental Hammam at One & Only Royal Mirage all claim to offer hammams in Dubai but I have yet to try them (they are much cheaper than in Istanbul).

Have you experienced a Turkish bath or hammam? What’s the most pampering experience you’ve ever had?

How to shoot your food

May 25, 2014

How to shoot your food - www.mycustardpie.comThat person with a camera permanently glued to their face, that woman wobbling on a chair on her tip toes to take an overhead shot of a bagel, that shopper who comes back from the market and lays all her veg out on a bit of old sacking, that Mum who asks her teen to wait one minute while she clicks her sandwich with an iPhone.  Guilty as charged – I am that person.

Having been asked a few times about the equipment I use and the courses, workshops and help I’ve used to help improve my food photography, while I am certainly no expert, this post is about some of the steps on my journey. Starting out with a point and click, to having food shots featured in magazines…. so some of this has worked. However, it IS a journey and I’m still climbing up the first footpath with mountain peaks ahead in the distant mist.

Before food blogging (BFB) did I see everything as a potential still life and have the urge to capture it? Well yes and no. There’s a wooden blanket box in my house packed full of photos going back over decades including some ‘artistic’ shots of some onion seed heads taken with my first camera when I was about 14. There’s always some sort of creative thread running through my life whether writing, painting, drawing, photography or cooking (yes chopping an onion does count as creative in my book – I have very Zen-like thoughts while doing it). A very dear Aunt of mine always took masses of photos at family events although hated being in front of the lens; in her eighties, she still carries on (using a manual Olympus SLR and film) and at some point I started to emulate her.

When I started blogging, it was very much about the writing side but like many before me, I soon found that my adored Sony Cybershot on food mode was not helping me tell the whole story. I wanted food pics that made people feel hungry at the very least, and at best make them feel like reaching in and taking a huge bite.

In my teens I used to puzzle over a pocket manual of photography to try to work out aperture, ISO and all those good things, now there is a simply massive wealth of great stuff out there. I’ve just put together a food photography and styling page with all the resources I recommend online and offline, here in Dubai and beyond. (image)

These are the major stepping-stones on my  own personal journey; if you are just starting out or wanting to take better pics (of food or otherwise) this might give some inspiration. Also, photographic equipment is still an expensive investment and advise online can be very confusing.  I’m finally beginning to know why some things work well and why not when they don’t (still with me?!):

Learn to use your camera

I was terrified of my brand new DSLR for at least six months and then the wonderful Zahra Jewanjee (hosting a course at Dubai Ladies Club) taught me how to make friends with it and how to use every last little button and feature. I’m a ‘read the manual’ person but with something as complex as a camera this isn’t enough. This course is the best thing I ever did and would recommend finding one in your area as soon as you first buy a camera.

Food photography workshops

Spending time with people who take food pics for a living has given me a few ‘ah hah’ moments. They do certain things instinctively which defies explanation on the page. By watching how other people work I’ve started to be more confident in my own style. My inspiration came from:

Béatrice Peltre at Food Blogger Connect 2011;  lovely Ellen Silverman (she shot Gwyneth Paltrow’s book) at Food Blogger Connect 2012 and in Dubai; brilliant David Griffen (also at Food Blogger Connect 2012) who is totally down to earth yet takes heavenly pics; a smart phone workshop at Gulf Photo Plus with Matt Armendariz who is super friendly and practical; and through my three collaborations with Meeta K Wolff – a whirlwind of energy and inspiration. Members of Fooderati Arabia have also been super supportive (thanks especially to Arva, Sarah and Sukaina). By watching how other people work I’ve started to be more confident in my own style. If you get the chance to hang out with a pro food photographer, seize the opportunity.


Photography has become much more accessible but is still not without expense. This is what’s in my camera bag and elsewhere that I’ve acquired on the way:

Camera bag

Carrying your kit around safely is important; when choosing a camera bag I’d recommend something that has room for your bits and pieces so you don’t have to juggle carrying a handbag. I bought this from Grand Stores Digital at Mall of the Emirates in Dubai. It has padded sections inside so I can carry my camera and two additional lenses. It’s not the most stylish accessory ever so this one from Ona is on my wish list.  For more inspiration visit Kelly Moore and Jill E in the US and Cosy Cameras in the UK.


I always over-spec when I buy something new, but think I got the balance just right with my Nikon D5000 DSLR (the newest version the D5300 is double in megapixels, has wifi and GPS). It’s more compact than its big brother the D90 with most of the same features. I must admit to using the hi-definition video camera that’s built in very rarely. As a versatile camera for all sorts of situations it’s been fantastic. I did a lot of agonizing about Nikon vs Canon before buying; Canon does seems to be the most popular choice of food bloggers and many professionals but there are many fans of both brands. You could drive yourself crazy reading all the comparison charts. One advantage is if you buy another Nikon (unless it’s a full frame) you can always use your old lenses.

Don’t feel pressured into buying a DSLR though. The options for taking great pictures increase every day. I was at a talk this week about the Nokia Lumia 1020 smart phone which has a 41 megapixel camera sensor – perfect for taking images in dark restaurants unobtrusively and making videos. Your final choice should be based on what you are going to use your camera for most.

Pics above taken on iphone.


