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A surprising thing about truffles

December 2, 2016

“So can you tell me anything new about truffles?” I said rather cheekily to Chef Giorgio Locatelli as he sat down next to me at the end of the table for our lunch. “As a matter of fact I can…” he replied.

Having met Giorgio annually for many years I’m au fait with his passion for truffles which started in childhood. I know about the ritual of truffle buying when, once a year, all the children would pile into his Grandfather’s tiny Cinquecento and meet up with a man at a scruffy petrol station. Bills would change hands rather secretively ‘like a drug deal’ and the precious truffle would be taken home and used up completely in a celebratory meal of many courses, the simple fare letting the flavour shine.

I’ve learned about the process of hunting for truffles and the skill of the truffle hound, which digs with both paws if the truffle in really ripe, one paw if almost there and just sniff if it’s not ready for picking. I’ve learned the fickleness of the truffle and its reluctance to grown in a flight path or where there is intensive agriculture. Ironic that Alba, the place with the most famous reputation for truffles worldwide, is a huge wine growing region and viticulture can use some of the most intensive practices, probably threatening the truffle. I’ve heard of the practice of passing off truffles from Eastern Europe (truffle laundering), and how to store them (exposed to air and light as little as possible).

Listening to many of these tales again was as captivating as ever as Giorgio is a born raconteur with extensive knowledge and keen interest in everything around his topic – from science to history. The people sitting with me and the lunch table at Atlantis The Palm were equally enthralled.

And then we ate lunch. The usual simple favourites, a dish of silky handmade egg tagliolini, a risotto with masses of butter and Parmesan, a perfect raviolo filled with an egg yolk and pureed potatoes, white pizza with mozzarella and pumpkin, all topped with freshly shaved white truffles. Plain carbs and protein act as a magic blank canvas for the aroma and taste of the musky tuber. People try to put it with other luxurious ingredients, say lobster and truffle, and it kills the taste of both, says Giorgio. A pot-roasted veal tenderloin and some wafer-thin beef carpaccio were simple enough to complement their truffle shroud but my favourites were the pasta and risotto.

So what was the thing about truffles that was news even to Giorgio until recently? He’d tasted the truffles of several regions, including Alba, alongside the ones of his usual supplier from Umbria. He was surprised at just how much the latter tasted better in comparison this year. His supplier attributed it to the earthquake that struck Southern Italy this year. The trees would react to the stress and retain more nutrients into their roots for stability and protection, and the truffles ‘the children of the tree’ (to quote Giorgio) would benefit. Interesting theory this and very plausible given their sensitivity to environmental factors.

Although I’ve met many ‘celebrity chefs’ over the past few years here in Dubai, I don’t actively seek out these experiences. I admire their craft and have tasted some really wonderful dishes but it’s down-to-earth food made with the very best ingredients that would be my desert island dish. I suppose it’s like going to an amazing art exhibition with the most avant-garde works; it stimulates your imagination and thinking while you’re there but you wouldn’t want to live with it in your sitting room.

It’s the absolute focus on the integrity of the ingredients and the way they work within a dish which makes me admire what Giorgio does in particular, and his continual questioning of the provenance of food is where we find common ground. Obviously there’s a place for experimentation and exploration in high-end cuisine but the real luxury is in a plate of food containing two or three elements which absolutely work together. It’s something to celebrate and a real special occasion, and given that ordering a main course (ours were taster dishes) of Parmesan risotto with white truffle will set you back 260 aed it’s not an everyday thing.

Zabaglioni

More truffle stories

A few earlier encounters with Giorgio during truffle season….

Eating white truffle with Giorgio Locatelli (about ingredients and why ‘more’ is a ‘bordello’),

Truffle, risotto and perfect pasta from Georgio Locatelli (how to make perfect pasta and a risotto recipe)

and On moderation and militants (Giorgio puts the world to rights and we’re ready for revolution!)

You can sample the truffle menu in December while stocks of the precious tubers last at Ronda Locatelli. More info here. I was a guest of Atlantis The Palm.

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How to make a refreshing gin cocktail to sip under the stars

November 16, 2016

Last night there was a supermoon to end all supermoons. Did you see it? I fully intended to and went somewhere special to see the sun go down. I gazed out from the gorgeous terrace at Roberto’s, watching the sky turn from golden to salmon pink to deep blue until the lights of the Burj Khalifa started to twinkle. The moon, however super, just wasn’t visible from that viewpoint. Sinking into the sofa when I got home I knew I should haul myself out into my garden and marvel, but every ounce of energy had left my body. For once, instead of beating myself up, I made peace with myself. As an enthusiastic person I often feel guilty if I haven’t seized every precious moment. Perhaps if I’d had one of these in my hand I might have found that extra incentive.

