What was the first thing you ever did in the kitchen? I’d like to say my first tentative steps into cooking were scrambling eggs or stirring a risotto, but it was far less auspicious. The pre-school memory of standing on a chair next to our formica kitchen table helping to make custard is very clear in my mind. It didn’t involve eggs or cream but a little paper sachet from a brightly coloured box marked Birds. My job was to tip some light orange powder from the sachet into a jug, add a spoonful of sugar and a splash of milk. With a spoon, I molded these elements into a bright orange paste, making sure there were no lumps. Meanwhile milk was heating on the stove. As soon as it boiled and started to creep rapidly up the sides of the pan, my Mum would snatch it away and pour it onto my paste, stirring all the time. Magically, a jug of steaming, yellow custard was the result which cooled to thick pouring consistency with a skin (which when my sister came along used to fight me for). We ate custard on an almost daily basis as pudding (we never called it dessert) was always served after ‘tea’ (our main evening meal).
This early processed convenience food was Bird’s Custard was first formulated and first cooked by Alfred Bird in 1837, because his wife was allergic to eggs the key ingredient used to thicken traditional custard.
A few weeks ago I spent a few hours with Jason Atherton, Tristan Farmer and the chefs of Marina Social. Jason first set foot in Dubai as Executive Chef for Gordon Ramsay’s Verre (now Table 9); after launching many other projects with the Ramsay Group he left to set up his own restaurants, earning a Michelin star for Pollen Street Social. At the last count he has seven restaurants in London, in addition to setting up others in New York, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Australia and, Marina Social in Dubai. His next to open will be on Cebu, the island in the Philippines where his wife Irha comes from.
The food is quite casual at Marina Social but a great deal of care goes into its preparation. We learned the secret of their slow-prove pizza dough and how to make tarte tatin without the pastry going soggy. Our reward for all that concentration and hands on cooking was to sit down for a late lunch. One of the desserts was a show-stopping rhubarb souffle with ‘Bird’s Custard’ poured into the middle.
The vanilla-flecked yellow stuff in a Bird’s custard jug tasted remarkably like a luxurious version of the packet stuff, which I presume is their aim. You won’t be surprised that this was the recipe I begged for. I would put a little less sugar but that’s my taste. They specify Italian eggs for the intense yellow of the yolks; I think the free range ones I get from local farms will do the job.
If you are put off making custard because you think it might split, this could be the recipe for you. Adding a bit of cornflour makes it more stable.
Here’s Jason’s advice for making English-style custard – although he says to add the cornflour after heating and then putting it through a sieve which is different from the recipe supplied below:
Marina Social Birds Custard
- 350 ml double cream
- 80g (approx. 4) Italian egg yolks
- 60g caster sugar
- 3g cornflour
- 1 vanilla pod
Pour the double cream into a pan. Split open the vanilla pod and, with the tip of a knife, scrape the seeds into the liquid and bring slowly to almost boiling point.
While the cream is heating, beat the sugar, egg yolks and cornflour together in a heat-proof bowl. When the cream is scalding hot and about to boil, pour it in a stream into the bowl while beating vigorously with a whisk. Tip the custard back into the saucepan and stir over a very low heat until the mixture coats the back of a spoon (approximately 75C). Do not let the custard boil, otherwise, it will curdle.
Remove from heat and place over an ice bath to cool.
Do you ever make custard from scratch? What is your first memory of cooking?
The rhythm of the sea is a constant soundtrack to everything on the island. I can hear it thwacking the concrete stilts underneath my private villa suspended over the ocean, it laps in imperfect syncopation beneath the floor of the spa where I’m having a massage, crashes lazily onto the beach, seethes and plops alongside the raised teak pathways, and even when walking on the little sand trails through the small jungle, the quiet hiss is audible in the distance. It’s the first thing I hear on waking and lulls me to sleep at night. I’m obsessed by its changing colour. Being surrounded by this much water, from clear aqua blue to deep petrol grey has me taking pictures of it at every moment. It changes and reflect the light, the sky, the clouds, the sunrays and a myriad of different influences.
So here I am on this perfect island. Even though my home for the last 16 years has been a short four-hour flight away from the Maldives, unlike so many of my friends, I have never visited. I’d never even considered it and I had to dig deep to understand why.
And here it is. I thought I might be bored. Fully aware that being bored is a deficiency in your own character rather than your environment, this is a big confession. Much has been said about the dwindling attention span of youth due to the stream of information and entertainment via a myriad of sources, but it can affect anyone. Handling multiple social media channels for my blog and for clients, plus my dependency on online information has given me the attention span of a gnat. A gnat that landed in the Maldives (still in the grip of a flu virus).
So when faced with the prospect of four days on an island with perfect white beaches, coral filled sea and not much else, I was slightly panicked.
This is what changed my mind
My trip to Coco Bodu Hithi in the Maldives was arranged by Travel Junkie Diaries. This is an initiative inviting followers to a new destination, to travel with strangers on an adventure of a lifetime. It’s a journey to know oneself, to seek inspiration and to share it with others. It’s a tale of new friendships… but more of that later…
There is a four-hour flight to Male from Dubai courtesy of Fly Dubai. While the airline is a low-cost no frills carrier they do have a business class option with big roomy comfortable seats, loads of leg room, free in-flight entertainment and a food and drink menu with a decent amount of choice. As our flight leaves at 1.30 am, being able to sleep comfortably is a real bonus for making sure we are in good shape to enjoy our first day to the max.
Chilling out in my room
We step out of the airport in Male, the capital of the Maldives, board a small boat and forty minutes later are refreshed with cool towels and walking up the teak walkway in our flip-flops, stopping every five seconds to take another picture of the views. A few clouds don’t spoil it – rain is always expected at this time of year. A short buggy ride through lush vegetation and sandy paths leads us to the first of many vistas which are straight out of a Pinterest mood board. We emerge from the leafy canopy to a sweeping white bay and teak huts on stilts, teal waves lapping around them. The Coco residences is home for the next few days.
An L-shaped space, surrounds a deck with a private infinity pool, a double sun bed and a diving point and ladder leading directly into the crystal clear sea. The view is of waves to the skyline – not a single boat, person or other man-made item interrupts it and it’s completely screened from the views of each neighbour. This is blissful private seclusion. This mesmerizing view is visible at all times; through the double doors of my bedroom and double bed; from the huge marble bath; from the cosy sitting room; from the windows by the extensive wardrobe and dressing area; even from the glass sided walk in shower room. Add in a Bose sound system and a wine fridge. There was little to tempt me to leave this space…. ever.
As an early riser, I leaped out bed at dawn ready to explore. During those early hours I encountered our local heron who fished from the end of our villas. Small lizards darted over the earth paths and a variety of birds swooped and darted over and around the island. Strolling along the beach at this hour revealed tiny transparent crabs that scurried in and out with the tide, and hermit crabs – nimble despite the cumbersome shell homes on their backs. Nadine* did this walk at night and her torch revealed huge land crabs emerging from their sandy holes. Shoals of fish were easy to spot from the walkways and then there was the snorkelling and diving with turtles and sharks. While our rooms were suspended above the water other villas were nestled into a mini jungle on the island which was a verdant tangle of planting. Elegant palms soared into the sky above the lush greenery and there were all sorts of shrubs, flowers and even a little spice plantation, to investigate. I was particularly drawn to a plant with a bushy red ‘tail’.
We were warned that rain was a probability and the changing landscape, especially for a desert dweller kept me captivated. There was thrilling thunder and a deluge of rain at one point but it soon turned into the bluest, clearest skies I have ever seen. Watching the sunrises and sunsets was a rewarding occupation for a couple of hours a day (especially the latter with a gorgeous cocktail in hand).
