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Dubai – Where to have afternoon tea with a Burj Khalifa view

May 14, 2017

With scores of palatial hotels in Dubai, there are luxurious eating opportunities aplenty but the perfect afternoon tea can be strangely elusive, so I’ve done my best to track down the best.

Endless steaming pots of loose leaf tea poured into bone china cups, jugs of cold milk, cucumber sandwiches, plain scones, homemade jam and clotted cream are top of my list of non-negotiable elements. It’s an occasion not to be rushed.  The company of good friends to while away several hours and slowly divest the cake stands of their bounty should be available on prescription for the ultimate stress relief.

There’s a tendency in Dubai for too much, which is both strength and a weakness. I shy away from afternoon teas which bring out so many diverse courses that it feels like a late lunch or early dinner. On the other hand, the soaring spire of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, never fails to impress both in gleaming audacity and exuberant ambition.

Here are three places to find a most excellent tea within the shadow of this vertiginous structure.

Tea with an extra bonus

Hushed tones, a polished look and supremely comfortable understated luxury is what you’d expect from The Four Seasons. The one in DIFC has just enough reflective surfaces to catch a glimpse of your own polished high heels (definitely a place to wear your Louboutins) or a glimpse of a glamorous couple strolling through the lobby.

The view from the Penrose Lounge over the business district and the Burj Khalifa adds a Sex in the City vibe. Light-filled, stylish, geometric and resembling one of those coordinated Instagram accounts of the perfect life, it’s a very grown up place for a girl’s afternoon tea get together, which is just what we did. Warm scones wrapped in white linen napkins each had the hint of a flavour – orange, Cheddar, and walnut. This is a luxurious tea so expect dainty bites like foie mousse and salmon caviar, mere sandwiches are too commonplace.  The cake stands are laden with sugary fripperies such as raspberry financiers and pineapple passion verrine, well deserving the phrase ‘naughty but nice’. Staff are ultra discreet and keep teapots brimming and your Champagne flute topped up.

The extra bonus is you have the chance to admire a second view of the Burj Khalifa. Once we’d said our farewells, jaws aching from all the nattering, The Hedonista and I took the lift up to the Luna Sky Bar (a regular haunt) for an excellent cocktail while the sky turned rosy and the sun slid behind the tallest building in the world. Do book ahead if you want to secure a table (or just plead pitifully like we did).

More info: Penrose Afternoon Tea, Four Seasons, DIFC, Dubai

Luna Sky Bar, Four Seasons

Middle Eastern promise

A first-rate supply of people-watching is to be had from the raised Al Bayt lounge next to reception at The Palace, Downtown Dubai.   Peer through the palm fronds to see guests relax instantly as they drift into the cool, scented lobby, greeted by white turbaned men bearing hand towels to refresh them by the rose petal-strewn fountain.

While the panoramic view of the stately grounds, towering palm trees, Burj Khalifa and fountains is best from the outside terrace at Al Bayt, I prefer to sink into the plush sofas under the parlour palms and whirring fans overhead, lulled by the violinist.

Envelop yourself further in the charms of Middle East by choosing an Arabian-themed tea, where the fare is laced with spices, studded with dates and accompanied by cooling sherbets, or stick to the more traditional version; both are good. If your idea of heaven is a never-ending supply of tea-time treats, book for the buffet where serried rows of dainty delights are constantly refilled on the large round table.

Keep an eye out for special events too; last time I visited was for a limited edition Bulgari tea outside on the lawns. Designer-clad ladies sipping Laurent Perrier Champagne, perched on white ladder-backed chairs weighted with smart handbags in pastel shades, gossiped under the shade of large umbrellas. At this designer-themed tea, there was a Hendrick’s tea trolley, a harpist and a range of Bulgari fragrances, notes of which inspired the flavours from citrus to bergamot. I hope they repeat it next year – but until then take refuge from the summer steamy temperatures indoors under the lazy whirr of the overhead fans.

More info and to book: The Palace Downtown, Dubai Buffet teas are served on Wednesday, Friday and Saturdays, with table service and cake stands on all other days.

Classic tea with a classic view

The idea of afternoon tea as we now know it is credited to Anna Maria, the 7th Duchess of Bedford of Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, UK in the 1840s. Her solution to hunger pangs between lunch and dinner in the late afternoon was to ask her maid to brew tea in her rooms, to sip with a few slices of bread and butter. She started to invite friends and it soon became a focus for female socialising as well as sustenance. It quickly took off and Victorian society embraced afternoon tea with gusto.

Founded in 1707, Fortnum and Mason really made its name during the Victoria era, supplying fine food to royalty, winning a prize at London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 and even inventing the scotch egg (not Scottish at all).  At a famous horse-racing event, the Epsom Derby, Charles Dickens noted “Look where I will…. I see Fortnum & Mason. All the hampers fly wide open and the green downs burst into a blossom of lobster salad!”

Dubai is the only place where you can enjoy afternoon tea at Fortnums outside the UK. The modern three storey building is like a slice of cake wedged in between Dubai Mall and The Address Hotel, with the pointy end revealing an unrivalled view of the Burj Khalifa through picture windows (or out on the terrace). It’s blissfully quiet, sound muffled by soft, upholstered banquets and luxuriant carpet; an instant balm for a frazzled soul. The linen is starched, aqua bone china delicate and the tea itself classically well executed. Service is impeccable (a huge turn around from when it first opened).

Work your way through the smaller items on the cake stand then liberate a slice or two from larger classics such as Victoria Sandwich, lemon meringue and Battenberg, which nestle under huge glass cloches . If judging on the food alone, this is my favorite tea as it has more sandwiches (including divine Coronation chicken), savoury things and plain scones – blame my lack of a sweet tooth – although the mini chocolate eclairs did go down very well too.

At twilight, ask the waiter to pour another cup of Royal Blend tea, look over to the small bridge of jostling tourists straining to look upwards as the Burj Khalifa towers above them, and watch the sunset in utter contentment, without a single neck twinge.