The Nikkor AFS DX 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6G VR lens that came with the camera is fine but I wanted something that gave me a shallower depth of field (that lovely blurred background look).  I bought a Nikkor AF 50mm f/1.8D which is great used on a tripod but doesn’t have a motor in the body of the lens (and there isn’t one in my camera) so manual focus is necessary (a dot in within the viewing panel shows when you are in focus). Last year I invested in a Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.4G which is a dream and helps me achieve pinpoint focal points and soft blurry backgrounds.

My Nikkor AF-S DX 35mm f/1.8G Lens was bought in a happy accident. I dropped my camera in the middle of a farmyard while in the UK and the ring chipped on my kit lens (I bought a new bayonet mount ring and had it repaired in Dubai). The 35 mm is very reasonably priced and I’ve come to love it especially for travel and walking. It’s very light to carry and the wide-angle is fantastic for the English countryside. Both the 50mm and 35mm are fixed or prime lenses. They don’t zoom so if you want to get a close up you have to walk nearer to the subject (and vice versa).

My most recent and (most expensive purchase) is a Nikkor AF-S DX 18-200 mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II which I bought to give me more flexibility when out and about - I must say I’m still getting used to it.

For UV filter, colour balance and to protect the lens I bought a Hoya filter for each of my lenses and keep them attached permanently.

Food photography - My Custard Pie-4Making Nice in the Mid-West author Mandi wrote this really informative post about Prime lenses and focal length.


A reflector can be anything that reflects light and are used to fill in areas that look too dark in a food shot. I bought this early on and now know I should have got one with a white side instead of the gold side. The handle is great for angling reflected light onto the area you want. I also use white or black (to absorb light) foam core and white card.


Using something to reflect the light and a tripod are the two things that transformed my shots. Buy the sturdiest one you can was Zara’s advice and my Benro tripod kit has served me well but now I’d like something more substantial. A Manfr​otto 055 X​PROB tripod legs with a 322R​C2 ball​head and accessory arm, so I can do overhead shots more easily, is on my wish list.

Food styling

Some people can use many food props with abandon. Meeta and my new, super-talented friend Rowena from Apron and Sneakers are excellent at this.  When I try to do this it looks too contrived and ‘less is more’ suits me best; Smitten Kitchen did a whole cook book without props after all. Getting the food to look it’s absolute best is paramount and tips learned from wonderful, kind, creative Fiona Archibold here in Dubai, and charming Emily Jonzen at Food Blogger Connect have stood me in good stead. I only use tips that will keep the food edible; I don’t cook for photographs, I cook for my family. Here are a few:

  • Keep an array of fresh herbs in a plastic container lined with damp kitchen roll
  • Have a water spray on hand, especially to invigorate leafy greens (which I should have used on that pear above!!)
  • Only dress a salad at the very last minute – paint it on the leaves with a brush
  • Arrange spaghetti from a height, let it coil down onto the plate
  • Oil is your friend – brush on oil to light-catching surfaces to make it look appetizing

Emily Jonzen - taken by Sarka BabickaProps

I love kitchen shops so an excuse to buy all sorts of things from market stalls to kitchen equipment stores “it’ll be good for food photography” was easy. However, I’ve made a decision, as my blog is about food cooked in my home, I’m going to use the surfaces available like my dining table and the kitchen surfaces. I use what’s in my cupboards and don’t go out and buy things specially for a shoot. Never, say never but…. In the meantime, I’ve accrued a fair assortment of stuff for that purpose including a pile of napkins and tea towels which I buy in the sales. Dishes tend to be on the small side – it’s easier to shoot and to make things look generous. Having said that if you are propping with cutlery, this needs to be in proportion.  Car boot sales and markets in the UK have been the best hunting ground for cutlery.

Natural props are my favourite and I like using the ingredients pertinent to the dish. I always remember the advice from my Prue Leith book about ‘simple with elaborate’ and ‘keep it relevant’.

Hunting grounds are everywhere but in Dubai: Daiso, Crate and Barrel (sale), Tavola, Lakeland, Pottery Barn (sale), Little Luxuries (Town Centre Mall) and of course Dragon Mart (if you can stand to lose hours of your life!). Elsewhere I love Tavistock Pannier Market and wish I’d taken an extra bag for the flea market in Tbilisi, Georgia.

If KP reads this he’ll realise exactly what Is in all the cupboards – gulp!

Lightroom (and Photoshop)

I wish I’d bought Lightroom along with my camera. It’s a fantastic tool for organising your pics as well as brilliant post-processing. If you can use your camera (see above) you can use Lightroom. I was given Photoshop but it’s not intuitive. I have to Google all the time as I forget how to do things. The beauty of Lightroom is that it also works with Photoshop as it’s Adobe. You can edit in Lightroom then open the image in Photoshop (for instance for adding text to an image) but save a copy back into Lightroom.  This gives it the edge over Apple’s Aperture for me. (Adobe CS2 suite is available for free download from Adobe – thanks to Gavin on Twitter for this).

Hard drives

Backing up your work, especially your images, is a chore ….but vital. A photographer I know downloads the images from her camera (via Lightroom) onto two external hard drives. When they are full, she labels them and keeps them in a safe; it’s her valuable work after all. Another friend never reuses a memory card and keeps them. I use external hard drives – Seagate are very affordable although you have to format them for Mac which is a bit fiddly.