Snorkelling and diving
There is equipment hire, boat hire and guidance for dive trips providing on Bodu Hithi. Lisa, the resident marine biologist took us out several times and has a wealth of knowledge. Three reefs surround the island and it’s possible to walk off shore and snorkel a few metres away. The sea-life is teaming although the coral has suffered some bleaching (as it has the world over) from global warming. We took a short boat ride to an area known for turtles and saw a couple.
Another short boat ride away was completely thrilling. We put on our gear, slipped into the water, dipped our masks in… and there in dark blue water directly underneath us were a huge school of nurse sharks and stingrays. White elegant shapes flipping and gliding so close, small fish tucking in tight to the sides of the sharks for protection. It was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever witnessed.
Golf buggies were available at all times to ferry you round, but I rarely used this service. While Bodu Hithi is less than half a square kilometre in size, the little paths give you a variety of routes or you could walk on the beach round the island. There was always a new sight or vista round the corner to discover and the health app on my iPhone showed that I walked over 13 km on one day.
Swimming and watersports
There is a main pool as well as the crystal clear sea surrounding the island. I visited in June when the water felt like a degree cooler than body temperature; refreshing to get into but never cold or too hot (yes this is a thing – I live in Dubai!).
Michelle took a canoe out on the waters and a group flung themselves around on a donut. Windsurfing and waterskiing was also available.
My knotty shoulders mean that I’ve had regular massages for most of my life. Living in Dubai where competition makes standards so high (over 50,000 salons and spas in the UAE) always makes me nervous of trying somewhere else. I needn’t have worried. The location alone induced a feeling of calm, the private treatment room cabin had a glass side looking out to sea. My therapist clicked my back (alarming but amazing) and wrung my muscles so it was almost painful but not quite. I loved it. Everyone in the group came back raving about their treatments too.
There was a yoga teacher who led sunrise and sunset sessions. I’d packed my gear and was ready to yoga. However, we cancelled all our sessions as we didn’t have time to fit it in! I know, I know… but that just tells you how busy we were. If I was there for longer than four days I would have done sun salutations with the best of them.
Watch this video to see why this is probably one of the best views from a gym ever. It very, nearly tempted me in.
Food and drink
Or should I say eating and drinking. The Maldives is a series of atolls and islands so they don’t produce any produce, coconuts expected, and everything is imported – mainly from Dubai. For such a tiny resort there were a surprising range of options. We started each day with a buffet breakfast at Air, overlooking the sea and infinity pool of course. There was loads of choice including lots of healthy fruit, juices and Bircher muesli. We could have eaten a la carte in Stars on our pier, ordered room service or even booked an early morning fishing trip complete with breakfast.
Our favourite lunch spot was Latitude right by the pool, with comfortable rattan chairs and a sand floor. Grazing food like nachos, pizza and some good salads kept us going. At night we never ate in the same place twice, with Thai food at Aqua, sushi (plus an excellent wine list) at the Wine Library and a sumptuous barbecue cooked at one of the villas being highlights.
Our regular sundowner spot became Stars where Gautham, who acted as our own personal concierge, also whipped up a mean cocktail.
After supper one night, a screen was rigged up on the beach; loungers, drinks and popcorn provided, so we could watch a movie under the stars. Coco comes up with all sorts of tailored activities like this which go down a storm with the many honeymooners who come to the island, but they can create things for groups too, such as a scavenger hunt for us.
Sunsets and sunrises
As alluded to earlier, watching the arrival and departure of the sun was something we treasured, in many alternative ways. At certain times of the year you can travel by boat to a sand bank in the middle of the sea, although it was under water at the time of our visit. We did go on a sunset cruise and watched a dramatic black cloud overwhelm the sky, glass of bubbles in hand. Another evening we jumped from the private deck of one of our rooms and saw the water around us turn pink. Moonlight cruises were available too.
Friendships and inspiration
As for the aim of this Travel Junkie Diary initiative to make friends and learn from other people, any scepticism about this lofty aim was blown out of the water by the incredible women I shared this trip with. I returned from the Maldives, my spirit lifted, gales of laughter still ringing in my ears and with a renewed sense of purpose ignited by the examples of these generous, talented go-getters. Do check them out, you will be rewarded. In no particular order:
Live Loud Girl
I’ll admit I was rather nervous about going away with bloggers who were outside my comfortable sphere of food. Looking at Linda’s Instagram offered no solace. Clean minimalism, impeccable taste and then she arrived at the airport in a chic dress and perfect white Stan Smiths. However there was clue in the name and her anarchic sense of humour and unrestrained guffaws blew any trepidation out of the water. Her clear vision, military organisational skills and creative talents are seriously inspiring – she’s in Saudi right now unpacking a whole container for a whole house styling project. Her Snapchat is seriously hilarious. I just hope she never sees the state of my desk! Live Loud Girl
Glory Girl Fit
*At the Stylist Arabia Social Media Awards, I saw a bronzed, beautiful girl with an incredible figure and a massive smile claim the fitness category prize. Make no mistake, Nadine works very hard for everything she achieves and looks for good in every situation and everybody. Her enthusiasm for life is totally infectious and she was bouncing around like a Duracell bunny or doing backflips into the pool when the rest of us were indulging in downtime. She’s not at all puritanical (before I met her I dreaded healthy eating mantras where major food groups are the devil incarnate), and promotes strength, activity and health rather than weight loss. The more I got to know her, the more I realised what a genuinely good and kind person she is. She’s inspired me to be more focused and motivated about my own fitness. GloryGirlFit
I’m Anna Roberts
The professionalism of Anna just blew me away. She was never, ever without her tripod and had a clear plan of the range of shots she wanted to take each day. Every evening she edited and scheduled a beautifully made video, brilliant capsules of memories and highlights. Day one, day two, day three and day four here, plus check out her new website – a media platform for ambitious and career oriented women.
Adrianna travelled from Poland to join our trip and took the bravest step into the unknown. Don’t be fooled by her cool, elegant images, she was utterly beguiled by the whole experience and got ridiculously excited about macarons and french fries! Most photographers spend years trying to develop their own unique personal style, but she has certainly found hers; impressive for someone so young. Delve into her Instagram to see a naturally good eye for beauty and composition in full force.
“I thought the way you all took so many photographs of everything was a bit ridiculous” chuckled Maya candidly about her first encounter with our group as the only non-blogger. As the owner of a successful wedding planning business she soon became part of the ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ camp and was beating us at our own game on Instagram. Her utter enjoyment of every moment of every day was palpable and uplifting. Maya Toubia
Travel Junkie Diary
Introducing you to the person with the vision, drive, imagination and grit to make all this happen – Michelle Karam. I’ve followed Travel Junkie Diary from the start and watched it grow from a small but perfectly formed blog into the multi-dimensional platform it is today. She steered our group on this trip with a light but deft hand on the rudder and nothing was too much trouble (or ruffled her composure). Together with lovely Lara Taki and the Coco Collection Badu Hithi team, they ensured we were treated like queens and truly this was a trip of a lifetime for which I am eternally grateful; for the company and the place. Travel Junkie Diary
You know I couldn’t enjoy my time on the island without digging into the effects of this development on the land, sea and creatures around it. The resort has it’s own desalination plant to produce water and a sewage treatment plant (some islands eject waste into the sea) and has an environmental policy which includes recycling. There are many practices to protect the coral, fish and sealife around Bodu Hithi from turtle identification to the detection and removal of ghost nets. You can read more here, but talking to Lisa the Marine Biologist and the Bodu Hithi team I felt there was a genuine commitment to preserving this beautiful place.