Denzel, my bartender cocktail advisor, came up with this recipe specifically for sipping outside under the stars. While November in some parts of the world call for hot chocolate with a slug of something warming, here in Dubai it’s the perfect time of year to spend evenings outdoors. One to bookmark for those summer nights or sunny Autumn days.

The best gin cocktail for sipping on your terrace

The fresh, floral and green of the outdoors is reflected in the flavours of this drink. And it contains sherry, that slightly old-fashioned drink which has seen a little renaissance. Denzel chose Manzanilla sherry as it’s fruity and floral, but salty on the palate with a dry and zesty finish. The slight saltiness complements all daisy-style drinks (and sour drinks like the Margarita) and the floral notes play delicately with the green and violet ones. Less Chelsea flower show, more cottage garden.

Named after the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC in Dutch) for its role in the spice trade.The perfect gin cocktail to sip under the stars - recipe on mycustardpie.com

VOC Daisy

  • Servings: 1
  • Difficulty: moderate
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Ingredients

  • 60ml gin, Sacred Cardamom recommended
  • 15ml Manzanilla Sherry
  • 20ml honey and green tea syrup *
  • 15ml fresh lemon juice
  • 15ml egg white
  • Sweet violet droplets**
  • Matcha tea and dried rose petals (optional garnish)

Equipment

  • Cocktail shaker
  • Strainer
  • Old fashioned glass
  • Ice

How to mix

Add all the ingredients (except the garnish) into a shaker with ice and shake vigorously until chilled. Strain the liquid from the ice into a chilled glass.

*To make the honey and green tea syrup infuse one part green tea in one part of hot water for 5 minutes then strain. Dissolve one part of raw honey in the green tea and allow to cool.

** Sweet violet droplets add an intense floral note to cocktails without being sweet. Alternatively substitute jasmine tea for the green tea when making the syrup.

Watching the sunset from Robertos terrace in Dubai drinking cocktails. To find a recipe for gin cocktails with a twist visit mycustardpie.com

Watching the sunset from Robertos terrace in Dubai

Watching the sunset from Robertos terrace in Dubai drinking cocktails. To find a recipe for gin cocktails with a twist visit mycustardpie.com

Oh Mr Moon – where are you?

Do you always seize the moment or have guilty feelings like me?! What’s in your glass this month?

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Learning to waffle Emirati-style (with Hilton Garden Inn)

October 20, 2016

Waffles with pear and raw honey on mycustardpie.comWaffle. Isn’t that what your Gran does when she natters on and takes ages to get to the point? I’m not sure when I realised that an alternative form of a waffle was something edible. Growing up in Britain it just didn’t even feature and batter-based edibles were confined to pancakes (thin and lacey like crepes) or Yorkshire puddings (brown, round, puffy and served with gravy).  In the eighties waffle meant the fabric of a posh bathrobe from a spa. But slowly another version crept into my consciousness.

At first they were served like dessert for breakfast, coated with pools of sugar or whipped cream, and had something to do with Belgium and then the US.

Of late, the waffle trend has gone into overdrive with the most extraordinary range of things being formed into grilled, corrugated shapes. Could waffling (is that a word?) be applied to different ingredients or even different cultural styles of cooking? It was time to investigate and bring the waffle into my life in some way.

I invested in a waffle iron and then searched for inspiration for recipes, methods and fillings. The simplest recipe was by Jamie Oliver and was very easy to make. Why buy frozen waffles to put in the toaster? It turns out that they are simpler than a pancake and you have control over the ingredients, especially the sugar level. You can even freeze your own homemade ones for serving later. I cored, quartered, seared some little pears on the grill and drizzled with a little raw honey (Balqees Organic Emirati raw honey) to add sweetness with goodness as a topping.

My next source of inspiration was from Emirati Chef Bader Najeeb, who put an Arabic twist on waffles for the Hilton Garden Inn to celebrate their first birthday. Using local ingredients and those inspired by Emirati culture, Chef B created three special edition recipes to mark the occasion: Arabic Coffee Meringues with Strawberries & Chocolate, Saffron Poached Pear Slices with Vanilla Ice Cream and Waffles Stuffed with Rose Falooda and Vanilla Ice Cream. They were put to a public vote, and the winning recipe is below. He was cooking them at a ‘waffle truck’,  a great opportunity to pick up waffling tips and to have a taste.

Falooda is an Indian dessert which became popular on the trading routes including in the UAE. Flavouring it with rose is a particularly Emirati influence. It was really delicious, a lovely texture and not too sweet.

waffles-with-rose-falooda

Hilton Garden Inn's signature waffles stuffed with rose falooda and vanilla ice cream

  • Servings: 1-2
  • Difficulty: easy
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Ingredients

  • 100g rice vermicelli
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/4 cup rose water
  • 2/3 cup milk powder
  • less than 1/2 cup sugar
  • a handful of cashew nuts
  • 1 drop red food coloring (optional)
  • vanilla ice cream for serving

Method

  1. Boil the water, milk powder, and sugar on medium heat.
  2. Add rice vermicelli and boil until it softens.
  3. Remove from heat then stir in rose water, cashew nuts, & food coloring if using.
  4. Strain out the liquid and set the rose vermicelli aside.
  5. Make your waffles then stuff them waffles with vanilla ice cream and rose vermicelli.