As an avid reader, I confess to very few books on photography. I bought Nikon D5000 from Snapshots to Great Shots by Jeff Revell along with my camera. A lot of it went over my head; my advice would be to take a really good beginner course (as above). Food photography – from snapshots to great shots by Nicole S Young is very practical and has some detailed instructions about editing in Photoshop too (I also follow her blog here) although aimed more at professional photography. It has many example called ‘poring over the picture’ where she tells you how an effect was achieved. Her style is precise and detailed. Plate to Pixel by Helene Dujardin (of Tartelette blog fame) was much anticipated. It covers the basics of your camera, natural light, artificial light, composition, set up, styling and a bit of post-production. There are some beautifully inspiring pics with lots of showing step by step set up pics or before and after. I find the writing style a bit wordy but it’s a useful resource.


To now I’ve shot with natural light only. Yes it would be handy to have a soft box or some Lowel Ego lights …. but for now that can wait.

So that’s a bit about my photography journey – how about you?

What does photography mean to you? Who is your favourite food photographer? Would you read a food blog without pictures? Have you any advice about getting started or improving your photography?

For more links and resources visit my food photography page:Food photography tips and links -

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Where to shop for local, organic veg in Dubai

May 17, 2014

Local, organic veg - www.mycustardpie.comSmelling the delicious aroma of a freshly picked green pepper, sampling a plum tomato that only a few hours ago was on the vine, swapping food tips with other shoppers (what do you do with kohlrabi?), tasting yet another spoonful of amazing raw honey from Yemen, sitting on a rustic bench eating a homemade chicken sausage and egg roll washed down with freshly pressed pomegranate juice, swapping foodie gossip under the palms trees….

My favourite start to the weekend, every single Friday, is the Farmers’ Market on the Terrace next to Emirates Towers where I do my weekly shop for organic, local veg direct from the farmers and much more besides. But you knew that didn’t you. The hotter weather is creeping up, the market has ended for the season and I’m dreading being catapulted back into the dispiriting aisles of the supermarkets contemplating limp, tasteless veg, picked weeks ago and flown in from miles away. But luckily there are some alternatives which may keep us going until the most fallow months; tomatoes and potatoes plus free range eggs from local farms are available in abundance right now which is why I have indexed them for the price comparison. Here’s my view about what’s available….

The Farm House – Al Manzil Souk

The Farm House Dubai - Local, organic veg -

This little shop has the feel of a rustic farm shop and is supplied by the farms who sell at the Farmers Market. If you have been to the market you’ll recognise owner Robert as the man who squeezes the pomegranates. The shop also stocks other local and unusual produce such as rock salt and camel milk soap. You can buy local eggs, chicken, organic milk (from Organiliciouz), local honey and dried goods. It’s the most locally focussed of all shops and apart from occasional fruit from the region, only sells local, organic produce. Prices for some things are similar to buying at the market – some slightly higher as you’d expect.

Price check: (week commencing Sunday 11th May 2014): Tomatoes = 10 AED per kg,  free-range eggs , potatoes = 10 AED per kg – all local and organic.

Where to find it: At Souk Al Manzil. Easy to park in the underground car park by the Al Manzil Hotel entrance, Downtown, Dubai.

Greenheart – Al Barsha

Greenheart - My Custard Pie-4

I remember the excitement of visiting Eleanor Kinanes’s first shop when it opened and the awful disappointment when it closed so suddenly. Greenheart is now a much larger business with close relationships with local farms and a thriving wholesale operation. The farm shop is close to the Miracle Garden and opens three days a week – or you can order online from a range of local and imported organic fruit and vegetables or a local veg box. This is the box scheme I’ve used the most and found the produce the freshest as they pick it that morning. Greenheart holds a small market at Comptoir 101 on Jumeirah Beach Road on Saturday mornings at present.  Eleanor is passionate about what she does and very knowledgeable about water conservation – check the website for more details and to book a farm visit.

Price check (week commencing Sunday 11th May 2014): Tomatoes = 18 AED per kg (or 32 AED for 2kg),  free-range eggs = 18AED for 6, potatoes = 18 AED per kg – all local and organic.

Where to find it: Driving on Umm Suqeim street towards Arabian Ranches take the turn off to Arjan, follow the road round and take a left at roundabout.

Ripe – Umm Suqeim

While Baker and Spice established the Farmers’ Market and built a community,  Eleanor’s passion to work with farmers has brought many different new varieties into the market (often better suited to the hot climate), Ripe’s energy and marketing put veg box delivery on the map in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. They run a number of markets in the UAE although the veg is eclipsed by craft stalls, fast food stands and even a petting zoo at Safa Park. The Ripe shop in Umm Suqeim is calm, bright and pretty and not just about veg. A favourite of the ‘yummy mummy’ crowd it also sells things like cosmetics, ‘Superfoods’, tea, coffee and dairy products (not all organic) as well as a mixture of local and imported fruit and veg. I think you can take away a cup of Raw coffee there too. Ripe has a coding system on their website which shows clearly whether something is organic or local (although not its country of origin) – however at their markets, in their veg boxes and at their shop this is not always apparent so ask before you buy.

Price check (week commencing Sunday 11th May 2014): Tomatoes = 18 AED per kg,  free-range eggs = 15 AED for 6 , potatoes = 15 AED per kg – all local and organic.

