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Perfect peace in the dunes: Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa

February 17, 2019

The view over private infinity pool into the desert

As I swim in our private infinity pool on the edge of the desert, it brings home, vividly, the luxury of water to people who lived in this terrain in the recent past. The delicious feeling of the slightly warm liquid on my skin, rippling and sparkling, soothing and cleansing. Even a camel skin pouch filled with clean, crisp water from a well or oasis would have been treasured. To douse yourself, all over, must have been something unimaginable.

I thought that being the Al Maha resort would give me a sense of the life of a wealthy oligarch or entrepreneur, staying in a private lodge, with every whim catered for.  And it was true that every detail had been thought of so we wanted for nothing. But it’s the connection with nature, the desert and the history of the U.A.E. that transcends the deep fluffy towels, soft sweet rutab dates with gold leaf or the enormous rain shower.

tent like building in front of an infinity pool

The roof of our room is shaped like a tent with corded seams, the doors look out over an uninterrupted view of the dunes to the distant Hajar mountains. As I swim, small birds flit inside the open doors to peck at our dish of Arabic sweets, an Arabian mountain gazelle tip-toes up to the edge of the decking on its spindly legs and holds my gaze with its soft, brown eyes, and a small butterfly, taking a break from pollinating the fire bush, dips to the surface of the pool to catch a few drops of moisture.  The pulsating coo of pigeons blends with the chirping of sparrows and cheeky red-vented bulbuls. Occasionally a quail darts from one bush to another across the sand.

After driving down a rickety track through the dunes, our welcome to Al Maha had been with cool towels. Then we were ferried by buggies down winding paths flanked by bubbling streams in small channels, based on the falaj system of irrigation, to our secluded lodges where we want to hide away forever.

lights around a dinner setting in the desert

Image credit: The Luxury Collection

people sitting around a dining table on cushions in the desert at night

Image credit: The Luxury Collection

The promise of a special dinner lures us away from the blissful tranquillity of our rooms.  Four wheel drives take us through the darkness until we arrive at a small camp. Storm lamps flicker on long low tables edged with large cushions. Although there is a bit of generated light at the perimeter where cooks prep our food and turn lamb on a spit, we are reliant on candlelight giving a sense of low tech life once more; constellations of stars are bright and easily visible when we raise our heads to the clear sky. The sound of our conversations is the only thing that pierces the silent darkness. Once the temperatures drop, we head back to sink into the comfort of our enormous bed with the smoothest cotton sheets (300 thread count – that you can buy).

The faintest glow of pink on the horizon wakes us and, after a cup of tea made with fresh milk from the fridge, we head out into the dark, early morning. By the time we pace our way down a steep dune underneath the main building, the fiery orb of the sun is starting to rise rapidly. Three falcons arrive and we watch as each one swoops at 300 kilometres an hour above our heads to catch its reward of fresh meat.

Owl flying watched by a circle of people

Image credit: The Luxury Collection

Falconry is an art developed over centuries and Bedouins captured the migratory birds, used them to hunt for precious meat, and then released them back into the wild to resume their journey before the hot summer temperatures (which would kill them). Air-conditioning means they can be kept all year round now. The discipline of training your bird is a highly valued skill, as are falcons these days. There are falcon souks (shops) in the U.A.E. and birds can command prices as high as 100,000 aed. I often see a couple of falcons perched out in the early morning sun in a garden near me and it’s quite common to see a family going out for the day with a bird sitting in between the front seats.

The final bird we meet is a Pharaoh eagle-owl called Oscar who, we’re told, has more emotional intelligence than falcons. Her grumpy squawks and belligerence endears her to us all; as she flies from post to post she catches my face with her wing feathers. Her long distance sight is extraordinary but short distance rather lacking (much like myself these days).

Our breakfast table is laid on the terrace above with a view of the desert, naturally. There’s a small buffet inside and we can select from a menu too. The waiting staff bring the orders from all fifteen of us at the same time – my eggs Benedict is excellent, the sauce creamy and piquant, the poached egg perfectly cooked.

Our next event is a desert drive and our ranger Courtney keeps up a steady commentary of fascinating information about the conservation area as he steers our Land Cruiser slowly around the track. No dune bashing here and we stick to a trail so that we disturb the environment as little as possible. The Desert Conservation area was first established as a National Park by Sheikh Zayed as he saw that, with rapid modernisation, some things were being lost. The Arabian Oryx – the national animal of the UAE – was down to just 40 beasts and almost extinct.  This area of 225 square kilometres, which is about 5% of the whole country, was cordoned off to protect it.

Courtney explains how delicately balanced the desert is and if one thing is removed it has a huge impact on everything else which is why the preservation programme is ongoing and very finely tuned. I’d been a bit sceptical about a luxury development in the middle of this (as they are usually very intrusive and resource heavy) but Al Maha operates with as little impact as possible including a water recycling and filtration system that links the animal drinking pools with the grey waste water, and solar panels placed discreetly around the resort.

I keep up a stream of questions, ‘what’s that bird?’, what’s that plant?’ how about the water table?’ which Courtney is happy to answer with in-depth knowledge. We learn about ‘Sodom’s apple’, a plant that’s always intrigued me when I spot it growing on waste ground near our house as it’s always surrounded by bees. The flowers are round, pink and could be tempting to travellers in the desert but it’s very poisonous; as are the vipers that come out at night – the seventh deadliest venomous snake in the world.

Arbian oryx in the desert

rangers in the desert in front of four wheel drives

Our excellent guides

Courtney tells us about the components of sand and why there are different colours. He explains that the lighter sand is made of silica and the red sand of iron oxide particles so when you are driving off-road the red areas will support you better and you’re less likely to sink. We stop for a group photo and KP takes great delight in testing this out for himself (and then with others) by comparing how easy is it to walk on the two types. “It works you know…”

This slow immersion in the desert works wonders for leaving the frenetic pace of life behind and when we return to our room for a couple of hours it is further balm for the body and soul. Moving between standing at the easel, tracing the outline of the ragged branches of the plants in pencil on paper, investigating distant movement with the binoculars (all provided) and languishing in the pool or sun lounger with a book is bliss.

As we pack up to leave, reluctantly, our friend the gazelle wanders to the front door as if to say goodbye.

The white starched white linen and shining cutlery of the lunch table stretches out under a canvas awning to shade us from the midday sun while we look out across the desert. The food draws on local ingredients and is elegantly presented. I hate ‘posh’ food that pairs flavours or techniques for show but this is not like that at all. There is a little beetroot amuse-bouche and a palate cleanser (a sphere of mango sorbet on ice) but it just feels like we are being spoiled rather than something to impress. Juicy sweet Omani prawns perch in a yoghurt tahini dressing dusted with sharp sumac; my dainty pink lamb cutlets rest in a swirl of camel milk and cauliflower sauce; a circle of saffron jelly cubes surrounds globes of Arabian coffee panna cotta, a pistachio sable and fig chutney bringing more favourites of the Middle East.