More info: Fortnum & Mason Tea Salon, Dubai  (no afternoon tea menu listed online but it’s very similar to the London one) Unlike the other venues, this is unlicensed.

Best Afternoon tea in Dubai with a Burj Khalifa view

A cream tea and an afternoon tea are slightly different – read about my search for the perfect scone.

I was invited to all three of these teas but not under any obligation to write about them – I’ve tried other places in Dubai which definitely didn’t cut the mustard and would genuinely recommend all three. All views remain my own as always.

What do you like best about afternoon tea? Are you a traditionalist like me or do you like the more modern variations? What’s on your non-negotiable list? And if you could overlook anywhere in the world while sipping tea and eating cake, where would it be?

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Kyrgyzstan – a long weekend hiking and exploring

May 7, 2017

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

The lady in the headscarf stands over us, wagging a finger indicating firmly that it is time for us to go to bed. We crawl into sleeping bags, donning hats and fleeces in response to the rapidly lowering temperatures, and soon there are eight bodies all in a row and the sound of deep breathing. I lie on my back, wide awake, despite a day of strenuous hiking, the hard ground making every position unbearable for long and unable to relax sandwiched between my gently snoring neighbours. A little later, the woman and her daughter come back, announcing their presence through low mutterings and a lot of clanging and scraping as they clean the little stove and restock it with slabs of dried animal dung. Fire relit, the bustling activity continues outside as a canopy is thrown over the roof hole and secured with ropes so we are hermetically sealed inside.  Later,when I decide to brave the cold and relieve myself, I discover that the door is tied shut and have to snake my hand through a forced gap to unloop the string. The stove has done its work and the icy cold and breezy environment turns to boiling hot without oxygen; my face blazes as I try to breathe deeply and combat the feeling of intense claustrophobia. As romantic as it sounds, my first night in a yurt is not the most comfortable of experiences.

It does mean, however, that as soon as dawn light glimmers through the thin patches in the canvas I’m ready to be up and watch the early morning mist swirl around the surrounding mountains and catch the first sun rays to burn through. I’m on Tes-Tor in Kyrgyzstan, a country I know very little about, for a long weekend of light hiking in April 2017.

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

Landing in Bishkek

Our journey starts from Dubai with a FlyDubai flight taking four hours through the night to the capital Bishkek. For most of our group it’s an easy process with no visa needed, but the group one for the Indian nationals has a problem and they have to remain at the airport for most of the day to sort it.

Our Kyrgyz guides ferry us in mini buses through the streets of the capital in the early morning light. Bishkek is named after a paddle used to make kumis, the national drink of fermented mare’s milk.  The city centre is dominated by soviet-style angular buildings and heavy-hewn black statues of Lenin, Pushkin and Mikhail Frunze (a Bolshevik leader in the Russian revolution).  This country emerged from the USSR in 1991 after 70 years of Soviet rule.  The Kyrgyz were nomadic in the past, and there’s a mix of cultural backgrounds as the country was part of different empires over the centuries.  Many of the unique and ancient traditions have been preserved in this small landlocked country surrounded by mountains which was a part of the Great Silk Road.

The first people we see out on the streets have attractive round ruddy cheeks and rosebud lips. Many women bind their heads in coloured scarves and coats and dresses are covered with bold embroidery. Some men wear tall sculptural white felt hats (called kalpaks), also embellished with navy embroidered patterns .

We head East for a couple of hours through farmland dotted with brown sheep, budding fruit trees and square houses. The mosques are square too as if fashioned from a similar frame, with a painted jagged, metal sphere, placed on top as a minaret. They remind me of the shape of cut glass.

Burana tower

After a couple of hours we reach our lunch stop at the site of the ancient city of Balasagun. A medieval minaret is about all that remains. At the peak of its wealth, during the reign of the Karakhanids (955-1130), it was an important place on the Great Silk Road and had over 200 places of worship. The Karakhanids were the first people in Central Asia to accept and practice Islam and the Burana minaret, constructed inside the ancient city, was the first to be built in this part of the continent.

We’re welcomed into a yurt, its walls and roof covered with brightly painted wooden struts and embroidered cloth. The first of many feasts that we’ll enjoy over the next few days is laid out on little tables.
After we cannot drink another drop of tea from flowery painted metal teapot we wander in the sunshine to see the ancient burial site. The open grassland is dotted with curved petroglyphs (carved stones) called bal-bals – the name may be derived from the Turkic for ‘grandfather’ and these primitive pieces of ancient rock do look more like people than gravestones.

The red brick Burana tower just begs to be climbed and I tackle the steep narrow winding stairs in order to take in the panoramic view of the mountains. Earthquakes, marauding Mongols and pilfering Russian immigrants lessened its height and it’s been given a rather neat restoration job, but it’s still impressive for something that’s been around since the 9th century.

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

View from Burana tower

Once my feet are back on the ground I spot a large party of Chinese girls swarming up the driveway so I make a dash for the loos but balk when I get there.  The concrete stalls with no door and a just hole in the ground are clean but ridiculously basic and exposed – and a hint of things to come during our stay.

There’s a lot of nodding off on our next leg of the journey as our bus winds its way through miles of countryside, climbing higher to meet the clouds that roll in over the towering hills.

Homestay in Karool Dobo village

Through a metal door down an unmade country lane is our home stay,  consisting of a couple of long buildings with many rooms. It’s clean, comfortable but icy cold inside the rooms. We’ve barely digested our vast ‘breakfast’ but we’re led into another yurt where we sit on blankets to eat at low tables that groan with dishes. Platters of fried wide pastry ribbons with jagged edges are formed into rolls like crowns and arranged into towers. Baskets of bread, biscuits and wrapped sweets  are dotted among large bowls of white sugar and several varieties of homemade jam.
We start with a salad of potato and beetroot and another one with carrots and thin noodles. A soupy stew of hard chewy beef and potatoes follows. Black tea is served in abundance of course.