Where to find it: Take the last right hand turn from Al Manara street heading towards Sheikh Zayed road. Ripe on the left in the group of shops by the large orange mosque

Other places to buy local, organic veg

Al Shuwib organic farms – you can phone your order direct to this farm (they attend the Farmers’ Market when in season) and they will deliver. 03 732 4114 Facebook

Organic Foods and Cafe – the pioneer and first major supplier of organic foods in Dubai which now has three branches here plus you can order online. It does a thriving business but owner Nils Accad came out quite vociferously in the media against local, organic veg. However, now some local, organic vegetables are now stocked – probably due to customer demand. Price check: (week commencing Sunday 11th May 2014): Tomatoes = 23.50 AED per kg (local potatoes or eggs were not in stock).

Go Organic me – They have been around for a while but recently launched a new website and online ordering. They work with local farms and supply veg boxes of different types including a weekly juicing box. They mix local and imported but all produce is organic. Founder Meenaxy Vashishtha is driven by personal conviction about organic produce. Price check: (week commencing Sunday 11th May 2014): Tomatoes = 27 AED per kg,  free-range eggs = 15 AED for 6 , potatoes = 22 AED per kg – I think these are local (no details on website for individual items).

Bio Organic – an attractive new store in Tecom which offers an alternative to OF&C. Local, organic produce is stocked but this is not their core business and most is shipped in from Europe and beyond. Price check: (week commencing Sunday 11th May 2014): Potatoes – 22 per kg (local tomatoes or eggs were not in stock).

Blue planet, green people – the Jumeirah Lakes Towers location means I have never visited this shop although I know they have been selling local, organic veg for a few years and ran a market at one point. You can order from their website and they provide veg boxes too. Price check: (week commencing Sunday 11th May 2014): Tomatoes = 20 AED per kg,  free-range eggs = 24 AED for 12 , potatoes = 24 AED per kg.

Union Coop also stocks some local organic produce if you get there early in the morning.

Do you shop with the seasons? Are you missing the Farmers’ Market? Have I missed anyone off this list? What do you do when the growing season comes to an end?

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Cook books and food writing to read in bed

May 15, 2014

Cook books and food writing to read in bed - www.mycustardpie.comDo cook books end up in more than one place in your home? In my house their permanent place is on some very sturdy bookcases made from old railway sleepers. The teens pull off a tome or two while sitting at the kitchen counter to browse through while snacking; I was a cereal packet reader myself so understand the inability to sit still without my nose in something. A few more are littered around my very messy study/spare room as reference for food writing. Another pile totters beside my bed interleaved with fiction; I try to give my book club title priority but if I’m super dog tired non-fiction soothes me and takes my mind off the day. I dip in and out of food and wine related reading before turfing that selection back downstairs to be replaced with another lot.  Here are a few of the latest ones to preoccupy me. Do you read cook books in bed or for more than cooking? Are there any you’d recommend? We could come up with the ultimate cook book reading list….

Authentic Egyptian Cooking – From the Table of Abou El Sid by Nehal Leheta

The food and drink section in Kinokunya Book World in Dubai Mall is a cook book lovers’ paradise and they have an extensive Middle East selection. Many authors lump the whole of the Middle East into one. Also they often write about a cuisine they have not grown up with – not always a bad thing but it’s the really authentic detail that appeals to me. This is the first book about Egyptian food I’ve seen in there and its author hails from Cairo. With beautiful, dark, moody photography, the image on the cover is, however, of my most detested dishes ever – one of the (if not the) national dishes of Egypt. I’ve spoken about my dislike of slimy vegetables before and this is the king of the gelatinous offenders…. molokheya. The name is a derivative of the mulukiya which means ‘of the kings’ and uses a leaf that’s a bit like spinach (sometimes called Jew’s mallow) but it oozes when cooked (shiver). Part of the recipe gives me hope; it instructs that you heat oil with spices and garlic while you boil the molokheya in chicken stock then “Toss in the hot molokheya, and you will hear “tshhh.” This is known as tasha in Arabic.” I must stress that this dislike is personal preference and many people have raved to me, over the years, about how delicious this is. If I ever visit Cairo again I must try it at Abou El Sid.

Egypt has its own distinct cuisine (many much more appealing to me) as well as variations on dishes common to the Middle East.   Abou El Sid is a famous restaurant in Cairo, established in 2000 but harking back to a golden age with a renowned traditional Egyptian menu and decor. There are over fifty recipes including mahshi (stuffed vegetables), koshari – one of Egypt’s most famous staple dishes –  Circassian chicken with walnut sauce, fuul (fava beans) with tahina sauce, a simple recipe for lentils and a sumptuous one for Om Ali (a type of milk pudding).

At first I thought there were no head notes or introductions at all, but they are written as footnotes under the ingredients list. It’s a rich resource of recipes from a renowned kitchen; I haven’t cooked from it yet but the recipes appear clear, quite short and to the point. I would have liked to read more about the staff, the history of the restaurant and the background to the dishes that are covered here to make it a truly interesting read but it’s a very nice addition to my collection of cook books from the Middle East.

The world’s best spicy food  – Lonely Planet

We’ve discussed reading cook books before traveling to other countries and here is a book that combines both elements. It combines descriptions and recipes for 100 spicy specialities from 52 different countries and regions. There is Lonely Planet style information about the ingredients and origins of the dish as well as traditions behind it and a suggestion about where to eat it. China and the USA have the most recipes attributed to them and the Far East and Asia is well represented.

Machbous (a spicy stew) is mentioned for the Arabian Gulf and states ‘Machbous is a staple anywhere along the coast from Kuwait to the United Arab Emirates’ and mentions the Palace Cafe in Dubai as a place to try it.  Having rarely tasted Machboos (as it is known in the UAE) as I can think of less than a handful of places here where you might be able to try it, this is a generalisation. However, I suppose that’s the flaw in this sort of compendium.

