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Let’s talk – about the last 6 years!

February 3, 2016

Doing a little forward roll to celebrate (and failing dismally). My Custard Pie is six years old today!

What’s on your mind?

So what’s happening in 2016? I’d like to get to know you better as there’s no way I would have come this far without you. While my curiosity leads me on a winding path of what I publish, I’d really like to know what you’d like to see more of (and less of). Pure Google numbers won’t tell me as they can’t have a conversation with really, truly loyal readers. But we can talk…

Would you fill in this questionnaire for me? It’s totally anonymous and will take no more than five minutes (or quicker). I’d be so grateful as it will help me to know a little more about you and make this space a better place for the people who matter the most.  That’s you.

Thank you in advance for your valuable time and for visiting My Custard Pie. Your feedback is genuinely appreciated. I’d love to send you food as a thank you, but as this isn’t possible, if enough people reply, I’ll share the video of my failed forward roll!  And hope you’ll stay with me for more of the journey.


How can you refuse?!

How to make the perfect gin and tonic

January 31, 2016

How to make the perfect gin and tonic on mycustardpie.comWhy is a gin and tonic such a perfect drink? It’s refreshing, but not sweet, slightly bitter from the quinine in the tonic water with depth and interest from the botanicals. I had to be persuaded to try my first one – I always thought it was an old person’s drink – and I remember the revelatory experience of that first sip to this day.  Back then the standard was Gordon’s gin and Schweppes;  in retrospect just down to good marketing as the base spirit was just flavoured with botanical extracts. Thankfully since the gin trend explosion there is an amazing choice with craft distillers going back to the old way of distilling with various interesting herbs and spices combined with the essential juniper.

With a three ingredient drink (if you count the garnish), you have to make sure your gin and tonic is perfect. This depends on choosing your components carefully and attention to detail when making it. I asked super talented Denzel Heath, from the MMI Bar Academy, for his advice. Here are his tips plus my own personal preferences below:

Top tips for the perfect gin and tonic

  1. Ice. Make sure you use a whole heap of ice made from good quality water. More ice, means less dilution, so you won’t end up with a watered down drink. The clearer the ice, the longer it will last in your drink, resulting in a colder more refreshing tipple.
  2. Gin. There is a gin out there for everyone. Try different ones until you find your favourite. If you like a dry drink then Sipsmith is your brand; like it spicy, go for Ophir; something a bit more subtle, then Bulldog is your choice of base. If you have sweet tooth – sloe gin is for you.
  3. Tonic. Great quality gin, is produced using REAL quality botanicals from all over the world and so is good tonic water. The perfect tonic water is naturally flavored with no preservatives. Try anyone of the wide range of flavours from Fever Tree and taste the difference.*
  4. Garnish. Pick a fresh fruit, vegetable or herb that will best compliment your gin. Select your garnish by smelling (nosing) and tasting your gin neat – perhaps with a touch of water added, to make it a bit less sharp on the tongue.
    Those are Denzel’s tips, and, as you can see from my images, I’m clearly not using enough ice. Apparently having more ice traps in the bubbles to keep the tonic fizzier for longer too. My extra tips:
  5. Measure: The proportion of gin to tonic is important as you need to be able to taste the gin without it being too overpowering. How disappointing is a weak and watery G & T? I use one and a half UK measures (a single measure is 25ml) to one bottle of tonic (Fever Tree is 200ml). Never pour by eye as you can lose track of how much you or your guests are drinking (and home drinkers notoriously over pour). A drinks scientist has prepared I guide to the proportions here if you want to get nerdy.
  6. Glass: There’s a lot of debate right now about the right glassware for drinks (especially Champagne). Some recommend a traditional highball whereas the Spanish trend of serving in a stemmed balloon glass is gaining credence. My own preference is a wider tumbler akin to a Scotch glass, with a chunky base. It gives the wider surface area for inhaling the botanicals but enough space for ice, garnishes and tonic.

*Never, ever use slimline tonic. Just don’t.

My favourite gin

What’s your favourite gin is a question I get asked a lot – perhaps it’s due to having a mere 16 bottles in my collection (to date). It’s like choosing your favourite child! Actually part of the joy of drinking gin is discovering different nuances in each one and suiting them to your mood. So:

Dry. A dry style is my top choice for my end of the week G & T on a Thursday night. My hand reaches for Portobello Road, Sipsmith or No. 3 from Berry Brothers; all are balanced, elegant, crisp and clean.

Clean. Or as Denzel says “subtle”. When I’m looking for something really understated I’ll choose Plymouth (standard or Navy strength).

