November 4, 2010 § 2 Comments
Here are my 2 sons George and Arthur wandering down the main drag in Naama Bay, Sharm El Sheikh, looking in vain for a real taste of Egypt. Diving in the Red Sea has been something I’ve hankered after doing since my first scuba attempts in the cold Atlantic waters off Pembroke in Wales in my early 20s. The 2 week half-term break this year meant we had the opportunity to travel a little further afield than usual so I thought why not take the boys snorkelling in the Red Sea?
Sharm El Sheikh (or just Sharm as it’s universally known in the travel industry) is a package holiday Mecca. It processes thousands of foreign tourists from the northern climes of the UK, Russia, Poland and Germany who are jetted and bussed in for a week’s guaranteed sunshine and sent back home a week later without having left the grounds of their all-inclusive resort-style hotels. Astoundingly, many of them don’t even bother to dip a toe into the truly exquisite clear warm waters of the Red Sea, preferring the hotel pools and waterparks.
The Red Sea did not disappoint and the boys took to snorkelling like the proverbial ducks:
But what of the food? Before our trip I had dreams of Bedouin-style charcoal-roasted lamb, aromatic spices and orange-flower water scented sherbets. One of my most-thumbed cookbooks is Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern Food. Claudia grew up in Egypt and I’ve long been bewitched by her evocative descriptions of the food of her childhood, the ful medames (fava beans), Sephardic Jewish dense orange and almond cakes, salads fragrant with parsley and mint.
You can imagine that the all-inclusive “international buffet” served in the ersatz surroundings of the “Andalusia” restaurant of our hotel, the Dreams Vacation, was a bit of a rude awakening. Remember the Leyton Buzzards’ 1979 hit “Saturday Night Beneath the Plastic Palm Trees”?
Sharing mealtimes with the tattooed classes was quite an experience. The sight of a middle-aged Geordie sporting nothing but a pair of Speedos tucking into his lunch washed down by as much free lager as he could drink is one that will live long in the memory for all the wrong reasons.
Then there were the Russians. We’ve all laughed about Germans bagging all the best poolside spots but over here it’s practically a Russian invasion. The menfolk were securing beach sun loungers at 6.00 in the morning, bikini clad babushkas were throwing themselves into the water with wild abandon, and the imperious way they treated the local staff was nothing less than shocking at times.
The food on offer at the “international buffet” was at first sight not particularly appealing. The chef clearly knew on which side his bread was buttered and tried to please his Russian and Polish customers with his command of Communist Cuisine – a lot of indeterminate grey boiled meats and stodge.
As we became more familiar with the place we searched out some of the better things to eat which surprise surprise were local Egyptian staples. At breakfast time I developed quite a taste for the falafel served with soft fresh pitta, tahina and sour pickles – I know it sounds weird but pickles at breakfast time are appealing in a hot climate, especially after an early morning swim.
At lunchtime the cucumber and yoghurt salad was the star attraction for me, along with gloriously sticky Levantine pastries. The Egyptians clearly have a sweet tooth and can fashion a pudding out of almost any ingredient it seems.
Here’s a pic of that well-known school dinner classic cornflake pie, Egyptian style:
The chef had more up his sleeve: he’d also prepared a branflake pie, unconscious of the irony of turning such a Puritan and unappealing cardboard-like product into a calorie-laden syrupy treat:
The most confusing cross-cultural experience of the week has to be the night we ate in the hotel’s Mexican restaurant. The sensation of sitting in an Egyptian hotel eating Mexican food listening to piped German music (a Beethoven symphony!) surrounded by Russians and Poles was nothing if not bizarre.
So did we ever find a taste of the real Egypt? You’ll have to read the next post to find out…