This weekend has been one of feasting and indulgence. Recently, and most likely because we're relatively new to the Middle East, most of the indulgences have gone straight though us, but that's a topic for another day. Like hopefully never, but you can use your imagination.
Thursday night, the end of the work week here, Mike and I left the kids with our favorite sitter, Voilet. Voilet is Kenyan, darling, always smiling. (She pronounces it Violet; I love that we have an African Violet taking care of the kids, hopefully that isn't too silly or flippant of me to relish). She reads them bedtime stories which is awesome. One of the other sitters we tried doesn't read English, and Bethy cried and cried over being denied her evening treat of a visit to Frog and Toad or Little Miss Bossy or Tikki Tikki Tembo.
After an extended taxi ride that took about three times as long as usual due to traffic (though I'm told that is the usual and that we're just enjoying the summer's light population) we arrived at the Irish Village, easily finding the huge air-conditioned tent, the mothership containing Hopfest 2008. For one thing, the music was so unfathomably loud I hesitated to even go in, thinking about little things like bleeding eardrums and dislocated ribs resulting from the decibels. So of course we went in there anyway. (Any parents who are prone to fretting can just quit reading right now. If you continue it's no one's fault but your own. Skip down to the nice recipe below, close your eyes to the next few photographs, and live a happy life of denial).
I had heard that this was a serious party, as in, they hesitated to put it on again this year after last year, and not being the sort who attends such things, I was initially unimpressed. Though the bass was pounding, (really pounding, like the engine room of the Titanic but with vocals), essentially it was a well-lit area with lots of vendors around the margins, benches and tables in the middle, and an elevated stage above. No worries.
We wandered, found a couple of nice Aussie brews, and settled in to enjoy the music. Drink vouchers were 35 Dhs each, or a special deal of 9 for 300 Dhs. at the door. There was a live band doing mostly cover tunes, enthusiastic and fun, with lots of lights and smoke up on the stage. There was little mingling around us, and though we had to get very close and shout as loud as we could into each other's ears to be heard except between songs, it seemed pretty laid back. More people were trickling in and the seats were filling up pretty quickly, so we secured a spot and settled in for the evening. Most of the people were about our age, those who'd worked a few years domestically, then gone abroad.
I'm not entirely sure when it happened, sometime between the DJ playing Bon Jovi's You Give Love a Bad Name (Bon Jovi is one of the few rock stars who's performed here in the UAE, thus assuring his undying popularity among the populace) and maybe some AC/DC which charged up the Aussies in the crowd (imagine that, a beerfest attracting a large rambunctious group of Aussies, go figure) but the lights got darker, the beers kept coming, the crowd was overflowing, and suddenly everybody was friends with everybody else. Lots of laughing and singing and dancing, everyone trying out each other's beer and yelling or gesturing to express their opinion of the brews...my hair literally came down and we were having a great time.
Lots of bodies, lots of smoke, and we were all sweating and getting down. Some needed a little help from security getting down from where they were dancing on the tables. I'm not the table dancing sort which is a good thing since I went nuts when they played Bye Bye Miss American Pie. I also managed to get elbowed hard in the head, and Mike said it was hilarious to see my expression go from really mad to laughing hysterically and forgivingly in a split second as the guy apologized as best as he could for the inadvertent assault. Like any of us were feeling much pain anyway.
It was about this time that I decided that some water would be a really good idea. Here in Dubai I generally drink between a liter and a liter-and-a-half at meals with any sort of alcohol, it's just a good idea in this climate. There was no water to be found. (Hopfest organizers, if you're reading this, the way to keep drunken crowds happy is to have music, beer, and plenty of rehydration available). I know there were soda pops somewhere on the premises, but as you pretty much had to vertically crowd surf your way from one area to another, I gave it up as hopeless.
The folks around me kept trying to envelop me as part of whatever their ethnic background was. Some Irish boys were most successful, getting me to admit that yea, I moight have a bit O' Irish somewheres back in me history, (Oy knew it! one exulted, Oy said that lassie, she 'as Irish hair, there's no mistakin' it, we must talk with hehr. Ye may be American on yer passport, but don't ye be forgettin' yer heritage, yer Irish!!) It seemed like everyone around me was sure I was part of their group. The expats may be one big happy (and in this case pretty darn sloshed) family, but underneath that there is a real desire to have you be a little part of their homeland abroad too.
Or maybe it's just the hair. The hair crosses a lot of ethnic boundaries. Between the hair and the kids I've yet to find anybody who doesn't want to talk to me.
By the time Mike and I left the party, relatively early to be home by 11 for the sitter, it was going full force. Actually, it was a force of nature, and I was impressed by how well it seemed to be going, all those bodies pressed in a mass of noise and heat and beer, seemed to be doing pretty OK. It was odd, as usual, to go outside and take in a hot rather than a cold breath of nighttime air.
Bakewell Tart Recipe (as promised)
from BBC Food http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/
Preparation time 1-2 hours
Cooking time 30 mins to 1 hour
For the pastry
300g/10½oz plain flour, plus extra for dusting
125g/4½oz unsalted butter
30g/1oz sugar1 free-range egg, plus 1 extra, beaten, to glaze
2 tbsp milk, to bind (if needed)
For the filling
225g/8oz butter, softened
225g/8oz ground almonds
3 free-range eggs
1 lemon, finely grated zest only
50g/2oz plain flour
jar cherry jam
flaked almonds, for sprinkling
1. For the pastry, place the flour, butter, sugar and egg into a food processor and pulse to combine. If necessary, add a little milk to help bring the mixture together.
2. Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and roll out until large enough to line a 26cm/10in tart tin. Carefully lift into the tin, then place into the fridge to chill for an hour.
3. Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6.