Spicy. Warner Edwards has a warm layer of cinnamon and black pepper balanced by the citrus flavours. Psychopomp is another interesting gin with those characters.

Botanical. I don’t have Monkey 57 in my collection but adore the complexity from the 57 botanicals used in it if lucky enough to have a drop in my glass (it’s very expensive). Cotswold is what I pour from my collection.

Floral. The delicate Devon violets of Tarquin’s or the chamomile of Bloom are both seductive. Nothing overblown here.

CrazySacred Pink Grapefruit or William Chase Seville Orange Marmalade for livening things up a bit – like a Negroni… but now we’re getting off topic.

So what else can you do with gin? Denzel has come up with a unique gin-based cocktail for every month of the year based on some seasonal and Dubai based events. Can’t wait to share February’s with you.

So what’s your take on a G & T?

How fine is Australian wine?

January 26, 2016

Australia Day fine wine tasting - read more on My Custard PieHappy Australia day. A big shout to about 16,000 Aussies who live in the U.A.E. especially the mad, outgoing, generous, wonderful bunch who I’m proud to call my friends. I presume the celebrations will involve cold beer… and possibly wine.

Earlier this week I got to taste some Australian fine wine. Are you shaking your head at this concept or do you think you have the measure of mass market Australian wine? I looked back at my copy of Jancis Robinsons’ Wine Course which was published and went with me to Saudi Arabia in 1995. Why did I take a wine book to a place where alcohol is strictly forbidden? My logic was I’d have more time to study, if in theory only rather than actual tasting. This was to a country where the word wine is blacked out on boxes of wine glasses! End of aside.  Anyway, Jancis’ intro to Australia is all about the divide between grape growers and makers (not the same), mechanical picking and lorry loads of refrigerated grapes travelling miles to make crowd-pleasing bulk wines, unfettered by legislation, regulation or parsimony with acidification or oak chips.  The Brits in particular took to the honest, uncomplicated, easy (binge) drinking wines, without mystifying labels and names that were easy to pronounce, with gusto. I remember Jancis saying in a wine programme, people who think they like Australian Chardonnay actually like the taste of oak.  After such a passionate love affair, there was an inevitable a cooling off period and I have friends in number who have adopted the ABC approach (anything but Chardonnay).

Of course this is just a simplistic picture of the winemaking scene and from early on there were pioneers in quality over quantity, most notably Penfold’s Grange Hermitage. Made annually from 1951 – despite being forbidden to do so by the vineyard’s owners – by winemaker Max Schubert, who emulated a European style of vinification, it’s been in the hands of winemaker Peter Gago since 2002. Maurice O’Shea of Mount Pleasant, is known as the father of modern winemaking in Australia. The late Peter Lehmann, the “baron of the Barossa”, carved out his own niche for more nuanced, well-balanced wines with great aging potential. Henschke Hill of Grace is another icon. Chester Osbourne has added bucketloads of Australian exuberance and contempt for convention by making distinctive and pretty quirky wines since the 1980s for d’Arenberg with minimal input viticulture including organic and biodynamic practises. There are many more…

So back to the wines of today. The tasting was held at Le Classique at Emirates Golf Club and I was advised to start with Victoria (Beechworth, Mornington Pensinsula, Yarra Valley and Heathcote) and Tasmania, via Western Australia (Margaret River) ending with South Australia (Adelaide Hills, Barossa Valley, Clare Valley, McLaren Vale and Coonawarra).

My favourites

Victoria produced the bulk of my favourites and the Pinot Noirs stole the show. William Downie labels stand out as they have no text whatsoever on the front of the label and hand-drawn typography on the back. The wines stood out too; all three I tasted were balanced, polished and quite Burgundian in style:

  • William Downie Pinot Noir 2012 – rusty colour in the glass, with a little bit of attractive funkiness on the nose – I like Pinots which aren’t completely perfect – luscious raspberries and cherries. Ordering this one. 220 aed
  • William Downie Pinot Noir 2013 – balanced, velvety, sour cherry sweets finish. 190 aed
  • William Downie Thousand Candles 2012 – attractive pinky, rusty hue in colour, soft fresh cherries with a slight earthiness. 260 aed
  • Dexter Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir 2013 – jammier than the Downies but good value at 110 aed
  • Jamsheed Beechworth Roussanne 2013 – rounded, fresh apricots, not overly complex but great value at 110 aed.
  • Jamsheed Beechworth Syrah 2013 – licorice notes and good acidity temper the ripe plummy fruit. Good value at 150 aed
  • Jasper Hill Georgia’s Paddock Shiraz 2013 – rounded tannins, good acidity but not sure it’s worth paying more than Jamsheed for – 220 aed
  • Jasper Hill Georgia’s Paddock Nebbiolo 2013 – closed nose, ashes and tobacco over deep, dark cherry. Too young but could reward keeping. 190 aed
  • Giaconda Estate Vineyard Chardonnay 2013 – flinty, citrus crispness balanced perfectly by slightly fat creamy, biscuit lees. Swooning at this exquisite wine – by far the best white of the night – and at the price (although you’d expect fine wine to come at cost..and this is). 480 aed