As a waffle novice I’m still on a journey to perfect my cooking of them. The Jamie recipe is a good place to start but I’d like to make them healthier. My next step is to test out some recipes with wholemeal flour like these Wholemeal fruity waffles by my friend Emily from A Mummy Too and these ones on Well Plated that contain apple sauce in the mixture.

Chef B’s rose falooda waffles

Thanks to everyone who entered the competition to win one night’s stay at any Hilton Garden Inn worldwide (the winner was drawn and has been notified).

 

🍧 وافلز بفالودة ماي الورد و الآيس كريم – كوبين ماي – ١٠٠ جرام شعيرية – ٢/٣ كوب حليب بودرة – ١/٤ كوب ماي ورد – مكسرات الكاجو – أقل عن ١/٢ كوب سكر – قطرة ملون طعام أحمر / اختياري – ايس كريم فانيلا .. الطريقة: ١- فوروا الماي و السكر و الحليب ع نار متوسطة. ٢- ضيفوا الشعيرية و فوروها لين ما تستوي لينة. ٣- شلوها من ع الضو و ضيفوا ماي الورد، الكاجو، و ملون الطعام. ٤- تخلصوا من الماي و اتركوا شعيرية ماي الورد ع صوب. ٥- احشوا الوافل بآيس كريم الفانيلا و الشعيرية، و بالعافية! .. من الوصفات الثلاث اللي بنزلها فالأيام الياية، اكتبوا كومنت تحت الوصفة اللي تنال على إعجابكم أكثر شي للفرصة على الفوز بليلة في فندق هيلتون جاردن إن في أي دولة من أنحاء العالم!🏩 و بقدم الوافل اللي وصفته تنال على أكبر عدد من الكومنتات في شاطىء كايت سيرف تاريخ ٢١ أكتوبر – مجاناً 🎪 .. The final special-edition topping recipe I created for the first birthday of @hiltongardeninn in the UAE is with a twist – the signature waffles are stuffed with a delicious combination of Rose Falooda & Vanilla Ice Cream! 🍧 – 100g rice vermicelli – 2 cup water – 1/4 cup rose water – 2/3 cup milk powder – Less than 1/2 cup sugar – A handful of cashew nuts – 1 drop red food coloring (optional) – Vanilla ice cream for serving .. Method: 1- Boil the water, milk powder, and sugar on medium heat. 2- Add rice vermicelli and boil under it softens. 3- Remove from heat then stir in rose water, cashew nuts, & food coloring if using. 4- Strain out the liquid and set the rose vermicelli aside. 5- Stuff your waffles with vanilla ice cream and rose vermicelli, and enjoy! .. Make sure to comment on or like your favourite topping out of the three recipes for a chance to win one night stay at any Hilton Garden Inn in the world! I’ll also be serving up the most popular at the waffle truck at Kite Beach on 21 Oct. T&Cs apply (link in bio) #HGIwaffleDXB

A post shared by Bader Najeeb بدر نجيب (@chef.b) on

 

I love what Chef B is doing in conjunction with Hilton Garden with Emirati flavours for waffles and starting me on my waffle journey! I hope you liked the competition which gives me the opportunity to give something back to my reader. I received compensation from Hilton Garden to write this post but the content (apart from Chef B’s recipe and video) is all my own. 

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Is a Sir Francis Drake gimlet the solution to empty nest syndrome?

September 29, 2016
How to make a Sir Frances Drake Gimlet on mycustardpie.com

Sir Frances Drake Gimlet

Empty nest syndrome, is it even a thing? And how do you deal with your strangely altered nest now the flock has flown and you sit bereft and disorientated like two turtle doves? Since veggie teen left for University, we’ve been getting used to doing things for two. Without even discussing it we’ve made a point of making sure we spend regular time together. One new routine, in our emptier house is to curl up on the sofas (KP, me and the dog) and catch up on a bit of telly a few nights a week. Poldark is shaping up nicely and while the plot is rather over-simplified and the acting a bit predictable, the costumes, sets, landscape and the smouldering Aiden Turner all look rather gorgeous. In this week’s episode the villagers down on the Cornish coast were all suffering from scurvy due to lack of vitamin C, until a generous (and beautiful) benefactor gave them a few crates of oranges.

The original gimlet cocktail was a tot of Navy ration gin with some lime cordial to prevent the sailors from being afflicted with the same disease.

