Memories flooded back as I turned the pages of this food and family orientated book. It is many years since I visited Damascus, and indicative of this is that back then, in the 1960s, I, an Englishman, drove by myself to and through the city several times on return trips from Beirut to Amman, in complete safety. I am doubtful about trying this today and although saddened by the fact, I am grateful that I was afforded the opportunity to travel freely around many middle-eastern countries then, stopping at rest houses, eating wonderful street food and buying ingredients from markets and stores that seemed like Aladdin’s caves with their wondrous stock of foodstuffs.


So I remember Damascus’ shaded streets, alleyways and markets with fondness. Above all I remember the Ummayad (or Great) Mosque, not only for its size, its beauty, its graceful colonnades and shaded feeling of tranquillity in the middle of the day, but also for the 8mm movie film I took of it. Accidentally, I inserted a film in my camera which had already been exposed on a previous part of the trip. This, when viewed, Damascus’ Grand Mosque was superimposed on the Grand Canal of Venice. The picture here is of the Shrine to St. John the Baptist.

For me as a cook and writer, this book evokes those memories of old and stirs the mind anew, such is its style (remarkable, really, as it is a translation). It took me back to many happy days with families and friends. The food is familiar to me having been married for some years to a Levantine lady, who turned me from an English cook into a Mediterranean one. So, many of these dishes are regularly on my table. As far as I can see, there are two notable omissions.


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When in Lebanon or Jordan, I was always told that the best Arabian pastries – "Ba’tlawa" (Baklava) came from Damascus and I believe that. Another food product emanates from there, too, the sheets of Apricot paste called "Amardine", useful in dessert dishes and beloved by children as a nibble. Cooking-wise, you can’t do a lot with Amardine. You can leave it in water overnight then mash it up till it’s dispersed and then make a puréée to serve with ice-cream, or thin it out with a little water to make a sauce for a sponge pudding; or mix with more water and add sugar for a fruity drink. If you have small children around, my bet is they will soon learn to raid the fridge and pick off a bit to nibble. The only amardine recipe I can find, by one of my favourite food writers, Sonia Uvezian, is to dip pieces in batter and deep fry them. She puts amardine into the whole apricot context most beautifully in her superb book “Recipes and Remembrances”, which is still available and if you wanted just one desert island middle-eastern food book, this must be the one. One of her favourites – a rice pilaff using vermicelli – is one of mine, too… and below I re-print it, from my cook book (which is now a collectors item(!), which means it’s more expensive than when published in 1996. Moufflon Bookshop have a few copies, as do Amazon)

A paperback “Damascus – Taste of a City” may be, but it’s a little treasure I shall, if I am spared, get down again and again from my bookshelf in years to come. My heading, by the way, is a saying I often heard in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, which means "Tomorrow there will be no apricots" – or, if you like, “C’est la Vie”.


Ingredients for 4 – 6 servings

500 g of pilaff or long grain rice

Chicken or turkey stock (1 litre or a little more)

125 g (1 cup) of short fine pasta (Vermicellini – very thin)

A knob of butter


1. In a large pan, melt the butter.

2. When sizzling, pour in the little short strands of pasta and stir until it is going brown.

3. Pour in the stock and bring to the boil.

4. Pour in the rice until it makes a mound and touches the surface of the stock, stir.

5. Cover and cook slowly for around 20 minutes or until the rice is tender.

6. If your rice gets too dry, add more stock if necessary to make a nice, rich juicy pilaff, but do not stir during this time..

For the next two weeks I shall be reporting from the West of England and Wales, where, among other things, we shall be riding up and down mountains aboard a vintage steam train.

Take care!





A cook book I was browsing yesterday, purchased from a company specializing in “remaindered” items (i.e. publishers’ unsold stock and therefore at a “bargain” price) jogged my Mid-east memory cells and I thought, “Yes, there’s an idea here for this week’s column”.