Driving back into Dubai, the soft ochre and red tones of the desert turning to gleaming blue glass and shining grey metal, it really is like leaving another world and another era behind.

The next day at home, the wind whipped up, the sky went opaque and heavy spots of rain started to colour the patio. As a long-term resident of the desert, I took my cup of tea out into the garden to smell the sharp, green scent of water on parched earth and to feel some of the moisture on my skin. But I also thought of those people who lived their lives among the sand dunes as I turned my face to the sky.

infinity pool overlooking the desert

I took all the photographs except the three I’ve credited (to The Luxury Collection). I was invited (with KP) for this trip of a lifetime by The Luxury Collection and Al Maha, organised by Foodiva

Find out more: Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa, The Luxury Collection, Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve

Read more about our weekend: Dubai Confidential 

As a destination in itself or as a complete getaway from Dubai, Al Maha is a really special place.

a view of private infinity pool and desert at Al Maha Desert resort and spa

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A quick guide to Burgundy and Olivier Leflaive

January 18, 2019

paintings of wine

Soft light streamed in through the windows of Il Borro, the long table in the private dining room looked so elegant.  My heart sank as I realised I’d made a schoolboy error.  There was no memory card in my camera.  I asked the photographers on hand but they didn’t have a spare one, so my iPhone would have to do.  Sigh.  Spotting my friend and talented artist Hatty Pedder, I sat down in front of her, while sipping a glass of Valentin Leflaive Blanc de Blanc Champagne, to have my portrait painted …in wine.

We were there to drink wines from Olivier Leflaive from Burgundy, one of the foremost wine regions in France.  Unlike most French ACs (Appelation Controle) which allow a range of grape varieties to be grown and blended together, the Burgundy region is simple.  White is nearly all Chardonnay and red is mainly Pinot Noir*; but that’s all that is simple.  To quote Jancis Robinson on Burgundy (Bourgogne in French), “Small, expensive, infuriating, complicated region that can occasionally deliver paradise in a bottle.”

The grapes of Burgundy

Chardonnay – the grape that rose to prominence in the 80s, where over-oaked (or even oak-flavoured), relatively inexpensive wines were ubiquitous, and is now often reviled by people who swear they hate it. But take that grape grown on limestone and clay in a cool climate to become Chablis, or with complex terrroir, the perfect site on a slope and skilled use of oak barrels and it becomes some of the most expensive white wine in the world.  Different parts of Burgundy make the magic happen.

Last weekend a friend confessed he wasn’t really into Pinot Noir.  Those used to the big block-busting reds so loved by the Bordeaux devotees, the Robert Parker fans and the concentrated heavies of the New World, might think it lacks body and structure.  However, it has legions of fans (including me); when you stick your nose in the glass and inhale it’s like being in Harvey Nicholl’s perfume hall for wine. It tastes of juicy, soft berry fruits like cherries and raspberries, but with other layers (especially if matured in oak barrels) like spice, smoke and even truffle and game.  It’s silky in texture, and despite the lack of tannins (the stuff that grips your tongue and coats your teeth) some can age really well. While it’s grown all over the world, the most famous, expensive and sublime wines are made in Burgundy.

Who grows, makes, bottles and sells it

Finding out which wines are worth drinking in Burgundy is complicated.  I had to go back to all my wine exam books for a refresher and do some heavy reading to put the jigsaw pieces into place to write this. Explaining it briefly and a way that doesn’t have you nodding off is a challenge, but I’ll try.

Back in the Middle Ages, the region was a rich, self-governing state, a land of peasant farmers, and some of the wine villages seem not to have changed a lot since then.  Many of the famous vineyards are still worked by the men who own them.  Vineyards have stayed within the same families, often for centuries, but a complex system of inheritance, in place since Napoleonic times, means that property must be shared among all siblings.  This has resulted in the land being carved into very small plots with some vineyard owners farming 15 hectares or less. Clos de Vougeot AC for instance, an area of 50 hectares, is shared between 90 growers.

These growers, historically, did not make much wine.  They sold their grapes to merchants or négotiants who blended them together, made and bottled the wine and sold it under their own name.  This began to change due to a demand for domaine-bottled Burgundy i.e. growers who make wine from their own grapes, bottle it and sell it under their own name.   As the wine-making skills of the latter ranges from superb to underwhelming, unless you have tasted and buy from one vineyard regularly, it’s often more reliable to buy wine made by a highly-esteemed négotiant made with grapes from their own vineyards. The other alternative is a négotiant-bottled blend with grapes from several growers.  All these options can be made from grapes from very similar vineyards. Simple? Non.

Olivier Leflaive white Burgundy being poured into glasses at Il Borro restaurant

Listening to Jean Soubeyrand CEO of Olivier Leflaive

A bottle of Olivier Leflaive white Burgundy on a dining table

Wine-growing areas of Burgundy

If you want to dig deep into where all the famous names of Burgundy hang out (geographically) there is a link below. In a nutshell there are four main areas in the region: Chablis, Cote d’Or, Cote Challonaise and Maconnais.**

As Chablis is in the North and much cooler, all the wines are white – steely, minerally and refreshing; the priciest and best at aging is Chablis Grand Cru, followed by Chablis Premier Cru.  The Côte d’Or is divided into the Côte de Beaune where all white Grand Crus (except one rare one) are made, and the Côte de Nuits in the North where the fullest bodied, longest lived reds come from and all the red Grand Crus apart from one (Corton) are produced.  Most appellations in the Côte d’Or include both red and white wine even if they’re more famous for one.

Wines of the Côte Challonaise are judged less prestigious so can be good value for money (the whites of Rully and the reds of Givry and Mercurey).  The most famous appellation of the Mâcon is Poilly-Fuissé for its full-bodied whites.

A long table and chairs at Il Borro restaurant

Il Borro

a row of bottles of Burgundy from Olivier Leflaive

Some of the wines we tasted

The Lefliave family

So with the Burgundian jigsaw puzzle as a backdrop, where do the Leflaives fit in?  Again, it’s a bit of a saga but one that explains why I was keen to try their wines.

The Leflaive family has long roots in Burgundy going back to 1717 when Claude Leflaive founded Domain Leflaive.  A descendant, Joseph Leflaive, increased its holding of Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards in the early 20th century and, gradually, built a reputation as a top Burgundian producer.

Its standing reached greater heights when Anne Claude Leflaive began running the day-to-day operations in 1990. In 2006 she was named “the world’s top white winemaker” by Decanter magazine and in 2014 the Institute of Masters of Wine named her “Winemaker’s Winemaker”.  She did this while gradually converting Domaine Leflaive over to biodynamic viticulture at a time of great scepticism about even growing organic grapes. She also set up a wine school, Ecole du Vin et des Terroirs in Puligny-Montrachet to educate others about what she believed in; organic and biodynamic practises are now widespread in Burgundian vineyards.  She introduced horses into her vineyards, a method from the Middle Ages, which leaves the soil looser and less compacted than heavy machinery; this has now been adopted by top vignerons such as Domaine de la Romanee Conti.

