Friday, March 30, 2007

Welcome in Cairo

Tam has been singing the Indiana Jones theme song ever since we boarded the plane to Cairo. As we descended towards the city, we began to get a sense of just how vast a city of 20 million people (!) really is.

Cairo is a huge, teeming, overwhelming place. Thousands of ancient black-and-white taxis play a death-defying game on the roads, where lane lines and traffic lights are meaningless; shanties are built on top of one another, with huge concrete-block buildings covered in satellite dishes and trash stretching out in every direction. The westernized downtown area, where the museum and most of the hotels are, was modeled after Baron Hausmann's much-admired/ much-reviled design for Paris in the late nineteenth century, with wide boulevards and carefully laid out streets. A little of this romantic grandiosity still meets the eye today; this is Midan Tahrir, just outside our hotel.

We teamed up with another world traveller, who's been making his way from Manchester for nearly two months already, and haggled (rather skillfully, if we do say so ourselves) for a taxi into the city. After checking into our modest hotel, we headed for the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, an incredible, sprawling place full to overflowing with artifacts that seem to have been collected, placed behind their glass cases and labelled with thumb-tacked typewritten pages (or not) a half-century ago and left untouched since. Still, the treasures found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen are mind-bogglingly impressive.

Later, famished, we feasted on falafel, babaganoush, ful and tabbouli at a diner called Gad; diners are probably the most common type of restaurant in Cairo, being cheap and usually pretty good. Gad was packed, with waiters carrying unbelievably huge trays sliding from table to table on the slippery floor with practiced flair. Egyptian cuisine, especially in the north around Cairo and Alexandria, shares many characteristics with the food of other parts of the eastern Mediterranean. Ful medames (slow cooked and mashed fava beans) is commonly considered to be the national dish of Egypt and is eaten with garlic and olive oil or deep fried to make falafel or ta'miyya. The name derives from the Egyptian word for fava beans and a Coptic word meaning "buried," referring to the original means of cooking the beans in a pot buried in hot coals. Egyptian bread or 'aish masri ('aish means "life" in Arabic) accompanies every meal. At Gad, part of the restaurant is open to the street and you can watch the guys spin the dough to unbelievable thinness on their fists before flinging it down on the rounded griddle. After a couple of bottles of the local lager (the ancient Egyptians invented beer, you know), we returned to our hotel, exhausted just from negotiating the city.

We set out the next morning for Islamic Cairo, an older section of the city that teems with markets, mosques and people. After getting completely lost for hours in a bazaar that went on for miles and sold every conceivable variety of shoes, bags and plastic knick-knacks of the sort that end up in dusty charity shops in London, we finally managed to orient ourselves with the (scant) help of the map in our guidebook, and found the old bazaar of Khan al-Khalili, with its legenday spice suq (market). Laura got some expert tutelage on the various types of saffron and cinnamon, dried crushed flowers and herbs that characterize Middle Eastern cuisine, sniffing little spoonfuls of each brought out of barrels and drawers.

The touristy parts of Cairo are overrun by touts, postcard vendors, children desperately trying to sell plastic statues of ancient Egyptian cats, and aggressively self-promoting taxi drivers. But after tea at the legendary Fishawi's, we crossed the street out of the market and instantly were in a different world, where our foreign clothes and peculiar hair color provoked cries of "Hello!" and "Welcome in Egypt!" but no sales pitches. We walked along dirt roads while children drove donkeys hauling carts of vegetables, passing the Al-Azhar mosque along with a number of less renowned madrasas and mosques where people were going about their business. The stroll eventually led us to the Citadel, begun in the late twelfth century by Salah al-Din; its walls enclose the royal palace and the Muhammed Ali Mosque, built in a giant reconstruction program in the early 19th century and now among Cairo's most famous skyline silhouettes.

