My mother’s favourite sayings about not doing housework went down rather well with readers last week (you’re clearly all just as slovenly as I am), so here’s another of her wonderful maxims that made me the woman I am today: “Never pass a toilet without using it.” Now, it’s probably sensible to take this one with a pinch of salt, particularly if you’re in a well-facilitated office or shopping mall and have things you actually need to achieve with your day – some of the malls out here have loos every fifty yards or so and if I took Mum’s advice literally it would take me all day to get from one Starbucks to the next. But the essence of the advice is very wise indeed: you’ll never be caught short if you make the most of a convenient convenience.
One is unlikely to be caught short in the average villa or apartment in Dubai. As I mentioned in a previous post about food poisoning, our two bedroom apartment boasts no fewer than four toilets. FOUR! We have two each! We can rotate or alternate, just for fun! It is a blessing not to have to decide who gets to go first on returning home from a long journey, and we don’t have to take turns in the morning when getting ready to go to work (waiting for someone else to finish in the bathroom is a desperately unique and lonely agony).
That’s the private privy, though; the public loos out here are actually quite diverse and their style depends entirely on the part of town you’re in. Some restaurants, parks and malls feature the traditional squatter – a horror that never fails to make the average expat recoil in utter dismay. I’ve seen many a poor woman queue up for ages only to have her anticipatory relief cruelly shattered by the sight of a perilous, porcelain hole-in-the-ground. They stop, reverse and return to the queue; their silent eye-contact seems to say, “Quite frankly, I would rather die.” Such lavatories are of course fine if you’re familiar with the procedure and have a cunning clothing strategy, but I wouldn’t usually choose to use one. Any port in a storm, though, and I have sometimes had little choice when travelling and in a bit of a tight spot… On a trip into the desert last year, the only loo available was a filthy squatter at the back of an old petrol station. I’ll spare you a detailed description of the loo itself – I’m sure you can picture something suitably stinking and medieval – but here’s a photo of the alleyway outside it… I know, I know. I should have been warned. I should have turned back. It doesn’t exactly lead one to expect a glittering palace of hygiene, does it?
I was interested to read in the UK press this week that unisex toilets are increasing their presence back home. Brighton and Hove City Council are pioneering these ‘gender neutral’ facilities for many reasons – partly to make public toilets more family friendly and partly for the inclusion of transgender individuals (for those of you with suitably poor taste, feel free to insert a pun here about coming out of the water closet…). Presumably it’s just a more economical and pragmatic approach too. I understand these arguments, and I’m sure many parents will be delighted that baby-changing facilities are no longer to be restricted to the female facilities, but – am I the only one who finds public unisex loos a bit disconcerting? I once worked in a school that had unisex staff toilets and I have to say, it was simply appalling. It’s easy to get emotive about something so personal, but it felt fundamentally wrong to be washing my hands and straightening my tights whilst standing next to my male head of department. Of course there is also the issue of dignity and privacy – again, I won’t get bogged down with unpleasant details, but, when it comes to strangers of the opposite sex, there are certain sounds and smells one simply shouldn’t have to be subjected to… My measured language here belies my true strength of feeling on the subject: inside I’m screaming, IS NOTHING SACRED?!!! In my humble opinion, unisex public loos could only work if each individual cubicle had its own hand basin and mirror, was self-cleaning, sound-proof and HERMETICALLY SEALED.
Some ‘washrooms’ in this part of the world are dazzlingly high-tech, with toilets that flush themselves, automatic taps and soap dispensers with invisible sensors and those extraordinary air-blade hand dryers that blast you dry in five seconds flat, rippling the flesh on the backs of your hands. It’s easy to get used to these modern facilities and I sometimes find myself in public toilets in Britain, waving my hands about in a vague and confused way, only to experience the extraordinary revelation that I actually need to rotate a handle or address some sort of lever in order to make water and soap happen. On flying home, the contrast between the glossy, automated loos of Dubai airport and the grubby grief-holes of Heathrow never fails to startle me. After disembarking the plane, it’s my first real taste of home and what a vile taste it inevitably is… For prodigal daughters of England and indeed travellers from foreign lands, these airport loos – with their broken locks and toilet seats, dirty floors and absence of toilet paper – are a rather sorry welcome to our green and pleasant land. The toilets on the trains as I complete my journey home are equally awful. Have any of you experienced those strange, large loos with the automatic semi-circular door that slowly rolls open to reveal the toilet within – as if it’s the top prize on Family Fortunes? The system of buttons is horribly confusing for anyone vaguely intimidated by technology, and there’s the feeling of not quite being in control… On a deeply primitive level, one likes to be within leaping distance of a door handle, lest the toilet door should suddenly fly open (is that just me?). In such loos, there is always the horrifying thought that the automatic door might just start slowly sliding open to reveal not only the Family Fortunes prize but some poor, startled punter perched atop.
I was taught to appreciate a good loo from an early age. On camping holidays as a small child, my mother and I would always pop in to inspect the facilities before we settled on a particular camp site for the night. I was never exactly clear about what our objectives were with these missions – there were no rigid criteria – but there were obviously certain complex, unwritten codes of hygiene provision that needed to be met. Many of the facilities in this part of the world would more than meet my mother’s high expectations, I’m sure. Some of the loos here are marvellously ostentatious and luxurious. The Ladies in the posh hotels are simply a joy to behold: they sparkle with gold and marble. There are huge white hand basins with shining taps, softly lit mirrors and beautiful upholstery like a prima donna’s dressing room. No soggy, sagging roller-towel dispensers; these lavish lavs have piles of soft, freshly laundered handtowels. There is something quite blissful about choosing from a range of fragrant soaps and hand creams, sitting in an armchair and doing your makeup with a place to actually put your handbag down without it getting soaked. A really good bathroom isn’t purely functional, it is a peaceful, sanitary sanctuary. Beautiful loos are to be appreciated on both an aesthetic and an anatomical level and can be a pleasure in themselves. So, dear readers, to amend my mother’s advice ever so slightly – never pass a really nice toilet without using it…
From my fourth floor apartment’s balcony I have a spectacular view of… someone else’s balcony. In our particular part of town, the apartment blocks are packed together so snugly that, should one choose to sit on the balcony and soak up some sun (for the seventeen minutes a day when it isn’t eclipsed by other apartment blocks), one can enjoy highly entertaining, picturesque scenes of people hanging out their washing, taking in their washing, or (if you’re lucky) having a fag. What’s more, the mirrored glass of the apartments opposite allows us to observe these same fascinating happenings on the balconies above, beside and below ours.