So where does Olivier Leflaive fit into the dynasty?  Olivier ran Domaine Leflaive with his cousin Anne Claude (remember that inheritance system?) until 1994 when he left to concentrate on his own business that he’d founded ten years earlier.

Olivier Leflaive produces négotiant bottled and domain bottled wines. They grow their own grapes and also buy grapes from select vineyards while they are still on the vine, harvesting them with their own team. This is a unique system pioneered by Olivier Leflaive and means they have much more control over quality.

paintings of wine

Biodynamic benefits

In most of the world, grape growing for wine is some of the most intensive and chemical-reliant agriculture and I’ve walked in vineyards where the soil is barren, denuded of goodness, swamped with man-made fertiliser.  I’m keen to know if Olivier Leflaive follows Anne Claude’s extraordinary legacy. The literature says that they produce wines in ‘the most ecological and sustainable way.”

Schiller Wine quotes sommelier Charles Devarennes while on a vineyard walk in Puligny Montrachet “Our daily mission is to produce top quality grapes.  This involves a sustainable approach to working the vines, and also supporting our partner winegrowers in cultivating their plots using an organic or biodynamic approach. We have not any organic certification as we don’t hesitate to use chemical treatment if it’s really necessary.  The harvest is entirely manual and the grapes are picked with the utmost respect for the plant. Harvesting by machine is to be avoided at all costs as it damages the vines and can never match the skill and judgment of a human being.”

I didn’t manage to ask more about this at the lunch but did raise another ecology related issue (see below).

Tasting the wines of Olivier Leflaive

The dining room is filled with animated conversation as the starters arrive on sharing platters down the long table. There’s soft burrata with tomato and basil, beetroot carpaccio with goats cheese, and fried baby calamari, prawns and courgette. The vegetables are organic.  This is just the kind of simple food, served elegantly, made with good ingredients, that I like to eat.

I get a bit wine geeky with the two whites that accompany them doing a lot of sniffing and swirling.  Both wines, Olivier Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet 2014 and Olivier Leflaive Meursault Vireuils 2013, have lovely floral, aromas with lemon and soft honey flavours.  Both are very food-friendly but the latter is a little more rounded and fuller and goes really well with the seafood.

It’s clear that the menu has been designed around the wines and Il Borro has done a good job.  There’s grilled, sliced, tender beef fillet with shaved parmesan, herbed sea bass with rosemary new potatoes, and a porcini mushroom risotto.

We drink white wine – Olivier Leflaive Puligny Montrachet 1er Cru Folatieres 2014 which is slightly smoky with a mineral finish  – and red wine – Olivier Leflaive Pommard 1er Cru Epenots 2011 that’s luscious with cherry flavours and hints of spice, earth and truffle thrown in. It’s perfect with the risotto but also is good with the sea bass. Pinot Noir when made well is nuanced with softer tannins than big and bold reds, which is why it’s one of my favourite grape varieties, so can pair with fish (it’s a good lunchtime red too).  I could while away the afternoon sipping this slowly, inhaling its heady aromas (i.e. sticking my nose in the glass often), curling up with a good book.

They serve a crowd pleasing chocolate fondant, with gelato and caramel sauce for pudding and we order teas and coffees.  Champagne would have been great with this dessert too.

waiter holding plates

Loved the food at Il Borro

hands reaching over a table with spoons for dessert

Digging into dessert (iPhone pic)

Royal approval

These are excellent wines and I’ll be ordering some from Le Clos for sure, but, if you want a more impressive seal of approval, look to Harry and Meghan.  CEO, Jean Soubeyrand mentions, at the end of our lunch, that Olivier Leflaive wine was chosen for the Royal wedding by the couple. “It’s not the most expensive wine; Olivier Leflaive Les Setilles Bourgogne Blanc is nearly the least expensive.  We heard about the news from the UK press.  Fantastic for us – proud and happy and a very, good free ad.  They had a special committee with some top UK wine merchants and they decided to buy our white wine. We have five wine merchants who distribute our wine in the UK and we asked them “Did you sell the wine to the Royal family?” and they said “I can’t say yes and I can’t say no” in a very British style.  So officially we have never been appointed to sell the wine to the royal wedding – but very proud.”

Climate change in Burgundy

Jean Soubeyrand became CEO of Olivier Leflaive in 2007 and sits at the head of the table at our lunch, to my left, so I get to discuss one of my favourite topics (although not favourite occurrences) climate change.  There is evidence it is having an impact on viticulture, for instance, warmer temperatures have been partly responsible for the improvement in English wine.  I ask him if it’s made a difference (read his answer with a French accent):

“I have only been in Burgundy for ten years but talking with my team and older members in Burgundy, the time they pick the grapes is much earlier than before.  It’s only the first step of analysis because you have to consider that before, the way of making the wine was different, it’s difficult to compare.  But looking back over 30 years, we pick the grapes two weeks earlier.  The weather is less stable, you don’t have less rain, or less humidity it’s just more unpredictable and unstable.  We had frost at beginning of May so we lost a big part of the production.  Winters are not as cool as before, summers are hotter – not average. Is it a cycle, is it short-term, medium term or long-term cycle? It’s impossible to tell.  For us it’s good because probably 50 years before, Burgundy wines had a lack of maturity in the grapes of ripeness. Our wines are a little bit more fruity due to increased ripeness in the grapes.”

Hatty Pedder artist painting a lady (me)

Hatty Pedder painting my portrait in wine

Maison Olivier Leflaive

Jean signed off the afternoon with an invitation to the small hotel they own in a 17th Century building in Puligny-Montrachet called Maison Olivier Leflaive.

“I could talk about Olivier Leflaive for hours but this is just an introduction.  We have a modest hotel and restaurant in Burgundy.  We consider making wine is one thing, but to welcome our customers is also very important.  We had to find the one thing to make people happy, to visit the vineyard and visit the winery and then to go for the lunch.  But not a regular lunch, but a tasting lunch with a sommelier not only to pour the wines but to talk about the wines.  The purpose is for our customers to taste, education and to spend unique time at Olivier Leflaive that we hope they will remember for ever.  And our wish is that when they come back home to Dubai and they visit a restaurant and see us on the wine menu they say “Oh darling, we’ve been to Olivier Leflaive. Get the wine!”