The four days we spent on Coco Bodu Hithi flew by but the rejuvenating effects felt as though I’d been away for much longer. My book remained unread and I still had many things that I’d return to the island for. Do I want to go to the Maldives now? I think you know the answer.
Thanks to Travel Junkie Diary, Coco Bodu Hithi and Fly Dubai for a phenomenal trip. Thanks also to Clarins for treating us to items from their summer collection which I loved especially the Instant Light Lip Comfort Oil.
How was your May? I’ve been seeing sunny barbecues all over my friend’s news feeds in the UK. Thankfully our surfeit of summer sun here in Dubai seems to have left its usual cousin – humidity – at home for a while. So we’ve had suppers in the garden for a few more precious weeks, the farmers’ market season was extended and the beautiful local produce continues, particularly tomatoes.
I’ve had elder teen (who won’t be a teen for much longer) home and she’s been a joy, helping out a lot especially in the kitchen. It’s fun to have someone to bounce ideas off and we work well together. Veggie teen is immersed in full-on revision for her final exams and on a countdown to leaving me with an empty nest. I’m trying to feed her body with healthy foods so her brain can do its stuff to the max.
Early last Saturday I hopped in the car and drove 50 minutes to a farm near Abu Dhabi for my weekly organic local veg particularly their candy-sweet tomatoes. We got to pick some from the vine, inhaling the tomato scent deeply. I asked for quail’s eggs and some were whipped from out from under the birds, speckled and warm. That’s the way to buy eggs.
Denzel’s cocktail for me this month involves vegetables as a mini salad garnish to complement the savoury and herb flavours of the the drink. It’s refreshing and green with umami moreishness. The base is Gin Mare which is distilled from arbequina olives and laced with Mediterranean botanicals including thyme, basil, rosemary and juniper berries along with cardamom and coriander. Citrus is another dominant flavour using a blend of sweet oranges from Seville, bitter oranges from Valencia and lemons from Lleida.
The other main element is Mastiha (or mastika), a Greek liqueur flavoured by a resin from the mastic tree that also contains Mediterranean flavours of cucumber, fresh herbs, pine needles and green acorns. If you can’t lay your hands on some, while there is no 100% accurate alternative, Bianco Vermouth adds a similar texture and herbaceous flavours.
Denzel chose agave syrup for its health benefits. “It contains marginally more calories per serving than sugar, but it 1.5 times sweeter, whilst its glycemic index is significantly lower. It contains 90% fructose rather than sucrose and is an alternative to artificial or non-nutritive sweeteners.” Personally I’m more sceptical about agave and would choose raw honey any day, but we are talking about a cocktail here… so the health benefits are moot!
- A shaker
- A strainer
- Long glass or tin can
- Cubed ice and crushed ice
- 60ml Gin Mare
- 15ml agave syrup
- 30ml fresh lemon juice
- 15ml Skinos Mastiha*
- Garnish: 2 cherry tomatoes, 2 fresh basil leaves, 2 sugar snap peas, pink peppercorns, Kalamata olives, feta cheese (or to taste).
How to mix
Put all ingredients inside a cocktail shaker with a lot of cubed ice. Shake really hard for at least 10 seconds. Strain off the ice and serve in a glass or tin over new crushed ice. Add garnishes and serve with a spoon.
Madame Fromage is a cheese expert extraordinaire who I’ve followed for many years. Her writing is a joy to read and it seems she’s a dab hand with cocktails too. The New Cocktail Hour is coming back from the UK with me this summer and a gin basil smash party is in order. Cheese and cocktail matching sound strange? Try the Greensgrow Mule with goats cheese. Just magic.
If you are missing the farmers’ market too, find an updated list of other places to get local, organic veg in Dubai during the fallow months here.
Bring on June which involves two very different travel adventures for me – the Maldives and Moscow (a bit of contrast!). What does June hold for you?
Each month for at least ten years, House and Gardens magazine has winged its way across oceans to our PO Box courtesy of KP (an annual subscription for Christmas). I find it comforting to look at the immaculate interiors, most of them British; maybe it’s something to do with being an expat for so long and living in a rented home. Inevitably I turn to the food and drink section first. The collections of recipes are well-written, beautifully photographed and don’t succumb to the quick and easy style (often using pre-made components) that other cookery mags have started to feature so often. It’s not complicated cooking but it’s the kind I like to do, from scratch.
House guest was back for a couple of days after being in Saudi for a week. KP was on a rugby/golf trip in UK and veggie teen out with a friend, so supper for two was in order. A cold Chablis was opened and I roasted a mixture of onions from the farmers’ market until soft and slightly caramelised, then griddled some lamb cutlets until the fat was crisp and the meat pink. The sweetest, ripest cherry tomatoes and fragrant peppers (from IGR at the market) went into a homemade Romesco.
Pesto and muhamarra were guesses on Instagram when I asked people if they knew what I’d made. Romesco is kind of similar but from Catalonia in Spain where a regional type of hot pepper is used as a spice and the sauce is usually served with fish and a type of large spring onion, grilled over charcoal. The traditional version involves a lot of pounding in a pestle and mortar and roasting of ingredients. The name itself may have come from the word “rumiskal” meaning to mix, from the Moorish era in Spain, so this could have some Arabic influences, although it would differ in taste now as tomatoes and chillies didn’t arrive in Spain until the 16th century.
So having roundly condemned speedy versions of things, here’s my riff on the H&G quick Romesco sauce recipe (original by Louisa Carter).
Quick Romesco sauce
- 60g almonds (sliced are fine)
- 30g hazelnuts
- 1 large red pepper
- 6 cloves of pink garlic
- 300g ripe cherry tomatoes
- 65ml extra virgin olive oil
- A hunk (about 50g) of robust bread (I used Baker & Spice sourdough ciabatta)
- 2 tsp sweet smoked Spanish paprika
- red wine vinegar
- sea salt
- Heat the oven to 220C (or 200C for a fan oven). Spread the nuts on a baking tray and roast for about 2 minutes. Watch them like a hawk as they can burn easily. Remove when the nuts are lightly golden brown and put them onto a plate to cool.
- Core and deseed the pepper and cut into large cubes (about 4cm in size), peel the garlic. Put the tomatoes, chopped pepper and garlic onto the baking tray and pour over the olive oil. Give it a good stir to mix, sprinkle with sea salt and roast for about 10 mins until the garlic is soft. Remove the cloves and roast for another 5 minutes. Tear the bread into small pieces and add to the tray along with the paprika. Roast for a final 5 minutes.
- Scrape the contents of the baking tray into a food processor (or a large bowl and use a stick blender). Add the roasted garlic and nuts, a dash of red wine vinegar and about 1 tablespoon of boiling water then blitz. You want a loose consistency with a bit of texture from the nuts remaining. Add more boiling water and blitz again if necessary. Season to taste with additional red wine vinegar and salt if required.
Note: While you are roasting the pepper mixture on one tray, you can put in another tray of spring onions in olive oil to dip into the Romesco afterwards.
Sending this to Katie on Feeding Boys for Simple and in Season – pop over for more recipe inspiration.
What’s your favourite mag for food and recipes?
I started writing My Custard Pie in 2010 but this wasn’t really the start of my blogging ‘career’. On a very early green Apple Mac, I set up a family website on the now defunct Yahoo Geocities. One of the first things I wrote about was a visit to Jordan with KP and our two small daughters, then aged 7 (F) and 5 (B). My experience of a recent trip was just as thrilling as the first and rereading my account of 2004 unlocked so many special memories. It transported me back to the whole experience of travelling with small children and seeing things through their eyes. So here’s the piece exactly as I wrote it in 2004 (with pictures taken on a point and shoot Canon Ixus (with film). My life may have altered a lot since then but in Jordan very few things have changed since our visit – I have added appendices at the bottom where this is so. The magic remains the same.