While modern interpretations can include fresh lime juice, you can make a gimlet very easily by stirring together 50ml of gin, 10ml of lime cordial with lots of ice, then straining it into a coupe glass. Alternatively a 1928 description of the drink was: “gin, a spot of lime, and soda.”

Denzel, my bartender cocktail mentor, has devised rather cunning, if slightly more complicated, variation of a gimlet for this month. I challenge your mouth not to water as you read the description; it’s refreshing, sour with a touch of spice. The flavours are exotic, like the places the sailors might have visited, and contains plenty of scurvy-preventing fruit plus an aromatic herbal concoction that will make you feel like an alchemist of old.

So I can sit on my sofa sipping one of these, pretending to be Elizabeth Chenoweth or Caroline Penvenen in a gown and petticoats, glancing at swarthy KP quaffing a cider. Scurvy is prevented, the nest seems cosy, all is well. I’m not suggesting that turning to drink is the answer to missing your loved ones. Treating to yourself to something special and hanging out with your partner helps though.

How to make a Sir Frances Drake Gimlet on mycustardpie.com

Good health and sea-faring

Denzel’s inspiration for this months’ gin cocktail had roots in sea-faring and getting back to the land. The Caorunn gin he recommends is made with hand-foraged botanicals from rowanberries to blackthorn. As well as the aforemention navy gin rations, ginger beer originated in England in the 1700’s and was a fermented alcoholic beverage. Ginger beer even crossed the pond in the early days and antique stoneware bottles of Francis Drake Ginger Beer, which was made from 1867 to 1925 in New Glasgow Nova Scotia, are still around. Vice Admiral Francis Drake was born in Tavistock in Devon, where KP grew up and I spend part of every summer. We often visit Buckland Abbey, Francis Drake’s former home, where he may have plotted his navigation of the globe or his defence of the British Isles from the Spanish Armada.

You may have to plot making this in several stages but it’s totally worth it.

Yeghes da! (Good health in Cornish)

Sir Frances Drake Gimlet

  • Servings: 1
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Print

Ingredients

45ml Caorunn gin

10ml coriander (cilantro) Bianco Vermouth*

30ml rhubarb and ginger cordial**

15ml fresh lime juice

15ml egg white

A coriander or flat parsley leaf to garnish (optional)

Equipment

  • Cocktail shaker
  • Fine strainer
  • Coupe glass
  • Ice

How to mix

Add all of the ingredients into a cocktail shaker filled with ice and shake vigorously until ice cold. Then strain the cocktail using a ‘fine strainer’ or tea sift, into a chilled cocktail glass, to ensure a smooth and silky finish.

*To make the coriander (cilantro) Bianco Vermouth: add 25g of fresh coriander to 1/4 bottle (250ml) of Gancia Bianco Vermouth. Leave to macerate for 24 hours then strain. This will make more than the amount needed for one cocktail.

**For the rhubarb and ginger cordial: Dissolve 12 parts caster sugar in 12 parts rhubarb juice and 1 part ginger juice. Mix this with 0.5 parts of citric acid solution (i.e. 1 part of citric acid and 5 parts of water). If you can’t get citric acid (also known as lemon sugar in the Middle East) substitute lemon juice. The juice of one lemon is equal to one rounded teaspoon of citric acid. Alternatively there’s a recipe here (although I haven’t had Denzel’s approval on this one yet!)

What to do with your remaining coriander infused Martini Bianco? Make a herby Gin and French by mixing one part gin, one part martini and one part tonic water. Garnish with lime. You could also use it instead of white wine in a risotto. And the rhubarb and ginger cordial is an awesome addition to a glass of fizz.

What’s in your glass this month? Are there any other gripping series I should be watching? And how have you coped with a major life change? All tips appreciated.

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Where to find the best food tours in Dubai

September 25, 2016

Food tours are my favourite way to get to know a city and nowadays you can find them all over the world. Since my friend Arva dipped her toe into the food tour water here in Dubai, and then did the equivalent of swimming the Atlantic in setting up Frying Pan Adventures, the scene has grown and started to diversify. These three food tour companies show you what Dubai has to offer through an edible itinerary, in completely different ways.  Book one, book all!

Frying Pan Adventures

My mouth had to open wide to enclose the crisp shell, I was slightly panicked about choking as my teeth descended on the crisp shell and a flood of spicy, sweet, sour water drenched my tongue.  There was no way to swallow as the crunchy sprouts needed to be fully munched so my teeth did their work while my eyes watered and taste buds exploded in shock and pleasure. This was my first experience of pani puri, on my first ever Frying Pan Tour; I’ve been introduced to so many varied and diverse foodstuffs since then.  Full disclosure, I have lost count of the number of Frying Pan Food adventures I’ve been on (no joke). Arva has invited me on a fair few to beta-test or just to experience a new one. I’m such a fan that I try to sign up every visitor to Dubai who stays with me so I can witness their discovery of such a different side of the city, plus I get the excuse to come along too. From being greeted by Moroccan chefs who stuck their heads round the kitchen door and ullulated their welcome before cutting our pastilla with a ceremonial sword to being invited into a religious ceremony, to the best bread hot from the oven eaten on the street, every time has been special.  I even spent a big birthday taking my friends on a private tour.

