“And wise men came from the East”
Strike slightly south-west from Baghdad and after a long camel ride of something like a thousand kilometres you would come to the little town of Bethlehem. As it seems there was little between them apart from desert, the guidance of a star for the wise men would have been most welcome. Having been in the desert a few times, and the Nubian desert once (not by camel but in a 4-wheel drive), I can tell you that at night, unless you are hunkered down for a doze, navigation can be quite difficult. As a child, “desert” meant a very large beach of pretty flat sand. Then school books showed undulating seas of sand in the Sahara. I little dreamed then I would cross a proper one. In doing it, with all mod cons and a 4WD, I was aware of the hardships the desert travellers of olden times must have faced.
My work used to take me to the Middle East and I often flew over the deserts. Looking down, one seldom saw terrain devoid of man’s activities. Even in the wildest desert spaces there were camel trails and signs of life. And then I had the chance to see a desert at first hand, when I was asked to plot a tourist itinerary across the Nubian desert from southern Egypt to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. In a four day trip, hard white cheese, tomatoes and flat dry bread provided most meals. The “desert” was far from empty and evidence of old civilisations was considerable.
A Polish archaeological team was working on excavation of the remains of a Nubian city. It was dated from the third and fourth centuries AD, they told us, and in what had been a very populous area, there was evidence of at least two hundred Christian churches. The Poles had put up what was for the area a sophisticated single-storey structure, with proper doors and windows, of mud brick and timber, which comprised a couple of dormitories, a sitting room, dining area and kitchen. There we had a European meal – the only one of our “safari” – a very presentable lamb stew, rice, salads, fruit, cheese, Polish Vodka and bottled water to accompany.
Our route was quite direct across the desert, whereas the life-giving Nile meanders quite a bit. So we crossed it several times, on small ferry boats. At each crossing point, fruit and vegetable sellers were in evidence – where they came from I cannot guess. So fresh tomatoes were frequently available.
Whilst hours could be spent driving across sandy wastes, signs of life were regular and diverse. At a Nile crossing a fairly ancient truck disembarked from the ferry, containing about a dozen fairly ancient and intrepid French men and women. They had purchased the truck in Cairo, equipped it and driven down through Egypt and were making for Cape Town, South Africa! We also encountered the annual drive of thousands of young camels from Sudan to Cairo, where they would be slaughtered and their meat sold.
Old meets new. The standard village transport was the small, white Nubian donkey (the little white donkeys you sometimes see in Cyprus are undoubtedly of the same breed) Our transport was a Nissan 4WD, well loaded with a couple of spare wheels and large plastic drums of water (enough for some days). The standard motorised desert vehicle was the Bedford truck, always fully loaded with people and/or cargo.
Passengers carried their own food, often the ubiquitous tomato, cheese, flat bread, rolled up, and fruit such as apricots.
One night we needed to catch up on time, so drove through the star-lit desert, guided by a particularly bright star and compass. On a flat hard- sand section, we spied a small light and drove to it. “Motorway rest-stop”, our guide said. We found a small tent, a little brush wood fire and an Arab boiling cans of water for tea. We had some, for which he would expect no payment. Our leader left him tomatoes, cheese and topped up his water tins. This was greeted with a litany of thanks to us and to Allah the Almighty.
Knowing of the dangers of drinking the local water we had brought with us an American-made water filter called “H2OK”, which looked somewhat like a Thermos flask. It had been developed for NASA space missions and apparently could handle anything, including one’s own urine if necessary, strained through various charcoal and other filters to produce a flow of clean and drinkable water from a little tap at the base. This aroused profound interest and amusement wherever we used it. On one such occasion, when my colleague explained in Arabic that you could actually pee in it and drink the resultant water, all the assembled company wanted to have a go. One bold fellow stepped forward and started to lift his gallabia to the raucous encouragement of the others. We dissuaded them from such actions.