Our Trip to Jordan: 31st March – 4th April 2004
When we lived in Saudi Arabia, the last place we wanted to visit when we went on holiday was another Arab country. But after nearly 4 years in Dubai – which I saw described in a recent travel article as “Middle East lite” – I felt it was time to see some of the region that we had lived in for so long. Top of my list was a visit to Petra, so I set about arranging a trip to Jordan. I shan’t go into the background or history of the country or the practicalities of my trip (there are details at the end). This is our experience in Jordan as a family of four with two smallish children (aged 5 and 7):
Arriving in Amman
The flight was easy at just over 3 hours, but we were delayed and landed an hour and a half late in Amman. Not being a package-holiday type family, it was a real novelty to be greeted inside the airport by Mohammed carrying a bright orange sign with our name on it. We had obtained our visas in Dubai (although you could get them on arrival) which meant we whizzed through. Mohammed welcomed us warmly and started chatting while we waited for our luggage – this set the tone for our dealings with Jordanians throughout the holiday.
Our driver Jamal accompanied us to the car park. “Choose any car you like” he joked with the girls. We were delighted that we would spend the next 4 and half days with someone with a sense of humour – F and B were won over immediately.
We all breathed in the fresh air and were surprised by the green rolling countryside that we saw out of the window of the car as we started our journey. I deliberated whether to give our tour of Amman a miss as we were late. Jamal tried not to push us but you could tell he was proud of the capital so we opted for a quick trip to the centre.
Amman is a new city and Jordanians, in the main, are not terribly well off. Amman is founded on 7 hills and building regulations specify that all construction must use limestone. It reminded me of in a modern Arabic Bath, also built from limestone and on 7 hills. Waste ground and verges were inhabited by flocks of very woolly sheep and black goats. We stopped in the centre to visit the Temple of Hercules; towering Roman columns in the centre of Amman. Lack of funding on the scale needed to excavate Jordan’s many archaeological sites means that the ruins have no signage and you just wander round a rather ramshackle arrangement of treasures. F and B ran round marvelling at it all and clambering on ancient brickwork. They were eager to start using their disposable cameras.
With modern Amman as a backdrop, the Temple towering above it was stunning and you could look across from this height to a Roman theatre at the base of the next hill. Trying to prevent the girls from plunging off Roman walls down a sheer cliff face, the call to prayer started and seemed to echo round the hills in an ethereal way. It was very peaceful, we drank in the panoramic view, the sun was shining, a gentle breeze and there were beautiful wild flowers dotted in amongst the ruins. We wandered over to the Umayyad Palace, which has been well restored, and strolled back to our car. We gave the National Archaeological Museum a miss – this was a trip to please the whole family after all.
We drove through the downtown area with rows of shops selling everything from shoes to meat – a real hustle and bustle. Even though we have experienced many Arabic souks, this one looked particularly appealing – I bet it is fantastic at night.
Climbing upward out of the city we went through a newer more prosperous residential area, but we were amazed to hear that the prices for the houses were in millions of pounds sterling. Jordan has provided a safe haven for many people in the Middle East including the very wealthy, which has pushed up the prices in certain areas.
The Dead Sea
The drive out to the Dead Sea took us through rolling hills and spectacular scenery. The girls at this time had finally fallen asleep, exhausted by their 4.30am start, and were snoring gently!
The Dead Sea area, being the lowest point in the world, was much warmer than Amman. We checked into the Mövenpick hotel and we were led to our room. The Hotel is built to resemble little Arabic-style 2-story houses around little lanes and courtyards and the girls were delighted when we went through a stone and plaster corridor to reach our room. The whole place abounds with greenery – bougainvillaea, hibiscus, jasmine, palm trees – and is very pretty. I read from the Rough Guide that the pretty stream that runs through the resort and into the swimming pool, takes water from a nature reserve and is very un-environmentally friendly*. Shortage of water is a big problem in Jordan and the River Jordan which feeds the Dead Sea has been dammed by other countries and may lead to the destruction of the sea itself. The Dead Sea is actually a lake fed at one end by the river. The evaporation rate concentrates the salt content. The infinity-edge pool at the Hotel led the eye out to the sea itself, sparkling in the sunshine with the mountains of Israel beyond – I didn’t expect it to be so beautiful.
We stopped for a quick lunch in one of the restaurants around a courtyard – it was really pleasant to sit there in the shade. The tax and service charge system adds to the already high prices – drinking and eating out is very expensive **(see note below)
A quick change later and we were by the pool. The children forged on ahead but as it was not heated I did not venture in. The view was mesmerizing. The family pool to the side was heated to bath temperatures – more my cup of tea!
We all walked down to the edge of the Dead Sea. We had received lots of warnings in advance about not shaving beforehand and avoiding splashing the eyes, but didn’t encounter any problems. The girls had a quick dip then played on the man-made sandy shore. KP and I ventured in – at first it doesn’t seem so special but then you realise that you cannot swim however hard you try. It is almost impossible to float on your stomach and you roll over and over. It was very relaxing and amusing and we looked around us at the other people enjoying the experience…Italians…Germans. All of a sudden a hoard of British OAPs came down the steps fresh out of the Zara Spa.
One sprightly lady stepped neatly onto a large rock, crouched down and rolled in backwards – the perfect way to enter the water. Others were not so brave and stepped gingerly down – it is difficult to believe that you will not fall onto the stony bottom in such shallow depths. The first lady who was already floating confidently talked her followers in while relating the tale of another of their group….
“Yes that’s it Mabel, just step onto that large rock just there…..yes awful about Doris, she went in head first, panicked and swallowed large amounts of the water……it’s very easy just bend your knees and go in backwards slowly, don’t worry……yes Doris had to be helped out and taken straight to the doctor. He advised drinking lots of milk……just on that rock there dear, don’t be afraid…..yes she’s recovering in the Spa….that’s it , in you go, see, very easy!” You could just tell she was relishing telling the incident, in a very sympathetic voice of course, although, by the amount of quivering and knee trembling I observed, it did nothing to reassure her followers’!
We spent the rest of the afternoon by the pool, which had a little man-made beach for the children to play on. I thought that it would be too much like life in Dubai for the girls but they begged to stay for a week, rather than one night. On our way back to the room we encountered a 2-week old, orphaned, tame baby camel. I didn’t realise that camels have feet that are very soft, a sort of large cat-like pad. 1 Dinar was handed over for the obligatory photo. The camel’s name was Moon – in Arabic of course. That evening we eschewed the main hotel buffet for the Italian restaurant in the Courtyard. The appearance of a glamorous belly dancer, who invited the girls up on stage with her, revived their flagging spirits. Bea then fell asleep standing up with her head on my lap! Friends from Amman, who we had originally met in Saudi, joined us. P and C have had three children since we last saw them so it was great to meet up again. They love Jordan and will be sad to leave after their posting is up.
A sumptuous breakfast, amid the predominantly older clientele at the Mövenpick, set us on our way and we checked out after one last look at the Dead Sea. The notorious West Bank in Israel is easily viewed from here. We took the road south along the Dead Sea with barren mountains to our left. The journey was a long one – over 3 hours – emphasising how vast the Dead Sea is (about 700 square kilometres). Small farms lined the route on the Dead Sea side while the mountains became more beautiful. We saw many Bedouin encampments in the lea of the mountains. A packet of biscuits, books and some colouring pencils kept the girls relatively quiet. The Israeli roads by the time we neared Aqaba were a few hundred metres away (over highly guarded no-man’s land). We were continually stopped at checkpoints all along this road.
