Nigel Slater’s Middle East – BBC 2

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All right, this is a cookery series, not a historical series, but how refreshing to have a series about the Middle East which shows us a side of the region that doesn’t primarily involve war, terrorism or human rights abuses.  How refreshing too that it encompasses different cultures of the Middle East, and just the Arabic-Islamic culture which tends to be what springs to mind when the words “Middle East” are mentioned.   Next week’s episode is about Turkey, the country which makes the best savoury food in the world.  What a terrible shame that recipes weren’t exchanged during the siege of Vienna 🙂 – the combination of Turkish savoury stuff and Austrian sweet stuff would be unbeatable!  The third of the three episodes will be about another non-Arab country, Iran.  And this week’s episode was about Lebanon, the one Arab country of the three, and one which must be one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world, about 54% Muslim (pretty much equally divided between Shias and Sunnis), 41% Christian (mainly Maronite, Greek Orthodox, and Melkite) and 5% Druze.

Anyone who grew up during the 1980s will be accustomed to the use of the word “Beirut” as a synonym for “disaster zone”.  However, as Nigel pointed out very early on in the programme, it was known as “the Paris of the East” in the 1960s.  And how great to hear him talking about “the Levant”, a term that rarely seems to be used these days – with “the Middle East” being used as a generic term for the whole region, and with the sense that it’s set apart from the rest of the world.  The term “the Levant” reflects the fact that Lebanon and its neighbours were historically very much part of the Mediterranean world too.  He also reminded us that Lebanon is far more liberal than most other Arab countries.  OK, there are certainly issues there, but nothing like there are in somewhere like Saudi Arabia.

There were reminders of Lebanon’s troubled recent past, obviously.  It was touching to hear about an ice cream shop in Beirut which had barely closed for a day all through the civil war, and which was still physically scarred by war damage.  It was sad to hear that some of the traditional foraging places for herbs were no longer safe because of the danger of unexploded cluster bombs, although heartening to hear that the herbs were now being cultivated elsewhere.  But how lovely to hear that the same pastries were eaten by Muslims at Eid and by Christians at Easter.

It was interesting too to hear about preserves.  Yes, all right, preserves don’t sound that interesting, but they really are – first of all when they involve the gorgeous fruit that can be seen growing in the Levant, and also when you’re being told about the importance in Lebanon of preserving fruit to be eaten during the harsh winters.  Apparently the Lebanese army opens snowbound roads so that jam can be taken to Beirut!   That’s a true story to make you smile, but it’s also a reminder of just how severe the winters in parts of the Middle East, especially in mountainous areas, can be – and that’s very relevant at the moment, when there’ve been some heartbreaking reports this very week about Syrian refugees freezing alive whilst trying to make their way to Lebanon in blizzard conditions.

The savoury food all looked pretty good too!  And, for those of us who did grow up in the 1980s,  when the name “Lebanon” pretty much translated as “war zone”, how heartening it is just to know that a programme like this can be made.  A thoroughly enjoyable hour’s watching.

 

4 thoughts on “Nigel Slater’s Middle East – BBC 2

  1. Chris Deeley

    There were two sieges of Vienna – 1529 and 1683. The croissant is said to represent the Ottoman’s sickle moon, being created to commemorate relief of the 1683 siege (led by Poland’s Jan III Sobieski). So in that respect there may be an historical link between Ottoman and European cuisine. And don’t we all love our breakfast croissants! (Maybe it’s just jam butties in Manchester?)

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    • Yes, I know the croissant story – I’ve always liked it! And there’s a story that the Ottomans left bags of coffee behind, and that’s where the Viennese coffee houses started from. I love croissants, but due to permanently trying to lose weight I usually stick to All Bran!

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