Even if you’ve done a trail once before there are always some surprises thrown in as the Frying Pan sisters are continually looking at ways to improve the experience. For visitors to Dubai, I would recommend the Middle East Food Pilgrimage first as it covers a whole range of food from the region as well as giving an insider view into a parts of the city well off the beaten track. North India on a Plate and The Indian Express trail opened my eyes to neighbourhoods and food from a culture which has played such a part in the history of making the UAE what it is today.  If Local Flavors : Shop, Sizzle, Savour trail is running, book it immediately; you get to visit the fish market with a veteran local sea-captain (he’s quite a character) who then prepares and cooks it for you. Farida and Arva are self-confessed ‘unabashed food history nerds in the city’ with an insatiable appetite for tracking down irresistible but authentic dishes.

Food tours in Dubai. Read about the best ones on mycustardpie.com

Crossing the Creek from one food stop to another

For keen photographers, look out for the food and photo trails which are held in conjunction with Gulf Photo Plus. The evenings I went out in Bur Dubai and Deira during Diwali and Ramadan are some of the most exhilarating and unique experiences I’ve had during 16 years in Dubai.  And as the complete antithesis of the belly dancing camps, watch sunrise up close with nature in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve ending with a picnic brunch (provided by Baker & Spice). Absolute magic.

Book a Frying Pan Adventure here.

And don’t just take my word for it – read A Food Lover’s Tour of Old Dubai by The Travel Bunny (just one of hundreds of positive reviews). Read more about when I did a tour of North India, Middle Eastern and a food and photo tour of the Creek.

Tastecapade by bike

Food tours in Dubai. Read about the best ones on mycustardpie.com

Food tours in Dubai. Read about the best ones on mycustardpie.com

food-tours-in-dubai-04855

Banks of blue bikes started to appear around my neighbourhood of Umm Suqeim, but it took a food tour to make my vague intention to ride one into a reality. A group of us all wobbled off in a circuit, led by Mary our guide and the driving force behind this start-up, with various food stops on the way. We drank fresh juices in a very particular cocktail, we watched the sun go down on the beach while eating and discussing, we talked fished and ate in a harbour, we sat on the floor in a traditional way for a variety of meals and snacks. Our cycle-powered eating excursion was punctuated by little snippets of information not only about the specific course or foodstuff but also how it fitted into local culture and traditions, some old, some quite new. Mary steered us in a gentle and informal way and it was like going out with an old friend; the cycling was not at all arduous and great fun. As Mary and her sister have lived in Dubai all their lives they have a deep understanding and another interesting perspective on the food culture and traditions. All in all a really enjoyable experience and a great one for visitors and residents alike. I definitely learned some new things about the area that I’ve dwelt in for over 16 years and the people who live there, plus went home with a very full tummy and new friends.

Book a Tastecapade tour by bike here. I notice there is a farm trip and a walking tour of old Dubai now too – although I haven’t tried these.

Foodiva’s Dine Around Dubai

Food tours in Dubai. Read about the best ones on mycustardpie.com

St Regis Dubai – part of the cheese dine around

Food tours in Dubai. Read about the best ones on mycustardpie.com

La Serre

In complete contrast to the other two, Samantha Wood of Foodiva concentrates on luxury, high-end and fine dining. As there are around a hundred 5 star hotels in Dubai, all with several restaurants and many with celebrity chefs at their helm, this is as much a part of the food culture as eating cheese bread on the pavement in Deira. Each experience differs as the restaurant scene changes so rapidly in Dubai, plus it’s essential to retain the air of mystery. On every dine around there is always something new and unique to sample. The evening tour lasts for about four hours and starts with a glass of bubbly. At time of writing the latter is Ruinart Rosé Champagne, the bottles opened with a sword by Mathias Kahn, the Swedish National Champion of the Art of Sabrage, at a mystery Champagne bar.  That’s guaranteed to set the tone for the evening. Walking is kept to a minimum as any ferrying between venues is chauffeur-driven – so you can do this tour in high heels. I’ve been on two tours in the past at the invite of Sam who is a friend. One was her regular Dine Around and was a trail of restaurants on The Palm Jumeirah, starting with canapé, cocktails and a fantastic view from the balcony near Social by Heinz Beck, ending with a flourish in Bushman’s Restaurant and Bar at Anantara The Palm with the most spectacular deconstructed Eton mess demo the size of a table. I loved the surprise element of not knowing where we were going next. Sam also arranges corporate tours and the second one was in conjunction with European cheeses i.e. total cheese and wine heaven.