We turned South again at Aqaba, which is situated on the Red Sea and very near the Saudi border, and headed for Wadi Rum. As we turned off the main road to enter the desert, the dramatic mountains or jebels that rise vertically out of the sand offered a taste of the majestic scenes we were to witness later. We stopped for lunch at a camp. Waiters served the usual mezze and mixed grill under canvas in national dress. This is a brown robe secured by a belt and dagger worn with a red and white head-dress.
We didn’t see it worn anywhere else but in tourist areas. B and F are not the most adventurous eaters and lunch for them consisted mainly of water and Arabic bread.
A small sandstorm was blowing up and I began to get anxious about visibility when our Bedouin guide arrived. Hassan, whose face, which I suspect seemed older than his years, was kind with sparkling eyes. He greeted us warmly and we climbed into a fairly basic 4-wheel drive. We stopped at his house on the way and met his wife and some of his 6 children.
The next 4 hours were magical. The sun came out and the colours of the towering blocks of stone glowed – from intense ochre to brick red – against the vivid blue sky. The pitted faces of the rock have been softened into swirling shapes by centuries of erosion and look like they have melted, like strands of candle-wax. We saw no-one else apart from 2 Bedouin ladies herding a donkey and some goats and a Bedouin encampment against a rock with children playing amid the scattering hens. The desert was carpeted with plants and spring flowers. The scale of the jebels, the silence, the appearance of more and more breath-taking rocky forms kept me entranced.
We visited ancient Thamudic rock drawings, ravines which echoed, and pock-marked cliffs for the girls to clamber up. We came across a family of camels foraging alone. Hassan avoided the more popular areas and promised to take us to deserted but beautiful parts of the Rum – which he did. His English was quite good although he had not received any formal education and had learned it from tourists.
As the sun lowered we headed for the spot most popular for watching the sun set. We stopped to collect firewood and then entered another vast mountain-fringed basin where we saw a few more 4-wheel drives in the distance. The area is so vast that it seems to absorb everything. We chose an isolated spot and the girls mucked in to help Hassan light the fire. When the rest of the family scaled some rocks, Hassan provided me with yashmak and abaya so I could play a trick in disguise. KP was not fooled by my sudden disappearance (actually relieved by the improvement) but the look of uncertainty from the girls as a strange veiled woman appeared was hilarious. My sandals and polished toes gave me away.
A truck drew up and another party jumped out to our chagrin. The driver was about 13! We drank tea and watched the sunset – a pale golden sphere sinking behind a grey mountain, lengthening the shadows. It was bliss.
Wadi Rum was spectacular in its own right but we received an added dimension from the obvious love of the place exuded by Hassan. You could tell that he would never tire of its magic and felt our pleasure in witnessing it for the first time.
It was dark when we reached the Resthouse again and flaming torches lit up the site. Coach loads of Hungarians had come to spend the night in rows of tents and an Arabic drummer boomed a welcome as they streamed in. The winding journey to Petra was about 1 hour 20 minutes and was the toughest part of the trip having been in a car for so much of the day. The girls talked and sang all the way and I was desperate to get a Panadol so disconcerted when Jamal stopped the car in Wadi Musa with our hotel in sight. He jumped out and took the girls to have a personalised sand bottle made for them. It was one of the highlights of their trip and they welcomed Jamal like a long-lost uncle at every sighting thereafter!
The Crowne Plaza is a bit old and unprepossessing. It has one of those restaurants that remind me of a school canteen. The room was clean, the buffet more than adequate and we all fell into bed.
Another early start, our terrace looked over the mountains surrounding Petra – but why did we choose to go to Petra on a Friday (the Middle Eastern day off)? I blanched at the queue for breakfast and luckily overheard a waiter taking another couple to an alternative restaurant – I quickly tagged along and a much more pleasant experience ensued.
The advantage of the Crowne Plaza is that it is the nearest hotel to the ancient site and we were taken a short walking distance to the Visitors Centre and introduced to our guide Mahmood.
A horse ride down to the main entrance is compulsory***(see note below) so we all mounted our steeds and set off. The horses didn’t all have the look of patient old mares and we were not wearing hats. Our leaders were a dubious looking gang of boys. My groom was 13 years old and urged me to steer the horse myself – I declined, as it had no reins. My rather jaded adult view did not extend to the children who thought the ride was wonderful, found out the names of their horses and were in raptures about them.
We entered into the narrow path down into Petra called the Siq, which is a deep fissure between the rocks. It is immediately enthralling – the height of the mountains either side, the colours of the strata of the rocks, the promise of what is to come.
Carvings out of the rock show homage paid to the gods that the Nabateans worshipped. Channels carved out of the side of the tunnel on both sides carried water, contained in clay pipes with troughs for animals along the way and reservoirs to filter silt. Some cobbled stones remain which show the marks of the iron wheels of the chariots. As Mahmood spoke the teaming stream of people going in and out of the city in the first century came to life. No photograph can prepare you for the first glimpse of the Treasury through the walls of the narrow shaded Siq, lit up by the full glare of the sun. The sheer engineering feat has you marvelling throughout the tour of Petra, aside from the beauty. The colours of the rock throughout the site are the most vivid and painterly in nature. The girls said they felt they had poured their paint box over it. You wander on from treasure to treasure – the theatre, the countless dwellings, and the houses of the rich, which also served as tombs with stairs above the pediments to help the spirits to heaven. A guide was reciting from the stage in Arabic and this acted as a magnet to F. He took the cue and started singing while she danced.
Mahmood was knowledgeable and again quietly passionate about such a precious place. The straightness of the columns, the symmetry, the flat planes of the floors, walls and ceilings, all achieved by hand chiseling. The Nabateans had such vision to create such a splendid city out of the stunning but formidable rock. The city at its peak had around 35,000 inhabitants as well as being a focus for trade.
By this point in the tour, the constant attention seeking tactics of the Bedouin touts started to get tiring. The city was lost for centuries and over this time the local Bdul tribe made it their own. The Jordanian government moved them in the 1980s into purpose-built settlement, but some still live among the caves. They raise income through selling various trinkets from rickety stalls which abound throughout the city, in even the most far-flung places, or by providing donkey, camel and horse rides. Runny-nosed ragged children were among those approaching us or just playing in the sand. The people are nice; they will take no for an answer and are polite and well-intentioned. A more controlled and well-planned way of channelling their energies, making Petra look less ram-shackle and providing them with a steady income would surely benefit both the people and the heritage site. Or maybe I’ve got it wrong and the thronging sellers and the slightly wild and out-of-control movement of people and animals, bidding for your attention from all sides, is a taste of how life has always been in the Nabatean city.
We sat and contemplated the Urn Tomb while we rested. Mahmoud’s services were over and we were on our own. A wind blew scattering litter and sand which stung if it caught you the wrong way. I had forgotten my guidebook and the only map I had was in Italian, but I had picked Mahmoud’s brains before he moved onto his next tour. So we retraced our steps and started the ascent to the High Place of Sacrifice. A gentle but persistent girl of 6 who gave the girls fragments of coloured rock joined us, for some of the way. I gave money, which ensured that she accompanied us for some of our ascent. The way was steep and winding, part man-made steps, part Nabatean and I kept thinking of the procession of people who would have this journey in honour of a great ceremony. A panoramic view of the city improved at every turn, the pathway lined with greenery sprouting from among the rocks and glimpses of cavernous ravines. Past more hawker stalls, a makeshift café (one of the few in Petra) and up a final flight of steps we reached a plateau where the High Place of Sacrifice was situated.