In the evenings, when lights are switched on, we can watch the goings on in other people’s living rooms. There are so many to choose from, it’s a bit like having split-screen television where you can watch several programmes at once. Incidentally – that’s what most people are doing of course – watching television. Occasionally we see people sitting around and eating together, or children running about. We saw a couple having a big argument once. It’s all a bit Rear Window…
Growing up in Kent in the 1980s, I didn’t know anyone who lived in a property with a balcony. Balconies seemed impossibly exciting and romantic: a part of the house that is outside? That’s virtually Narnia! Balconies spoke to me of fairy tale and romance – dramatic escapes and passionate serenades, stately homes or Romeo and Juliet. After a wonderful summer holiday in Spain in 1985, balconies came to be associated in my mind with sunshine and views over the Mediterranean, and that kind of joyous, penetrating warmth that soaks right into your British bones and melts your cold, tight muscles. Balconies should be slightly tatty, with cracked marble floors and a layer of sun-bleached paint peeling away in the heat; they should be covered with ivy or attractive climbing plants such as, perhaps, wisteria or, in hotter climates, bougainvillea. They should, in my mind, be a place to sit and contemplate, to drink tea or a G&T, perhaps – a place of peace and perspective… Not a noisy, voyeuristic, dust-clad misery-shelf that represents a terrifying health-and-safety hazard for our accident-prone cat.
We used to grow plants on our balcony, but they didn’t last long. We went away for a few days in the scorching summer months and they got cooked in their pots. Like a husband left alone with a tempting sheaf of takeaway menus, plants in pots are incapable of looking after themselves. We tried growing tomatoes, but they couldn’t cope with the unnatural combination of intense heat and little direct sunlight, and the total yield of our six plants was just one small red fruit. It was so pitiful I couldn’t bring myself to eat it. It sat on the windowsill in the kitchen until it puckered, withered and died. Oh, how I long for a little bit of earth!
On the balconies of the building opposite, maids and cleaners have sneaky cigarettes and tearful telephone conversations with their families back home; they beat rugs, sweep the floor and wipe the dust from the balcony railings. When one lives in the desert, wiping the dust from the balcony railings is a task akin to the painting of the Fourth Bridge. I gave up on it long ago. “Where there’s dust, there’s peace,” my Mum always says. And peace would be lovely – but it’s horribly noisy on our balcony: the incessant churning of the generators on the building site opposite, the angry beeping of cars stuck in traffic, the screeching of tyres or revving of powerful engines. As I write this, at 6.26pm, the sun is setting, the traffic is growling and stagnating, and the call to prayer can be heard from the nearby mosque, its resonant, mystical notes soaring above the noise and the heat and the dust.
As I sat here yesterday, a scrap of paper fell onto the balcony, dropped or discarded from a balcony above. It appeared to be some sort of list written in Arabic. In my mind it was something cryptic and exciting but it probably just said: milk, eggs, washing powder. This happens all the time – bits of other people’s lives falling into ours. It’s usually disgusting bits of other people’s lives, like cigarette butts and chewing gum, but occasionally there’s something more interesting – a torn photograph and, last week, a nail file…
There aren’t many birds in this part of town. Regular readers will know that birdsong is one of the things I miss most about home. But sometimes a passing laughing dove will flap at the window, or a common myna will alight on the railing, whistling shrilly, as if to taunt the cat. She sits, rigid, on the other side of the French window, doing a silent, snarly face, opening and closing her jaw, as if she’s biting down on its jugular in her little, tigery imagination. But, because we’re so divorced from nature here (and because I’m a sentimental fool), a brief visit from a pigeon can feel ridiculously symbolic. Like a dove with an olive branch, these rare, feathery messengers tell me that there is life, there is nature, there is hope… somewhere beyond the tower blocks…
As a child, I was a notoriously fussy eater. My catchphrase as a four-year-old, “There’s a little bit of black in it,” was stubbornly repeated when rejecting any food that was well-cooked, new, mixed up with something else or prepared with herbs or seasoning – so just about everything interesting really… (Parents of fussy children, take heart – I grew out of it, developed a taste for strong and exciting flavours, and now pride myself on being an extraordinarily hearty and adventurous eater.)
My infinitely patient parents persevered and eventually won through, though not every battle can have been an easy one: I remember the ‘escargots showdown’ when on holiday in France, that resulted in me having a disproportionately dramatic tantrum in a small restaurant. I did actually try a snail in the end and remember finding the taste quite inoffensive, but the chewy texture simply appalling. I think I sobbed and spat it out on the table… (belated apologies to my long-suffering Mum and Dad). Anyhow, our tastes change as we grow older and so, every once in a while, I would try something I had previously disliked only to find it was in fact utterly delicious. I love escargots now and will gladly gobble them down with a good glass of French wine, soaking up the garlic butter with soft, fluffy bread.
And so we go from snails to brains… For an average English girl raised on Sunday roasts, mashed potatoes, Heinz Baked Beans and garden vegetables, the sheer concept of eating something’s brain is a disconcerting one. Perhaps partly because when we use the word brain it’s almost always to do with intelligence or thinking, in a very human context (‘brain-storm’, ‘brain drain’, ‘all brawn and no brains’, ‘she’s very brainy’, ‘he’s got cricket on the brain’, ‘do you mind if I pick your brain?’, ‘I’ve been racking my brain all day’ etc…). But here I am, living in the Middle East, and there are plenty of people living in this part of the world who consider goat and sheep brain to be a delicacy. So, I plucked up the courage to try it. After all, what’s the point in living abroad if you’re going to stay in a safe little expat bubble?
