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Breakfast in style

26 May 2009


AS SUMMER approaches, let me inspire you with ideas for breakfasts from the Holy Land. They would make a very easy parish fund-raising or social event, requiring little or no cooking.

My first Holy Land breakfast experience (it was not merely a meal to break a fast — it was an experience) occurred when I was wandering around the spacious restaurant area of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Amman, just after daybreak, with my mouth open.

There was every kind of breakfast you can envisage: a seductive counter with brioches, croissants, and muffins; a “salmon station” with cuts of smoked salmon and every sauce and garnish available; another counter entirely devoted to yogurts and labeneh — the Near Eastern form of Greek yogurt but with a firmer texture and a more savoury taste — with Bircher-Benner muesli (the real thing, not dry cereal), and displays of fruit including figs, dates, dried apricots, and melon.

But the authentic local breakfast came from the “egg station”, where you could have eggs prepared exactly to your specifications; and the “cheese station”, with soft, salty white cheeses such as halloumi and feta, and shinklish, which is a Lebanese cheese covered in za’atar, a regional spice mixture of oregano, thyme, salt, ground sesame seeds, cumin, and coriander.

You are offered cold cuts of meat, plain labeneh, labeneh flavoured with tiny pieces of sweet red pepper, onion, and garlic, laban (plain, runny yogurt), beans, pickled vegetables, cooked mushrooms, fried cauliflower florets, cucumber pieces, chopped tomatoes, green and black olives, and the typical Jordanian dish of foul mesdames. I was helped to a portion of this, lovingly garnished for me with chopped pepper and onion, lemon juice, and olive oil.

There were jugs of every sort of fruit juice, and teas and coffee. Some teas, such as Earl Grey, were familiar; others were exciting — Thunderbolt, and Green Pear Tree. Turkish coffee is often subtly flavoured with cardamom seeds, and is much boiled. The most common way to serve Indian tea is to boil loose leaves up in a kettle with plenty of sugar, and serve it black, in thick glass mugs, usually with a handful of mint leaves thrown in. You won’t need to eat again until the cool of the evening.

In less expensive establishments, you would be offered cold cuts of meat, with scrambled or hard-boiled eggs, labeneh, and cheeses — including foil-covered triangles of processed cheese (which were nicer than you might think).

To make foul mesdames, take two cans of field or fava beans, and simmer them in a large saucepan in their liquid, together with two cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped, two tablespoons of olive oil, the juice of a lemon, and one teaspoon of salt. Mix, and stir over the heat to a purée for about 15 minutes. If you cannot find Egyptian field or fava beans, use red kidney or pinto beans instead.

Labeneh can be made by straining yogurt through a piece of sterilised cheesecloth for about eight hours to make yogurt “cheese”, flavoured with a little salt or pressed garlic.

Terence Handley MacMath

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