For Yemen they’ve chosen shawayuh or spicy grilled meat cooked over a fire (Bedouin style). I would have thought zhoug – a spicy pepper sauce – should also be mentioned; but I guess this could have been a spicy sauce book as there are so many different varieties. There are three recipes for England – mustard, piccalilli and tikka masala.

This book does have the effect of making me want to cook some the recipes at home while longing to eat them in their country of origin. Things I’m tempted by include: Fabada – a Spanish stew with chorizo, Lutenica – a fiery pepper dip from the Balkans, Pica pau which literally means woodpecker but is actually a spicy, pickled pork stew from Portugal, and Sichuan Crescent Dumplings. All of these sound a lot nicer than pig trotter curry from India and a Chinese dish called saliva chicken.

Consider the fork by Bee Wilson

The fact that I read this book from cover to cover, eager to reach the next chapter (be it grind, eat, fire or measure) says a bit about my slight nerdiness about cooking, my fascination with the origins of food and cookery and a lot about Bee Wilson’s ability to write in fascinating detail without a hint of dryness or superfluity. I will never again be able to look at a single implement or piece of kitchenware in the same way after reading it. Why was the fork invented? Why do we need forks? When did it become commonplace in our kitchen drawers? Why don’t some cultures use forks? What impact does the use of a fork have on the foods we cook and eat? This sort of investigative thinking is applied by Bea Wilson to all sorts of items and processes in the kitchen from egg beaters, to the use of ice, to the kitchen itself (and the evolution of the modern cooker). Just why is the spoon shaped the way it is and who came up with the size of a teaspoon? Did you know that Cromwell helped influence the look of our modern spoon?

The byline reads ‘A History of How We Cook and Eat’ – essential reading for anyone remotely interested in either of those topics.


A history of food in 100 recipes by William Sitwell

This has taken over from the book above, providing my nightly chapter of food history, painting a vivid picture of how our cooking and eating habits have evolved. William Sitwell knits together various documentary evidence starting with a painting of bread making from the wall of Senet’s tomb in Egypt and ending with ‘meat fruit’ from the menu of Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, laced together with an easy narrative style and a heavy serving of wit. He poses such questions as “The Vikings might have bullied their illiterate way around northern Europe, but without them would you be able to seek respite in a plate of smoked herring in an IKEA food court today?

This book helped me see Ancient Rome in a new light, not just the feasting of the rich, but the existence of ingredients inspectors as extravagance in food was frowned upon (although bribery from the wealthy put paid to that), the ingenuity of keen cooks such as Apicus to transform produce that might not have been in the freshest state to something worthy of a banquet, and the role of honey in the cooking of Greece and Rome (partly from a fifteen volume account of dinner party conversations by Athenaeus). We move from Ancient China, how the Normans changed bread in England, the influence of the Crusades on Egyptian cuisine which eventually had a great impact on the court of Henry VIII, French gastronomy, early cook book (cooke booke) pioneers, the British Empire to the growing influence of American innovations on British and world cuisine, the rise of the Michelin starred chef, molecular gastronomy and TV cooking competitions (William is on the tasting panel of Masterchef). I should add that this is a book of quality production, with beautiful end papers, a weighty, linen-textured cover and a wealth of illustrations. A Kindle can’t compete.

I can vouch that William is as entertaining in real life as he is on the page; I bought this book at the Emirates Literature Festival after attending his session where the entire audience were enthralled. As my family are so addicted to watching Masterchef they re-enact it every night when I put dinner on the table, I asked for the following inscription.

For Sally – who – for a fact – cooks better than anyone on Masterchef!!

That should silence them eh?


Skin Contact by Alice Feiring

Less a full book, more a short story with chapters, I received this volume by wine writer and natural wine advocate Alice Feiring in Georgia. Reading it was like extending my trip, so many of the characters, terroir, conundrums, delights and cuisine were included. However Alice supplied a more personal and extensive view than was possible from my single visit with an organised group trip. The narrative is simple, she asks questions of the wine, wine makers and Georgia itself along the way. She accrues snippets of tastes, textures, history, traditions, family life and culture and assembles these jigsaw pieces into one whole picture – natural wine making in qvevris is at the heart of Georgian life and vital for its future.

I’ve Googled extensively but I’m not sure where you can obtain this book (apart from the Georgian Wine Agency) however you can read more of Alice Feiring’s wonderfully pithy writing where she goes head to head with convention, on her website and she has two other books you can order (like I have).

Disclosure: Authentic Egyptian Cooking and Spicy Food were both sent to me as review copies – however, my review contains my own thoughts and neither book will be leaving my shelves anytime soon.

What’s on your kitchen counter or bedside table right now?

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Lentil, fennel, orange, chicken and rocket salad

May 10, 2014

There was something missing yesterday. My alarm didn’t go and I stayed in bed until 9am, a feeling of luxury staying under the covers with a cup of tea and my book club book. It’s The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and I’ve received much light-hearted abuse by choosing it because it’s as thick as a brick. We’ve even set up a Whats App group to give each other encouragement …. but I digress. My whole weekly shop has now changed because the Farmers’ Market has closed for the season. Higher temperatures mean that the fallow season is approaching and while some produce is still available from greenhouses (air-conditioned to cool them), the choice of local, organic veg is on the wane. I resent going back to the depressing and expensive aisles of the supermarket. There are a few places to buy the dwindling local produce – and I’ll do a round-up of these very soon.