Tasting a very flat and thin red Burgundy even though it had an illustrious name, at a friend’s house this week reminded me what a minefield it can be to navigate the region when buying.  Finding a trusted source like Olivier Leflaive means you’re not disappointed, and there are good quality, affordable bottles at Le Clos (as well as a few you’d need to save up for).

paintings of wine on an artists board

Back home – tea instead of Burgundy

Paint brushes and wine (over camera)

Getting back home, I was still annoyed about forgetting my camera.  Hatty’s work inspired me to pick up a paintbrush and dip it in wine (and some watercolours) to capture some of the mood of such a lovely lunch.  My afternoon of drawing and painting was almost perfect… The only thing missing was a glass of good Burgundy.

*There is also a small proportion of Aligoté and Gamay (red).

** Beaujolais is often considered part of Burgundy but is a whole different topic on its own.

Wine Folly has an excellent guide to Burgundy with maps if you want to read more.

Fiona Beckett talks about the best food pairings with red Burgundy and white Burgundy on her Matching Food and Wine site.

Visit Hatty Pedder if you want to see more of her work.

Thanks to Le Clos for inviting me to lunch at Il Borro (and providing many of these photographs of the lunch) and to Olivier Leflaive for the excellent wines.

Painting of wine glasses

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Any questions about wine? I’d love to help if I can. Have you ever painted in wine?

Gingerbread biscuits that are part of so many happy memories

December 19, 2018
gingerbread biscuits on a wooden board
There are some recipes you make again and again. This is one of the staples in our house. I can’t remember the first time or how many sessions of gingerbread-making I’ve done in my kitchen. Some solo, some with my girls as they were growing up, some with hordes of children and even a few sessions just for adults with our early food blogger group called Fooderati Arabia. Just writing this now is making me want to send out an invite, make a vat of mulled wine, and gather together for rolling, cutting and baking until the house is filled with spicy aromas and the sound of happy nattering.
I’ve given these out at Hallowe’en, put them into party bags, wrapped them as gifts and, of course, just stacked the biscuit tin at home for having with a cup of tea. My Father was Polish and there is a huge tradition of gingerbread or pierniczki there, they claim to have invented it (as do many European countries) and there is even a gingerbread museum.  However, I didn’t really grow up with these and a gingerbread man was just an occasional treat from the baker.

I adore the flavour of ginger in savoury or sweet things. From a noodle broth, spicy and fragrant, that feels like it’s fighting every illness known to man, to the sticky syrup from a jar of stem ginger.

These biscuits seem to have just the right amount of ginger flavour to please both children and adults. Icing is not necessary, but, while I’m not the neatest, I find piping patterns both creative and relaxing. As for shapes, the sky’s the limit, just don’t make them too small or they will bake too quickly. I may have a slight cutter-buying obsession (I blame Nigella). If you make them I’d love to see yours (tag mycustardpie on any social or drop me a comment).

More recipes using ginger:

Ginger chocolate biscuits

Pear, ginger and raw honey flapjacks

Sticky ginger cake with Turkish delight icing

Gingerbread biscuits (or cookies)

  • Difficulty: easy
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Classic ginger biscuits that are easy to roll, cut into shapes and bake. They have a great ginger taste and are fun to make.

Amount depends on which cutters you use. Makes about 12 large gingerbread men.

Ingredients

  • 350 g (12 oz) plain white flour
  • 5 ml (1 tsp) bicarbonate of soda
  • 10 ml (2 tsp) ground ginger
  • 110 g (4 oz) butter
  • 175 g (6 oz) soft light brown sugar
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 60 ml (4 tbsp) golden syrup
  • Currants (optional: for decoration if making gingerbread men)
  • 200 g icing sugar (optional)

Directions

1. Sift the flour, bicarbonate of soda and ginger into a food processor, or a KitchenAid fitted with the paddle attachment, or bowl. Whizz in the machine, or rub in the butter lightly by hand until the mixture resembles fine crumbs.  Stir in the sugar and make a well in the centre.
2. If making by hand beat the syrup and egg together in another bowl. For a food processor, just add direct.
3. Pour the syrup mixture into the well and mix to a fairly firm dough by whizzing briefly again in the food processor, KitchenAid or by hand. Give the dough a little extra kneading if required – you want it to be smooth.
4. Divide the dough in half and roll out, one half at a time, on a lightly floured surface to a 4-5 mm (1/4 inch) thickness. Using biscuit cutters, cut out figures or shapes and place them on baking sheets lined with baking paper. Add currants for eyes and buttons if making gingerbread men. Bake at 190 C (375 F) Mark 5 for 12-15 minutes, until golden. Do not overcook – light golden is fine – any browner they taste burnt.
5. Leave on the baking sheets for 1 minute, then carefully transfer to a wire rack to cool.
6. To make the icing: sift the icing sugar into a bowl. Whisk in cold water, a teaspoon at a time, until you get a piping consistency. Alternatively you could beat an egg white until frothy and whisk in the icing sugar a little at a time. Put into a piping bag and ice the biscuits when they have cooled completely.

Notes: The dough will rest, covered, in the fridge for ages. Warning – children have a tendency to roll dough too thinly. The cooking time depends on the heat of your oven and the thickness of the biscuits. I start checking after 10 minutes. If rolled thinner, they hold their shape better and don’t spread so much but can overcook quickly.

Gingerbread biscuits cooling

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These are great at any time of the year, but if you’re celebrating Christmas hope you have a good one.

What is bean to bar chocolate and why is it so expensive?

December 15, 2018

A box of Pierre Marcolini chocolates and a vase

I’ve had an epiphany about chocolate – and it’s probably due to my expectations being so low. If I was banned from eating chocolate ever again I’d be a little sad, but not distraught, whereas if lemon was verboten I’d panic then go into continual mourning. Let’s just say, unlike the rest of the planet, I don’t worship at the altar of chocolate.

When I got an invite to a Pierre Marcolini event I’ll admit that I accepted because my sister-in-law was in town and she more than makes up for my un-sweet tooth and chocolate insouciance. I knew that she’d love it. Want to interview Pierre? Why not? I prepared questions about sustainability, the threat to rain forests and child slavery.

The surfaces of the Gaggenau kitchen showroom were covered with shiny, shapes in serried rows. Most were for tasting but it seemed rather sacrilegious to disturb the symmetry.  Pierre arrived, bounding around like a very tall, enthusiastic school boy with slightly crazy hair and a beaming smile. He apologised again and again for his bad English and asked me not to video the interview “my bad English. It is possible in French?” Sadly ‘non’, as I didn’t do my homework or anything much than daydream during lessons.

We soon sunk into the sofas and nattered about Pierre’s favourite topic in the whole world (in a heavy French accent). I’ve met many slightly maniacal, utterly obsessed people in food over the years (being a food nerd myself makes me drawn to them) and Pierre fitted well into that category.

He says he was always into chocolate and that his life is like a holiday as he still loves it so much.