The Pakistani restaurant we went to is in bustling Satwa – one of the louder, livelier, more interesting bits of Dubai – bright with neon lights and beeping, double-parked cars. The streets are packed with people and the restaurant kitchens open onto the pavements so the wonderful cooking smells – grilled meat, hot bread and spices – drift enticingly in the cool evening air. We found our friends at the restaurant, already seated at a plastic picnic table. I was expecting to see goat-brain curry on the menu, and was mildly and inexplicably disappointed to discover it was actually sheep. I know goat meat isn’t likely to spring to mind when one fancies something really tasty – I would expect it to be a bit stringy and, well, goaty – with that ripe, farmy, animally smell that strong goat’s cheese has. Nevertheless, there was no goat available – it was sheep brain or nothing. I had set my heart on brain (that’s a weird arrangement of words / bodily organs, isn’t it) and I was determined to have it, be it caprine or ovine.
As far as I am aware, I have never previously eaten anything’s brain (although I have eaten a lot of cheap beef and onion pies in the past and if those weren’t at least 60% sheep-brain / horse-meat / road-kill, I’m a duchess) so I was a little apprehensive. I think I was afraid it would still be brain-shaped… (see my photograph from last week’s post. The idea of slicing into one of those frontal lobes would definitely have been a bit much for me…) But I was pleasantly surprised: it looks pretty good, doesn’t it? Particularly if you tell yourself it’s actually a minced chicken or egg curry (it’s all in the mind, you know). When I picked up the first forkful I thought I was going to have to shout “Raaaaargh!!” in order to stop myself thinking about it and just put it in my mouth (like a warrior charging into battle or something), but I managed to control myself, and in it went. It was a bit like the escargot incident (although you’ll be pleased to know I didn’t spit it out on the plastic picnic table): the taste was fine, but the texture was quite upsetting. It tasted a little like chicken liver – smooth and mild with that subtle tang of iron. I mostly tasted the spices I suppose – ginger, turmeric and a lively amount of chilli; it was nice – offally good really (sorry). But the texture was unnervingly creamy and soft. I don’t think I’ve ever used the word negatively before, but I can’t think of a better one: it was silky. Eerily silky. Like a limp, moist handshake. Or a shaved cat. Or the soft voice of a psychopath. As I chewed it, there was simply nothing in the way of healthy, meaty resistance. I managed to eat a fair amount of it in the end, mixing it in mouthfuls with big chunks of chicken, buttery paratha and a delicious tarka daal (the lentils very successfully disguised the soft texture of the brain). And, strangely enough, I felt like I had achieved something.
To be honest, the worst of it came later. Oh it stayed down, don’t worry about that. But a brain burp is a dreadful thing: the ghost of silky, spicy cerebellum haunting you as you try to get on with your evening and enjoy a nice cocktail or two (I bet Hannibal Lecter never had that problem). Heavens but that brain repeated on me. Then I discovered that I had a bit of it stuck in my teeth. I panicked. “I’ve got a bit of brain stuck in my teeth!” I whispered urgently to my husband, noticing that I sounded like an oddly hygiene-conscious zombie. He bought me another drink and I managed to wash the brain completely away with a strawberry margarita. Tequila often has that effect on the brain, I’ve found.
So all’s well that ends well. I had met the brain challenge, head on, and I had not been found wanting. Are you tempted? Have a look at this Indian cooking blog for a curried goat-brain recipe: http://simplyspicy.blogspot.ae/2006/12/brain-fry.html And this BBC page features a buyer’s guide to sourcing good-quality brain in the UK (do let our top universities know if you find any – ho ho – http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/brain). Warning: the instructions for preparation are not for the faint-hearted; they utilise one of the most upsetting words in the English language: membrane (shudder). Eating brain is one thing, but preparing it myself? I don’t think so. In some ways I’m still a bit of a squeamish four-year-old…
[Apologies to my vegetarian readers for another horribly carnivorous post. I promise I’ll write about something more pleasant next week…]
Fancy trying brain curry? What’s the weirdest or most unnerving food you’ve ever eaten?
In a way we should be grateful for the current horse-meat scandal, shouldn’t we. It has made us think a bit more about the things we do and don’t want to eat and just how much we are prepared to pay for good food. A lot of people have started to question the ethics surrounding this whole meat-eating melee – this dodgy sausage circus, this carnivore’s chaos, if you will… In a rather thought-provoking article on The Making Progress Blues (please see link in the Blog Roll to the right), a fellow blogger raises the interesting point that the horse-meat fiasco was pretty much inevitable following years of consumers demanding more food for less money, supermarkets driving down prices, farmers and local butchers being forced out of business and unregulated overseas providers filling the resulting ‘meat-hole’ in the market (apologies for the unpleasant turn of phrase)… What did we think was going to be in a Super-Cheap’n’Nasty-Value-Discount-Family-Sized-Lasagne costing just £1.78? Wagyu fillet steak?
Blogging pals of mine in mainland Europe (namely Englishman in Italy http://englishmaninitaly.wordpress.com/ and Multifarious Meanderings http://multifariousmeanderings.wordpress.com/ ) have written about the fact that in Italy and France horse-meat is considered to be tastier and healthier than beef; Europeans are confused and amused by the British media meltdown. Well, yes. But there is of course the moral and legal issue of the misleading labelling, and the problem that potentially dangerous chemicals and hormones could have found their way into our foods through this criminal cost-cutting…
The meat we choose to eat is an emotive issue. The European media have been mocking our pathetically sentimental horror of horse-meat. And let’s be honest (my frequent references to The Wind in the Willows notwithstanding) the British do tend to anthropomorphise any hapless creature that is friendly, appealing or vaguely domesticated. Just look at Jedward.
Horses are of course integral to British rural life and our relationship with them is a long and loyal one. The coat of arms for Kent, my home county, features a prancing white horse above the motto INVICTA (undefeated or unconquered); there are several huge horses carved into the ancient chalk of England’s hills; Shakespeare’s Richard III was prepared to give his “kingdom for a horse”. From Boxer’s tragic death in Animal Farm through to Michael Morpurgo’s wonderful War Horse, our equine friends are usually portrayed in literature as noble, intelligent, faithful, beautiful creatures of great worth. But the symbolism of horses in English literature is sometimes a bit more sinister… In a weird little scene that is often cut from performances of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, shortly after the bloody murder of Duncan, it is reported that the King’s horses have become cannibalistic:
ROSS: Duncan’s horses, a thing most strange and certain,
Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race,
Turned wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,
Contending ‘gainst obedience as they would
Make war with mankind.