Runners up included  Dexter Mornington Peninsula Chardonnay 2014 and Pipers Brook Pinot Noir 2013 from Tasmania. Both well made and good value (110 aed and 120 aed respectively). Sadly my favourite Tasmanian Tolpuddle Pinot Noir was not at the tasting.

From Barossa my favourite was Peter Lehmann’s Stonewell Shiraz 2009, more restrained with good acidity, a foil to the heavy hitters. A bit of Viognier added some welcome green notes to the inky, graphite Torbreck, The Descendent 2006 (but this Shiraz is too huge for my tastes). From McLaren Vale Clarendon Hills were interesting especially the freshly picked raspberries of the Blewitt Springs Grenache 2010. I have a soft spot for d’ Arenberg but didn’t get round to tasting anything that night;  should have poured some of the Rhone style d’Arenberg Ironstone Pressings 2010.

So tackling preconceptions head on, was there a roomful of jammy Shiraz and over-oaked Chardonnay? Yes and no. Shiraz was by far the most represented red and some huge, vanilla scented, tobacco laden, deep inky reds of at least 16% volume were being poured. This is not my cup of tea but the murmurs of approval showed that this style, especially appreciated in the US, still has masses of appeal. Molly Dooker Carnival of Love Shiraz 2012 and Torbreck, The Factor 2007 were going down a storm. I overheard St. Hallett Old Block Shiraz, 2012 described as the perfect pizza wine.

One Chardonnay from Western Australia, which will remain nameless, had the burnt match of sulphur on the nose and an unappealling cloying oakiness. There was a relatively high alcohol Riesling which was nauseatingly flabby. These were exceptions and it seemed as though flinty, lean Chablis style whites were on the ascendency.  Perhaps some were a little too spare, but all more restrained, balanced and citrus forward. I would have loved some more unusual whites – maybe harking back to the days of Mitchelton Marsanne for instance.

Cheeeeese - Australia Day fine wine tasting - read more on My Custard Pie

My supper! As still on Vegetarianuary the roast beef, foie gras, charcuterie, salmon and all the canape were off limits

While Australia taught the world about consistency and drinkability, it seems that the more interesting winemakers have learned from the past, especially when exports became less attractive after the rise of the Aussie dollar, and are more nimble and distinctive. Modern winemaking is tempered by respect for age-old traditional principles, including using combinations of grape varieties instead of just the single varietal sytle the Aussies trailblazed. At a De Bertoli tasting I attended last year, winemaker Stephen Webber conceded that the French might have had something all along. There is a new interest in ‘regionality’, still unfettered by the demands of appellations.

In Dubai you can find these wines at Le Clos at the airport terminals 1 and 3.  More info about buying wine in the UAE here.

I was invited to the Le Clos tasting as a regular customer and decided to tell you about it – no obligation. Happy Australia day.

A very red cabbage salad

January 22, 2016

Missing my weekly shop at The Farmers’ Market today as I’m in Nottingham in the UK taking veggie teen to an interview. It’s bloomin’ freezing and despite my thermals and multiple layers, the blissful balminess of Dubai winter is beckoning me back.

It’s been a strange start to the year with so many well-known names shuttling off this mortal coil. David Bowie’s death had a profound effect, as he was so much part of my teens. I wasn’t prepared for how sad I’d feel about someone I didn’t know. When Elvis died, as a callow youth I couldn’t understand the fuss about the demise of an old has-been (as he was in my eyes at that time). I wonder if teens now are thinking the same or even know who he was. Veggie teen says some of her friends couldn’t name even one song of his.

His death has provoked such wide ranging reportage from the role of education, the liberating effect his ground-breaking chameleon-like image had on people, the music that he inspired, his discipline, work ethic, his generosity and business nous and even his role in changing the way people think about dying. For me it opened up a treasure chest of memories and feelings which had been buried for a few decades. Farewell to the thin, white duke.

Did you make any resolutions for January? Dry January seems to be a big thing this year – even Helen of the Knackered Mother’s Wine Club is doing it. This article why you should or should not go cold turkey for a month is worth reading. I’ve opted for glass of wine now and then, but I’ll report back on my month of vegetarianism once it’s over – so far so good. I’ve definitely been eating lighter which is no bad thing after the total over-indulgence of Christmas. The sparklingly fresh local, organic veg from the market makes it easy and I’m always tempted to buy a little bit too much so I’m cramming veg into everything.