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

Outside our homestay in Karool Dobo, Kyrgyzstan

The urge to curl up in a ball and snooze is strong but once we don hiking boots and many layers (uncertain of the temperatures) it’s a wonderful feeling to be striding up the nearby hill. We are guided by a local with no English who is clearly fitter than the fittest among us. He strolls with ease leading us upwards, stopping periodically and crouching on his heels, while we catch up panting (well it might just have been me doing the heavy breathing). The Kyrgyz are a horse rearing nation and we walk past many herds on the hillside. After ascending for well over an hour there are patches of flattened, damp brown grass recently liberated from a blanket winter snow. A little higher up we discover a remaining snowy patch and this discovery brings a delight that only desert dwellers can really understand, especially when we spot a snowdrop raising its tiny, new fragile head in a clearing.

Back at the homestay, the yurt is laid with the exact same spread of pastries jam and bread but this time supplemented with a slightly different beef stew and rice. It’s hearty fare made for extreme temperatures. We’ve bought whisky on our way out of Dubai and get to know our neighbouring room mates over a few hot toddies before sinking gratefully into comfortable beds.

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

With our homestay hostess

After welcome hot showers, we dodge the pouring raid from veranda to yurt, to sit on low cushions once again for breakfast. There’s a tangy, slightly fizzy (i.e. fermented) yoghurt which I love but is too strong for some. Traditionally this might have been made from mare’s milk (kumis) but I think this yoghurt is from cow’s milk. A semolina porridge transports me back to infant school dinners, in a good way. The teapot circulates endlessly as always and the same bread, biscuits, bowls of sugar and crenellated pastries fill the table (do they dust them?).

Our host and hostesses wave us farewell and I pose for a picture with the lady of the house who smiles with lips firmly closed, hiding her many gold teeth. Rain lashes down but eventually clears as we head further East through dramatic green hills.

Lake Issyk-kul. Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

We stop by a lake which gleams flatly below us. During the summer, crowds flock to these vast stretches of water and, by the largest called Issyk-Kul, bask on the only beaches in this landlocked place. Today we see no-one.

Kochkor livestock market

The streets of Kochkor are lined with vehicles as it’s livestock market day. We enter through the sheep area with woolly beasts of all sizes and ages being shown by their owners. We thread our way among the beasts and men, fawning over curly-headed calves that hide behind their protective mothers. Horses are cajoled and whipped further along, interspersed with the odd clutch of poultry, food stalls and other random items.

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

At the Kochkor livestock market

People are mildly interested in our presence but mostly we’re ignored or observed with a gently smile.  The range of vehicles also reflect that horse power of four legs is still relied on heavily. Ladas of various vintages mingle with pick up trucks and slightly newer models of makes I’ve never heard of. Gleaming four-wheel drives are nowhere to be seen.

Visiting a cemetery

On our drive we’d caught intriguing glimpses of ornate looking tombs, interspersed with etched marble markers, all arranged haphazardly and overgrown with long grasses bleached from winter temperatures. At last the bus stops by one on the outskirts of the town and I leg it out of there as fast as I can, camera already clicking in the eerie stillness.

Cemetery. Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

Cemetery. Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

The people of Kyrgyzstan were nomads until the 20th century and were buried very simply wherever they died. The practice of erecting ornate mausoleums to the deceased started when they adopted a more permanent lifestyle. The graves made of mud bricks and metal frames (resembling yurts) are adorned with ornaments from Islam, Shamanism and symbols of the Soviet Union. There is no tradition of visiting the dead so the cemeteries are overgrown, crumbling, serene, ramshackle and beautiful. I would return to this country for a tour of the graveyards alone.

Hike to Tes-Tor

The hustle, bustle and teaming life beckons us to stay, but our bus is waiting. We stop at the bazaar in Kochkor for provisions; the business are inside brightly coloured converted shipping containers.  One houses a little cafe where every table is full, bowls of steaming stews and dumplings keep emerging and a tantalising scent of slow cooked onions make us long to stay. However, we are committed to climbing a mountain and soon we’re standing at the bottom of a path by a farm, strapping on boots or mounting steeds. Our hiking group starts together but the younger fitter ones surge ahead and the rest of us spread out.

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

Soon R and I find ourselves walking alone, trudging up the long, slow, ascending path. The view of a high range of snow-capped mountains behind us becomes more distant as we climb higher, the steep green granite hills around us resembling sections of Dartmoor. We ford a few rocky streams and eventually a swathe of slowly melting snow. A beaten up transit van is parked just before this and a huddle of men wave from the small windows – daytime drinking or just shooting the breeze? The only litter we see on the hillside are empty vodka bottles.

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

Hiking upwards

With a sense of achievement we enter our camp of four yurts. Three hours was predicted to finish this stretch of about 10km but at this altitude ( the camp is 2800m) and gradient, and as 50+ aged hikers, we’re more than satisfied to have done it in 4 hours 20.
We enter the welcoming warmth of the yurt to join a late lunch of beef stew, salad, homemade jam, bread and tea.

Higher up to Lake Köl-Ükök

A hike to a lake is on the cards but R and I are both still feeling the effect of the climb up. I try to determine whether there are any really steep ascents. The main guide speaks French and Russian but through translation assures me that it’s the same as the journey up. R joins the horseback gang while I elect Shank’s pony. It’s good to be hiking with other people to take my mind off a few aches and slightly less fresh muscles. The group all have interesting backgrounds and their professions range from banking to radar engineering.

