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?
Find the story and recipe behind a Sir Francis Drake Gimlet here
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.
A thorn pricked my palm, my white linen trousers trailed in the sand, I struggled to raise the huge bag of earth to pour it into the hole, my hands coated with dust. I was in my element, planting a lemon tree for Earth Day. All around me similarly unsuitably dressed people were doing their own bit of gardening with the enthusiasm of kindergarten children. It seems we are so distanced from the land that the opportunity to reconnect delivers a huge primeval thrill.
Earth Day – which is today April 22nd – was founded in 1970 to tackle environmental issues and has set a target of planting 7.8 billion trees worldwide. At an Earth Day event in the Bio garden at JA Jebel Ali Golf Resort, GM Otto Kurzendorfer said he didn’t know why this exact figure had been chosen but the resort were planting fifty lemon trees in its garden to support the initiative.
The garden itself is a real working garden and produce has been cultivated there for many years. Of late the whole enterprise has been expanded with plans to introduce greenhouses in the near future. Executive sous chef Hussam Al Kassem showed us round with pride but he gave full credit to gardener Gawdat Mohamed Ali Hassan who was darting between the rows of herbs and vegetable plants and answering every detail about the growing calendar.
The fully organic produce is harvested and taken directly to the hotel’s kitchens and used within the menu. Just as important, the soil is enriched through compost made from food waste from the hotel. A combination of directly planting into soil and aquaponics is used to produce herbs in abundance – basil, thyme, sage, rosemary and parsley in evidence – plus fruit and veg such as tomatoes and strawberries. The Bio garden is one of the initiatives listed in the resort’s sustainability management plan.
Proving the sustainability of cultivating in the desert is not cut and dried. Anything involving water, especially in the Middle East is one that highlights many issues. However the hotel reuses water from the resort for irrigation in the aquaponics system and the irrigation system itself uses the recycled
water from the sewage treatment plant for the resort’s golf course. Used cooking oil from the kitchens is sold (and converted into diesel) and the funds go to buy tools, seeds and to pay the wages of the gardener.
Bringing green things into the city – and not just in the form of municipality flower beds – is starting to take root so to speak. Time Oak Hotel and Suites recently teamed up with Slow Food Dubai to create the first rooftop community garden. The edible produce from the garden – a wide variety of organic vegetables and herbs – is shared between the hotel kitchens and the volunteers who help to run the garden. Not only does it provide fresh, local food but brings a variety of people within the community together, sharing skills and teaching them how simple it is to grow their own even in a climate that could be perceived as challenging.
Major hotel chain Accorhotels has just announced that a major initiative to cut food waste by a third at its properties worldwide. This involves planting vegetable gardens in many of its hotels which include the Pullman, Sofitel, Novotel, Mercure and Ibis chains, and sourcing food locally. It’ll be interesting to see how this rolls out here in the UAE.
The difference in taste, the nutrient levels due to freshness, greater transparency in the food chain, and the reduction of food miles in using local, organic veg that hasn’t been flown halfway round the world are all drivers for my interest in these projects. They also act as a way to differentiate the hotels in a world where everything is available all the time and international buffets all blend into one homogenous, unidentifiable mass.
On a recent trip to Jordan at the Movenpick Dead Sea Resort, we spooned slightly runny, very tangy, delicious marmalade onto our toast, yoghurt and labneh at breakfast. It was homemade every year by the head chef from the fruit of an ancient Seville orange grove in the extensive gardens. We took some home with us as the best souvenir of a trip which had many culinary highlights. Read more about the marmalade here.
I’m excited about future developments of cultivating food in our urban spaces. From the amazing work of gangsta gardener Ron Finley who challenged the law to plant food in Los Angeles to the guerilla gardeners of the North Yorkshire town of Todmorden, people are donning their wellies and getting some control back over the things they eat. Who knows what we might see here in Dubai. How about a community garden in Safa Park when it reopens? Or bee hives on rooftops? Just throwing it out there…
I’ll be spending Earth Day… well some of the morning anyway… buying local, organic veg direct from farmers. What are your thoughts?
Do you find yourself looking for inventive ways with vegetables on a regular basis? The thing about shopping once a week from the farmers’ market is that you are often looking for ways to use something up. This is why I cast my eye over a half a butternut squash and wondered idly if it would be OK for breakfast.
At the Movenpick Dead Sea on a recent trip to Jordan, I tucked into their delicious Bircher muesli with relish and remembered how much I loved it. It’s the ideal start to the day if I can remember to get organised the night before. Packed full of fresh fruit (traditionally grated apple) and a good amount of tummy-filling, sustaining fibre, it’s a moreish and healthy way to provide loads of energy until lunchtime. No snacking needed.
There’s a saying going around right now promoting the food pyramid way of eating “breakfast like a king, supper like a pauper”. While I’m not ready to nibble at night just yet, the first bit of advice makes sense for healthy eating through the day without feeling deprived.