OLD MAN: ‘Tis said, they eat each other.
ROSS: They did so, to th’amazement of mine eyes
That looked upon’t.
Well, it’s all a far cry from My Friend Flicka, isn’t it. British writers seem to be interested in using horses to portray mankind’s darker side – our fear, our cruel and violent instincts, our madness: have a look at Peter Shaffer’s Equus or The Rain Horse by Ted Hughes… There must indeed be a strange and complex connection between horses and the British psyche; these disturbing tales just wouldn’t work if they were about goats. Or pigs.
What about pigs, I hear you cry? Pigs are clever creatures too – just a bit more… comical. Following a childhood obsession with E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Dick King Smith’s The Sheep-Pig, one might have thought that I’d never be able to stomach a bacon sandwich. Believe me, one couldn’t be further from the truth. Of course, bacon can be a bit tricky to lay one’s greedy hands on over here. As it’s a Muslim country, few restaurants serve it and most shops don’t sell it; those that do are legally obliged to set aside a separate, secret part of the store as the ‘Pork Room’. I get a ridiculous little thrill as I wheel my trolley through the plastic curtains of a clandestine pork emporium.
We have a fascinating mixture of cultures here in the UAE, and a correspondingly fascinating variety of meats available… A restaurant in the older part of town near the Creek serves camel burgers (which I imagine to be a bit tough and goaty… They may well be delicious of course. One day I will eat one and will tell you all about it. I promise), and the unexpected selection of body parts for sale in my nearby Lulu’s Hypermarket never fails to astound me. Their fridges frequently feature delicacies such as lamb’s testicles, cow’s feet, and sheep or goat brain. And people actually buy them. Willingly! Their mouths watering with anticipation! (I expect.) As you can see in this photograph – the brains are quite reasonably priced (10.80 AED is about £1.93) and could probably feed a large family… Hmmm. Perhaps the UK supermarkets should have a change of direction and start stocking some of these honestly labelled unusual animal bits, rather than persisting with their deceitful discount brands and flogging the proverbial (and not so proverbial) dead horse.
Little did I know when I photographed this sheep brain that the moment was more than just a meeting of minds: at a Pakistani restaurant last night, this brain and I had a date with destiny (and a rather nice daal)… Tune in next week to read about my encounter with The Sheep-Brain Curry.
Recently, hundreds of these mysterious little huts have appeared on our beaches. They are, as you can see, white, about eight feet tall and roofed with a sort of parasol. All along the Dubai coastline they are now dotted along the sand in neat little his-and-hers pairs, situated about every hundred yards or so. I am fascinated by them.
At first glance they appear to be changing huts for bathers – and this would indeed be a practical and innovative idea (and thus somewhat out of character for this part of the world, one might say if one were in a cynical mood, which one invariably is these days) – but so far the little metal doors have been permanently locked and it would be a hell of an ungainly squeeze to cram one’s fat British head underneath the thin metal wall (not that I tried to. Obviously. Ahem).
Some of the huts are covered in advertisements, which makes me think that they might simply be small cylindrical bill-boards – an ingenious scheme to make money out of thin air and to prevent us from feeling deprived of the usual onslaught of aggressive consumerism, even while relaxing on the beach.
They are vaguely reminiscent of traditional French urinals, don’t you think? I am basing this on my encyclopaedic knowledge of French history and culture gleaned entirely from Allo Allo, of course… One half expects to see the faces of Rene Artois and Michelle of the Resistance (hers adorned with an unconvincing false moustache) peering over the top of the wall, while the awful English spy disguised as a policeman sidles up with his beach-towel and says loudly, “I am just pissing by the bitch for a quick swom in the soo…” and Rene looks into the camera and rolls his eyes theatrically to the sound of canned laughter…
It is possible that they are in fact alien space-craft. Certainly the way in which they appeared, almost overnight, in such vast numbers is suggestive of some sort of well-orchestrated incursion. If this were an episode of Doctor Who they would no doubt turn out to be Genesis Arks for the Daleks, a new model of the TARDIS manufactured by the Master, or Cybermen teleporters. Or something. Though why the Doctor’s various nemeses would stage an invasion on this part of the planet is beyond me. Unless they were after the oil. Or a bit of winter sunshine and a nice cocktail.
The huts remind me of the bathing machines beloved by the Victorians: a ludicrously cumbersome way of getting in and out of the sea without anyone glimpsing you in your comedy stripy swimwear. I have always loved the concept of bathing machines, if only because the word ‘machine’ suggests something much more exciting and hi-tech than a shed on wheels. They did at least save people from the humiliation of an indecorous changing incident – a terror that haunts the British in their darkest nightmares.
While it is important to respect the local culture here and to be appropriately dressed at all times when in public, in many other parts of the world, people will gaily strip off their damp swimwear and parade around totally starkers. Not so much the British, though… British women are natural experts at changing clothes discreetly on beaches that lack appropriate facilities – even in the face of a typhoon, or an unexpected seagull attack. We instinctively know all sorts of Houdini-esque tricks with knickers and bra-straps that mean the swift and dignified change into a bikini is nothing short of an unfathomable magic trick. British men, on the other hand, tend to wobble about on one leg whilst clutching two ends of a towel between their teeth, inevitably swearing, falling face-first in the sand and shrieking to their wives in panic, “The arse is out!”
Do you think these enigmatic huts might indeed be changing facilities? I do hope so! Or perhaps they will be emergency first aid depots. Or dovecotes. Or ice-cream stands. Or tin tents for people who can sleep standing up. Or nesting boxes for flamingos?