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

Some of the speedier hikers have left us behind, the predicted time of an hour and a half has been exceeded and the lake is still not in sight. Some of my group accept the offer to continue on horseback as we’re all feeling a bit weary. After traversing a very narrow slippery snow and mud covered path we meet the speedy gang on their way down. The lake lies at the top of a very steep climb (over 3000m). I take a couple of steps and reassess. In summer the Lake Köl-Ükök is brilliant blue, meadow fringed and reflects the surrounding mountains, right now it’s frozen and snow-covered, plus the sun is getting very low. I don’t fancy risking the walk back in the dark. I join the speedy gang for the journey back through the valley and love striding out down hill at pace. There is not one regret at missing the frozen lake which will be breathtaking in summer full of meltwater, with blue skies and wildflowers, but is a sea of white right now. This decision also rewards me with the view of a spectacular sunset behind further mountain tops at the end of the valley.

More feasting, a frenzied game of Uno, a fair few nips of warming whisky and the aforementioned early night dictated by the formidable matriarch put an end to the day.

Coming down the mountain

I’m up way before our Kyrgyz lady alarm clock at 6.30am and there’s more finger wagging at 7 to encourage the last few stragglers out from under their blankets. Within a short time we’re all eating fermented yoghurt, semolina porridge and drinking a vat of black tea, then packed up to walk back down in the sunshine. Some go by horse and our heavy bag does too.

It’s a glorious morning and we pass several mounted herdsman shepherding flocks, some old and wrinkled, some young and shy – the latter guffawing with laughter after I take a picture. Our faces are glowing with slight sunburn by the time we reach the edge of Isakeev village after three pleasant hours of hiking downhill.

Kochkor – another feast

There’s a relaxed Sunday air as we peer out of the bus windows onto country lanes as we wend our way towards Kochkor. Children sit at the roadside, an elder girl cuddling a cheeky looking toddler. There is cherry blossom everywhere and houses with wooden eaves and window sills carved and painted blue.  We stop at a smart-looking homestay with yellow shutters and a huge table laid for lunch. Explaining dietary requirements (several vegetarians and one dairy-free) takes some doing especially in a culture where meat is prized, but we get there eventually and there is more than enough food for everyone (this is an understatement).

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

There’s a five-hour bus journey back to Bishkek, where we stare out at endless green meadows, rushing rivers, roadside fruit sellers and, at one point, the border with Kazakhstan, under the spring sunshine and post lunch drooping eye lids. The only jarring note is the non-stop Kyrgyzstan pop music that the bus driver tunes into, worthy of the most testing Eurovision song contest entry.

Osh Bazaar, Bishkek

Warned to hang onto purses, our group snakes along the edge of the pavement in Bishkek. In crocodile formation we dart down rabbit warrens of alleyways in the slip stream of our guide. At the start we skirt bodies passed out on pavement, evidently senselessly drunk.  Think too much about crossing the road and you’ll never set foot on it; the cars career out of nowhere at speed. There are some very dodgy looking meat skewers on a dirty grill, sold by glowering dodgy looking men but some jolly folk music floats from a pleasant-looking courtyard; this is a place of contrasts.

We are led to souvenir shops selling felt hats, wooden instruments and mini replica yurts, among other things.  Above our heads, several loud speakers blare, competing, strident, and unintelligible (to us) cacophonies above our heads. I brave the public loos and recommend that if in the Osh Bazaar, however urgent, you never, ever do.

Threading our way to another part of the market, we are soon surrounded by stalls piled with food. Refrigeration isn’t valued much here it seems and chickens, meat and intestines are displayed in the open air. A cool hall is lined with high tables and women selling various dairy products and the famous Kyrgyz raw honey.  Their ladles drip thick cream and golden honey and the famous pure white variety made by bees from the nectar of wildflowers in the mountains – and none of the sellers can resist sampling their own wares from time to time, with undisguised relish.

Folk night at Arzu in Bishkek

When a folk night in restaurant in Bishkek was mooted I was sceptical but most of the group were really keen. This sort of event is usually quite predictable and aimed at giving tourists what they want rather than something really authentic. Arzu is a smart restaurant (compared to what we’ve seen to date) and almost empty.

The waiters flap and if ordering wine is a slight challenge (beer is much easier), explaining what vegetarians and vegans eat seems an impossible task (given the fish that arrives). Caesar salad as one of the starters makes my heart sink – but I cheer up when the manti arrive. There are dumplings in the cuisines of most cultures along the Silk Road, a Chinese influence, from Nepalese momos to Georgian khinkali, and I’m always keen to try them. The filling is dense and beefy, the thin pleated dough wrapper silky. They are the culinary highlight of the whole trip for me.

Traditional musicians. Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

The musicians arrive. Two beautiful women with serene expressions dressed in intricately embroidered clothing with a fountain of soft, grey feathers on their fur-trimmed hats, carry slender pear-shaped wooden stringed instruments with long narrow necks (called komus). One man in splendid traditional dress complete with tall hat plays a side-blown flute (a chopo-choor) and another in similar dress sings. A younger, solemn looking chap in a bright blue coat stays in the wings until he takes centre stage. Sitting at the end of the table he sways rhythmically from side to side as, in a strong nasal chant he recounts a historic and moving tale of tragedy and valour. We cannot understand a word but there is no doubt about the subject matter or the amount of feeling it evokes.

The women lighten the mood with fast and dexterous plucking and strumming of strings with dramatic arm movements and switching their instruments into different choreographed positions. Afterwards I ask how long it has taken them to become so expert; they began playing at the age of seven.  The whole programme is utterly captivating and when the group join us at the end of the table for a photo it’s revealed that they are a famous ensemble who make regular appearances on TV.  The whole evening including a sumptuous meal has cost us 10 USD per head.

There is no dessert (a relief after our days of feasting) and we catch a few hours of deep sleep at our clean, comfortable hotel before heading to the airport. It’s been a weekend of real immersion in a very different culture, a world away from our own, with many tales to tell. From spotting snow leopards and red foxes in the Winter to a profusion of wild flower meadows and more breathtaking scenery, there is much more about this amazing country tempting us to return.

Hiking and exploring in Kyrgyzstan

Visiting Kyrgyzstan

Getting there:  There are four flight a week to the capital Bishkek from Dubai on Fly Dubai and the flight time is 3 hours 40 minutes. There are no direct flights from the UK.