In the meantime, as those pesky temperature start to soar, all I fancy eating is some lightly cooked vegetables or a salad. Here’s one I prepared this week with some beautiful bulbs of fennel and peppery rocket from the last market. I was very indifferent about fennel until I tried something other than the force grown ones from Holland; the memory of this first taste was vivid, at a road-side vegetable stand in Libya, and was like eating this aniseed-flavoured vegetable for the first time. The flavour was freshly invigorating not bitter as the forced stuff can be and more like a fragrant type of celery. I’m not usually prescriptive, but I would use something else if fresh, local fennel isn’t available.

This is a plate salad, a meal in itself. The earthy lentils provide ballast and soak up the slightly sharp, citrussy dressing. Orange and fennel are a great match; shave the fennel really thin on a mandoline or with a very sharp knife.

Lentil, fennel, orange, chicken and rocket salad

  • Servings: 2-3
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print


  • 80g green lentils (puy or other firm, peppery variety)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 bulb fennel, tough outer layers removed
  • 4 oranges, 2 juiced
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cooked chicken breasts, cut or torn into strips
  • 80g rocket
  • 4 teaspoons whole grain mustard


  1. Place the lentils in a saucepan and cover with a generous amount of cold water (at least double the volume of lentils). Add the bay leaf, bring to the boil over high heat then reduce to a simmer for 25 minutes or until the lentils are cooked but not mushy.
  2. Slice the fennel vertically from tip to root into paper-thin slices, either on a mandoline or with a very sharp knife. Lay the slices in a shallow dish and pour over juice of two oranges and the olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and leave to marinate while the lentils cook.
  3. Using a sharp knife, cut the ends from the top and bottom of two of the orange. Slice the peel and pith away, cutting from top to bottom. Cut between each of the membranes to produce orange segments.
  4. When the lentils are cooked, drain them well.
  5. Remove the fennel from the marinade and whisk the mustard into the remaining liquid. Taste for seasoning. Stir 2 tablespoons of the marinade into the lentils.
  6. Just before eating, toss the lentils, orange segments, fennel, chicken and rocket together, adding extra dressing if required. Garnish with chopped fronds of fennel (optional).

A version of this recipe appeared in Aquarius magazine for a feature about packed lunches. If taking in a lunch box put the lentils in the bottom of the container, then add the oranges and fennel and lay the rocket on top. Take the rest of the dressing in a separate container and dress the salad to taste just before eating, stirring to combine all the layers.

I’m participating in Ren Behan‘s Simple and Season event with this recipe. Pop over to see what other people are cooking with seasonal fruit and veg. Thought I’d join in with Mark of the Javelin Warrior’ Cookin W/ Luv for his Made with Love Mondays too.

Where do you shop for veg and what’s in season in your part of the world? Do you have any vivid ‘first taste of’ memories?



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Buying booze in the UAE

May 6, 2014
Road to Ras Al Khaimah

The road from Ras Al Khaimah

There’s a slight sense of trepidation as we fill the tank with petrol and set off on this road trip. Anxious in case I take the wrong turning and get swept off on the wrong highway and end up in a maze of industrial zones; apprehensive of the fabled gridlock that can creep up like lightning and rob your day of hours; nervous of the rumoured targeting of female drivers by opportunists who will bump my car and threaten to call the police in the dry Emirate of Sharjah and demand hush money (although I think this is an urban myth). I grip the steering wheel, put my pedal to the metal and head off, with the reassuring company of The Hedonista,  to the Northern Emirates on a mission to buy tax-free booze.

People who have never visited the United Arab Emirates seem to have conflicting perceptions about the country and this is polarised by their views on alcohol. “You get plastered at all-you-can-drink brunches and get jailed for having sex on the beach, don’t you?” or “Isn’t alcohol banned in the UAE as a Muslim country?”. Both views have a grain of truth but it’s far from the whole picture. Alcohol is available to non-Muslims but strictly controlled – however the rules are more tolerant than in some U.S. states. The Emirate of Sharjah is completely dry (and it has stricter laws in terms of dress and modesty).

I live in Dubai and require an alcohol license to go and shop at an off-license. This is reasonably simple to obtain as the two main retailers of booze (MMI and A&E) help you with the process and add incentives for doing so. A maximum pre-tax monthly spending allowance is given calculated on salary and qualifications I believe. We’ve been in the Emirates since 2000 and our limit has never increased so it’s fine for moderate drinking of moderate wines but could blow the whole budget on one bottle of fine wine and it would be useless if throwing a party. 30% tax is added at the till too.

For these reasons, many people drive to the Northern Emirates to visit one of several tax-free warehouses. They don’t demand to see an alcohol license (although it’s important to have one as it’s needed for legal drinking, as well as buying, booze) and there are no limits on how much you can spend. There are conflicting messages about whether its legal to transport your purchases, especially as the road leads through the dry state of Sharjah. A spokesperson for one of the retailers assured me categorically that it’s fine if it’s for personal consumption. Another retailer said the law isn’t clear.

On the journey from RAK

On the journey from RAK

It may seem a little mad (or desperate) to embark on a three-hour round trip, but in Britain people used to take the ferry to France to stock up on cheaper wines and beer.