All suggestions would be most gratefully received…
There are many different ways of coping with homesickness. One option is to indulge it completely by eating buttery toasted crumpets and sobbing to an episode of Countryfile. At the other end of the willpower spectrum we have the healthier, low-fat option: ignore the homesickness completely, go exploring, and lose yourself in the ‘otherness’ of your new home. I shall investigate this adventurous cultural immersion another day, but not today. Today is Sunday, and for once I’m not at work (in this part of the world, Sunday is the first day of our working week. I usually start work at 7.30am on a Sunday morning. I KNOW! 7.30AM! It’s against nature). Anyway, in my humble opinion, Sunday is not a day for pushing one’s emotional envelope (so to speak); it’s a cosy, dozy sort of day – a perfect day in fact for giving in to those homesick yearnings and feeding them until they are sated. Homesickness you see is a bit like a hungry, hibernating bear – if you stuff it until it’s full it will go back to sleep again for a while (Disclaimer: this website accepts no liability or responsibility for death or injury brought about as a result of following this advice. We strongly recommend consulting a bear expert before attempting to feed wild bears with nostalgic treats). So, here we are – my somewhat Anglo-centric Top Ten Puddings to sedate the hungry bear of homesickness…
10. Treacle Sponge with Custard
A classic comfort food: hot, sweet and stodgy and immensely satisfying. Best enjoyed with a generous serving of 1980s evening television such as Allo Allo, Bergerac or All Creatures Great and Small (alternatively, just YouTube search advertisements for childhood toys such as Mr Frosty, The Big Yellow Teapot or The Play-Doh Mop Top Hair Shop. THIS IS WHAT THE INTERNET IS FOR).
9. Tinned Del Monte Pears in syrup
Quick and easy to make (open tin; decant into bowl; eat with spoon – Delia would be proud). My family often enjoy adding double cream and ‘grit’ (grit means granulated sugar. Yes, in addition to the syrup. It’s all about the crunch and texture you see… Sweet tooth? What sweet tooth?)
8. Fresh raspberries
Whilst enjoying afternoon tea at a nearby hotel recently, I was actually reduced to tears by a raspberry. It was so sweet and ripe and aromatic that it swept me away on a wave of English summer afternoons. Honestly, it was so unspeakably delicious I actually cried. I’d always known that smells and tastes could be powerfully evocative, but never before had I been quite so transported by a small, furry fruit. Particularly good when enjoyed with meringue and fresh whipped cream in a carefully constructed pavlova or mashed up in a gloriously messy fool (I pity the fool).
7. Ice lollies
After considerable market research (asking my husband), I have concluded that these are some of the most nostalgic lollies for folk of my generation: the Ice Pop (more E Numbers than actual ingredients – but, my goodness, the world looks brighter when you’re riding that food-colouring high); the Mr Man lolly; the Sparkle; the Mivvi; the Mini Milk (is it just me, or have they got considerably smaller?); the Fab, the Feast, the Zoom! And the one shaped like a foot… (why on earth would anyone want to eat an ice cream shaped like a foot?)
6. Hot rice pudding (with jam)
I haven’t had this in years. I’m going to find some now. I bet they’ve got Ambrosia Creamed Rice in Lulu’s Hypermarket…
5. Umm Ali
Ooh – now, this is a clever one. For me, this is both culturally adventurous and curiously nostalgic at the same time. It’s a deliciously comforting sort of Arabic bread pudding, with layers of creamy pastry baked with pistachios and raisins. Umm Ali means Ali’s Mother, which is comforting in itself.
4. Butterscotch Angel Delight
Mix the powder with milk or, for a quick nostalgia fix, just inhale the sweet dust as you pour it out of the packet and into the mixing bowl. I’d draw the line at actually snorting it. Probably.
3. Rhubarb Crumble with fresh cream
Preferably consumed after indulging in a large roast dinner. There’s always room for a bit of homemade rhubarb crumble… Especially that bubbly, brown caramelized bit that’s stuck to the edge of the baking tin…
2. Orange Jelly
I really do get very excited about jelly. If more people ate jelly, I think the world would be a happier place. It’s just so cheerful and shiny and wobbly! I love plunging into a pristine new jelly and prying up a huge spoonful so that it makes a joyous jelly-fart. I never actually eat jelly, I sort of hoover it off the spoon. Jelly is FUN. My mum used to make jelly with tinned mandarin oranges mixed in. I thought this was EXTRA FUN.
1. A Tin of Nestle Condensed Milk
Ah now. Not a pudding in itself, you might say – a valid ingredient in fudge or a Banoffee Pie, perhaps, but not actually a legitimate dessert… Surely? How wrong you are, my philistine friend. The ultimate in nostalgic nirvana, the Ferrari of sugar-rushes. All you need is a spoon…
[With apologies to my non-British readership… I am aware that some of these brands are a bit bally British and I know that there are serious global disagreements about the meaning of jelly, jello and jam, but, as a reader of this website, I also trust in your intelligence to decipher / translate my greedy nonsense for yourself.]
Which delicious desserts would soothe the sting of homesickness for you? Please do leave a comment sharing your Pudding of Ultimate Nostalgia (acronym: PUN) …
You can only really ask someone to repeat something twice (or, in an emergency, three times) before you have to just smile, nod politely and issue a non-committal, “Mmmm”. Over here the vast majority of the population go through every day speaking their second or third language and this can result in some quite extraordinary misunderstandings. I should like to make it clear that I have huge admiration for people who are able to communicate in anything other than their mother tongue. I am, you see, a shame-faced monoglot, with just a smattering of schoolgirl French (which frequently borders on Del Boy-esque Franglais: “Bonnet de douche et tout le monde, mon petit filous?”) and a vague recollection of GCSE Latin (somehow I got a grade B. I remember learning most of Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid off by heart so I could just write it out in full, rather than translate the specific passage that cropped up in the exam). I am deeply in love with the English language and have been for as long as I can remember – and I find its etymology endlessly fascinating (did you know that the words frog and frolic stem from Old Norse / Middle Dutch cognates, derived from a Proto-Indo-European word for “hop”, so that frog literally means “a hopper” and, frolic, “hopping for joy”…) but, alas, I’m just no good at learning other languages…
“You have lived in the Middle East for nearly three years and you don’t speak Arabic?!” you might well say to me and, by gum, I deserve such censure. I can say hello and thank you in Arabic. And that’s about it. I’ve tried to learn other words but I just don’t get a chance to use them and they soon get archived somewhere in a dark, forgotten brain-cupboard. The thing is, other than these pleasantries, it is actually quite tricky to get anyone in shops, restaurants – or anywhere really – to converse with you in anything other than English, as most of the working population here are immigrants just like me. It must be very odd for the local residents to have to spend much of their daily lives in their own country conversing in a language that is not their native tongue. Just IMAGINE if that happened in the UK – the Daily Mail would have a field day.