It was in the 1960s. I was in a car on with no air-conditioning on a very hot July day climbing eastwards up the mountains of Lebanon on the busy, windy road to Damascus, the capital of Syria, and onwards to Amman, Jordan. It was exciting, because it was my first such trip (my second was also exciting – see Note) An older book about Lebanese cooking, some years in my possession and a great favourite, describes this journey with the stunning view as you breast the ridge of the hills much better than I can…

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“A few miles beyond the lovely tree-lined main avenue of Sofar, the highway reaches its summit at the 5,000-foot-high Dahr al-Baidar pass, which on winter weekends would be alive with skiers and fun-loving Lebanese out for an excursion in the snow. After Dahr al-Baidar the road descends abruptly into the peaceful Bekaa Valley, but not before one is rewarded with an unforgettable view of its long patchwork quilt of colorful square fields nestled between the protecting ranges of the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon.

The excitement engendered in us by this majestic sight was due partly to our now being only a few minutes from our destination, for as soon as we came down into the valley we would be in Shtora. With its invigorating climate and pleasant surroundings, the town was a popular health resort and a favorite haven for honeymooners. Situated at nearly the midpoint between Beirut and Damascus, it had long been an ideal resting place for travelers”. From “Recipes and Remembrances”, which is still available on-line. It is one of just a few books I read, re-read and follow recipes from regularly.

Most obligingly, Ms Uvezian then offers a regional recipe, which I cook now and then and love dearly.

Ground Meat Kebabs with Sour Cherry Sauce

Kabab bi Karaz Hamud

Variations of this dish are to be found all over Lebanon and Syria, especially around Aleppo. This recipe comes Sonia Uvezian’s Shtora kitchen, where she used to make it with tart, juicy, black cherries from the family orchards and serve it with warm flatbread, plain or saffron rice, or bulgur pilaf.

Ingredients for 4 – 6 servings

700 g /1½ pounds lean boneless lamb or beef, ground (minced) twice

1 medium onion, grated

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 scallions, finely chopped

Fresh coriander or spearmint sprigs

Sour Cherry Sauce (see below)


Ideally this is cooked on an outdoor charcoal grill. But under your gas or electric grill will be good, too.

1. In a bowl combine the lamb or beef, onion, cinnamon, and salt and pepper and knead the mixture vigorously until it is well blended and smooth.

2. Cover and chill for one hour.

3. If using, prepare charcoal grill.

4. Divide the meat mixture into 36 balls.

5. Moisten your hands with cold water and form the balls into 4 cms/1½-inch-long sausages around flat-bladed metal skewers, pressing and molding the meat mixture to the skewers and leaving about 5cm / ¼ inch between each sau­sage.

6. Grill the meat on an oiled rack set 2 to 3 inches above glowing coals, turning frequently, 10 to 12 minutes or until it is evenly browned on all sides and cooked through. Alternatively, the meat may be broiled (grilled.)

7. With the side of a knife or fork, carefully slide the kebabs off the skewers onto heated individual plates.

8. Sprinkle with the scallions and garnish with the coriander or spearmint sprigs.

9. Serve at once with the Sour Cherry Sauce.


Add 2 tablespoons pine nuts to the meat mixture.

When the kebabs are done, remove them from the skewers and add them to the Sour Cherry Sauce. Cook gently about 5 minutes and stir in the scallions, if desired. Omit the coriander sprigs. Serve over a bed of pilaf or pieces of warm flatbread.

Sour Cherry Sauce

Salsat al-Karaz al-Hamud

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

pounds sour cherries, stemmed and pitted

½ cup water

3 tablespoons sugar, or to taste

¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon, or to taste

Salt to taste


1. In a medium enameled or stainless steel saucepan melt the butter over moderate heat.

2. Add the cherries and cook, stirring, about i minute. Add the water and bring to a boil.

3. Cook the mixture, uncovered, a few minutes or until the cherries have softened and given off most of their liquid.

4. Stir in the sugar and cinnamon and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens.

5. Season with the salt. Serve hot with ground lamb or kibbeh kebabs or with poultry or game birds.

6. Makes about 1¾ cups

Note: If sour cherries are unavailable, substitute ripe fresh cherries, pitted and add ¼ cup freshly squeezed and strained lemon or lime juice along with the sugar and cinnamon. Do not use canned cherries for this recipe.