I’d actually broken the fear factor on an earlier trip and driven off to Ras Al Khaimah on my own. The roads have improved dramatically and now the dreaded ‘National Paints’ road improvements are finished, the journey is straight forward, but considerably more enjoyable with Sarah to chat to. Otherwise I recommend you select some playlists or some good podcasts via the car speaker all the way as it’s quite a boring journey, although I like the colours of the sand and spotting a few camels on the way. Read more here about podcasts, if you want to learn about wine while on your way to buy it.

Most people from Dubai travel to Ras Al Khaimah for their booze-run (MMI and A+E) or Umm Al Qwain (Barracuda), plus there’s a place called The Hole in the Wall in Ajman. My preferred choice is The Cellar, Al Hamra especially when driving alone; here’s what to expect from the couple I’ve visited:

The Cellar – Al Hamra

The Cellar – Al Hamra – Newly extended, run by MMI,  this is really easy to get to; you take the E311 road through Sharjah and go straight until the road ends at a roundabout where you take a left. After a few minutes drive you’ll see it on the right hand side, immediately before the Al Hamra Mall.

Things to go for:

The Le Clos section of fine wine. If, like me,  you don’t travel through the airport very often, this is an oenophiles delight. The wines are stored well at optimum temperatures (bad storage is a criticism I’ve heard levelled at some of the other retailers). There’s a monthly selection of six wines for 600 AED (163 USD) – see picture below for one I bought earlier. They have some seriously high-end vintages and a fine wine specialist John Christenson who will advise you (ring ahead to check when he is there).

wine from al hamra cellar

The new layout is easy to navigate and the revamp shows off the range of wines particularly and there is a special area to guide wine drinkers through various wine styles.

Whisky. From Glen Grant 60 year old special edition, to Kilchoman earlier releases, to Welsh whisky, via Japan and everything in between.

Costa – within the store so you can get a caffeine fix before the journey home.

Wilson. Manager Wilson is super helpful, knowledgeable (he’s traveled to Australia and helped at a wine harvest) and a bit of a legend.

Offers – regular discounts and tax-free, but sign up for the newsletter for the regular weekend promotions when, if you spend over a certain amount, you can walk away with an incentive (drinks fridge, barbecues, Reidel glasses, cases of Champagne and ipads are some of the goodies that have been given away).

Getting there and away. The outward journey as above and on your return, leave the store and go past the Al Hamra Mall up to the roundabout where you take a left. Follow signs to Dubai until you are back on the E311 but exit at the sign to Emirates Road (103?) to avoid Sharjah. When I drove alone I felt less vulnerable leaving MMI as it’s among other buildings and businesses (less exposed than Barracuda) – handy if you believe those urban myths.


Georgian wine

Hooray – I found Georgian wine in the UAE

Barracuda – The one that everyone has heard of out in Umm Al Qwain and it feels a bit like visiting the Wild West as you drive along the approach road with a battered old plane to your left, the distant cement factory on your right. To get there you come from Sharjah as above and exit the E311 at the sign to Dreamland and take a left at the small roundabout. Follow the track through the desert (waving at the camels) until you reach the end and take a right onto a dual carriageway. Take a U-turn at the Aqua Park, then a right straight after it down a single track lane (towards the sea).

Things to go for:

The range – this place is cavernous and a bit mind-boggling. If you are a collector of curios this is for you – go through to the back shelves for wines from Cyprus and Georgia to name a few. You’ll find wines here that the two major retailers don’t offer (and vice versa).  There’s a big range of liqueur chocolates at the till too.

Biodynamic and organic – the shop within a shop, called Rootstock, specialises in some small producers of niche wines, including those made with minimal intervention, at mid-range prices. Sadly no qvevri wines from Georgia….yet?

A quick refuel – There’s a cafe upstairs for your caffeine fix.

Gourmet gifts. Finer Things is a little deli next door and well worth popping into for its range of oils, vinegars, jams, biscuits and excellent artisan French cheeses.

Getting there and away. The outward journey as above (click the Rootstock link for more detail) and you go back the way you came. If you continue straight on after the water park towards Ras Al Khaimah you will reach MMI Al Hamra in less than 10 minutes (and places like the new Waldorf and the Al Hamra Golf Club).

I haven’t visited the A+E branch (near MMI) or the Ajman outlet hence no report.

The Chalet Hilton Al Hamra

The Hedonista and I popped into The Hilton Al Hamra Hotel and Golf resort for a quick lunch before we left. The club sandwich at Le Chalet was fairly average but the view was superb. Relaxed and happy, all worries and anxiety banished, tucking our purchases snugly under a blanket, we set back on the road to Dubai. We breezed home on the Emirates Road (the journey took about 90 minutes), any fears forgotten and looking forward to tasting some of our interesting finds.

This is my entry for the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge #9.  The theme for this month is:  Fear!

Disclosure: I was allowed to take pictures inside The Cellar as I was invited on a media trip so they were taken on my camera. I worked on a freelance project with MMI a couple of years ago, so I am more familiar with their range and am friends with several employees. I studied for my WSET 3 exam with members of the team from Barracuda and know some of the Rootstock team. This is a personal account of my visits to the Northern Emirates (not the press trip) and my opinions are my own.

Have you ever had wine-buying experiences that have induced fear or trepidation?