Last night we were eating in a lovely French restaurant being served by a delightful young Indian chap. The menu was in French, we ordered in English and our waiter wrote down our choices in Hindi. This is the sort of wonderful multi-linguistic world we live in out here – but it’s easy to see how mistakes could be made along the way. Actually, last night things went surprisingly smoothly, apart from the explanations of the specials. Our cheery waiter told us that the starter de jour was “Bill in pastry”. Now, I don’t know what poor Bill had done to deserve this fate, but I can only imagine he was a less-than-efficient sous chef or perhaps a customer who complained too vociferously. We asked the waiter to repeat it several times, which he did with a broad smile on his face, until it all got too embarrassing and we had to accept that he was definitely saying, “Bill”. Poor Bill. May he rest in peace. And pastry. Two glasses of red wine later, after squinting at the specials board for some time and applying my smattering of schoolgirl French, I deduced that he must have been saying “veal”. It was a great relief to all of us, and Bill too, I expect.
Booking things over the phone, without even the benefit of gesture or lip-reading, can be particularly hazardous. My first name is Lucy and I have, in the past two and a half years, received orders addressed to Miss Lacey Martin, Miss Leecy Mertin and even Mam Licey Merkin (which doesn’t bear thinking about). In April 2011, I booked a table in a pub for a group of friends to have lunch and watch the Royal Wedding. We arrived to find our table reserved for a ‘Les Martin’. Now I don’t know about you, but I imagine Les Martin to be a large fellow, positively beefy actually, with thinning grey hair and a sort of sweaty, blood-pressurey look about him. I imagine he might be enthusiastic about DIY, and like nothing better than a pint of lager and a game of darts after a hard day at the second-hand car dealership. Nonetheless, for the afternoon of the Royal Wedding, 2011, I was Les Martin. Good old, sweaty old patriotic Les.
Since moving here, I have been taken to entirely the wrong place in a taxi (some ten or so miles from where I needed to be), I have ordered several God-awful desserts (including an unspeakable cheesecake which was quite literally a Cheese Cake, hastily rustled up with what tasted like rancid cheddar), and I have accidentally declared war on my local branch of HSBC… All due to messy misunderstandings with language. Pigeon English is clearly a dangerous bird – an unpredictable, feral creature with no homing instincts whatsoever. One of my favourite linguistic pickles took place in Boots quite recently. I went in to buy some indigestion medicine and asked the Filipino sales assistant where I would find it. I have no idea how it happened, what bizarre wrong turns our short conversation must have taken, but when I eventually came to purchase my bottle of Gaviscon, the sales assistant was under the distinct impression that I was buying it for a cat who was suffering from wind. “Is he large cat or small cat?” she asked, concerned, scrutinizing the dosage (unsurprisingly, the directions didn’t mention the appropriate dosage for cats, regardless of their size). I’m ashamed to say I didn’t even attempt to put her straight. The situation seemed to be utterly, irretrievably beyond help, so I nodded, smiled and said, “Yes. Lovely. That’s perfect, thanks,” and rapidly left the shop, making a mental note never to go back there again. Sometimes it seems like this city is filling up with places I can never go back to again… Unless I want to spend another afternoon as Les, of course.
I have always found it profoundly pleasurable to be beside a river. There is something wonderful about the way in which water moves, purposeful yet playful, full of cool, soothing promise; the gently shifting patterns of light have the same quiet, hypnotic effect on the viewer as the dancing flames of a log fire. The incessant flow of a river reassures us of life’s continual forward motion: standing on a bridge and gazing dreamily downstream, it feels as if each worry that drifts through one’s mind is borne gently away by the current.
Homesick and Heatstruck as I am, I miss the characterful waterways of home: the Thames where we used to live in West London, with its impressive, masculine span, sweeping dignified, grey and tree-lined towards the distant city; the River Stour in Kent – particularly charming at its most shallow and glittering as it winds its way through the cobbled streets of Canterbury and the fields and villages beyond. I love to sit beside the River Stour in Canterbury’s Westgate Gardens, or in the garden of the Fordwich Arms or the Tickled Trout at Wye on a summer’s afternoon, relaxing in the sunshine with a pint and a packet of crisps, as the river trickles, green and glassy, just yards from my feet.
When I moved abroad I told myself that these much-loved places would all still be there when I returned. Rather than looking back and dwelling on all the places I missed, I should focus on the exciting adventures that lay ahead of me – the places I would discover in this brand new chapter of my life. Despite my optimistic intentions, however, I seem to have inadvertently stitched the feelings of contentment and comfort to these icons of home (much like an unfortunate late-night hemming incident). I am doing my best now to unpick these single threads, attempting to attach permanently positive feelings to some of the new and unique places I have found.
Last weekend I enjoyed a pot of Moroccan tea with a dear friend, sitting in a restaurant called Bayt al Wakeel on the bank of the Dubai Creek. I go here quite often when the weather is cool enough. It is a lovely place – a wooden structure on stilts in the Creek, built onto one of the city’s oldest traditional buildings. The Creek, full, broad and sapphire blue, glitters in the late afternoon sun, the bright, choppy waves dancing beside and beneath you. There’s always a breeze at the Creek. The air smells of the sea and smoky diesel fumes from the little water taxis or abras that motor back and forth, ferrying workers and tourists. Seagulls wheel in noisy flocks above the water and the cargo dhows move heavily in from the sea like cattle coming home from the fields. It isn’t tranquil at all, but its busyness is a joy in itself and a source of great contentment for the onlooker. I can be quite still and contemplative here, pouring myself glass after glass of the sweet mint tea, allowing my mind to wander as freely as the hundreds of bright boats on the water or the gulls in the clear blue sky.
Living abroad isn’t all about wonderful new experiences – it isn’t a big happy holiday; it’s the reshaping of your whole life. It is the single biggest challenge for all expatriates to find new sources of genuine day-to-day contentment and comfort. For me this is very much a work-in-progress. It helps to think that one day I will look back at my sunny afternoons sipping Moroccan tea by the Creek with the same warmth and nostalgia that I now feel for my memories of sitting beside the sparkling River Stour.