Bean to bar

Understanding how chocolate is made is key to knowing why Pierre is confident that his is of the highest quality – in fact some of the best in the world.  In the early days of his career he made chocolate like all the other chocolatiers in Belgium who would use couverture (high quality tablets of untempered chocolate that’s high is cocoa solids) made by specialist bean converters to produce their ranges. He realised that although there were different shapes and additions, the chocolates all tasted the same as the makers all began with the same raw ingredient. “I decided that this was ridiculous”. Regulations changed, allowing vegetable fats into couverture, so Pierre started sourcing to ‘bean to bar’ which is the foundation of his dedication to quality.

But what exactly is bean to bar? It means buying the cocoa beans direct from the producer, and over-seeing every process including roasting and grinding the beans right up to making the finished chocolates. But nothing in chocolate is clear-cut and terms aren’t standardised or binding. Many big manufacturers of chocolate source from bean to bar as they buy large quantities or even own chocolate estates. This is not a guarantee of quality even though the phrase is often used in artisanal chocolate making and Pierre is credited with being the first to do this.

roasted cocoa beans

Different beans that have been roasted

Meeting the cocoa growers in person

What sets Pierre Marcolini apart is that he visits the cocoa farmers himself to inspect the quality and choose the right beans which he then ships and roasts himself in Brussels. His 80 ‘artisans’ turn the beans into the finished items. He explains that, like grapes, the cocoa beans develop character and flavours depending on exactly where they are grown. So another chocolate term ‘single origin’ usually means it comes from one country but could be any estate. Pierre seeks out growers who are producing exceptional beans, often in remote areas. He was very excited about a plantation in Madagascar he’s been to recently, right by the river, that takes a small plane to get there.

It’s this direct approach that guarantees the quality that’s his holy grail and his growers are in fourteen countries including Mexico, Venezuela, Cuba, Peru, Ecuador and Vietnam. Through long-term relationships with the producers he ensures that working conditions and wages are protected. He always offers farmers more than the current trading price (up to seven times the market rate for the right beans). This is unusual in a business where many workers don’t earn a living wage, child labour is rife and deforestation are big issues. “I create the tablet of chocolate so it’s necessary for me to view and see the conditions of the workers. The price you pay for the chocolate environmentally is very important. The relationships are important,” he asserts. This does mean that Pierre’s chocolates are some of the most expensive in the world.

Bean type and terroir

Another element is the type of cocoa bean used. There are four main varieties: Criollo, Trinitario, Nacional and Forastero. He says the best cocoa tree is Criollo, “The quality is wow.”

Again this is not cut and dried. “People in Belgium often rate the quality and taste by the percentage of the different cocoa bean varieties. The flavour is not determined by the percentage of the beans in each mix, the difference is in the quality of the specific cocoa tree and the country it comes from, and the terroir.

We keep coming back to wine when talking about sourcing the cocoa beans. In wine, terroir refers to how a particular region’s climate, soils and aspect affect the taste of wine. In somewhere like Burgundy, small vineyards can be right next to each other but have very different flavours due to the nuances in the underlying soil and rock. Pierre says that you might drink a glass of red wine and not know that it comes from a certain vineyard, has a certain percent alcohol or know the grape variety – but you know you are enjoying the flavours. This is the same with chocolate; you might not know the variety of beans or the country of origin but you can taste the difference in quality.

This was my light bulb moment and suddenly chocolate had got a lot more interesting.

Drinking with chocolate

As we were talking about wine I asked Pierre about a good match with chocolate. He recommends those from the southern Rhone made with intense Syrah and juicy Grenache grapes to drink with dark chocolate. “Chocolate and coffee is very good, or lapsang souchong or green tea.” He recalls a famous tea club in Shanghai where they paired five of his chocolates with five different teas. “Fantastic!”

White chocolate is notoriously looked down upon by chocolatiers. Pierre says “It’s not chocolate in my opinion as it’s sugar, milk powder and cocoa powder, but I combine it with flavours like passion fruit, yuzu and mango. Wow, so amazing.”

The interview is over. We pose for a quick pic and Pierre laughs and shouts “Sally. Look!” as he discovers one of the Gaggenau wine fridges behind a promotional board.

The pleasure of tasting

It’s time to taste.  The filled chocolates are good but, especially after my newly found knowledge about the beans and origin, the chocolate bars (tablets) or ‘Carré Chocolat’ really pique my interest and tastebuds. The smell, texture, mouthfeel, melting point, layers of flavour and finish – it’s just like wine tasting (except there’s definitely no spitting).

There is Conquis – Cocoa Flower, Ensorcelé – from the Terruño de Baracoa estate in Cuba,  Fasciné made from Hacienda Puerto Romero in Los Rios, Equadorand Exalté made of rare Gran blanco beans that grow on the Las Pampas plantation in Peru (details below*).

Boxes of Pierre Marcolini Dubai chocolates

There are milk, white and filled versions and low-sugar recipes (so you can eat them every day apparently) and chocolate containing quinoa and rye.  But the plain, dark squares are the ones that fascinate me and I keep nibbling and comparing – they are incredibly intense and different in taste.

Feeling as though I’ve overdosed completely and craving a week of salad to balance the amount of chocolate I’ve eaten, I take a stroll around the room to view displays of his ‘artistic collaborations’. Pierre has worked with designer Tom Dixon making striking pink boxes stamped ‘London’ swooned over by Wallpaper as much as food reviewers. Pop art, pouty lips, kohl-rimmed eyes and witty phrases made limited edition boxes created with fashion designer Olympia Le Tan into collectors’ items.  Most recently he has created a Victoria Beckham range – chocolate hearts naturally. And there’s a bespoke ‘Dubai’ box that I predict will go down a storm.  There’s definitely clever marketing behind his brand which has made it so successful, but he deserves credit for being at the forefront of a movement to reconnect makers with the origins of their products and understand the value of the whole process.

We stand in front of the Christmas display for ages admiring the chocolate baubles and utterly gorgeous Advent calendar that’s a thing of beauty based on a fairground carousel. We’re absolutely thrilled when presented with one on our way out.

My conversion is complete – I’ve developed a daily bean-to-bar chocolate habit.

A large box with drawers of A box of Pierre Marcolini chocolates showing heart-shaped ones

Pierre Marcolini’s new shop opens in The Dubai Mall in December 2018

*Conquis – Cocoa Flower made with Nacional from Equador, Forastero from Cameroon and Trinitario from Cuba (85% cocoa solids), Ensorcelé – made with 100% Trinitario beans from the Terruño de Baracoa estate in Cuba (78% cocoa solids)**,  Fasciné made of Nacional beans from Hacienda Puerto Romero in Los Rios, Equador (78% cocoa solids) and Exalté made of rare Gran blanco beans that grow on the Las Pampas plantation in Peru.

**Judith of Mostly about chocolate describes the taste of Orient de Cuba here.

Other chocolatiers I like: Although not much of a chocolate eater, I’m a chocolate giver and have ordered presents from the Hotel Chocolat website in its very early days and it always goes down a storm. They now grow their cocoa on a plantation they own in St Lucia and are committed to a very detailed and impressive ‘engaged ethics‘ programme.

