We spent a lot of time at a private farm close to the Dead Sea, which to me is the most magical place on earth: 330 days of sunlight a year, low humidity, dry air, 1,200 feet below sea level – it all adds up to making it unique, I would go as far as to call it otherworldly. The light is tinged with copper and it makes everything look rich. Things that shimmer should, the pool for example but also things that shouldn’t. A stretch of date trees, looking like a bunch of fat ladies wearing overlapped necklaces of dates. Sometimes the farm hands put nets around the dates, to prevent the birds from getting at them and to keep the dates from falling to the ground. The fecundity of the land astounds me, eggplants that have been dried by the sun litter the fields, the pickers unable to keep up with the squat bushes production. There is more fruit in the citrus trees than there are leaves. I eat a pomelo a day, every day, for four days. I borrow from the Vietnamese and pick some searingly hot chiles, dice them up, toss them with salt and dip the pomelo segments into it. I set out to convert every person I meet and succeed. My suitcase back to Berlin is brimming with pomelos, as well as seedless pomegranates, chile peppers, cardamom pods, a quarter kilo of sumac, oh – and pine kernels in the shell from Afghanistan.These pine kernels, no relation at all to the soft, almost rancid specimens around here. They are sweet, nutty with a good snap to them. You can toast them sure but there is no need to. If you know me, pester me to give you some of these, they are outstanding!
We spent one day at a house in ‘Ruman’ district (which translates as the ‘pomegranate’ district – don’t you love that?). Everyone seemed to be dithering so I decided to make myself useful and pick the ripe olives, my father had said that if I collected enough, he would take me to a local press to turn them into olive oil. 2 hours of dedicated picking, yielded about 2 shopping bags full. You don’t make a trip to the press unless you’ve got sackfuls, about 5. My father comes out and sees me gingerly picking one olive at a time and starts laughing. I instantly understand why olive picking is a group activity, that takes all day long and is treated like a celebration. “You know olive picking days are where the most romantic matches are made.” my father tells me. “Why? Because all the girls are bending over?” I joke. He rolls his eyes at me and smiles, at this point he’s used to my humor I guess.We go to the press anyway. It’s a heady mix of motor oil and olive oil. The machines make a terrible racket. Clusters of people are gathered around the end where the sacks of olives are upended into the ground, on the other end, the end where the olive oil comes out – a large matron, hair covered with a scarf, legs apart, knees hugging the canister. They do that to make sure that it’s their olive oil they get and not something inferior, which of course we Europeans would find superior. The plant manager dips a plastic cup quickly into her stream of olive oil, she shoots him a look, he shrugs it off and hands me the cup. I drink olive oil that’s moss coloured, viscous and warm. It makes everything I have in my cupboard at home seem thin and pale. He shouts around to the plant boys to put some olive oil in our car. “No ‘zalame’ (meaning man, used exactly like Americans do), we have the olive oil you sent us half a year ago.” my father shouts at him – in Jordan, nothing is said, everything is shouted. “That’s old.” the mustachioed factory manager retorts, “this is fresh”. That’s the other thing about Jordan, everything is fresh, the fruit, the olive oil, the cheese, the meat. I don’t know what they would make of our zapped vegetables, that will keep their shape and colour in fridge drawers for entire months.Our trip culminated in a large family gathering, where children came in gaggles, descending in a flurry of noise and chaos. Layla being the only child with blond hair and blue eyes was a target. Little children crowded around her to touch her hair, older children carried her around like a sack of potatoes. She was reduced to tears in less than 10 minutes and clung to me desperately. Which made the children (and their parents who were just as likely to engage in un-authorized kisses) pursue her even more. I found a quiet corner where we shared our food with a skinny nervous dog who had his ears sheared off (to make him mean, tragic) away from all the commotion. Later, I stopped at a petrol station to buy her a sweet treat as a reward for being brave, the shop was deserted, I turned my back to her to pay for her Shrek candy dispenser when I heard her scream “Put me down! No kisses!” The 25-year-old, male shop attendant was enthusiastically planting kiss after kiss on her cheeks. What can I say? They love children, even more than food it would seem.I got back Saturday afternoon and went running to the supermarket to get provisions because I had promised to make dessert for the Lebanese themed evening at The Dairy organised by the Berlin Cooking Club. My idea came to me in Jordan, while I was grimacing my way through one of those tar like, cardamom flavoured coffee they favour so much. A burnt cream with a scoop of coffee ice cream, a more palatable version of the pungent coffee. It’s based on a creme caramel recipe (whole eggs and milk) rather than a crème brûlée recipe (egg yolks and cream) because I prefer a lighter custard. The coffee ice cream is a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall so I will direct you straight there. My cardamom burnt cream recipe follows below.
Cardamom Burnt Cream
6 cardamom pods, crushed
400 ml of milk
100 ml of cream
1. Heat the milk and cream in a saucepan with crushed cardamom pods. Take off the heat, cover and allow to infuse for half an hour.
2. Pre-heat oven to 170ºC, prepare a water bath. Whisk the eggs with the sugar.
3. Strain cardamom pods out. Bring the milk and cream back up to a simmer.
4. Slowly pour the cream onto the eggs whisking vigorously the entire time.
5. Pour the custard into shallow, wide lipped dishes (maximum surface area so you can have lot’s of caramelised sugar at the end)bake in a preheated oven for 10-15 minutes or until the custard has the slightest wobble in the center. Take out of the water bath immediately and put on a wire rack (otherwise they keep cooking).
6. Allow to cool, overnight in the fridge is fine but not essential. Sprinkle a scant teaspoonful of sugar, evenly on top and then caramelise with a kitchen blowtorch. Serve with a scoop of coffee ice cream on top for a truly Middle Eastern taste.
*Depending on the dishes or ramekins you are using, this could serve more or less. A good way to figure things like this out is see how much liquid one of your dish takes, multiply by how many dishes you are making and then make sure you have that much liquid in your recipe. The one above makes about 500ml.