As my thoughts drift back to the waterways of England, I shall leave you with an extract from the first chapter of my beloved Wind in the Willows, as Moley discovers the joys of life on The River Bank…
He thought his happiness was complete when, as he meandered aimlessly along, suddenly he stood by the edge of a full-fed river. Never in his life had he seen a river before – this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All was a-shake and a-shiver – glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spell-bound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea… Absorbed in the new life he was entering upon, intoxicated with the sparkle, the ripple, the scents and the sounds and the sunlight, he trailed a paw in the water and dreamed long waking dreams.
The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame, 1908
Once, I had a favourite restaurant. We would go there at least once a week and I could order (quite extensively) without looking at the menu. We knew all about our usual waiter’s wedding plans back home in Egypt and he knew all about our favourite Arabic dishes. It was by no means a swish or fancy place – in fact it was really rather humble and very cheap – but the food was DELICIOUS. I was actually addicted to their divine baba ganoush. Piles of hot, fresh Arabic bread would arrive at the table, all puffed up from the flames of the cooker; I would tear the bread in half – a soft sigh of steam escaping – and I would scoop up the baba ganoush – its sharp, tangy sweetness tempered by spoonfuls of cool, creamy labneh. Their fried chicken livers were sublime – served with caramelized onions and a sticky pomegranate sauce. It was a love affair that lasted for nearly two years. That restaurant introduced me to a whole new world of gastronomic bliss. I’m afraid to say, however, that I loved not wisely, but too well. It was a passion that burned too brightly. It could never last. All this time I was turning a blind eye to the sad truth: those intermittent bouts of gastroenteritis were not just coincidental.
While a friend was staying with us on a stop-over to Australia we all came down with a particularly nasty case of food poisoning which could only have come from my beloved restaurant (we suspect the chicken soup). Our two-bedroom apartment is, for some, inexplicable reason, equipped with four bathrooms. I won’t go into unnecessary detail; suffice to say we were all deeply grateful for this abundance of ablutionary facilities; never before had conveniences felt quite so convenient. After several days of ingesting nothing but dry toast, rehydration salts and orange jelly, I resolved never to return to my favourite restaurant and successfully shunned their heavenly cuisine for some weeks. But the temptation proved too great. A few months later, I had convinced myself that I was now immune to whatever bacterial strain had previously tormented me, and I could devour their exquisite dishes without ill-effect. The second horrible warning came about a year ago, when we had family members staying with us. A light supper of hummus, olives, rice, fatoush and grilled meats resulted in chronic stomach upsets for our visitors, who were then incapacitated for most of their stay. I escaped unscathed but was nonetheless haunted by the consequences of my dangerous obsession on those I loved.
The end of the affair came soon after this. It was a hot, humid night in May (actually, I can’t remember what the weather was like, but I do love a bit of pathetic fallacy to build tension and atmosphere, don’t you) and a terrible sandstorm was brewing. The dark air thickened with dust, suffocating the moon’s feeble light, and lightning flashed ominously above the jagged skyline… We were dining at home (my favourite restaurant was happy to deliver to such loyal customers), and I was tucking into the gorgeous baba ganoush with great gusto, when I found it. It wasn’t wriggling or anything – I think it had probably drowned in the sticky, garlic dressing – but it was, quite unmistakably, a maggot. The enormity of the moment slowly dawned upon me. This was, in the terms of American romantic comedies, “a deal-breaker”. There could be no way back after such a discovery. My mind (and stomach) reeled at the thought of other ghastly arthropod larvae I might have previously consumed, blissfully unaware – transported as I was by momentary pleasure, blinded by culinary love. My husband took the dish back to the restaurant and pointed out the unwanted delicacy. They casually dismissed his concern and offered to replace the dish with another. When I heard this, I knew that it was over.
We haven’t been back since. I’m not going to pretend it has been easy – and these things are always more complicated when you can’t make a clean break. The restaurant, you see, is located on the ground floor of our apartment block, so I walk past it every single day. For the first few weeks after the “magga ganoush” incident it was particularly awkward. As I passed the window I would smile politely and raise my hand to our favourite waiter, trying to avoid direct eye-contact with the burly Lebanese chef (who had always scared me a little, truth be told). But our waiter’s boyish, bright-eyed grin faded over the months. Did he know what had happened? Why we had abandoned them? Had he taken it personally? He barely acknowledges us now. The wiry little chain-smoking restaurant manager still nods at us, unshaven and unsmiling, as he leans against the sun-bleached wall, sucking at a thin cigarette.
Recently a new Arabic restaurant has opened up just around the corner. The labneh is cool and creamy, the fatoush is fresh, the fried chicken livers are good – but not sublime – and the baba ganoush is… fine. I suppose. Maggot-free – and that has to count for something, right? Well, it’s our new favourite restaurant now and it has its own unique charms, so I’ll make an effort not to compare… I’ll certainly try to love again, but when it comes to discovering a whole new cuisine, I think perhaps the first cut is the deepest.
It’s hard to define what’s so great about the great British pub. Is it the warm welcome? The long tradition of comfy, informal hospitality? The good company, conversation and sense of community? Or maybe it’s just the alcohol. Some pubs are pretty grim, let’s be frank. There are few things more depressing than the stark, cynical city boozer with its chilling anonymity; or the dilapidated drinking den, populated by three, gouty, long-faced locals, one of whom looks like he would happily murder you (if he wasn’t so drunk, depressed and, indeed, gouty)… But when a British pub gets it right, there’s really nowhere else like it.
Five years ago, the evening reception for our wedding was at our favourite haunt, The Dolphin. Its warmth, friendliness, good beer, great food, quirky décor, candle-lit tables, books and board-games* make it a place of cosy retreat as well as a happy meeting place, and they did us proud on our wedding day: a glorious evening barbecue in the garden followed by a long summer night of champagne and what might be loosely described as ‘dancing’ with our loved ones and oldest friends. When we lived in Canterbury we were ‘down The Dolphin’ nearly every week, cheerfully losing the pub quiz with our pals. In the summer we drank Pimms or Kentish ales in the garden, and in the winter we would sit chatting by the blazing log-burner, drinking mulled wine and listening to the genius piano-playing of another friend, Luke Smith. The familiar old ‘Cheers’ theme song could indeed be making quite a profound point: is a really good drinking establishment a place where “everybody knows your name”?