In Dubai we are lucky to have a small chocolate maker Mirzam who roast their own beans and produce their chocolate from bean to bar. You can actually see them do it through their glass sided production area at their shop in Al Quoz. The flavours are stunning – figs, star anise and cinnamon; rose; white chocolate with saffron to name a few. The bars look beautiful too as they commission artists to design the wrappers.

A box of Pierre Marcolini chocolates

So did you know there was so much behind chocolate growing, sourcing and making? How far on the chocoholic scale are you?

When a sommelier comes for supper – and Tim Tam truffles recipe

December 12, 2018

Tim Tam Truffles on a baking tray

Until I was given a packet of them, I had no idea of the existence of Tim Tams. Then I started Googling (“are Tim Tams like Penguin biscuits?”) which unleashed a storm of righteous indignation and I realised they are very dear to Australians.  The Tim Tams were part of a small box of goodies from Australian winemaker Jacob’s Creek, which also included melon, mango and Vegemite, for a special menu. Friends were coming over for supper, I was cooking, and Jacob’s Creek’s sommelier Abhinav was bringing the wine.

Wine drinking has changed a lot during my lifetime. When I was growing up, wine was a mysterious and expensive thing that posh people drank. You needed deep pockets, an understanding of French and lots of fancy wine paraphernalia like decanters. Things started to change when some cheap (very dubious) bottles from Europe started to creep onto supermarket shelves (I’m looking at you Liebfraumilch).  Australian producers, such as Jacob’s Creek, really drove the wine revolution. They simplified the language of wine through releasing single varietals (wines labelled by grape varieties like Shiraz, Chardonnay, Merlot) and making it accessible, consistent and affordable through bulk production.

Their success means that we now take those familiar names for granted. Jacob’s Creek has started a new movement called ‘Our Table‘ seeking to rekindle those simpler days of enjoying a glass of wine and good food with friends, and perhaps finding a few surprises in those ubiquitous wines. Having a sommelier to dinner sounds a bit stuffy but I knew that Abhinav was far from it, having met him at another Our Table event. He received a warm welcome which had nothing to do with bringing wine and being young and handsome (ahem).

I’d set the table in the garden with crumpled white linen, storm lamps, white Bougainvillea snipped from the bushes and some bunches of grapes draped over glass stands and onto napkins. Jacob’s Creek had printed my menu very elegantly and Abhinav chose wines to match the courses. We sipped citrussy Reserve Riesling with chilled bowls of melon gazpacho.  “Steak on the barbie” came from OBE Organic via Prime Gourmet. Grilled Vegemite aubergines, roasted Mediterranean vegetables, sweetcorn (from the Farmers Market), and fluffy baked potatoes came with the steak and was paired with Double Barrel Cabernet Sauvignon. This is an unusual wine as it spends part of its life maturing in whisky barrels adding slight smokiness and vanilla to the deep black fruits and spice..

Then it was showing off time with three layers of meringue, filled with ‘margarita cream’, covered in ripe mango slices. The Tim Tam truffles also made an appearance. Briefly.

A glass of sparkling wine with chocolate made everyone happy – Jacob’s Creek Sparkling Chardonnay Pinot Noir is made using the same method as in Champagne plus two of the same grape varieties . Abhinav told us how well the soft, toasty bubbles and creamy chocolate went together. We agreed by toasting our glasses to a lovely evening round ‘our table’ under the palm trees.

Tim Tam Truffles

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

A delicious treat at the end of a meal or to give as a gift. Meltingly chocolatey with a slight crunch from Australia's favourite biscuit.

Ingredients

  • 1 X 200g packet milk chocolate Tim Tam biscuits or equivalent (Penguins are the most similar in the UK)
  • 140g soft cream cheese
  • 2 tablespoons Frangelico (hazelnut liqueur)
  • 180g milk chocolate
  • 40g melted milk chocolate for drizzling optional

Directions

  1. Blitz the biscuits in a food processor until ground into smallish crumbs.
  2. Add cream cheese and Frangelico*. Whizz briefly until combined.
  3. Place into the fridge for 20 minutes to firm up a bit.
  4. Using a teaspoon, measure out small pieces and roll into truffle-sized balls (or larger if you prefer). Place on a tray lined with baking paper place and put back into the fridge for a further 20 minutes.
  5. Break up the milk chocolate into bowl and microwave on medium for 3-4 minutes, stirring every 30 seconds, until chocolate is melted. Alternatively, melt in a bowl suspended over a saucepan of simmering water.
  6. Put a few balls at a time into the bowl of melted chocolate and use teaspoons to roll them around until they are completely coated.
  7. Remove balls with teaspoons allowing the excess chocolate to drip back into the bowl. Place onto the baking paper lined tray.
  8. Put back into the fridge to set (about 1 hour).
  9. Melt the dark chocolate until quite liquid. Use a piping bag or teaspoon to make stripes or patterns on the outside. Leave to cool and store in the fridge until ready to serve.

*Alternatives: You can use different types of liqueur such as Baileys Irish Cream, Jack Daniels or even brandy. Instead of rolling in melted chocolate you could dust in cocoa powder.

I made these again for book club this week. Whoever chooses the title hosts the discussion and tries to theme the food to the story. Because my book choice was Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, I cooked Iraqi fish (samak bil tamata) and lentil salad (zalatat addas) from the Iraqi Table by Raghad Al Safi. I’d made the Tim Tam truffles to photograph for this blog post – but then we remembered that Elishva (a central character) was, throughout the tale, being begged to join her daughters in Australia where they had fled during the war. My subconscious must have planned it.plate of Tim Tam Truffles

I bought and cooked the food, Jacob’s Creek supplied the sommelier and the wine for this supper as part of Our Table. I was under no obligation to publish anything but had such good fun decided to share it.

Beetroot and goats’ cheese pies – cooking with Simon Rimmer

December 8, 2018

Simon Rimmer in the kitchen making pies

Look into my suitcase as I haul it from the baggage carousel, delve down under the clothes, unwrap a sturdy cardboard box and, inside, you’ll usually find a selection of crisp golden, pastry-hatted pies that have travelled with me through the skies.

I carry out this covert operation for KP, who lures friends and family into his ring as pie and Cornish pasty mules too.

Do I ever get to taste one? Not a chance. He takes one out of the freezer whenever I have a night out and eats it steaming hot from the oven, resolutely solo, never sharing, ultra-protective.

It’s very rare that I make my own pies. The different steps of pastry preparation and filling, the rolling out and having to be neat puts me off. Given how much we love them, it’s rather sad that I don’t get round to it more often.