Organising your trip: We signed up for this weekend with Trekkup Dubai via the Meetup app and I see they are repeating this trip. If you do a quick google search there are many companies who organise guides for trekking and hiking. Community based tourism, including homestays and yurts, is well set-up and Kyrgyzstan is very inexpensive.  There is some good information about arranging your trip from Goats on the Road here.

Staying in Bishkek: Rich Hotel

Visa info Foreign travel advice Kyrgyzstan for UK  General visa info

Thanks to R for spotting this trip and encouraging me to sign up. I’d love to return to hike through the wildflowers meadows in summer. Have I tempted you to journey off the beaten track?

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Roast caprese stuffed mini sweet peppers

March 21, 2017

Every Friday morning at the farmers’ market I pause over the tubs of sweet mini peppers and inhale deeply. When I think back to the veg on offer when the market first started, the range of produce could probably be counted on two hands. Farmers now understand more about what people want through connecting with customers over the last seven years. This means that there is something new every season and pocket-sized peppers in yellow, orange, red and green are here to stay in the Emirates. Freshly picked, powerfully fragrant and oh so sweet, they are just irresistible.

Mostly, I’ve been tossing them in a slick of oil and roasting whole. The seeds don’t seem bitter so I just slather onto toasted, crusty, sour dough with a sprinkle of seasoning. I had a brain wave to put a twist on a favourite recipe I’ve been making for about twenty years. And it works beautifully. When took these to book club they went down a storm.

Roast caprese stuffed mini peppers

Roast caprese stuffed mini sweet peppers

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: easy
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An Italian-inspired vegetarian appetiser recipe perfect to serve to a crowd

Easy to make ahead and then finish off –  just lay on the cheese and pop under the grill or in a hot oven a couple of minutes before serving. Make it vegan by just omitting the cheese and the final stage.

Ingredients

  • 12 mini sweet peppers
  • Olive oil, for brushing
  • 75-100 very small tomatoes
  • 12 black olives (dry cured preferred), stoned and halved
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
  • 1 teaspoon raw honey
  • Sea salt and black pepper
  • 1 tub of mini mozzarella (12-15 pieces), each halved
  • Fresh basil

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 180 C. Cut the mini peppers in half lengthways and remove the inner membrane and seeds. Brush with olive oil and lay cut side up on an oiled baking or roasting tray. Place in the oven for 20 minutes until soft but not coloured (some edges might start to catch a little).
  2. Meanwhile toss the tomatoes and olives in a bowl with the olive oil, pomegranate molasses, raw honey and seasoning.
  3. Remove the peppers from the oven and fill the cavities evenly with the tomato mixture. Return to the oven for 5-10 minutes until the tomatoes are soft but not bursting (too much). This stage can be done ahead of time.
  4. When ready to eat, top each pepper with half a mozzarella and put back into a hot oven or under a hot grill for 3-5 minutes until the cheese is melted and slightly bubbling.
  5. Top each pepper with a small individual basil leaf or shredded fresh basil and serve.

Roast caprese stuffed mini peppers

If you are inspired by this farmers’ market haul there’s more over on Instagram…

All pics taken on my iphone as I’m still dithering about my new camera choice!

And that’s it! Uncharacteristically brief post from me. Let me know if you make them and what seasonal produce you can’t get enough of right now.

Saturday night at the Kemeralti bazaar in Izmir

March 1, 2017

“Beş! Beş!” the fish seller brayed in his cracked bellowing voice to indicate the slender silver slivers in the basins before him were five Turkish lira per kilo. It’s coincidence that the Turkish word for five almost rhymes with fish.  He served a procession of buyers while juggling his chain-smoking deftly, a cigarette hanging from his lips and dangling precariously over his wares.

Strolling the street of Izmir in Turkey, I’d lagged behind to capture yet another slightly decaying house or intriguing sign in the lanes. Rounding the corner I was struck by a cacophony of voices as people weaved in and out of the narrow passageway edged by food shops and stalls, the latter illuminated by fluorescent spiral bulbs making the colours of the food look particularly intense.

There is no doubt that nose-to-tail eating is alive and well in Izmir as the butcher’s shop windows displayed tripe, liver, lungs and intestines alongside the more traditional cuts. Plastic basins of spices weren’t piled high like the tourist shops but filled with just enough to keep them fresh. The fish stall men leaned over to spray their stock with water while haggling with the teeming throng of customers. Saturday night is shopping night in Izmir and we were in the thick of things in Havra Street at the Kemeraltı Bazaar.

My group all touted cameras as we were hot footing it from the World Tourism Forum in Istanbul and now as guests of Visit Izmir. Our presence wasn’t just tolerated, we were completely ignored. Under a cloak of invisibility we skulked and then moved closer with our lenses as men concentrated on their ritual ablutions around the fountains beside the 17th Century Hadji Hüseyin or Sadirvan Mosque.  It’s a timeless scene which has been repeated for centuries (photographic equipment aside!).

Winding deeper into the bazaar, I found a courtyard dedicated to food next to the main entrance to the 16th Century Hisar mosque. A boy ladled hot soup from a dangling steaming cauldron suspended from a tripod, chestnut sellers vied for business and people bustled in and out for evening prayer. Near the side door of the mosque  is the entrance to one of eight synagogues which remain in Kemeraltı, still in use from descendents of another ancient community.  Spanish and Portuguese Sephardic Jews made Izmir their home after fleeing those countries at the time of the Spanish Inquisition in the 1400s. At its peak there was a cluster of 34 synagogues built in the medieval Spanish architectural style, uniquely preserved in some today. Members of this community still speak a version of ancient Spanish called Ladino; their heritage made a big contribution to Izmir cuisine including the local favourite  boyoz, a baked round pastry bun flavoured with tahini.  At this time of early evening the doors to the synagogues were bolted shut, the inhabitants intent on a different ritual to their neighbours.