At this point I must tell you about Barnaby bear. B’s class take in turns to take Barnaby on their travels. A map in the classroom shows where he has been and photographs report his expeditions. Barnaby’s travels in Jordan had been faithfully recorded – by the Dead Sea, in Wadi Rum and now on the altar overlooking Petra where there is a possibility that human sacrifice took place!
We took our rest, exhausted by the climb and were joined by a very persistent Bedouin lady. She tried everything. First beads, water, Bedouin silver, followed by entertainment – playing a primitive flute- then appeal – saying that she was expecting (under her abbaya, it was difficult to tell if this was true). She snatched a stone from F’s palm that she had nursed for the whole journey, and flung it over the side saying it was bad for her hand. Poor F was bewildered. I tried to placate her but the lady cottoned on to what she had done and retrieved the stone from a ledge. We sat there in the sunshine, looking down on the magnificent view of Petra and the surrounding mountains – we had left the dust bowl behind. It was well worth the climb and totally tranquil – except for our persistent neighbour. She sat and sat and sat…. and won…money changed hands! We found the path that led us a different way down the rear of the mountain. The coloured rock was carved into steps. We were the only ones taking this path – in contrast to the hub of the main thoroughfare. We saw lizards, birds and flowers. We pretended that we were characters from Lord of the Rings on our quest. How did I end up as Gollom?!
The wadi we found ourselves at the bottom of our descent was like a secret valley and the carved fascia were exceptionally beautiful in the clear sunlight, the colours too bright to believe. It was at this point my camera jammed – I couldn’t believe it – but nothing could spoil such a special day. The only people we came across were Bedouin sellers and groups of their children. Broken pottery fragments kept the girls delving into the sand – my pockets were full of their precious ancient finds.
As we came out of the valley we had to decide whether to push on to a different part or head back. The girls soldiered on; we had all started to wilt in the full-on sun. The path that appeared direct, meandered more than we would have liked but we finally made it down to the Katuteh area and into one of the restaurants for a drink under the shade of the trees. Food and drink choices are very limited on the whole site due to the logistics of operation. There is no ice-cream either which would have been exceptionally welcome just then!
The site is vast and you would need at least 3 days to take it all in. One wonders at the impossible task that faces the Jordanians of cataloguing, preserving and managing this World Heritage site.
I had held out all day against a donkey ride thinking that I would save it for when it was really needed – despite the pressure from the girls and the boys (“air-conditioned taxi”). That moment was now. We bargained and secured two donkeys to take us back to the Treasury – uphill all the way and a good 20 minutes trudge. KP and I walked behind, facing the onslaught of other sellers trying to persuade us that we should be on a mount too! Drinking in a last view of the Treasury we started the 3km walk through the Siq which on the way down is simple but much more taxing after a hard days walking.
A horse-ride back for the girls –”faster, faster”. I jogged behind as some of the boys had got a little Friday madness and galloped their horses down the hill towards us, careering wildly and shouting “lock up your daughters”. It was good natured but rather wild and dangerous!
An ice cream at the top, a short stroll back to the hotel, a swim for the girls in the pool that overlooks the mountains ended another very special day in Jordan.
Up at dawn again and into the restaurant before the organised groups arrived. I had cleaned the sand out of our shoes yet again and we were reunited with Jamal – big hugs from the girls. He had bought snacks for them for the journey.
We headed through lush countryside but I was disappointed that we joined the desert road rather than taking the King’s Highway. Jamal explained that way would take a minimum of 7 hours to reach Nebo rather than 3. It was a bleaker view of Jordan our main sights being potash factories and battery chicken farms, plus the Hejaz railway which ran alongside the road for some of the way. I saw an amazing amount of kestrels during the journey.
We almost reached Amman and turned off to Madaba – our view changed back to fields, cows, sheep, donkeys and goats. People stood by the road selling mounds of freshly picked carrots complete with their green ferny tops.
Madaba was a busy town and we stopped outside the Greek Orthodox church St George’s. We saw the remains of a huge mosaic map of the region. It was interesting but did not compare with the mosaics of our next stop. We lit a candle in remembrance of the girls’ Great-Gran as this was her faith. A short journey through rural Jordan took us to Mount Nebo and Moses Memorial church. We were glad to finally stretch our legs and walked up the tree-lined approach to the monastery. Just inside the main grounds there was a little dirt track. Rather than carrying on the conventional route we ducked under the trees and emerged on a hillside covered with wild flowers, olive trees and birdsong. The view over the valley was magical and the girls started making up stories about fairyland. We walked around the side of the hill and rejoined the main monastic site by a track beside some of the ruins.
The mosaics inside were beautiful and well-preserved but the main attraction of this place is the view where it is said that God showed Moses the Promised Land. You can see right over the River Jordan, the Dead Sea and into Israel and on a clear day to Jerusalem.
We strolled back down the hill and got in the car. F proudly held up a fir cone that she had found and B started to whine because she couldn’t find one. Jamal leapt out of the car, found a stick and started to beat one down from a tree for her.
Another journey taking us North past Amman, through lush rolling hills and a large Palestinian camp Baqaa. We stopped at the Green Valley restaurant for lunch. This was a Lebanese style place under the trees, which served, as well as the usual mezze and grill, delicious bread straight from the oven. Chips and ketchup satisfied B.
We were introduced to our guide Akram who had been taking tours since 1963. The girls by this time had had enough mind-improving and ran through the arches and over the cobbled stones.
This huge Roman site has been continually investigated throughout the nineteenth century and still vast amounts (our guide said 80%) lie underground. KP and I marvelled at the scale of it all. There is a wonderful spot called the South Tetrapylon, where you stand at a crossroads and look North along the Cardo, or main street, to Damascus, West to Jerusalem, East to Baghdad, and South back into the city. All roads are dead straight and lined with towering columns. Never before had I had such a sense of what life was like in a Roman city, the rows of shop fronts set back from the main thoroughfare selling luxury goods, the steps leading up to temples beyond. The theatres – beautifully restored – including one that could be transformed into a swimming pool in Roman times, the Oval Plaza, the Byzantine churches some with mosaic floors, the Hippodrome for chariot racing.
Akram, in common with our other guides, was very knowledgeable and fiercely proud of such an unparalleled treasure. He pointed out that the people who lived in the town today (in housing built on top of the old Roman residential area) did not have the facilities or quality of life that the Romans experienced (I guess he was not counting the slaves in this analogy). The beauty and sophistication of the city was enthralling and Akram took us on a circular tour. Again there was no signage and the site is overgrown, the paths led through the most beautiful wild flowers we had seen. You couldn’t help comparing it to a National Trust or English Heritage site where funds are more abundant – but what level of funding would be needed to excavate and restore on such a scale? However this did not detract from our enjoyment in walking through this dramatic and inspirational Roman city. The weather was perfect, the girls careered wildly through the cobbled streets, up the temple stairs, onto the stage of the theatre, around the Hippodrome, scraping knees and getting breathless, talking non-stop all the way.
Akram picked up on my enthusiasm and urged us to revisit. He also kept telling me how beautiful I was so this went down very well!
Farewell and back to Amman
Our visit to Jordan was at an end; we had one night in Amman before we flew back to Dubai. We checked into the Radisson SAS, had dinner with B crawling under the table and falling asleep.
We said farewell to Jamal at the airport and Mohammed met us to guide us through check in (you have to pay 5 Dinars each departure tax). The duty-free section was ridiculously expensive!