So when an invite to pie-making session with Simon Rimmer popped into my inbox, I was keen to go. Simon owns many restaurants and is well-known from appearing on TV in the UK on shows such as Great British Menu, Sunday Brunch and even Strictly Come Dancing. He came to chef fame by setting up Greens, an acclaimed vegetarian restaurant in Manchester, but also claims, as a rather strange contrast, to have invented ‘pulled pork’.

His restaurant in Dubai, The Scene, is on the 4th floor of Pier 7, which has a curved deck and a fabulous view over Dubai Marina. The doors were flung open so everything was flooded with daylight and fresh air.  Simon greeted us like old friends and we gathered round for instruction. It’s easy to see why he’s such a success on TV, with a very warm manner, good sense of humour while demonstrating very clearly and precisely. Our cooking skill level was quite varied. Hungry Girl Dubai had us all chuckling when she asked if Simon had ‘put a bit of lube’ on the tins, in her warm, Irish accent. By the end we were all very keen to don aprons and make our own pies.

ingredients for beetroot and goats cheese pies

I had never attempted to make hot water crust pastry before thinking it would be too difficult. Like most pastry-making, it has its rules and challenges, but it was not as tricky as I’d thought. The dough is a lot more forgiving than shortcrust.

The beetroot filling would be worth making alone to serve cold as a salad, in a sandwich or into a baked-blind, shortcrust pastry case. The secret is to cook the onions long and slow, so they are soft, yielding and fragrant. Either simmer the beetroot in water until it can be pierced with a knife but is not soggy, or wrap in foil with a little olive oil and fresh thyme and roast in the oven. Use the best goats’ cheese you can find (suggestions below).

The appeal of pies and the lexicon that goes with it is a lengthy subject. As you would expect, I grew up on British pies; American pie traditions are like a foreign language to me (pot pies, hand pies, pumpkin pie – a tart surely?). Simon’s pies live up to tradition of having pastry on top and bottom.

It’s a cold-hearted person who can resist breaking a crisply, golden crust with a fork to unveil the secret within, inhaling the release of fragrant filling and digging in for a mouthful.  Thanks to Simon for expanding my pie-making repertoire and for a very enjoyable afternoon.

Cooking in the kitchen with Simon Rimmer

Simon Rimmer's beetroot and goats cheese pie

  • Servings: 6
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Rustic, individual pies that make a great packed lunch or picnic, as well as a hearty supper.

Recipe instructions adapted slightly.

Ingredients

  • 2 onions
  • 10g butter plus extra for greasing
  • 10ml vegetable oil
  • 300g beetroot, cooked
  • 200g goats’ cheese
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
  • salt
  • 400g plain flour plus extra for dusting
  • 150g vegetable suet
  • 40ml milk
  • 50ml water
  • 1 egg yolk

Directions

  1. Peel and slice the onions thinly. Warm the oil and butter in a heavy-bottomed pan and cook the onions gently until they are soft and caramelised but not burnt (about 40 minutes).
  2. Cut the beetroot and goats’ cheese into 1 cm cubes.
  3. Mix the goats’ cheese, beetroot, caramelised onion and thyme leaves in a bowl and season to taste.
  4. Place 400g of flour into a mixing bowl.
  5. Melt the suet by warming with the milk and water in a saucepan over a low to medium heat.
  6. Remove from heat and gently add to the flour, a little at a time, stirring until combined and a smooth consistency. If the dough is not pliable add a little more warm water.
  7. Dust a work surface and rolling pin with flour and roll out the dough thinly as you can without it breaking (or flatten it by hand).
  8. Lightly grease 6 deep, individual pie tins with butter and line with the pastry, pressing it up the sides.  Reserve the rest of the pastry.
  9. Spoon the filling into the pastry cases, right to the top.
  10. Gently roll out the remaining pastry, cut into rounds and place the lids on top of the pies. Seal the edges by pressing gently with a fork.
  11. Brush the pie lids with beaten egg yolk.
  12. Bake in an oven preheated to 180C for 25-30 minutes.

Excuse the quality of this video as filmed into the sun and on my iphone. It does explain exactly how to make the pastry (and how friendly Simon was).

Which goats’ cheese to use? Simon used the soft type, with a firm, cream cheese texture and advised against using a Brie-style. I’m a big fan of White Lake goats’ cheese as they have a range of award-winners with different tastes and textures including some that would melt beautifully in this filling. I served Rachel to some friends recently and no one guessed it was made of goats milk.

Are you a pie fan and, if so, what’s your favourite pie filling? Do you ever make your own pies? Have you ever made hot water crust pastry?

Beetroot and goats cheese pies

Thanks to Simon and the Scene for the cooking class. My fellow pie makers were Fathima – Table for Five, Nicole – She Dined in the Sun, Courtney – A to Zaatar and Laura – Hungry Girl Dubai

Eating with your hands – a food tour without cutlery

November 16, 2018

people eating a big platter of Ethiopian food with their hands

“Of course I’m comfortable eating with my hands – I’m Asian!” laughs Ida. Most of our group agree and, as this is Dubai, they are from many different cultures including Oman, Jordan, Lebanon, Iran, India, Philippines and the Emirates. Just a couple of us have that shivery feeling about relinquishing cutlery and getting our fingers sticky. But that’s what tonight is all about on a food tour around the back streets of Dubai. Exactly what does it mean to connect so directly with our food?

We’re perched round a long table outside a tiny kitchen in Karama. The foul (aka ful aka fava beans aka dried broad beans) arrive; they’ve been slow-cooked for eight hours in an idra (special, domed pot). The fawn-coloured mush, adored by so many in the Middle East (especially in Egypt and Lebanon) is never that alluring to me, but this is different. We’re at a Sudanese restaurant which has just three things on the menu; little beef sausages (soujouk) with spicy, peanut sauce, pickled vegetables, and their version of this beloved pulse. We dig in using chunks of fluffy buns called Khubz Samoon to scoop it up. My indifference about ful evaporates as this is light in texture with a delicious citrus tang. Simmered with tomatoes, onions, garlic and cumin until soft and smooth, then adorned with chopped, fresh tomatoes, onions, a bit of garlic, finely chopped lettuce, crumbled feta cheese, and sprinkled with sesame oil and lemon juice. I make an “illegal manoeuvre” (to quote Arva, the Frying Pan Tour’s Head Honcho) of dunking some of the bread and ful into the dipping sauce (dakwa) of peanut butter, shatta (red fermented chilli paste) and lime. This is our first stop so I’m trying to pace myself , but it’s difficult to resist. I feel most exposed eating the sausages with my fingers; after years of conditioning, I feel naked without small wooden cocktail sticks.

Most of us on the tour haven’t met before and having these central dishes as a focal point means the conversation is more communal. It strikes me that when you eat with a knife and fork from your own plate you tend just to talk to your neighbour. I’ve suffered at dinner parties, feeling isolated when those either side of me are facing in the opposite direction. A common plate breaks the ice straight away.