What happened to my “Tourist Trail” across the Nubian desert? Alas, nothing. A few weeks after I submitted our feasibility study, a civil war broke out in the south of Sudan, shutting down all tourism development. However, it seems there is now a tarmac road from Wadi Halfa to Khartoum, straight as a die for much of the way, and about 12 hours is allowed for the journey. A shrinking planet indeed!
Detail of Dionysus and Ariadne seated in a vineyard. From a vase depicting the god and his retinue in the Museum of Modern Art, Toledo, Spain An Email from friends in Cyprus arrived this morning as I sat looking out of the window where I write. It described an evening at a local restaurant I remember so well, having spent many happy dinner hours there: my wife and me on our own; … [Read More...]
A few thoughts of Old England Last weekend was quietly celebratory, because it covered my birthday and that of my daughter, who, along with her brother, spent a couple of days with us. I will not tell you my age, because you may remark that I am well past my Sell By date. My daughter will not, either, because she is female. This said, we all had a good time. Apart from one meal “out”, we … [Read More...]
Regular readers will know that I love my food. I enjoy very many kinds of it. This is not to say I am a glutton. I am fortunate in that my disposition is to eat in moderation. As for preferences, I lean very much eastwards – to the Levant to start with, and then to Arabia, Iran and on to India and the Far East. So a large tome that I bought the other day, from an on-line bookstore “The Food of … [Read More...]
These two books have been around for some years (both can be found in both new and good used condition on the Internet – but I bought mine from Moufflon Bookshop in Nicosia in the 1990s) They combine recipes, anecdote and commentary to an excellent degree. I love them both, browse them regularly and have cooked many of the recipes. … [Read More...]
Review – “Sax Stories” by Belinda Moore This slim, well presented book offers profiles of forty citizens of Saxmundham, many of them with photographs. They are a good cross-section of the populace and a helpful and enjoyable introduction for the shorter term residents of the town, like myself and my wife (a mere three and a half years). It is almost Ronald Blytheian in style and feeling for … [Read More...]
Encouraged by the favourable entry in the 2014 Good Food Guide, we went to dinner at the Dennington Queen on Easter Monday. An ample car park, in front of an attractive well painted, attractively illuminated period building, led in to a clean, spacious, pretty and comfortable bar and dining area. Just two other tables were occupied, but the staff were in good form, welcoming, friendly and … [Read More...]
By “SuffolkEater” We are always somewhat suspicious of places that advertise quite widely and extol their own virtues on websites. So we approached dinner at the Sibton White Horse with a little caution. We needn’t have done. Basically what their Promos say you will get is what you do. And that is good, genuine English cooking. With the exception of one or two items, like … [Read More...]
BOOK REVIEW – The Undelivered Mardle, by John Rogers. “A Memoir of Belief, Doubt and Delight”. 158 pages, hard back, published by Darton, Longman & Todd at £12.99, with a foreword by Ronald Blythe..
A “Mardle” is a talk of local interest. The people of Letheringham had asked Rendham resident John Rogers to deliver such a talk to them at their ancient priory church. Early on the day he was to drive to Letheringham to give his Mardle, Monday March 26th 2007, John was struck by a severe heart attack that took him to Ipswich hospital and quickly on to … [Read More...]
Once upon a time… Cyprus wine was a joke. The “leading” white wines, made in factories in Limassol, were largely stale, flat and well on the way to oxidisation. The reds, mostly made from Mavro were dull and lifeless. The reason, of course, was that grapes were grown as a cash crop by village people who only made wine in Pithari, but who sold most of their grapes to wineries 40 … [Read More...]
In Britain, sherry may be a minority tipple, but it is a large enough one for a good range to be stocked in wine stores and supermarkets, whereas in Cyprus it is not easy to find and the range available is quite limited. The demise of what used to be called Cyprus sherry also diminished the market. I find it a drink well worth exploring. Perhaps it is because it was the only alcoholic drink … [Read More...]