Across from the Citadel are two other grand mosques, the Mosque of Sultan Hassan (a positively enormous edifice begun in 1356, which has survived numerous structural problems and use as a storage base for artillery during a number of medieval dynastic struggles) and the pseudo-Mamluk Rifai Mosque, which houses the tomb of Sheikh Ali al-Rifai, founder of the Rifai "whirling dervish" sect of Sufi Islam.

Wandering back downtown, we found a place to feast on babaganoush, tahini, grilled chicken, and roast pigeon stuffed with rice and liver (surprisingly tasty), then retired for a couple of beers at a hotel bar down the street. Most of the bars in Cairo are in hotels and cater to the expat population and wealthy Cairenes; the majority of ordinary citizens congregate in coffee shops to chill out, set the world to rights, smoke and play backgammon. Alcohol, technically forbidden in Islam (although this stricture is often interpreted loosely), is a luxury product in Cairo; it's quite a shock to pay as much for a couple of rounds of beer as for a night in a hotel room, even though that's still less than a few pints would cost you at our local in Shepherd's Bush. Still, the relaxed atmosphere is a welcome relief from the bustle of the city and we enjoyed the scent of the shishas wafting around us from the next table.

The next day, we set off in the morning to explore the Coptic Quarter. About ten percent of Cairo's 20 million residents (seriously, 20 million people!) are Coptic Christians, and have traditionally gathered in this tiny quarter to the south of town, which is built on the ruins of the city of Babylon (you can see parts of the Roman wall, and one of the Babylonian fortress towers built by Diocletian). The Coptic Quarter contains Cairo's oldest and best known churches and also the just-renovated Coptic Museum. This, we agreed, is one of the very best museums either of us has ever visited; it's housed in a beautiful building featuring elaborately carved wooden ceilings reminiscent of Coptic church architecture, and displays an amazing collection of Coptic frescoes, textiles, sculptures and manuscripts (including some pages from the Nag Hammadi Gnostic texts, found in a jar in the Egyptian desert in 1945) from the 4th century to the present. The brilliantly colored frescoes from the monasteries of St. Jerome were like nothing we've ever seen. We also took in part of a Coptic Orthodox service at the tiny Hanging Church, so named because it is built over a water gate through which Melkite, the last Byzantine viceroy of Babylon, escaped just before the city surrendered to the Muslims in 641; then we peeked into the Convent of St. George, where many devout Coptic Christians had gathered to pray and press their hands against dozens of icons of the saint. The tiny Church of St. Sergius, reached through a medieval stone corridor, is virtually underground because the ground has been built up so extensively since the church's founding in the fifth century.

All this religious education made us hungry, so we stopped for some falafel at a little cafe just outside the convent (hey, nuns have to eat too!) which was notable for its delicious coating of toasted sesame seeds and the spicy heat of the accompanying babaganoush.

Restored, we caught a cab west across the River Nile, driving past lush green fields and grazing animals to the Pyramids, perched between the edge of the jammed, dusty streets of Giza City and the never-ending, rolling dunes of the Western Desert...

We ended our last full day in Cairo at Abou Tarek, another crowded Egyptian diner, this one specializing in - actually, exclusively serving - kushari, a nourishing (and filling) dish of noodles, macaroni, rice, lentils and onions. There is an accepted protocol for eating kushari, which we learned by observation: the other diners at our communal table dressed their heaping bowls with spicy tomato sauce and even spicier garlic oil from metal pitchers, then tossed the concoction together with a spoon. We followed their example for a fantastically satisfying meal, but declined the rather glutinous rice pudding which is the most popular dessert in the desert.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Mycenae becomes eclectic

When we got to the small town of Kosta on the Peloponnese, we weren’t sure what was next, but managed to ascertain that the bus waiting at the ferry port was going in roughly the right direction and hopped on. It was a gorgeous ride inland through the southeastern corner of the Peloponnese, right through the mountainous region of Arcadia, which lives up to its name in every respect: glorious soaring peaks, hillsides layered with olive and lemon groves, millions of tiny yellow daisies peeking out under crevices in the rock, windmills, goats and sheep grazing in the orchards and occasionally impeding the progress of the bus.