The restaurant owner comes out to wave us goodbye and we stroll round the corner. A man in an orange shirt can be glimpsed through a small hatch in the steamy window of a shop front. He’s a constant blur of movement, his feet planted but his hands never stopping. The pavement outside is bright with flashing, coloured lights, and music pounds with a rhythmic, Indian beat. We’re at Chaat Bazaar – chaat means lick in Hindi; a term not associated with good table manners but with mouth-watering anticipation. A lady in fuscia pink hovers at the hatch tossing her head back expertly to eat one, two, three and more of the snacks that orange man prepares so expertly.  He makes around 2000 of them per night.

Chaat restaurant in Dubai

We line up to take our turn. The hand of orange man extends a pani puri from the depths and is our connection from inside to outside.  The little sphere with a hole in the top needs to be grasped and consumed immediately or risk disaster.  A very, fine, crispy shell is traditionally filled with something firm (often potato), some sweet chutney and a sharp liquid; it needs to be popped into your mouth whole or it could collapse and dribble down your chin. In some parts of India they’re called puchka after the sound made when you crunch your teeth into the carapace.

These particular pani puri contain ragda – a soft, turmeric-scented, yellow, lentil paste; a sticky, jaggery-laden, tamarind chutney; and a ladle full of theekha pani (spicy water) made with fresh herbs and spices served chilled, adding contrast to the warm ragda.. The explosion of sweet and sour with the jumble of flavours and textures is what makes them so addictive.  We jostle round the window for this ultimate street food; there is no possible alternative to eating it by hand.

In the Ayurvedic tradition, every finger in your hand connects to an element. Each is a conduit: the thumb is space: the index finger is air: the middle finger is fire: the ring finger is water, and the little finger is earth. It’s believed that bringing all the fingers together to touch the food stimulates the five elements and brings forth the digestive juices.  Eating without cutlery takes you to a higher place.

We’re ready for our next adventure and squeeze side by side on slender benches and squat stools around small, table-like baskets (called a mesob).  Within the dusky pink walls of this tiny Ethiopian restaurant there’s a bit of trepidation as a few of our group have had bad experiences of this cuisine. It takes considerable skill to produce Ethiopian food well, but the Frying Pan team has done a lot of research and vouches that this is the best place in town. We can see into the small kitchen, staffed solely by women, some dressed in bright robes others in crisp white and dark aprons. They weave around each other calmly in a way that feels choreographed, chopping, stirring, and assembling large platters.

A flat, round dish or gebeta is placed in front of us and fills the whole of the mesob. Sarah grasps the domed cover by its slender top and whisks it away to reveal an astonishing array of little portions of food. The colours are jewel-like, it looks like inkspot painting, the scents are sharp and heady. The platter is lined with injera and rolls of it are placed around the edge. This is a fermented bread made of the ancient tef grain. The humid climate and temperatures of Dubai are challenging to the fermentation process so Sarah, the owner, ships in the dough every week from Ethiopia.

How on earth do I eat this without a fork? I feel very daunted but luckily there’s expert tuition. Nahla gives an overview about etiquette (stay within a vague triangular shape in front of you, only use your right hand, don’t touch your lips with your fingers), then Arva dives in. Tearing off a triangular piece of injera, she deftly scoops up some of the meat stew and a portion of the hard-boiled egg. Tucking it neatly into a rolled parcel she pops it into her mouth. Spurred on, we all tuck in.  Having eaten rice dishes by hand before, I find it easier using bread as a scoop as is forms a barrier between the meaty gravy and my fingers.  Easier but not easy.

It’s not just the method of eating that feels challenging, it’s also the amount. Sarah has put something of everything from the kitchen on each platter.  The meat dishes have been simmered with berbere, a spice mix which includes paprika and chilli, and it gives the stews a rich, dark, purple colour. There is Doro Wat (chicken and caramelised onion stew with a boiled egg), Key Wot (beef), potatoes and meat, carrots and fasoolia (carrots and string beans), carrots and gomane (carrots and cabbage), spinach and meat, Tibs (spicy meat stew), two types of Firfir (a tomato and injera stew, one spicy and one alitcha – which means ‘coward’), salad and aib (cottage cheese). The injera at the bottom is the nicest as it soaks up all the juices into its lacy folds.

wall of Ethiopian restaurant in Dubai

Next we’re introduced to traditional Ethiopian hospitality which is to feed your guests – literally. Arva takes a larger piece of injera and scoops up a hefty portion. This is called a gursha (a mouthful), and should be large enough to be just that, the bigger the more hospitable. It’s not polite to refuse and Negar, who is chosen, says she ‘feels the love’, opens her mouth wide and receives it graciously. Trying to quash my British sense of reserve, I attempt to do the same so my neighbour can feed me; I feel very vulnerable but also honoured. It’s a generous and intimate gesture. I don’t do so well with extending that same hospitality, my nerves overcome me, and my method could be described a quick, clumsy shove. I am so embarrassed and concerned for my poor recipient; Oh the shame, I’ve failed in my hostly duties.

We finish the meal with coffee poured from the slender spout of a traditional jebena (coffee pot) served with a bowl of popcorn. Some itan (Ethiopian incense) is burned alongside it in a girgira (a clay bowl filled with some hot coals), which adds to the whole sensory experience.

Outside on the pavement, before we all head off, Mufaddal whips out a basket of Dadar Gulung. These are thin pancakes, vivid, bright green in colour due to the pandan leaf juice in the batter, rolled around a filling of coconut and palm sugar. After my evening without implements I have no problem picking up one of these with my hands and munching it before heading off home on the metro.

Coffee, popcorn and incense at an Ethiopian coffee ritual

When Arva was a trainee management consultant in New York, she went for dinner at a very smart French restaurant with her boss. He saw her freeze at the prospect of navigating the rows of cutlery and glasses, and joked that he needed his wife there to help him (to put her at ease). While knife and fork etiquette doesn’t phase me one bit, I had started the evening ready for a challenge and was taken way outside my comfort zone.

At the beginning of the tour, we all wrote down something that we felt comfortable eating with our hands. Mine was ‘soldiers’ of toast for dipping into a soft-boiled egg.  By the end of the evening, my journey of discovery had led to a great deal more than sticky fingers.

 

So how do you feel about eating with your hands? Is it comforting or appalling?

Video highlights of the tour here.

Eating with your hands

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Find out more:

Frying Pan Adventures has a range of different food and culture tours in Dubai, in parts of the city that few tourists and newer expats visit. Some of my most memorable experiences have been on with them. This one was part of their special calendar of tours designed for their Sufra membership community who get booking priority and a discounted rate.

The tour was in collaboration with Dubai Design Week looking at the tools we eat with and what happens when deprived of them.

More about an Ethiopian coffee ceremony on their podcast here.

How the Ethiopian tradition of feeding people came about.

A blog dedicated to Sudanese food and recipes.

Arva’s guide to the best pani puri in Dubai.