We get a box delivered once a week by Fruitful day, with some whole fruit, some ready prepared. There have been lots of pomegranate seeds of late so I’ve been scattering them into all sorts of things from smoothies to salads.

This recipe is for a good-tempered salad that will sit in the fridge without wilting ready to be dipped into whenever hunger pangs strike (and my downfall, a yearning for crisps). All the red things in this salad, which happened to be in my fridge, just seemed to go together.

The real game changer here is to use argan oil. You may have heard of this in beauty products but it’s an amazing ingredient in the kitchen too. Not all argan oil is equal though and you have to buy a good one. My friend Dana introduced me to this elusively light and nutty tasting oil famed for its health giving properties. She sources the oil for Arganic direct from Berber women in Morocco and works with them directly to ensure the quality is top notch. You can buy Arganic from Jones the Grocer here in Dubai and she’s just started supplying to M&S in the UK.

Red cabbage, pomegranate and argan oil salad

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


  • 1 small red cabbage
  • 1 handful of radishes
  • 5 red spring onions (or half a small red onion)
  • 1 or 2 red peppers, cored and seeded
  • 1 red apple, cored
  • 2 handfuls of pomegranate seeds
  • 120 ml argan oil
  • 50 ml red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
  • Squeeze of fresh lime juice to taste
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


  1. Put the fine slicer on your food processor; quarter the red cabbage and shred. Repeat with the radishes so they are in fine, papery slices. Swap the blade to coarse for the red pepper, and then chop the spring onions and the apple (cored but not peeled) coarsely with the main blade. You could do all this by hand of course.
  2. Mix the dressing ingredients together well and place in a large serving bowl with the salad. Stir well to combine, cover and refrigerate if not eating immediately.

Budget flights with low-cost airlines from Dubai and beyond

January 19, 2016

Off the island of Cebu in the PhilippinesOver the past five years or so, I’ve managed to pack my bags for long weekends and immerse myself in totally different cultures and surroundings. Rather than a long-planned for and expensive holiday these have been affordable and more spontaneous short trips – only made possible due to low-cost airlines.

The United Arab Emirates was behind Europe on offering no frills carriers within the region. I used to look longingly at the fares offered for weekend breaks traveling from regional airports in the UK and revelled in the prices and service when I flew with Flybe (I think!) to Poland in 2006.

Then Air Arabia, which flies out of Sharjah, launched in October 2003, Fly Dubai started their service in June 2009 and a host of other carriers have expanded the low-cost carrier choices out of the U.A.E. within the region and farther afield. Here’s my experience of three of the airlines plus my top tips of practical advice for flying ‘no-frills’.

Cebu Pacific

Starting with Cebu Pacific as it wasn’t on my radar until recently. They fly within the Philippines and throughout Asia with recent routes launched to Dubai and Doha from Manila.  Named after the island of Cebu, birthplace of their founder John Gokongwei, the ethos of the airline is to make flying a possibility for more Filipinos due to their affordability. This is summed up by one of their slogans ‘flights for everyJuan’ – which basically means within the means of ‘your average Joe’.

The service: Departing from Terminal 1 in Dubai, the planes are new A330 s. No-frills means that everything is extra so you pay for luggage in the hold, food and drink, wi-fi, blankets (a bright yellow, cosy, fluffy fleece blanket is 35 aed) and neck pillows. Hand luggage is weighed and restricted to 7 kg.  You can buy up to 40 kg of checked in luggage.

Plus points: There is a Filipino service culture that makes the whole flight cheerful and quite jolly. It’s the only airline that offers online competitions (“fungames”) and passengers wait for this eagerly. A few simple questions are asked and prizes given to the first person who puts up their hand with the right answer. You can buy a sim card onboard too so you can arrive in the Philippines ready to go with a local data package. On the ground we were handed umbrellas to get to the plane when it was raining one day.

Downsides: There is no onboard entertainment or power sockets so you need to be prepared (portable battery packs a must for long flights). You can, however, purchase wi-fi for use during the flight.

Food and drink: Hot meals are available for long haul flights and if ordered online up to 24 hours ahead they include a free hot drink and dessert. Snacks and drinks are available to buy from the cart and brought round regularly but don’t expect anything very healthy – flavoured crisps, instant noodle pots, cookies and a couple of sandwich options on sliced white. There is only dried creamer available if you want tea and the coffee and chocolate is a pre-mix. You can buy wine and beer onboard (San Miguel brewed in the Philippines).