Lamb and Tomato Tarts

To serve six


ABOVE: Not Elizabeth David’s “An Omelette and a Glass of Wine”, but a Lebanese Pastry and a glass of Arak, which is anise flavoured and similar to Greek or Cyprus Ouzo, but a lot stronger. As with Ouzo it turns white when water is added. It is a splendid aperitif and with water a most suitable companion for Arab food.


400g plain white flour 1 teaspoon caster sugar 1 sachet baker’s yeast Half teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon olive oil


200g minced lamb

250g tomatoes

1 small onion

A few drops of pomegranate molasses, or juice.

Salt and pepper

To accompany: natural yogurt (“Strangato”)


1. Dissolve the yeast in 250ml warm water.

2. Place the flour, sugar, oil, salt and yeast mixture in a food processor.

3. Pulse slowly for a couple of minutes. The dough should come away from the sides; if it does not, add 1 tablespoon flour.

4. Take the dough out of the processor, sprinkle with a little flour to stop it sticking to your hands, place on a work surface, divide into 6 equal parts, cover

and leave to rise for at least 30 minutes.

5. Generously flour-She work surface. Flatten the 6 dough balls by hand, turn over and flatten again with a rolling pin. Cut out 6 circles, 8cm in diameter,

and lay on a baking tray covered in greaseproof paper.

6. Leave for 15 minutes.


7. Preheat the oven to 200°C (gas mark 6-7)

8. Blend the tomatoes and the onion with salt and pepper, add a few drops of the pomegranate.

9. With a fork or pestle, combine with the minced meat.

10. Divide the filling among the pastry circles and spread evenly.

11. Cook in oven for 7 minutes.

12. Serve with yogurt.

NOTE – “Royal Wings and a Royal Roller”


A few months after my car trip from Beirut to Amman, I had occasion to make the trip again. That time, I flew; on a “Caravelle” jet of Royal Jordanian Airlines, a pretty aeroplane like the one pictured above. Security was always noticeable at Beirut airport, but it was extra heavy. After take-off we knew why, when this announcement came from the flight deck in Arabic, French and English: “Good Evening ladies and gentlemen. This is the captain speaking. Tonight I have the honour to tell you that my co-pilot is His Majesty King Hussein, who will be flying us to Amman” His Majesty made a good landing.

A week or so later, I was returning from Jerusalem to Amman (this was before the 1967 “6-day War”) in a somewhat ramshackle taxi. It was about 50 miles, across a mostly flat, sandy terrain. About half way, we encountered a dusty Rolls-Royce coupé, stopped at the road-side. Sitting on the lowered canopy was the sole occupant, H.M. King Hussein, chatting to a desert Bedouin, whose camel was a few metres away trying to sniff out something to eat from the sand.

Greetings and chat were exchanged. Security? Who needed it then?

MEMORABLE MEALS – The Nubian Desert


In 1982 my company was hired to plan a Land Rover Safari route through the Nubian Desert, up and across the Nile Valley to Khartoum, to plan an itinerary that would take seven days, starting at Aswan in upper Egypt, across Lake Nasser and then through Sudan. The plan was produced but sadly only a […]

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Patrick Skinner’s FOOD, DRINK AND OTHER MATTERS–November


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Report from the Mediterranean


  Matthew Stowell takes Ryanair to Greece and finds fish worth the journey We’ve been taking full advantage—while it lasts—of Ryanair’s cheap flights to European countries, most recently to Greece, a land much in need of tourist Euros.  We flew from Paphos to Patras for €24 round trip. (Ryanair flies from UK airports to Patras […]

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As yet another year comes to a close (where did it go to?) I realise that I have now been writing professionally about food and drink for almost 55 years. At 85 I wonder if I am – or on the way to be – the world’s oldest food and wine writer? Who cares! Not […]

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