We had all enjoyed the trip. I had seen so many incredible sights in four days that my senses were reeling. I wanted to return for a longer visit and would recommend anyone to go to Jordan at least once in his life.
Practicalities for trip in 2004
I obtained quotes through MMI Travel and Emirates Holidays but eventually booked the tour through Jordan Direct (now rebranded Jordan Select) – a company that I had found on the Internet. I cannot recommend them highly enough. Their in-depth knowledge of the country and the best places to stay meant that the itinerary was well planned and every e-mail I sent in the run up to the trip was answered comprehensively on the same day. Our trip was seamless; our driver was always punctual and provided us with information throughout the trip.
Their MD, Seif Saudi, met me in Amman and I felt we were valued customers. Our trip included all entrance fees, guides and half-board. This meant that we had to budget only for lunches and tips.
Jordan Select Tours (formely Jordan Eco-Tours) Tel: +962 6 5930588
Mövenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea Tel: +962 5 3561111
- Guide – I bought The Rough Guide to Jordan (ordered from Magrudys), which was reliable and comprehensive. The price guides have changed since it was published in early 2002; Jordan is quite an expensive place to visit** I took Dinars with me and I recommend you carry small denomination notes with you at all times.
- Dress code – The Rough Guide advised on quite modest dress and against shorts for men, but I think this was over cautious on the type of trip we did.
- Flights – We flew Emirates, but Royal Jordanian also flies from Dubai to Amman. The prices were similar, but Emirates flies more often.
- Visa – It took a morning to get visas to Jordan at the Embassy in Dubai. It is located on Bank Street near the Omani, Indian and Egyptian embassies.
Updates for 2016
*The Movenpick has a robust environmental (with particular attention to water) and social policy now. Top line read here or download the sustainability booklet here – not just lip service as I grilled the MD about it.
** Prices have remained stagnant and in 2016 Jordan is now a very cost-effective place to visit.
*** A horse ride is NOT compulsory into Petra. This was a sales pitch! In 2016 I walked into the Siq!
I contacted Seif Saudi, head of Jordan Select Tours and asked him whether I was correct in my impression that Jordan had not changed much since 2004. This is what he said:
I am glad that you still have fond memories from your first visit to Jordan with us!
You are right about Jordan not having changed much. I think we are more interested in conserving our heritage and archaeological sites than building the newest and flashiest (which we cannot afford to do anyway).
I believe people should visit Jordan because despite all the turmoil around us, Jordan is proof that the middle east can still be a warm, friendly and safe destination. A visit to Jordan will ensure that the people who rely on tourism here will be able to sustain themselves and continue this tradition of hospitality, especially during these difficult times.
Next time, let me show you around Petra… a look inside the rose-coloured city by day and night….
Walk down memory lane with me and come for a brisk foraging walk in the English countryside. The mention of sloe gin takes me back to narrow paths, next to fields, bordered by hedgerows. Feet clad in sturdy walking boots, face muffled under a woolly scarf, fingers kept from going numb by gloves. The cold makes my face tingle, the fading sun pierces the black silhouettes of spindly, bare branches against a pale winter sky. I inhale the scent of moss, earthiness and wood smoke and try to avoid the spurs of the blackthorn tree as I pilfer the dusky purple sloes from its branches. It’s fiddly work but before long we’ve filled a few bags generously and stride back home to turn them into sloe gin. Each sloe must be pricked with a pin before slotting into an empty gin bottle; sugar and gin are added and left to steep for a couple of months before straining. We warm ourselves up with little nips of a previous year’s vintage sloe gin in front of a roaring log fire.
But hang on a minute, sloe gin on the beach? Temperatures have just rocketed here in Dubai and our beautiful balmy winter has come to an end abruptly. I can hear children playing in the pool next door and for many there is a last dash to the beach before the humidity steams in too. While drinking alcohol in a public place (e.g. on the open beach) is not allowed in Dubai, a sneaky cocktail by the pool or in the garden at the end of a scorching hot day is a lovely way to cool down. By the end of next month it’ll be too hot to sit outside at night so I’m raising a toast to sitting outside for a little while longer.
This is another creation from Denzel Heath of the MMI Bar Academy. Sloe gin was the last thing I thought he’d include when I asked him for an al fresco cocktail. He explained that this is a twist on the classic Singapore Sling, one of the original traveler ‘holiday’ drinks and made with cherry Heering. He decided to use sloe gin to better compliment the gin, but also because it has a deeper complexity than Heering.
I also asked him what the Fernet Branca does to the taste and is there an alternative that can be used? Denzel says that Cynar, Montenegro, Ramazotti, Averna or any other Italian Amaro can be used. The Amaro leads to more depth; the bitter herbaceousness allows for the palate to differentiate between all of the different flavour elements in the drink. Remove the Amaro and it is still good, but you will struggle to find flavour levels. He compares it to cooking steak with seasoning and without.
(Click on a photo to enlarge and view gallery.)
Plymouth Navy Strength gin is used in this cocktail. If you ever visit Plymouth, make sure you book a distillery tour way in advance as it’s very popular. It’s the oldest working distillery in England and the building dates back to the early 1400s. The Pilgrim fathers spent their last night there before they set off for a new life across the Atlantic in 1620. KP and I did the gin connoisseur’s tour which includes a tutored tasting as well as the full history and tour of the building.
Plymouth gin’s history is tied in with sea-faring vessels and the British Navy (the Blackfriars distillery is a stone’s throw from the port). For centuries sailors were paid partly in alcohol rations, usually rum but the officers drank gin. Navy strength is 57% abv (compared to the original at 41.2%) and in the 1800s was stored down in the ship’s hold in barrels along the gunpowder. If the gunpowder would ignite and burn brightly after having gin spilled onto it was ‘proofed’, i.e. high strength and not watered down. Overproof spirits are in vogue with bartenders and mixologists right now as they have more intense flavours and richness.
I appreciate that some of you are experiencing temperatures in April which are more like those in November sloe season, but mix yourself one of these and imagine you are sitting out on the patio in the warmth with me.
- A shaker
- A strainer
- Long glass
- Cubed ice
- 15ml Plymouth Navy Strength
- 45ml Plymouth Sloe Gin
- 10ml Fernet Branca
- 15ml honey syrup*
- 30ml fresh grapefruit juice
- 15ml fresh pineapple juice
- 15ml fresh lemon juice
- 2 dashes Angostura Bitters
- Garnish: dehydrated grapefruit slices, mint
How to mix
Put all ingredients inside a cocktail shaker with a lot of cubed ice. Shake really hard for at least 12 seconds. Strain off the ice and serve in a glass over new ice.
Make sugar-water by dissolving 1 part water and 1 part white sugar. Dissolve 1 part honey in 1 part sugar-water. Denzel recommends acacia honey.
My drink looks a lot lighter than Denzels, I think it’s due to the amount of ice and the light.
A couple of friends are joining us on the patio. Helen will be sipping her elderflower and coconut gin martini and Jacqeline stirring up a ruby red gin cocktail. Found this beautiful blackberry French 75 over on Heather Christo which looks divine too.
Have you ever made sloe gin or any other kind of homemade drink?
What exactly is or was the invisible kitchen? This question has been asked of me many times since I returned from Miele’s big reveal in Milan recently and I’m struggling to answer it. I’m prone to a bit of high-end-kitchen-appliance-lust now and again and that’s honestly what I thought I’d be doing at Eurocucina, part of Milan’s design week (Salone del Mobile). The implications of what we saw were so unexpected, so far-reaching in terms of how we might cook and eat, that it even sparked a philosophical discussion among the group I was with. This was way more than just covetable cookers and fridges.