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Georgia – shopping for food in Tbilisi

May 2, 2014

Yellow chickens, their scaly feet reaching skywards, were the first sight to greet us at the Tbilisi fruit and veg market. They looked like a Nick Park animation, their golden colour enhanced with a strange orange glow cast from the tarpaulin overhead. Visiting a market is always a good way to get to know a place and the contents of these stalls told many tales. Trying not to blink so I wouldn’t miss anything, I couldn’t wipe the smile from my face.  The vegetables looked fresh and green but they were not in abundance yet this early in the growing season. Apples were wrinkly from over-Wintering; not many imported goods then. Piles of pickled vegetables showed what people relied on through the fallow months. Stalls sold packaged goods – coffee, tea, tins and packets with little price stickers on each designed for people who are watching their money. Bottles of sauces and preserves were decanted into recycled glassware – plum sauce in Pepsi bottles, the honey I bought ladled into an old pickle jar. Fish, dried and fresh in tanks was eclipsed by meat stalls often with a pig’s head at pride of place. People cook from scratch here and prize every morsel.

Just a few hours off the plane in Georgia and I was at the fruit and vegetable market in Tbilisi, a place I’d been longing to visit since I heard of its existence.

Spices for sale in the market in Tbilisi, Georgia

Spices in the market, Tbilisi, Georgia


Pyramids of spices and ropes of churchkhela brightened up the aisles like party decorations. As we attempted to buy spices with hand gestures (we relied heavily on our lovely guide Mariam as no-one spoke English) a volley of shouting rang out like machine gun fire. Two women stall holders had fallen out and the disgruntled one shrieked her displeasure for quite some time – then it all calmed down again.

Some people positively encouraged us to take their pictures – including two men at the tobacco kiosk visibly worse for wear at 11am in the morning – others were shy and some very cross if a camera pointed their way. Georgians are warm but there is an old-fashioned reserve about them too – no one seems pushy.

Pickle stall Tbilisi market Georgia - My Custard Pie

Vegetable stallWe threaded our way past hardware stalls and then ducked into a dimly lit hall lined with wheels of cheese on trestle tables down one side and washing lines hanging with offal on the other.

Crowding into a baker’s cramped shop where he was cooking shotapuri (or chotapuri) in a traditional clay oven or tome he quickly stacked the warm loaves on wooden shelves. The people opposite were selling a different kind of bread with pretty crimped edges but popped out of sight like figures in a cuckoo clock as soon as I pointed my lens their way.

Five essential edible things to buy at the market in Tbilisi:

  1. Spices are very intense and freshly ground. Make sure you buy ‘marigold salt’ or khmeli suneli* which is powered dried ground marigold leaves, and ‘blue fenugreek’ if you are planning to recreate any Georgian dishes.
  2. Chuchkhela, the strings of nuts dipped in concentrated grape must which are eaten as a snack.  They are different colours according to which types of grapes are used. Easy to transport, they last for ages and will amaze everyone who sees (and eats) them.
  3. Sulguni cheese (if your final destination allows it) if you plan to make khachapuri at home. And you will suffer withdrawal symptoms for this baked cheesy bread I promise.
  4. Sour plum sauce to eat with everything.
  5. Honey, although a bit weighty to carry, is well worth packing (carefully – I’d hate to see what a honey spill would do).  I was certain this was raw honey from the way it fell from the ladle into the jar as the stall holder scooped it directly from a churn. Since meeting Riath from Balqees I’ve been educated about honey and only buy raw, unprocessed, unfiltered honey from wild bees (who have not been fed antibiotics or sugar solution). Back in Dubai, he tasted it and agreed; it was naturally very floral in flavour.

Optional purchase for the brave: Sarah May from Antiqua tours is a pickle fanatic and bought pickled garlic which filled her room with its aroma for days.

*Thanks for Foodbridge for this info (see below).

Market in Tbilisi - My Custard Pie

To visit head for the Tbilisi main fruit and vegetable market near Didube.

Other food shopping in Tbilisi


Khachapuri – a type with with egg inside and cheese outside

Bakeries, selling the famous khachapuri or cheese bread (there are over  forty different types) were in basements or literally holes in the walls on many streets. Small shops sold strings of Kachapuri and vegetables; ladies queued to buy cheese at a stall in old Tbilisi. I grabbed a cheese and egg khachapuri when out in old Tbilisi – despite being heated in a microwave it was fluffy, salty, satisfying cheesy and warming – like being wrapped in a duvet from the inside out.

Staying in Georgia

As this was an organised tour we were booked into very comfortable hotels throughout our stay. Georgia is changing fast but doesn’t have a large amount of multi-national hotel chains yet. The independent hotels we stayed at were always more than acceptable, comfortable and often very quirky. Apart from Old Telavi, all breakfasts offered a bountiful array of yoghurt, cereals, fruit, cheese, salads, jams (often homemade) and pastries.  If traveling independently I would investigate home-stays but the welcome we received at every place could not have been warmer (with a special mention to the lovely staff at the Marriot in Tbilisi).

We stayed at the Tbilisi Marriot (in Tbilisi),  Old Telavi (in Telavi), Hotel Kvareli Eden (in Kaheti region) and Hotel Kabadoni (in Sighnaghi).

Many thanks to the Georgian National Wine Tourism Administration and National Wine Agency of Georgia for the International Wine Tourism Conference (IWINETC) who were my hosts. All opinions are my own.

What’s the best or most unusual place you have shopped for food? And how much can you tell about a place from its markets?

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