This is highly unlikely to be the case in my new home. Bars out here do not really have regular clientele and, even if they did, the staff would be unlikely to notice. The few exceptions include the happy haven that is the Cactus Cantina in Chelsea Plaza (formerly Rydges), and older, established drinking holes like The Ambassador’s George & Dragon in Bur Dubai – both of which have a gaggle of loyal punters on first name terms with the friendly staff. The doorman at the Ambassador’s is cheeky and charismatic. He also happens to be a dwarf. As he poses for photographs with tourists in the hotel lobby, one hopes he wasn’t just employed for this politically incorrect novelty factor. Little hope of that, I’m afraid. Ahem.
Pubs here are never stand-alone establishments; due to alcohol-licensing laws they are always tucked away somewhere within the cool, marbled depths of a swanky hotel. This, and an interior design bordering on parody, makes many of them feel rather phony. Less like a good, honest pint-and-pickles emporium and more like a tacky reconstruction of a British pub, complete with dark-wood furniture, threadbare carpets, nicotine-stained black and white photographs and tarnished horse brasses. And let’s not mention the suspiciously sticky, leatherette banquette. In some of the pubs out here one could almost be part of an exhibit in an obscure theme park or museum, the plaque on the glass reading Traditional 20th Century British drinking place; ‘pub’ (public house); from Old Latin poplicus: pertaining to the people. One half expects to see a desiccated mannequin with wonky eyes and a bad wig slumped awkwardly over a plastic pint glass and a dirty ashtray. Ah, now. The ashtrays… That’s what’s really weird about the pubs out here: they smell more like British pubs than British pubs do…
It’s not that I liked leaving a pub at the end of an evening with my eyes stinging and my clothes and hair stinking of cigarette smoke – as a non-smoker, the suffocating fug was sometimes unbearable – but the strange odour that has replaced the smell of smoke in British pubs is not necessarily much better. The dusty, residual smell of smoke, accompanied by the hoppy nose of good ale and the tang of vinegar is surely the definitive British pub smell, and has the benefit of disguising many other, less pleasant, odours. After the 2007 smoking ban in the UK it took a little while for the tarry miasma to clear, but it wasn’t long before the whole bouquet of the boozer had changed… Now, even in the more reputable establishments, one can’t help but notice the fruity notes of fermenting drip trays, fried-food and lingering disinfectant, complemented perhaps by the subtle whiff of a distant gentlemen’s urinal. Out here, these smells still remain happily masked by the heady haze of cheap cigarettes (and I mean cheap – even after prices were doubled last summer – a packet of Marlboro will still only cost you about £2.50 in the Middle East as opposed to an average of £7.60 in the UK… Now there’s a reason to emigrate, dear nicotine-addicted readers).
So, the smoky smell – that’s something ‘authentic’ about pubs here. But I’m afraid that’s probably about it. The range of beers on offer often leaves much to be desired and that, besides a relaxing atmosphere, is surely one of the most important features of a good pub. After my first full year of exile the one thing I was really longing for was a decent glass of beer. Most pubs, bars and restaurants here offer the same predictable selection of pallid, fizzy lagers – the usual, criminally flavourless suspects. After several months of red-tape-wrangling to get our coveted alcohol licence, my husband was ecstatic (literally ecstatic) when we visited our local off-licence to discover that they had recently received a shipment of ‘proper beer’ (it has often been said that he is a ‘bitter’ man – boom, boom…). We left laden down with bottles of Fuller’s Discovery and London Pride, and Shepherd Neame’s splendid Kentish ale, Bishop’s Finger. But it all comes at a price. A bottle of Spitfire will cost you about eight quid in some of the classier restaurants here (now there’s a reason not to emigrate, dear CAMRA-subscribed readers).
Speaking of the Campaign for Real Ale… One of my many happy childhood memories is sitting with my two brothers at a picnic table in the little leafy yard outside a Kentish free house called The Hog and Donkey. It felt like it was in the middle of absolutely nowhere, a remote public house surrounded by flat marsh land. There was hardly any room for Dad to park the Triumph due to the eccentric owner’s vast collection of vintage cars. I remember the twinkling theatrical presence of the landlord, his weird and wonderful anecdotes and his weirder and wonderfuller facial hair; the dark, grown-up secret of the pub interior: beer in barrels, the smell of yeast and hops, pipe-smoke, pickled eggs and dry-roasted peanuts. Pubs like this are of course a dying breed and, sadly, it closed in 2008. In my Blog Roll I’ve put a couple of links to sites on which The Hog and Donkey’s regulars mourn this significant loss. If you have a moment, it’s well worth reading about the legendary establishment and Dennis, its extraordinary landlord.
That sense of ownership is very important. There is a vast difference between the ruddy-faced ebullience of a British pub landlord and the unblinking, vacant professionalism of the average bar tender over here. There are no beverage recommendations, no bad jokes, no light-hearted chat – no… banter. On asking a barman if the plural of Guinness ought to be Guinni, one is likely to be met with a terrifyingly inscrutable, “Yes, Sir.” Trust me. Terrifying. Particularly being called Sir when you are a lady.
So what conclusions can we draw? (Other than the fact that a humourless lager-drinking chain smoker might feel very much at home in this part of the world) I suppose what really defines a great pub is its unique character – it could never be just an imported quick-assembly stereotype of oak-panelling and rusty railway signage or, God forbid, a Wetherspoons. Really good pubs can’t be built (are there any really great pubs in purpose built or modern buildings?). They have to evolve, shaped lovingly by their history, their loyal customers and the landlord’s idiosyncrasies. All the oil money in the world can’t buy authenticity.
*My favourite board game at The Dolphin is ‘Subjective Guess Who’. This is played in much the same way as standard ‘Guess Who’ (the one with the little flip-up board of cartoony characters) except rather than asking the usual questions such as, “Is your character wearing a hat?”, one may only ask subjective questions, such as, “Does your character look like they might have been a Cold War spy?” or, “Might your character believe they were once abducted by aliens?” or, “Does your character look like they have suffered from haemorrhoids?” or, “Could your character have played a minor role in a 1980s BBC sitcom?” It is deeply pleasing on the rare occasion that this questioning results in the correct identification of the mystery character (the shifty looking lady in glasses and a beret, more often than not).