So was eating butternut squash raw a thing? I found only one recipe online and tried it out. The bowl looked pretty but it was made with orange juice which delivered far too many bright flavours all clashing together for my tastes. I need a bit of creamy comfort first thing. Next time I swapped the juice for organic coconut milk* and a touch of lime for a tropical vibe and couldn’t get enough of it. You could also use fresh coconut and add the milk plus some shredded meat into the mix – in fact that’s definitely my next thing to try.
Butternut, coconut and lime Bircher Muesli
- 150g rolled oats (sometimes called old-fashioned), wholegrain if possible
- 400ml organic coconut milk*
- Juice of 1 small lime (or to taste)
- thick slice of butternut squash, about 50g, peeled and deseeded
- 1/2 apple
- 1 medium carrot, peeled
- raw honey (to taste)
- optional toppings: seeds, nuts, fresh fruit, yoghurt, compôte, bee pollen, berry powder**
Put the oats into a medium-sized bowl with the milk and lime juice. Grate in the butternut squash, apple and carrot – if you are in a hurry use the grating disc of your food processor, otherwise a box grater or coarse microplane will provide exercise your arm muscles. Stir all the ingredients to combine, cover and refrigerate overnight. In the morning stir in raw honey to taste and add any toppings you choose.
** A friend introduced me to this delicious and nutritious dried wild bilberry powder which is handy if you are out of fresh fruit.
There are so many flavour riffs on Bircher. I asked a few friends for ideas. Dannii of Hungry, Healthy Happy is a big fan and recommends an apple and blackberry version. I should have known that Helen of Fuss Free Flavours would have tried butternut – it sounds super in her sunrise Bircher. Nut butters are particularly handy if you are eating vegan (my teen is this month) so Becca’s banana and peanut butter overnight oats on Amuse Your Bouche is a good suggestion.
Want more butternut inspiration? How about spiced butternut squash muffins with margarita sour cream or fettuce with butternut squash, sage and smoked garlic ?
Linking this to Simple and in Season as making the most of the last of our local, organic veg season here in Dubai.
Just a reminder to join me in the kitchen, on my dog walk and in various parts of Dubai on Snapchat – mycustardpie
Are you an overnight oats fan (Bircher by a different name)? Would love to know what combinations you enjoy? And are chia seeds champion or challenging? Let me know in the comments.
I’m talking about punch for drinking of course, although its meaning comes from the Hindi word for five as it traditionally contains five ingredients. It makes me think of fun times, parties, and people putting questionable things into the punch bowl (misspent youth). It’s high time punch had a revival, regaining sophistication and elegance and banishing memories of the dayglo-pour-anything-in teenage variety.
March was crazy busy in Dubai, with the Dubai Food Festival, Art Dubai, Design Days and the Literature Festival all happening this month. Impossible to do it all (plus I escaped for an incredible trip to Jordan – more on that soon). The sporting highlight is undoubtedly the Dubai World Cup of Racing which was on last weekend. I missed it this year as some good friends were in town for one night only. Salons and hat shops were heaving on Saturday but by the evening the whole place had an eerie feeling of being deserted. Everyone was out at Meydan watching some of the most expensive horse flesh race on the flat, followed by a post-race concert by Janet Jackson.
When I asked Denzel to make a racing inspired cocktail I thought he’d include Champagne but his inspiration came from four wheels rather than four legs and a long-term sponsor (since 1962) – Martini & Rossi. So this beautiful punch was born, a little twist on Simone Caporale’s Martini Royale Punch, and it just cries out for a party. The five elements are SOUR (lime juice), SWEET (the Maraschino liqueur), STRONG (the Bombay Sapphire London Dry gin with lots of juniper and coriander botanicals), LENGTH (the Martini Bianco with hints of dried orange and lemon peel) and SPICE from the cinnamon sticks, frozen berries, rosebuds and citrus.
Now where do I get my hands on an enormous punch bowl? Race you there…
Martini Royale Punch 2.0
- Punch bowl
- Large clear block of ice
- 400ml Hibiscus infused Bombay Sapphire
- 150ml Luxardo Maraschino
- 150ml Fresh Lime Juice
- 400ml Fresh Pineapple Juice
- 100ml Martini Bianco
- Garnishes: dehydrated citrus slices, raspberries, cranberries, cinnamon sticks, edible rose buds.
- Icing sugar
How to mix
- Put a large clear block of ice into the middle of a large punch bowl (or half fill with cubed ice).
- Measure all the liquid ingredients into a very large bowl or jug and stir well. Pour into punch bowl.
- Garnish with fresh fruit, dehydrated lemon, orange or grapefruit slices, and other ingredients. Sieve a tablespoon of icing sugar over the top and serve immediately in punch glasses.
*Hibiscus infused Bombay Sapphire
In a jar, combine 250ml Bombay Sapphire gin with 5 tablespoons of dried hibiscus flowers. Let it stand at room temperature overnight. Strain into a jar. (Leftover infused gin can be kept indefinitely.)
Here’s Simone Caporale making his original version – I think Denzel’s is even prettier.
What sort of memories does punch hold for you?