4. Fill the tart case with a sheet of greaseproof paper weighed down with baking beans or rice. Bake the tart case blind in the oven for 15-20 minutes.
5. Remove the paper and beans and brush the pastry all over with beaten egg. Return to the oven for a further five minutes, until golden-brown. Remove from the oven and turn the oven temperature down to 180C/350F/Gas 4.
6. For the filling, beat the butter and sugar together in a bowl until pale and fluffy.
7. Mix in the ground almonds, then crack in the eggs one at a time, beating well between each addition - don't worry if the mixture begins to split, just add a little of the flour.
8. Fold in the lemon zest and the flour.
9. Spread some of the jam generously across the base of the pastry, leaving a 2.5cm/1in gap around the edge.
10. Spread the filling mixture over the jam and sprinkle over the flaked almonds.
11. Transfer to the oven and bake for 20 minutes, or until set and golden-brown. Allow to cool in the tin before serving in slices.
Friday night (OK fretful parents, see the recipe, you can come back now) was a much more civilised affair. Graham had invited us and 5 other couples to an End of Summer dinner at his villa. His villa was the real thing, large and welcoming. We had an adventure finding it, which included sand roads, the taxi driver reversing along a stretch of 2 lane road and our eventually paying him practically double for putting up with us. Beyond the tall beautiful gates at the entrance were shabby cats, one missing part of an ear, lounging like kings on the expanse of lawn, a long stone walkway and the villa itself.
We'd dressed up to show our good breeding since Graham had mentioned that the last American he'd had over for dinner had dined with his baseball cap on. We tried to distance ourselves further from that ill-mannered individual by presenting Graham with a nice bottle of wine and a box of Cashew Rocas from Tacoma that I'd been ridiculously pleased to find here.
After Graham set us up with drinks and went back to puttering away in his kitchen, we met the other couples and discussed vacation destinations and the local running scene and the pros and cons of maids and wondered if the power would go out again (which it did, but only during pre-dinner cocktails). Invited by our host into a grand dining room, we enjoyed a light first course of fruits in wine and then Graham began to bring out the main dishes. Note that I said dishes.
There was a turret of chili, one of rice, one of carrots and cauliflower, Thai chicken in hot green curry sauce, Hammour (fish), chicken in white wine sauce with mushrooms and shallots (his specialty), beautiful pastas in a rich creamy sauce, ratatouille, I probably missed something. An overwhelming experience for the senses. A collective sigh of appreciation rose from the gathering. This was an offering from a man whose wife of thirty-some years was returning to the country in two days and who didn't employ any regular household staff. In other words, he'd done every bit of it himself. It was impressive.
After two platefuls I still hadn't tried everything, despite my very best efforts. Mike and I were the American exception in the group of UK expats, most of whom were long-term UAE residents, and they were both entertaining to chat with, their biting Brit humor never far from the surface, and nice people all around. Between mouthfuls and marvelling at Graham's culinary talents, we also admired the helpfulness of his one younger guest, Monika, who was under 10 years old, made herself the perfect small hostess in her pajamas, refilling wineglasses, politely inquiring "may I take your plate?" and the like. Graham had made sure to include our kids in the invitation, but we decided that for a first visit, especially since the dinner started after their bedtime, we'd best go solo.
There were photographs of Graham's family, his 4 children, now mostly grown, and a wonderful one of him sprinting across the finish line of a half marathon in Egypt, taking 3rd place, flanked in the photograph on one side by the great pyramids and by the Sphinx on the other. Many trophies atop the shelf. Impressive.
Monika, moving things along (after the extended feasting none of us were moving), asked about when was the pudding, please? and the main dishes were shuttled back to the kitchen, replaced by 2 gorgeous large Bakewell Tarts with cream and ice cream, baked by by one of the other guests. The bakewell tarts I've had have been small, tasty affairs, but this was a real pie sized, thick sliced melt-in-your-mouth of course I have room for this dessert deal. Even Mike liked it. Sated, we all settled back.
We'd let our guard down too soon, for now here came the cheese and chocolate and Drambuie. Thick, handsome hunks of Stilton Blue and Gouda and Swiss and Double Gloucester. The chocolate mints, were indeed wafer thin, instantly bringing to mind John Cleese in a waiter's uniform, Monty Python and the Meaning of Life.
Graham also brought out the Cashew Rocas (Well ,why not? We were all done for anyway.) Ooh, what are these? trilled my seatmate and the baker of the tarts. "They're called Cashew Rocas," I said proudly, "from our home state." (I was so pleased, you see, to have brought something uniquely Washingtonian) What's in them? She asked, beginning to peel away the foil wrapper. "Well," I said, "they've got chopped nuts on the outside, they're enrobed in chocolate, and then the inside is, er...English toffee." (light goes on, mental head slap). "Gosh, guess you've had that before, huh?" Well, not in this form she said graciously, and made lots of appreciative enjoyment sounds.
I asked her about the Bakewell Tart recipe and she directed me to the one above, should you like to try it. I will be. Let me know how it goes!
In typical fashion, Graham, who says he identifies best with Charlie Brown, refused all help cleaning up the huge array of dishes, though I know we would have insisted (it was a mountain of dishes) and had a fun clean-up party. Unfortunately, after the trouble we'd had getting a taxi out to the villa, we'd imposed upon another couple to give us a ride to the nearby Mall of the Emirates where we'd be able to catch a taxi home. They were leaving, along with, as far as we could tell, the rest of the guests, so we had no choice. I feel awfully guilty about it, and we hope Graham manages to get it done before Katrina his wife arrives back in the UAE. It just seemed like a lousy way to thank him for such a magnificent evening.
The next evening we went to a Mexican 1st Birthday party...but that's for another post.