Prices: While Cebu Pacific aims to keep prices low for ‘everyJuan’ generally, there are flash sales (announced through the Cebu Pacific Facebook page) which means at times you could fly from Dubai to the Philippines for 800 AED or less (not including the extras).

Summary: Long-haul, no frills with Cebu Pacific makes it affordable to visit the Far East from Dubai more often, on comfortable, clean flights – especially if you are well prepared.

More info: Cebu Pacific website here and about pre-ordered meals here.

Fly Dubai

Fly DubaiFly Dubai was the first low-cost airline out of the Middle East I tried and, as it was set up (although not owned) by Emirates Airlines, I had a high level of confidence in the operation when it launched. It’s the service I’ve used most often including flying to Georgia and Nepal and most of the places they go to are on my travel wish list; it’s the first airline I check for short-haul trips in the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe.

The service: Departing from Terminal 2 on the border of Dubai and Sharjah, the fleet is made of Boeing 737-800s and is the only low-cost carrier to offer Business class too. One 7 kg carry on bag is included plus a laptop case or small handbag (total weight not exceeding 10 kg). You can buy up to 40 kg checked in luggage and there are often special fare bundles to make this cheaper. You can buy food, drink and entertainment onboard.

Plus points: Clean modern planes and a good range of destinations. Their staff are well-trained and generally helpful. Terminal 2 is easy to navigate (can be a bit of a scrum checking in) and very quick to exit.

Downsides:  The website is a bit glitchy and doesn’t show flights a long way ahead. If you need to change a flight or make a mistake booking online it can be difficult and expensive to change. The customer service phone line often doesn’t answer. There is only one office which is in Deira (with little parking nearby), but worth making the effort to go if something does go wrong as the staff are really helpful. Beware of heavy Sharjah-bound traffic when getting to Terminal 2 at peak times. Le Clos does not deliver to this terminal (although there is duty-free on exit and arrival).

Food and drink: There’s a range of meals available on some routes which you pre-order (not available onboard). This includes a Greek salad and Arabic mezze if you want something healthy. Otherwise baked goods, sandwiches, wraps and drinks (including alcohol) are available from the cart. My friends do not rate the sandwiches. I have only ever tried the tea (with UHT milk) as I usually buy a sandwich from Costa at the airport to take with me.

Prices: Reasonable – e.g. it cost 1256 AED for a return flight to Tbilisi (three and a half hours) with 20 kg checked in. Prices fluctuate and they do run a few special offers occasionally (children could fly for 1 aed to some cities in Eastern Europe last summer for instance). Worth checking for bundle deals with luggage when you book online too.

Summary: Comfortable, reliable, affordable with a great range of destinations.

More info: Fly Dubai

Air Arabia

Air ArabiaI’ve flown twice with Air Arabia, both times to Jaipur. It can be cheaper than Fly Dubai (not always) but I’d choose my route carefully after my last experience.

The service: Flying a fleet of 44 Airbus A320 aircraft out of Sharjah, UAE (with more on order), your free hand baggage allowance is 10 kg so you might be able to do without check in for short trips. Food and drink available to buy but you can’t pay to secure your seat choice and there is no entertainment.

Plus points: It’s cheap and they fly to over 100 cities direct in the wider Middle East and India.

Downsides: Sharjah airport can be a devil to get to at peak times and a bit disorganised once inside. The last flight I took on Air Arabia was not at all pleasant. The flight was full of male construction workers who hacked loudly throughout the flight and didn’t know how to lock the bathroom door or use it properly once inside. “It’s normal” sighed the weary, saintly, air attendants who bravely donned gloves and went where I was afraid to go every time I had to make a visit.

Food and drink: Pre-order meals online from quite a large range or order in the air (the usual sandwiches, wraps and drinks). Hot meals are very cheap (around 20 aed) which rings warning bells for me. There is no alcohol onboard. I can’t remember eating or drinking anything I hadn’t brought with me on Air Arabia. Bonus tip: There is duty-free alcohol at Sharjah airport (the rest of the Emirate is dry).

Prices: Searching current fares, it’s just over 1000 aed for a return fare to Moscow (tempting). Air Arabia pitches its fares very low, they email special offers all the time and feature them on the home page of the website.  If you pay for your check in baggage ahead of time online, it’s very cheap. I did a fare comparison to Alexandria, Egypt however and Fly Dubai had more options and was cheaper, but to fly to Tblisi return was only 600 aed (Fly Dubai double the cost). It also mentions on the website that journalists are entitled to 30% discount with Air Arabia.

Summary: Very cheap flights and routes from the UAE to 101 places including many that no other carrier flies direct – but you have to fly from Sharjah and you don’t know who you’ll be sitting next to.