Miele tried to give us a few clues by sending some videos and a huge tome with attractive pictures of kitchen but I was really none the wiser. I struggled to put together questions to submit to Andreas Enslin, Head Design Director of Miele, for such an abstract idea. How could I ask about something not apparent to the naked eye which I knew nothing about? It certainly added to the sense of mystery and anticipation.
So what would you imagine that kitchen manufacturers look at when developing new products? I thought they would try to make things a bit more energy-efficient, add in a few new features and slightly improved look. My discussion with Andreas revealed that the research is of extraordinary depth, looking at least five or six years into the future about food trends, methods of cooking, ways of living, people s’ lifestyles, attitudes and cultural backgrounds. They conduct group research around the world to predict the potential impacts on future societies particularly looking at how people will shop, travel, cook and store their food.
One conclusion from this is that the lines are blurred between the kitchen and eating space and the rest of our living spaces. Andreas told us that other research has shown that customers no longer trust the food industry and want more control over what they eat e.g. the rise and rise of farmers’ markets. They seek greater transparency. Also because people are living longer, this empowered, aged society is alert to the need to stay healthy.
Standing in part of a darkened warehouse space in the trendy area of Zona Tortona, a flying saucer style display pulsed and changed colour above our heads illuminating plates, cutlery, vegetables and other culinary props. After a quick preamble, the show began above us and we stared up to watch a duo in action, cooking and explaining how we might prepare a three course meal in the future.
Can you imagine putting your food down on an intelligent work surface which tells you where vegetables came from, how many nutrients they contain, how fresh they are, and gives you ideas for supper based on what is in your cupboard and your fridge? It weighs the items and tells you exactly how much of them to cut for the amount you’ll need. It detects the heat of a chilli, the provenance of your produce, the best before dates of your ingredients. You can put a pan down anywhere and it will heat the food while all around it stays cool. The oven door opens automatically when it detects you are holding a baking tray. It recommends the most healthy way of cooking and when you are using ingredients it will tally if you’re running low and put them on your shopping list. It will even order them electronically to be delivered. It will do an audit of your fridge tell you what’s about to go off and give you ideas about how to use up the leftovers. It will even play the right music to go with the occasion.
Watching this all happen in front of our eyes was absolutely fascinating, there were audible gasps from the audience. How did I feel about it? For the keen cook it’s all slightly disconcerting. It feels like the kitchen is taking away all the things that bring pleasure; the decision-making and hands on connection to the food (for the very reason I dislike bread makers).
But hang on a minute let’s compare this to driving. People like driving and don’t want to delegate responsibility for it, they want to feel in control. Yet it would be much safer if the car calculated the distance and speed rather than leaving it to human judgement. And we all now use automatic functions like power-steering and sensors to tell all sorts of things about the car environment and even the things outside the car. How many people really rely on their wing mirrors when parking rather than the bleeps? Driverless cars are being trialed in Dubai right now. One of our group predicted that driving will become a leisure activity – is that where food preparation is going? Andreas certainly thinks so.
Cooking is simple. With a knife, a chopping board, a pan, a spoon, a flame can turn a few ingredients into a meal. Somehow cooking has become complicated or seen as too difficult or time-consuming. If we don’t cook we transfer the power and responsibility for what nourishes us to other people. In the main these are ready-meal manufacturers, big processed food companies and supermarkets or restaurants (from take-away to the finest dining). We have choice, but not to the degree that cooking and shopping for ourselves makes. It’s easier to choose good, chemical free produce and limit sugar, salt and fat levels (the profit generating trio of the food industry). Rather than being disassociated from our food because of time or skill levels, this intelligent kitchen could be seen as taking back more control over what we eat and the cooking process.
Empowerment. In The Archers, when Brian Aldridge was left alone without his wife in their brand new kitchen he struggled to identify, let alone use, the coffee machine – a story line in drama that writers obviously felt reflected real life. I asked Andreas about the schism of ever more sophisticated technology which is supposed to make life simpler but which baffle consumers in complexity. He acknowledged this and said that they need to ‘create a bridge between the technology and the consumer’ and that often designers want to put everything into a product but the art is to leave some things out, to simplify.
Sustainability was a concern for me. Would ever more increasing sophistication lead to consumers replacing their kitchen equipment with every upgrade (as per phones)? Andreas assured us that the hardware and technology is being designed to last for decades and will be able to be upgraded (similar to a software update). Miele has been turning to more natural materials such as glass too. Add in the savings of energy efficiency and food waste and the whole equation starts to stack up. While we were at the Eurocucina exhibition we saw many examples of it already in practise on the Miele stand such as steam ovens and dishwashers which reuses the heat from water used in the last cycle towards the next one.
Watching the invisible kitchen in action truly felt like being on the set of ‘Tomorrow’s World‘ but most of the advances we saw are already in development and some things, such as the advanced steam oven and a coffee machine programmed to be personalised to each person’s taste, are already within the Miele range. One thing that struck me from our interview with Andreas was that he didn’t focus only on function but rather more ephemeral topics such as designing a ‘kitchen about the senses’ with a ‘Zen feeling’. The kitchen of the future will probably disappear out of sight once you’ve finished using it, to become truly invisible, hence preserving the uncluttered lines of your streamlined existence. Forget about cooks – neat freaks will love this!
As for the immediate future, here a few other impressions of the latest from Eurocucina:
On the Miele stand they demonstrated an induction hob which had a sensor to regulate the heat of the pan (rather than just the heat source). This means that something would never, ever burn as proved by a fried egg with a runny yolk which had been in the pan for 45 minutes. Pancakes were produced one by one with exactly the same level of brown-ness; no new induction pans were needed as the technology is in the hob.
We saw a refrigerator with sealed drawers to retain moisture so no plastic wrap (with its health damaging side effects) is needed. There was also a fridge with a flat handle-less door, flush with other units and covered in a blackboard surface suitable for magnetic chalk. Lots of fun.
There were ‘bean to cup’ coffee machines with auto descaler, extractors within the hob rather than above it (for small spaces), built-in woks and grills on the work surface. A sous vide drawer has entered the domestic kitchen; apparently chefs routinely use it to tenderise steaks before grilling so people can now try this at home. Inside the energy-saving dishwasher, the grids were designed so wine glasses could hang vertically to alleviate that annoying last drip. A new compact wine unit opened up like a small oven to reveal the perfectly stored wine. Extractor hoods took on a variety of forms including one which reminded me of early apple mac designs for some reason. There were handle-less ovens, handle-less everything – no knobs to clean, all touch technology.
Looking round the rest of the exhibition, the stands seemed full of very pared down streamlined appliances and units, lots of clean lines, paired with natural elements either as decoration (herbs in abundance) or as part of the whole kitchen (hobs set in granite for instance). Cooking on hobs was either induction (the majority) or flame.
An exception to all this was the Smeg stand which had limited edition fridges. Each one of the 100 in the series were hand-painted by six Sicilian artists and designed by Dolce and Gabbana. At a cool 30,000 Euros each they were already in hot demand. We preferred the rather kitsch drinks coolers which looked like car bonnets.
When I think that my Babcia (Polish grandmother) didn’t have a fridge but kept her milk cool in a bucket of cold water this brave new world seems centuries away instead of a few decades. Miele seem convincing and determined to be charting its course.
PS Thanks to Foodiva who sent this brilliant list of restaurants and bars to visit during Salone del Mobile including the wonderful Dry (more about it from my last visit to Milan).
This video with Andreas Enslin – Miele Head of Design – predicts the future and explains more behind the concepts.
I was a guest of Miele at Eurocucina and for the VIP launch of the Invisible kitchen.