Book the lastest Dine Around Dubai with Foodiva 

Dubai behind the scenes

If the alternative street life of Dubai appeals, the book Dubai: Behind the Scenes is a beautiful souvenir and record of a side of the city which many people never see and is starting to change. It’s a poignant and intimate look through the lens of photographer Jalal Abuthina at the areas of Deira, Bur Dubai and Karama and the many different cultures and communities inhabiting them. From street wrestling to ceremonies and everyday life it’s a really unique memento. See inside the book and find out more… You can order online or find a copy in Kinokuniya (Bookworld), Dubai Mall or Gulf Photo Plus, AlSerkal Avenue.

Food tours in Dubai. Read about the best ones on mycustardpie.com

*I was an (enthusiastic) guest on several of these tours but only recommend things here on the blog that I’m 100% behind.

Have you been on a food tour? Did you eat anything extraordinary? Disclosure: I ate sheep’s brain and eyeball in Istanbul.

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Three fall into adventure in Oman

September 3, 2016
An adventure in Oman on mycustardpie.com

The view down to Bilad Sayt and beyond

As the boat nears the shallow sandy shore my hands unclench and my shoulders relax. For the past forty minutes I’ve been watching every wave and how noticing how perilously close to the top of our shallow boat the water is. We have no life jackets. Ever practical, R has a plan ready for if we capsize – we all need to hold onto a towel so the three of us don’t get separated which increases our chance of rescue.  The past few hours have been worthy of the most poetic description of any travel brochure for idyllic desert islands; snorkeling through glittering shoals of fish over expansive coral in warm, crystal clear waters with a picnic lunch on an empty white sand beach in the bay of one of the Daymaniyat islands. The rumoured tropical storm looked unlikely then, but all too real and threatening now. Refuelling in open water from a can plus the captain’s continually moving of people’s position in the boat to balance it are not reassuring. Most of the party seem oblivious.

Daymaniyat Islands

So what brings us to this perilous situation? Two friends and I have joined a weekend trip away with a group from Dubai organised via the ‘Meet Up’ app, lured by the mountain ranges and broad coastline of Oman over a long weekend.  It takes us about five hours to drive from Dubai to Al Sawadi Beach resort including the border crossing. We’re up super early for breakfast the next day as instructed by our group leader. Too bad the boat driver isn’t and the delay in setting off coupled with the inadequate size and power of the vessel has pushed us into the imminent bad weather.

An adventure in Oman on mycustardpie.com

Snorkeling past the Daymaniyat islands

An adventure in Oman on mycustardpie.com

Stopping on a secluded beach

An adventure in Oman on mycustardpie.com

Thankfully safely back to shore with storm approaching

Up to the Hajar mountains

Thankfully we do eventually reach dry land unscathed, nails bitten to the quick. Our next destination is Al Hamra up in the Hajar mountains, about two and half hours drive away, and we are eager to get there especially because of the storm.  Indecision from the leader of the group means we set off late and into the maelstrom.  Eight hours later, through torrents of water from the sky and burst rivers we’ve had to ford, we finally arrive – exhausted. We pass a car washed away in a river unaware that the deluge we’ve braved has swept at least six to their deaths. R is spent, having kept her nerve behind the wheel throughout the whole demanding journey. The water heater has not been switched on in our room so we crawl into our beds coated in sea salt and sand.

Bilad Sayt

An adventure in Oman on mycustardpie.com

Tea drinking and watching the sun come up

An adventure in Oman on mycustardpie.com

Shorfet Al-Alamin

Next day, my companions slumber while my internal dog-walking alarm clock rouses me just after 6am. I creep out to gaze at the misty valleys below me from my mountain top, to the soundtrack of birds. I wander to higher ground and meet some other members of the group. The drivers for our next journey seem to have the same alarm clock as the boat owner so we wander around watching the sun come up, our perils of the previous day fading like the mist. A group of local guys who are brewing tea in a kettle on a fire offer to share some with us. It’s milky and infused with wild za’atar and ‘spice’ which we can’t find a common word for. It’s similar to karak chai but less sweet and, with the slightly medicinal flavour of the herbs, refreshing and addictive.

An hour later, with the sun streaming down into the valley our driver Zaher is navigating the rough road winding down at the edge of a precipitous drop. Although usually a nervous passenger, I feel so safe with his confident careful approach to the journey and we chat in pidgin English about his day job in Muscat and family here in the rural village. R is a geographer and explains how the rocks were formed, the striations and colours so clear and dramatic, literally showing the creation of the world. The swathes of rough green schist are particularly eye-catching. At the bottom of the path, three small boys are making the most of the recent rainfall taking turns to slide down a brilliant natural smooth helter skelter, running and giggling. It emphasises the simplicity of life that still hangs on a knife-edge in Oman.