More info: Air Arabia website and the SkyCafe menu

Other low cost carriers servicing the UAE

Jazeera Airways – Kuwaiti airline flying to ten countries and 19 cities in the Middle East from Dubai.

Wizz Air – Hungarian airline flying from Dubai to Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania.

Pegasus – Turkish low-cost carrier flying from Dubai to Istanbul (with onward options to Europe ).

Flynas – Saudi Arabian low-cost carrier flying Dubai and Abu Dhabi to Jeddah, Riyadh (with onward options to Europe ).

Spice Jet – low-cost Indian carrier flying from Dubai servicing a wide range of cities in India plus Nepal, Afghanistan and the Maldives.

Top tips for flying  with low-cost airlines

  1. What to pack in your hand luggage especially when flying on low-cost airlines. Read more on mycustardpie.comFare searchers don’t always publish low-cost airline options so Google destinations to find alternative carriers.
  2. Think laterally. If the dates or prices don’t quite work, you can use different carriers for the outbound and return journeys.
  3. Check all your options online carefully when booking the flight. It can cost you dearly to change or cancel the flight (or you may not be able to at all). Look for bundle deals on luggage and discounts for pre-ordering food, baggage and extras.
  4. Check your baggage allowance carefully (carry digital portable luggage scales). Low cost airlines can sting you hard for excess kilos or over-sized bags.
  5. Charge all the devices you are going to use before you go. Take enough entertainment to see you through the flight or distract you from your neighbour.
  6. Hand baggage essentials: blanket (a good pashmina works well too), good neck rest (mine is memory foam), ear plugs, headphones (noise-cancelling are best), battery power packs, eye-mask socks or sock-slippers, hand-wipes (if the loos get too grim), tissues. An iPod with pre-loaded podcasts could be a life-saver against boredom or an unwelcome neighbour.
  7. Take food and drink. Pack unsalted nuts, dried fruit and some plain biscuits in your carry-on. Fruit and vegetable sticks are good to snack on too. Buy water and the best sandwiches you can in departures. Check online beforehand what you are allowed to take onboard (Cebu Pacific for instance won’t let you take raw meat or fish, canned goods or cooked food with sauces).

Do you use low-cost airlines or are you first class all the way? Any trips or tips you’d care to share?

Disclosure: I flew to the Philippines as a guest of Cebu Pacific.

How many ways to say camel?

January 16, 2016

Eskimos have 50 different words for snow right? Actually this is an urban myth. But Emiratis (people who come from the United Arab Emirates) do actually have more than 50 words for camel. In fact there is a saying that there are over 1000 terms for camel in Arabic. While you may call a horse a foal, filly, gelding, mare or stallion, with camels it’s much more complex with some being defined by a certain development of their teeth, whether they are breeding, their colour and other stages of their lives. Emiratis never actually use the generic term ‘camel’.

An Emirati camel farmer told me this? No – not at all. It was a lady called Ursula, dressed in a jalabiya, who while sitting on cushions under the draped roof of a tent in the desert under the stars, was addressing our group in slightly broken English punctuated by staccato asides in Bedouin Arabic uttered in a thick German accent.

There is a lot about Ursula that I need to ask and cannot tell you today. When did she move from Germany to the UAE?  How did she come to be an expert on camels and manage two camel farms? When did she start breeding highly prized (and expensive) racing camels? How did she integrate into the local community so completely that she refers to her Emirati ‘Mummy and Daddy’?

Today (and this may not come as a surprise) we’re going to talk about food. And specifically an Emirati feast for twenty people, cooked over two open fires by Ursula (or Uschi as she’s known by her friends).

How did we get out into the desert to meet Uschi? No surprise that the magic wand of Arva from Frying Pan Food Tours was involved and, just after lunch on a Friday (the first day of the weekend in the UAE), a small group of her close family and friends met at a petrol station on the outer edges of Dubai. After a very shaky start to our convoy, following vague maps and disappearing Google pins, finally we all met up by a lonely mosque after a couple of hours. I’d been ready to give up but the soft, low light in the desert, the wide open spaces and then, after following a faint track over sand, the sight of camels, swept all the driving angst away. Ursula was soon explaining the characters of each camel, their names, backgrounds, temperament and how to stroke them. She was cuddling them like babies, there was such a close connection.

Watching the sun go down and meeting camels in the desert. How many words are there for camel in Arabic? Find out on mycustardpie

As the sun went down I rode a camel for the first time (despite having lived in the Middle East for twenty years). After initial trepidation, I managed to relax and really enjoy the swaying comfort of lolloping through the dunes.