The sky visible through the narrow lanes started to turn pink throwing the tower of the mosque into relief above the roofs of the shops. A hawker in a braided waistcoat wheeled a trolley of flourescent liquid which he whirled around a stick in multi-coloured strands to be eaten carefully, a form of melted sweets. I followed a family into a chess shop packed with boards in painted boxes with ornate pieces of all sizes. The scent of freshly ground coffee drew me on, past a huge spit with a round of skewered meat roasting horizontally over flame, to a shop with an enormous pneumatic plunger pounding up and down to grind the beans.

We all gathered at a coffee shop to test the local brew – Turkish coffee. (aka fincanda pişen Türk kahvesi or Turkish coffee boiled in the cup). Finely ground coffee is mixed with water in a long-handled pot (cezve) which is nestled into a bed of hot sand. The coffee is stirred as the water starts to simmer, then poured into small cups. A thick layer of coffee ‘sludge’ remains in the cup once you have finished drinking and there’s a tradition of fortune telling around this. We had a go ourselves,  apparently the coffee should be drunk only from one side of the cup. You place the saucer on top of the cup and make a wish, then hold the covered cup at chest level and turn it anti-clockwise a few times. Then turn the cup upside down onto the saucer and leave to cool; some people place a coin on top to hasten the process and to ward off bad omens. When cool, the cup is removed and then shapes formed interpreted by the fortune teller (this is called tasseography).

Our little cups came with a piece of dried fruit on the side, but our guides appeared with Sambali, a street food originally from Syria, which is really popular in Izmir. It’s a semolina cake, drenched with syrup, topped with a nut and sandwiched together with a type of clotted cream. Just the thing we needed before a big supper. The Kemerelti maker of this is quite famous.

Trays of tea in hourglass-shaped glasses were being passed around too and then some traditional sherbet arrived, a mix of flower extracts, fruit or herbs with sugar and water. It’s quite weak to taste and not to my palate but is a legendary drink especially during the heat of the summer and offered to guests. We tasted black mulberry which is a particular favourite in Izmir.

Our guide, more intent on history than photo opportunities, then mentioned casually that there was a good view from the upper level of the Kızlarağası Hanı, the Ottoman era kervansaray (caravansarai) which we were sitting next to. Hurrying through the domed arches lined with tourist shops, I found the stairway at the rear and was soon gazing out at the minarets of the Hisar Mosque from the open balcony, thinking how much I would have like to have caught the sunset.  The atmosphere of this market took me back to a Friday night in old Damascus, where you feel like you are treading in the footsteps of medieval travellers. One more good excuse to return to this captivating bazaar that has one foot firmly in the past, where you can still find echoes of the silk road.

The view from upstairs

Plan your trip to Kemeralt1

StaySwissotel Buyuk Efes is bright and comfortable with lovely grounds and some impressive local and international modern art including an Antony Gormley sculpture. Easy walking distance to the Agora and bazaar.

Location –  we started our wanderings by entering the street across the road from the Agora or Roman market place ruins. It stretches over a large area but you can navigate by looking for the towers of the main mosques which lie at its centre.

Eating and drinking – There are many local specialities – more information about the local cuisine of Izmir here. You can also do a food tour organised by Culinary Backstreets (I road-tested one previously in Istanbul and it was excellent).

Synagogues – many of the synagogues of Kemeralt1 are open for visitors. If you have a guide they may be able to recommend the best ones. There are more formal in-depth tours of Jewish heritage sites available too.

Thanks to Visit Izmir for hosting me as a guest for the tour of Izmir (with accommodation at Swissotel). More useful information can be found on their website.

I was in Turkey as part of the World Tourism Forum with BloggerCasting and met some incredible people. One group went to Edirne – another beautiful part of the country. Read ‘Captivated by Edirne/Adrianople Thrace‘ by Marysia on Travel Affairs and ‘Things to do in Edirne‘ by Cheryl.

Do you have a favourite market somewhere in the world? What’s the most unusual thing you’ve brought back?

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The food and drink rituals of famous authors

February 25, 2017

food-and-drink-rituals-of-top-authorsAs someone who spends a lot of their life at a desk, tapping out words on a keyboard, I relate to the solitary aspect of a writer’s life. What fuels me? Endless cups of tea, partly because it necessitates a wander downstairs which restores the blood flow to the brain and less edifying parts of the body.  I’m quite strict about food, with porridge for breakfast and nothing else until lunchtime. After a particularly successful day, making a gin and tonic at sundown (there has to be a reward for early dusk) is calming, satisfying and refreshing, putting a liquid full stop to the day.

Ahead of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature (3rd – 11th March 2017) I asked a handful of authors about their own food and drink rituals. I questioned them about what they eat and drink during the writing process and whether they have any rituals or necessities (tea and biscuits every hour for instance).  I was also interested to know which fictional meal they would like to have been present at (or perhaps would like to avoid)? Here are their answers:

 

James Naughtie reveals food and drink writing ritualsJames Naughtie

While writing I find that my body clock, and the timing of the life, go haywire. So the answer is: there’s no plan for eating and drinking. I admire discipline, but have very little.

My writing ritual is to try to wake very early and get three hours in while everything is quiet. That’s it.

Moby Dick is one of my favourite novels. There’s an entire chapter on eating clam chowder as the hunt for whales in the Atlantic. My problem is I think I could exist on clam chowder but never kill a whale. So, no.

James Naughtie presented the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 for 21 years. His lyrical but authoritative Aberdeenshire accent springs into my mind as I type his name and I could go to his Lit Fest session just to listen to his voice. He has interviewed many of the most notable people in recent history and an award-winning author he has written about politics in London and Washington, and more recently fiction.

Book James Naughtie’s Lit Fest sessions here.

Alan Titchmarsh reveals food and drink writing ritualsAlan Titchmarsh

I write in the morning and tend to have a glass of water or a cup of tea with my breakfast, then I write until 10.30 or 11am and my reward is a mug of ground coffee with a teeny bit of sugar!
I have a restorative cup of Lapsang tea in the middle of the afternoon (no sugar!) – and trying not to have biscuits!
I’d love to have participated in the Cratchit’s Christmas dinner in Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ -the description of that steaming goose makes my mouth water!

