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.
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.