Uschi disappeared in the ‘kitchen’. This was actually a circle of sand surrounded by a high fence to protect it from the wind. By the time I joined her, two fires with metal trivets above them were glowing orange in the dark. A small team of men helped by stoking the fire with different sized branches and fetching things from a table behind. One man took shovelfuls of embers to feed another fire inside an oil drum on its side. As we watched this carefully choreographed activity the air was filled with the most amazing aromas.  The wood, which was aromatic, formed a smokey base note. Uschi sautéed chopped onion, tomato, marinated chicken and then added B’zar. This is a type of local garam masala which people make from scratch, roasting and grinding the spices, and each family has their own, slightly different recipe. Uschi said the ones from Saudi, Yemen and Oman all are a bit different too.

An Arabic feast and meeting camels in the desert. How many words are there for camel in Arabic? Find out on mycustardpieCamel meatballs hit the sizzling pan but Uschi was not happy as the fire was too low and the smoke was billowing in her face. She asked a question from her team and their response elicited a shouted volley of orders from her. They disappeared hurriedly to put the neglected camels to bed. As her only light source was the glow of the flames and a storm lamp, I took over holding the latter and was quite kippered myself after a while. The men returned, one with an enormous bowl of dough. He stood at a small table by the oil drum and flattened, rolled, then spun flat breads or rotis to make wafer thin discs which would be envied by any master pizza maker. These were slapped one by one onto the oil drum to bake or griddle them.

We were all seriously hungry so when Uschi asked someone to taste the broth I rushed forward and nearly went flying over a branch poking out from the fire. Mortified I sipped from the ladle – the savoury broth with multi-layered flavours was blissfully good and we passed it down the line.

Very soon we were ordered to wash as even tiny grains of sand would get into the food. One of the helpers poured water from a silver teapot-like vessel over hands. Dishes were brought and put on the palm frond matting in the middle while we sat on banks of cushions under the tent canopy.

Everyone dived on the fragrant chicken stew with masses of vegetables like sweet carrots and sautéed onions; the roti was torn, the salad passed around. Communal eating is a great shared experience.

The camel meatballs looked so tempting garnished with slices of lime and a sprig of mint. This was soft, like pork, in texture and resembled a very mild lamb and venison flavour. A dish of stewed vegetables followed, amid the chunks of courgette and carrot were tiny hand-made pasta shapes similar to spätzle;  it was difficult to believe that it had no meaty element from the deep richness of the sauce.

A basket of fruit and some chocolate covered dates made up our desert which accompanied coffee. Like the rest of the feast this was no ordinary coffee. The beans were roasted over a fire and then freshly ground. The smell was strong but the taste subtle and refreshing with green, herbal element balancing the mocha notes.

Uschi sat on the cushions and eventually reclined like a odalisque painting recounting us with tales of camels, society and finally perfume. She dabbed a variety of oils and liquids from ornate bottles and jars onto her gold jalabiya before passing them round for us to share. Finally a burner of incense was produced and she showed how to put it under your clothes so that the smoke passed through the fabric.


To travel back to our cars, we all clambered into the back of a pick up, wedged in, crouching on the floor, and swooped over the dunes – driven by Uschi. We were sated in every sense of the word.

Dubai was reached quickly, the miles falling away rapidly on new, modern, straight highways and as we reached the Burj Al Arab it burst into one of the regular light shows, colours changing and flashing. It was a surreal contrast to our simple evening under the stars.

No more leftovers – in my kitchen January 2016

January 5, 2016

Click on a picture and use the arrows to navigate to read more about the things in my kitchen.

December was joyful and manic in my kitchen. Preparations which consisted mainly of shopping, chopping and steeping in alcohol. Family flew in from the UK so breakfasts out, breakfasts in, supper in the garden, barbecues and the like. My Mother-in-law whipped up mince pies, sausage rolls, a Victoria sandwich cake and lashings of custard. Then the main event of Christmas dinner for fourteen people. We have shared this event with the same family for much of the last two decades and we know our traditions and preferences. There are always about five different types of stuffing on the table, red cabbage, peas, pork loin, fine wines and masses of cheese in addition to the turkey, roast potatoes and parsnips, bread sauce, cranberry and sprouts et al.

