Welcome to my tales of cookery school, food and travel

The first 30+ posts of this blog describe my experiences as I complete a nine month cooking course - the City and Guilds Diploma in Food Preparation and Culinary Art. I did this after I moved out of full time employment and it was purely selfish - I love food, cooking, eating and drinking. Subsequent posts are about, food, travel and adventures.

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Thursday, 12 September 2013

How to have a hangi in the Jordanian desert

As a New Zealander I am familiar with the notion of cooking food in an earth oven known as a hangi: this is a traditional Maori way of cooking, however not one undertaken on a daily basis these days.  It is usually reserved for special events - so special I can't remember the last time I had one.

The short version of a very long process is: dig a pit, light a fire in the bottom of the pit, pile rocks on the fire, when the fire burns down and the rocks are hot splash in a bit of water, put in baskets of the food to be cooked, more water to create steam, cover with cloths/sacks then mound up the soil.  and wait 3-4 hours.

In other areas of the Pacific there are similar methods of cooking, but I am rather surprised to find myself in the desert of the Middle East watching a Bedouin tribesman lay down what is essentially a hangi.  In sand.

The difference is it is set in a metal container, kind of like a big, deep Dutch Oven,  which speeds up the cooking time considerably. 

Oh, and it tastes waaaaayyyyy better!  Sensational in fact: the chicken is tender and juicy, the lamb falls off the bone. There is none of the damp earth/sack taste you sometimes get in a hangi, as both the sealed container and the sand (as opposed to earth) prevent that.

The accompaniments include all the usual suspects that comprise a delicious mezze. 

the final reveal - photo Trevor Jones
Mezze is a selection of small dishes served either before or with a meal, and served at any meal including breakfast.  There are variations across the Middle East, Greece and Turkey but throughout Jordan we consistently find hummus; eggplant in a dip (babaghanoush) or as a salad; tabbouleh; labne - strained thick yoghurt; a hot pepper dip or relish; olives; Arabic salad - cucumber, tomato, onion, mint, lemon and olive oil; and of course flat breads such as pita or markook.

the mezze platter, our first night's dinner,  this was followed by a meat course

The flat breads are always freshly baked and delicious.  In the desert a Bedouin woman who could be 16 or 60 - even her eyes are barely visible - makes us glorious markook.  
making markook
This is a very large, very thin bread baked on a convex metal plate called a saj, something like an upturned wok.  I have no idea how she gets it so thin simply by hand stretching.  if it were me it would be uneven and full of holes - a character bread!  I won't even try this at home - though I'm sure the hunter gatherer would be keen to cut a 44 gallon drum in half and build a fire!

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

A Week in Jordan: Part One - ancient cities

Many of you thought I was a little bit crazy going to Jordan right now.  Particularly as it borders Syria - and is on the flight path for scud missiles heading there from US bases in the Mediterranean.  I must admit I was starting to get a wee bit nervous myself in the last couple of days of my trip - but only when I looked at news sites on my iPad.  Otherwise it would be hard to notice anything amiss in Jordan unless you are close to the Syrian border, where refugees continue to amass.

As it is, I have an excellent trip in a fascinating country and learn more about Christian history in a day than in five years at Catholic high school - but then, I am actually listening this time.

While the capital city Amman boasts being one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, it has little else to recommend it:  yes, there's an impressive Roman amphitheatre - seen one seen them all - and Greek and Roman ruins on top the high point of Citadel hill, but that's it.  The most interesting thing about Amman is it used to be known as Philadelphia.

 leading from the oval forum - lined by 500 columns
It is one of the other cities of the Decapolis (ten cities on the eastern front of the Roman Empire) that is truly remarkable: Jerash.  

Jerash out-Romes Rome.  In 749 AD a massive earthquake wrecked large parts of the ancient city.  That, the odd war, further shakes and time buried the city beneath layers of soil and sand, and it wasn't until 1805 that it was rediscovered.  

There is a hippodrome, but no chariot races the day we were there, a huge oval forum, amphitheatre, temples, houses, shops.  Excavation has been more or less ongoing since the 1920s but vast areas remain covered.  What is fantastic about the site is the huge area it covers, and that so much of the original construction is present.  

An added bonus is the complete lack of tourists! As you can see from the photos, there is virtually no-one there.  If you have ever fought your way through the crowds in Rome, you know how amazing this is.

The oval forum at Jerash - note lack of crowds - photo Trevor Jones

The main reason for wanting to go to Jordan  for me anyway, is Petra, also known as the Rose City, after the colour of the stone from which it is carved.  

A sneak peek as you approach the end of the Siq
The Treasury is the first building you see as you emerge from the 1.2 kilometre walk down the narrow canyon known as the Siq.  Some of you may recognise it from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, however I assure you it has a much more illustrious history.
Al Khazneh - The Treasury at Petra

The building was constructed as a mausoleum and crypt in the 1st Century AD, and is carved out of the sandstone rock, as are all of the buildings (crypts) in Petra.  There are no introduced materials - everything is carved from the soft, beautifully coloured walls of the canyon.

Sandstone detail - photo Sam Matthews

Petra was built by the Nabateans who showed an advanced engineering skill by creating a series of dams, conduits and cisterns to ensure a water supply. Thought to date from 312BC, the modern world only learned of Petra's existence in 1812 when a Swiss explorer stumbled upon it. 

As you walk along from the treasury there are many tombs hewn into the rock walls - it must be said there are no longer any bodies or bones in these tombs. the valley opens out and you find an amphitheatre (of course you do!)  cut into the hillside. 

tombs cut into the hill -photo Sam Matthews
There are magnificent views to be had from the top of the canyon and two escalators transport you to their heights. As if!! 

One of the things I like about Petra is the lack of "development".  The steps and climb are what they are: there are tricky spots and some big drop-offs, but there are no guard rails, no signs warning you how 'dangerous' it is - common sense and personal responsibility rule.  What a refreshing change.

by the time I reach the High Place of Sacrifice
I feel I am the sacrifice

It is all hard slog and sweat (unless you pay for a donkey ride - which looks more likely to end in physical harm than the incipient heart attack brought on by over exertion in the heat): 900 steps up to the Monastery - 40 degree heat and basic lack of will mean I eschew this one.  

Next day I valiantly take the 600 steps to the (aptly named) High Place of Sacrifice - don't ask. If you'd been force marched up here you'd be grateful to lie down on the altar!  Actually, no one knows exactly what it was used for.

Highly recommend Petra, but go at a cooler time - August is just too hot.

So that's ancient sites - next Jordan installment is about more natural attractions: Dead Sea, the desert, and the Red Sea.  And one more on food.