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The long winding path down to Bilad Sayt carved from the side of the mountains

Four of us decide to walk to the village. It looks as though the path leads to a mountain side but as we get nearer to a small oasis of palm trees the fissure through the rock is clear and we wind our way through, feeling dwarfed by the towering sides and cool depths. There is water to negotiate, unsurprising after last night storms and one deep puddle that we cannot find a way round so our feet get a dunking. After a while we are aware of a shadow following a little behind. A young local boy is taking the same path but stays at a distance. Finally he sits comfortably at the top of a rock, the perfect quiet spot to contemplate his mobile phone undisturbed, his dishdasha completely immaculate. His local knowledge has guided him better than us; his feet are dry.

The village of Balid Sayt is enclosed by mountains with fields and palm trees at its centre. There must be a way in by road but it’s not obvious. Everything is shimmeringly tranquil. Negotiating the narrow back streets, darkly shielded from the beating rays, some little girls see us, giggle and run inside. The whole place looks deserted under the mid-day sun from the vantage point of the old fort. We meet up with other members of our group under an ancient ghaf tree in the centre of the village. It’s a much better place for people watching and to escape the sun. Open backed trucks drive up and villagers lop off the odd branch or twigs for feeding to animals. We all decline the option of walking straight back up the mountain that was on our itinerary for early morning. All of us except one. C heads off at pace with the guide, who has already been up this vertical ascent once today. “See you at the top” we say, in admiration, with no regrets for taking the easy option back to base by road.

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Bilad Sayt in an oasis at the foot of the mountains

An adventure in Oman on mycustardpie.com

Bilad Sayt fields

Al Hamra

The path from our hotel across the top of the mountain is waymarked on the flat, fissured stones which are like beautiful paving slabs. The views are mesmerizing and vertiginous. R and I get into some meaty topics with new friend A, adding extra energy to our walk. Large rain drops dot the cream coloured rock but it comes to nothing, however we can see lightning storms flashing in the distance.  A small wooden sign appears to point down a sheer drop to a village. You’d have to be barking mad to contemplate it. Would C appear? Then suddenly she does, striding across the plateau, hardly breaking a sweat after a two-hour hike straight up. She receives a hero’s welcome. We are tempted by our guides’ offers to go somewhere licensed for the evening (Oman is not dry but alcohol is usually only available in 5 star hotels), but not tempted enough for an hour’s drive.

An adventure in Oman on mycustardpie.com

An adventure in Oman on mycustardpie.com

Would C appear?

An adventure in Oman on mycustardpie.com

Post storm sunset

Snake Gorge

On the next day, our drivers are bang on time. They are professional men who have good jobs in the city during the week; they’ve been friendly and genuinely welcoming.  Back down the winding route into the valley and beyond into even more dramatic and slightly foreboding rocky scenery, we finally meet up with our canyoning leaders at the start of Snake Gorge. They are trained professionals in outdoor pursuits and the tone, leadership and organisation goes up a notch or two (or a hundred). We don helmets and buoyancy vests, our footwear is double checked, we are given safety instructions and warnings. It’s not alarmist – people enter these canyons unprepared and have lost their lives.

Cheap waterproof camera. Images not taken on a GoPro!

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View from the top. We’re going in there

An adventure in Oman on mycustardpie.com

Inside Snake Canyon. Mysterious, beautiful – and yes the water was warm!

For the next couple of hours we are guided down smooth rocky slides, clamber from one canyon to another, swim through pools – some in caves – and even see a couple of small, elegant snakes that give the canyon its name. They are constrictors too small to be of danger to anything but very small mammals. The whole group leap off a rocky promontory into a deep pool below one by one; most with a degree of trepidation, especially me. I freeze with fear, blub uncontrollably then give silent assent to be pushed off. Apart from this blip, the whole hike is otherworldly, beautiful and exhilarating.

Zaher meets us at the end with a home-cooked lunch and we sit under the palm trees sharing chicken and rice mansaf cooked by his mother and sisters. It’s one of the most deliciously simple meals ever. Chatting over lunch is a better way to get to know some of our group – breaking bread together. Earlier, under duress, and inexperienced leadership, mostly we haven’t bonded which is is shame; perhaps under different circumstances….

We drive back by a different, faster and less populated route, the mountains flanking our right hand side most of the way. The border crossing takes a while but we zig zag back through leafy Al Ain and in no time the high-rise of Dubai’s skyline appears. Our Omani drivers Whatsapp emojis, friend us on Facebook and entreat us “When are you coming again?”, eager to show us more of their fascinating land. When indeed?