As a horticulturist, Alan Titchmarsh was a constant on television when I was growing up via things like Gardener’s World, and then won the nation over with a programme called Ground Force which secretly transformed people’s gardens over a weekend (I love it).  I knew that he’d written fiction (famed for their ‘romantic’ passages) but didn’t realise that all ten made the Sunday Times Best-seller list, in addition to three volumes of autobiography, several books on royalty and over fifty gardening books. Read more about him by my favourite interviewer Lyn Barber.

Book Alan Titchmarsh’s Lit Fest sessions here.

Nisha Katona reveals food and drink writing ritualsNisha Katona

I drink huge amounts of decaffeinated filter coffee; I love the sharp heat to keep me awake without the caffeine to keep me off the ceiling. Writing about food inevitably makes me very hungry, all the time. I write through the night. I sit in the quiet darkness at my laptop with only the kitchen lights on. I slowly empty my fridge as the  night progresses. Writing books does my hips no favours at all.
I have no rituals or necessities except that there is no noise. I cannot work with any distraction. I need absolute silence and the absence of demands. hence the only time I can put fingers to keyboard and really dig deep is when my children are asleep and my cats have gone a hunting.

Nisha went slightly off-piste by choosing a feast from history.

I would like to have been present at any of Henry VIII wedding banquets. I find his kitchens in Hampton Court one of the most atmospheric and inspiring spaces. Big food, meat-heavy, hedonistic, fire and smoke charred. These were banquets where you ate with your hands and ate off bread trenchers. It was animal and it was gluttonous. I wish I was a Tudor dinner guest at least twice a week.

“Treating them like this is like giving them a gin and tonic and a karaoke mic” so says Nisha Katona on her approach to Brussels Sprouts. This could sum up neatly why her YouTube channel, demonstrating how to make simple Indian food quickly, has been such a roaring success. Her self-proclaimed ‘curry evangelism’ centres on cooking according to ancient Ayurvedic principles that focus on transforming cheap often meagre, seasonal, conscientiously grown ingredients into divine curries, simply and quickly. 

Book Nisha Katona’s Lit Fest sessions here.

Julie Lewis reveals food and drink writing ritualsJulie Lewis

During the writing process I eat and drink lots of water, green tea, the occasional cappuccino, nuts, fruit and dark chocolate!

Before I start writing I mediate for 20 minutes, exercise and do some deep breathing. I have instrumental music playing in the background and have vanilla candles lit. I make sure I get up every 90 minutes to      stretch, have a quick jog on the spot to re-energize. I find being surrounded by nature helps too!
I would avoid the Mad Hatter’s tea party ( Alice in Wonderland). Perpetual tea time would soon wear thin  for me ……..  Variety is the spice of life!

Inspirational go-getter is an apt description for Julie Lewis who lives right here in Dubai.  She has trained and led multi-national teams of women and men on more than 55 expeditions to over 20 countries, including the Arctic and Antarctica.  She does manage to stay still long enough to write and her best-selling book Moving Mountains forms the basis of a personal leadership program being taught at several educational establishments in the UAE and overseas.

Book Julie Lewis’s Lit Fest sessions here.

How to plan your visit to the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

The festival spreads over two weekends this year and the schedule is jam-packed with interesting speakers, many local as well as the usual brilliant internationally renowned gang. Having attended every year I have a strategy of sorts for planning who to see. Read about it here on the Lit Fest site but do come back and leave me a comment if you think I’ve missed anything vital!

 

The food and drink rituals of famous authors

How would you answer? Do you write, and if so, do you have any rituals especially around food and drink? Which fictional feast tempts or repels you?

See you at the festival.

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Vegan oatbran scones

January 7, 2017

My car knows its own way to Dubai airport. If  you were there just before Christmas you might have seen me waiting eagerly at the barrier in arrivals as my family arrived one by one. Now the reverse is true and the more painful farewells have started, including seeing off my younger daughter returning to University in the UK.  Having made up her mind to be vegetarian aged seven she tried alternate months of veganism (no dairy or animal products) for a couple of years. This autumn she committed to going fully vegan and waved farewell to some of her favourite things for ever (milk in tea, melting mozzarella on pizza) in line with her principles. Her sister has also adopted a plant-based diet for most of the time. At our Christmas lunch, five out of eighteen people were vegetarian or vegan.

So I’m Mother to two vegans and I’m totally supportive of their choice and the reasons behind it. There’s been a lot of trial and error over the last three years but I’ve enjoyed the journey of learning to cook vegan. As with all our food, I try not to rely on anything processed. I wouldn’t buy cheese slices normally for instance and so commercial vegan cheese slices are equally unappealing.  I’d rather not cook twice so am always on the hunt for delicious, healthy recipes that appeal to everyone.

These light, fluffy scones are equally good with a layer of jam (for vegans) or a smear of butter (for the nons).  They have a generous amount of oatbran (more on that below). There’s a touch of brown sugar, but not too much, I’m going to try the next batch without it. I used a commercial vegan spread to bake with that’s based on coconut oil (with no palm oil – the baddie when it goes to the environment). If my daughter was here again long-term I’d try making my own vegan butter substitute.  The alternative raising agent for the egg is milled flaxseed and water. The scones take moments to make in a food processor and just 12 minutes in a hot oven to bake, so in less than half an hour you can be prising apart warm, crumbly scones with your fingers (and a clear conscience).