I found a turkey of good provenance this year courtesy of Spinneys (and Waitrose) who brought in freerange organic bronze turkeys from Crowe Farm in Ireland. It has bothered me for a few years that our celebration centred around a bird that was factory farmed in the most intensive fashion (most turkeys here come from a huge producer in the USA). The Crowe’s Farm turkey was so different in flavour too. I cooked the potatoes in goose fat (plus some in oil for the vegetarians) – divine. We start the meal with avgolemono soup – a Cypriot dish from KP’s grandmother. This gave time for everyone to pull crackers and put on their hats so when the main dishes arrived they were piping hot. Honestly I think it was my best dinner ever in terms of taste and timing (that I’ve cooked) and gave me immense pleasure to share it with people who are dear to me. I nearly set the tablecloth on fire when I lit the pudding but this was put out quickly with fast action napkin dabbing by M.


The leftover turkey went into turkey curry, turkey chilli (thanks Jamie O) and a turkey and ham pie. More ham went into a quiche. Cranberry seems to last and last and is still accompanying the cheese hill (less of a mountain now).  The leftover Christmas pudding made this gratin which is even better than plain pud. Cheese has been grated into everything!  I’m now looking for ideas for my Christmas cake and must remember not to make such a large one this year.

Out of my kitchen

December was a wild one and my resolution to focus is probably born out of the last three months! I can’t complain though. The scales fell from my eyes about Belgian Beer at an excellent tasting led by Lindsay of the Tasting Class in The Hedonista’s garden where I got to chat with some great gals who work for Decanter magazine (one embarking on her Master of Wine – deep awe). The next night we shared some fine wines from Le Clos at a small dinner with rugby player Andrew Sheridan who is taking his WSET Diploma – so more unexpected and pleasant wine nerdy chat at La Cantine de Faubourg. There was a trip to the UK to take veggie teen for university interviews where I had an irresistible taste of Christmas and crisp, sunny Winter days (the only ones by the sound of it!). Had supper at Jamie’s Italian in Cheltenham  and at The Cornish in Tavistock.  I returned to a dinner hosted by Le Clos and Haut Brion for a horizontal tasting of the 2011 vintage and masterclass with Jean-Philippe Delmas at The One and Only The Palm.

Wine is a such a fascinating topic as it encompasses so much from language and culture to geography and agriculture, but I’m surprised at how much more there is to learn about gin. Denzel at the MMI bar academy hosted a supremely interesting showcase of several artisan gins plus a history lesson about gin and gin cocktails. I spent some time behind the bar making them too – a favourite place to be. More about this soon.

Book club was a Scandinavian festive feast in C’s garden – we discussed Stoner by John Williams (not that kind of stoner). I’ve mentioned the BBC Good Food Awards in my last post – a night that ended in tragedy.

The first BBC Good Food Show was over a very busy weekend. Apart from Food E Mag (as food sourcing editor I’m biased) I didn’t think the stalls were up to much. The cake competition entries were jaw dropping, but the main attraction was the mainly UK based chefs/ personalities. I caught the Paul Hollywood session.

A nine course tasting menu of Bengali food with wine matches, conceived and developed by Ishita in tandem with Atul Kochar at Rang Mahal, was the highlight of the month. Bravo to my dear friend for such exceptional food and this amazing achievement.

With guests in town a visit to Ravis was de rigueur, breakfast at Baker and Spice and a visit to the Al Fahidi district. There’s a new Make cafe within Heritage House where you can sip tea up on the roof.  We spent Christmas Eve on a picnic blanket listening to a great jazz duo at Al Badia golf club – with an incredible all in spread from barbecues to a smokery (including fantastic crispy pork belly) with huge jugs of cocktails.

I also went to Mr Reza’s shop Sadaf Iranian Sweets in Deira and stocked up Iranian goodies. This was supposed to be a closing down farewell but thankfully he has found new premises. New Year was spent in the shadow of some awesome fireworks at Left Bank, Madinat Jumeirah but not in the shadow of The Address Hotel fire thankfully.

In my kitchen – an accolade

Picture of Celia with Fiona of Tiffin bite sized

Picture of Celia with Fiona of Tiffin bite sized

How often do you hear a story like this? A blogger comes up with an idea which takes off beyond all expectations. People join her event from around the world and it sends masses of visitors to her blog. This is so successful that it takes up a lot of time and she would rather be focussing on her everyday cooking and her family. So she finds a new host for her event and gives it away. This is my interpretation of the ‘In my kitchen’ event conceived by Celia of Fig Jam and Lime Cordial which, from this month, is hosted by Maureen of The Orgasmic Chef. In these days of fixation over site stats, traffic and monetisation it’s amazingly refreshing to see someone staying true to exactly why they blog – and the reason behind why dear Celia has become a beloved, virtual friend to so many people across the world including myself. Happy New Year Celia. Please visit her kitchen here and join in with Maureen here (before the 10th of the month).

Had to leave with a shout out for FoodEMag – well worth a read of the new issue.

Phew! What’s was in your kitchen during December and how are you starting the New Year?