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Lunch eaten under palm trees, cooked by a local family – we were starving

More information

Tips for planning your own adventure trip in Oman

  • Check the weather forecast. Even the sunniest day can bely extreme conditions on the way.
  • Make sure that you check the credentials of your trip leader, especially if doing any extreme or challenging activities. If in any doubt use professionals to arrange and guide your trip.
  • Use a robust four-wheel drive vehicle and ensure the driver has experience in off-roading.

Click on an image to see full size

 

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Driving back to Dubai

I’d love to hear about your adventures. What have you done that took you to a place out of your comfort zone or took your breath away?

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Country Garden Bitter Sorbet – a cool twist on a Negroni

August 28, 2016

Is it Negroni o’clock where you are? I’m back in Dubai and although happy to be home, the pale skies and the steamy temperatures are a stark contrast to beautiful English countryside, dramatic clouds and a fresh breeze. I was pounding the pavements last night with Hazel panting beside me (my Border Terrier in case you’re wondering) with headphones in ears listening to the BBC Radio 4 Food Programme podcast. Diana Henry‘s very lyrical Irish tones were lulling me into a reverie about the rise of the l’aperitif or l’aperitivo trend in the UK. She looked back to her first taste at the age of fifteen on an exchange in France. The words Lillet, Suze and Dubbonet were incredibly exotic. Like me, she was brought up in a time when alcohol was advertised on TV with little regulation and thought the life that the Martini and Cinzano ads portrayed was just real life as a grown up. Turns out we were both impossible day dreamers then. Hands up anyone else who can sing along to ‘any time, any place, anywhere, there’s a wonderful world you can share‘.

Diana lays down two rules for the perfect l’aperitif – nothing too strong and nothing too sweet. To get the taste buds in peak anticipation, Professor Charles Spence recommends the classic combination of something sour or citrus, some carbonation (i.e. bubbles) and something aromatic to stimulate the appetite.

My three very favourite aperitif are a gin and tonic (no surprise there), a French 75 (gin, Champagne, lemon juice and sugar) and a Negroni, which just happens to be ultra-fashionable right now and deliciously bitter.

So coming back to the house at dusk, rather warm and a bit peckish, after being seduced for half an hour about the allure of pre-dinner cocktails  you can guess what I was craving. Denzel’s special cocktail recipe for August fitted the bill as it’s a twist on the Negroni but slightly more elaborate.

Denzel Heath (of the MMI Bar Academy) uses Bloom gin here as it’s infused with botanicals such as chamomile, honeysuckle and pomelo capturing the essence of a country garden. Created by head distiller, Joanne Moore (still one of the few female master distillers in the world) soda is recommended as a partner for Bloom gin to set off the light, feminine flavours. The juniper is still an important element and in a gin and tonic Bloom suggests a strawberry as a garnish. St Germain is liqueur flavoured with elderflowers and is simply divine. Lillet is a refreshing citrus flavoured fortified wine which is lovely on its own over ice as an aperitif. If you really can’t find it try some bianco vermouth (sweet white) and maybe add a touch of Cointreau and Angostura orange bitters.

Country Garden Bitter Sorbet

  • Servings: 1
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 30ml Bloom gin (or your gin of choice)
  • 30ml Campari (Aperol will also do)
  • 30ml Lillet Blanc
  • 30ml strawberry purée*
  • 60ml St Germain
  • 30ml fresh pineapple juice
  • 30ml egg white
  • Sprinkles (optional)

Equipment

  • Cocktail shaker
  • Old fashioned glass or something more frivolous (like an ice cream container)
  • Ice

How to mix

  1. Add the Bloom gin, Campari, Lillet and strawberry purée into a cocktail shaker filled with ice and shake vigorously until completely chilled. Strain the chilled liquid out of the shaker into an old-fashioned glass over fresh ice (discard the used ice from the shaker and wash it up).
  2. Make some St Germaine Foam: Fill a clean cocktail shaker with 60ml of St Germaine, 30ml of egg white and 30ml of pineapple juice. First shake these ingredients thoroughly without ice (this is known as a dry shake and is used to agitate the liquid and proteins).  Add ice to the mixture and shake for a second time.
  3. Strain 30ml of the foam on top of the ‘negroni mix (use the rest for another cocktail).

*Strawberry puree is simply 4 parts fresh, hulled strawberries with 1 part caster sugar blitzed in a blender until very smooth. You’ll probably find it easier to make a larger amount than needed in the recipe.

While this is probably involves a few more processes than your usual homemade cocktail, just imagine serving it at a summer garden party with some summery nibbly things. Divine.
Emiko Davies explains more about Italian aperitivi here and find out why I adore Diana Henry’s writing here.

What’s your favourite l’aperitif or l’aperitivo?

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