Vegan oatbran scones

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: easy
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Ingredients

  • 225g organic self-raising flour (plus extra for dusting)
  • 30g oatbran (I used Mornflake)
  • 40g dark brown sugar
  • a pinch of sea salt
  • 85g vegan butter substitute
  • 1 flax egg (1 tablespoon of milled flax combined with 3 tablespoons of water)
  • unsweetened coconut milk (mine was from a carton) – approximately 50 – 75ml

Method

  1. Weigh out the dry ingredients (flour, oatbran, brown sugar and salt) and put into a food processor. Whizz for 1 second to combine.
  2. Add the vegan butter and whizz until the mixture resembles fine bread crumbs (this can also be done by hand using the rubbing in method but make sure your butter is very cold).
  3. Add the flax egg and start to pulse together while pouring the coconut milk in through the lid, a little at a time. Stop when it the ingredients are combined in a soft dough.
  4. Turn out onto a floured surface and gently pat the dough into a 4cm deep round.
  5. Dip a straight sided cutter into flour, 5cm diameter and cut out eight rounds close to each other. Do not twist the cutter to achieve the best rise. If you need to re-roll the dough with your fingers, handle as little and as lightly as possible.
  6. Transfer gently to a floured baking tray and bake in the centre of an oven preheated to 220C (200C fan) for 10-12 minutes. Cool on a wire rack and eat while still slightly warm.

These oatbran scones are based on a traditional farmhouse recipe with oats (which you could also use). I chose oatbran for the flavour, texture and health benefits. Oatbran is one of the richest sources of a soluble fibre called Oat Beta Glucan that has been shown to help reduce low-density liprotein (LDL), aka “bad” cholesterol.

As you know, I scrutinize every ingredient that comes into my kitchen carefully and the oats and oat bran I use are milled by Mornflake in Cheshire, UK. The organic oats are my first choice but the rest of the range is GM free. This independent company has been operating for 350 years (15 generations) and is run by descendents of the very first miller. They are dedicated to sustainability and have set impressive energy and waste reduction goals. Their aim is to return to being 100% sustainable, just like they were in 1675 and as only 0.01% of the ‘waste’ they produce is sent to landfill (with a target of zero) and the installation of the first modern-day windmill in Scotland (which also benefits local homes), they are well on the way.

I’m not a great resolution maker but the start of January does mean getting back on track. Having a good breakfast that gives me slow release energy is one of them. Overnight oats (or Bircher) and porridge are both excellent sources of this and my ‘go-to’ healthy, quick and economical breakfast. Don’t get me started on the topic of breakfast cereal…. or do… are you up for a indepth look at this ‘healthy’ processed food?

I’m off to a Mornflake oat brunch event at Top Chef Cooking Studio this week so follow me on Instagram stories for the inside view (plus #mornflake #oatbrunch) and more oaty inspiration.

Note: This is a sponsored post – I received compensation and products from Mornflake, which got this year off to a great start as they are my first choice for oats and were already in my cupboard. All views remain my own, as always.

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Egg and lemon soup – how to make avgolemono

January 5, 2017

how to make egg and lemon - avgolemono - soup on my custard pieThis is the ultimate frugal soup if you live in rural Cyprus and keep your own hens. Don’t worry, it’s fine if you don’t. It’s also bloody delicious despite the unpromising name. In our family it’s usually tacked on at the beginning of the Christmas feast as KP adores it, but this year made an appearance on New Year’s Day where its properties as a restorative for mind, body and soul were proven beyond the shadow of a doubt (ok I might mean hangover cure).  So how do you make it?

First take one elderly hen that’s stopped laying and make a deep, flavourful chicken stock. Then add onion celery and a handful of rice (sometimes fine cubes of potato are added too) then stir beaten egg into the hot broth to thicken but not scramble (like you do in a Carbonara). Lemon juice is added at the end to lift the whole thing to a fragrant, moreish, velvety broth. Alternatively you can use the (much simpler) recipe below. It works well with stock made from the turkey carcass but the stock cube version is actually KP’s favourite – and you know me too well to never endorse stock cubes unless it really did taste exceptional.

This is a family recipe complete with quirky notes from KP’s Mum and Grandma.

Egg and lemon (avgolemono) soup

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: easy
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Ingredients

  • 4 pints water (approx.)
  • 3 chicken stock cubes or equivalent fresh chicken or turkey stock
  • 1 medium potato — diced small (optional)
  • 1 medium onion – chopped
  • 1 or 2 sticks celery (according to size) — chopped
  • 1/2 cup long grain rice
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 lemons (if small may need another 1) — juice only

Method

  1. Put water in saucepan with potato, onion and celery. Bring to the boil.
  2. Add the stock cubes or equivalent and dissolve.
  3. Turn heat down so that the liquid is simmering. Simmer for 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
  4. Bring back to the boil and add the rice. Boil gently for a further 20 minutes to cook the rice.
  5. Take saucepan off the heat and allow to cool a little.
  6. Whisk the eggs in a basin using a balloon whisk.
  7. Whisk a little of the lemon juice into the beaten eggs. Use a spoon to dribble the lemon juice, a drop at a time. It is about 2 teaspoons. (I am not sure why I do this except Mother and Auntie Sophia used to.)
  8. Add most of the lemon juice to the liquid and rice and whisk it in. If you have a lot of lemon juice use your judgement as to how much you add to start with. You can always add more but not take out.
  9. Using a soup ladle whisk some of the liquid in to the eggs and then pour all the egg mixture in to the liquid and whisk well.
  10. Taste (and ask KP to taste if it is “lemony” enough).

Note: The only things to beware of are adding the eggs when the liquid is too warm or boiling after eggs added. I have found that if I take the saucepan off the heat before doing steps 6 onwards it is about right.

how to make egg and lemon - avgolemono - soup on my custard pieLet me know if you try it. It’s perfect for a Dubai winter as comforting but refreshing at the same time. Free range eggs from happy hens will make this the soup taste even better.  I’m just off to have another bowlful for lunch.

Happy New Year by the way. I’m not making any grand resolutions (no dry January or formal diets) just a few focussed goals to work on. It does feel like a new broom as one year ends and the other begins… even though really it’s just another day! Do you feel the same or do you find resolutions helpful?

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