After a brief stop in Epidaurus, we reached our destination, the port city and original capital of modern Greece, Nafplio. We got our bearings and mounted our assault up the steep hill towards the city’s Akronafplia fortress and the sprawling pension where we would spend the next couple of nights. The climb with our luggage was rough, but upon arrival, we were rewarded with homemade lemonade and an incredible view of the port, city and fortress.

During dinner at a small taverna, where we sampled a local specialty of pork and peppers called kolokotroneiko, the power went out throughout the entire city. The kitchen staff was unfazed and continued their cooking by the lights of some candles tossed casually into a large glass. We finished our wine, settled our bill and made our way through the darkened streets along the waterfront, where tables were being lit up with candles and people chatted excitedly in the flickering light. At an outdoor café on the Platia Syndagmatos, we tried some tea made with sage leaves and the largest piece of baklava this side of Macedonia.

After breakfast on our hilltop terrace, we caught a bus past Argos to Mycenae, the place of the famous ruins linked to the legendary rule of the House of Atreus and the tragic dynastic struggles of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Orestes and Electra. First unearthed by the arch-romantic German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who was convinced that the Homeric epics and the tragedies of Aeschylus had a basis in fact, it is a stunningly evocative place, easy to imagine as the setting for the Greek epics performed many centuries later in the Theater of Dionysus on the Athenian Acropolis. We played amateur archeologists in the beehive Tomb of Clytemnestra, and posed as invading generals under the Lions Gate guarding the magnificent ramp up to the royal palace where the unfortunate Agamemnon was murdered in his bath upon his glorious return from Troy.

A postscript:
Apparently, the electrical supply in Nafplio is somewhat undependable, as we spent our second night in the city sipping wine in the dark again: a romantic adventure!

More pictures of our exciting adventures are available here:

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Speedboats and masquerades

After spending the morning repacking and much of the early afternoon wandering around the ports at Pireás (just south of Athens proper), we hopped a boat to the Argo-Saronic island of Spétses – named for its famous pine forests. In high season, most of the Greek islands are serviced by ferries; in late March, when there are few tourists and frequent thunderstorms, the hydrofoil or “flying dolphin” is the foodie-traveler’s only option. Turns out, however, that these funny-looking little speedboats, all acquired from the former Soviet Union and repainted in patriotically Greek colors, were designed for cruising on placid eastern European rivers and not on the open Aegean Sea, making for an alarmingly bumpy ride. Stops at the idyllic ports of Póros and Ídhra were followed by a brief storm that necessitated slowing the boat to idle through the whitecaps.

When we made it safely to port, arms exhausted from gripping the seats for so long, we were met by our kindly hotelier, who led us up, up, up through the town to his simple pension and then directed us to the Taverna Lazarus for dinner, telling us it was particularly known for its barrel wines.

Greece has made wine for many centuries, of course, but it’s only recently that Greek wine has been accorded any recognition internationally. We’ve been drinking local wines, usually “from the barrel.” The most characteristic has been retsina, a white wine fermented with pine resin, which we sampled alongside roast goat in lemon sauce. The taverna owner told us that they import grapes from the mainland and then ferment the wine with Spétses pine pitch in the large barrels at the front of the room. It was slightly sweet, with a piney aroma and a juicy mouthfeel, and our hostess, trotting around the room with a giant aluminum pitcher full of it, treated us to an extra little jug after our dinner … “for the road.”

The next morning, we woke to the sort of glorious sunny day one expects on a visit to the Greek isles. We meandered through town and found a bike shop, where we plunked down 10 euros and headed out on the 25 km (and hilly!) ride around the island. Spétses is notable to us (although apparently not to anyone else on the island) as the setting of the English author John Fowles’ famous book The Magus (Tam says Magoos), in which a young English schoolteacher and aspiring writer takes a job on the island – lightly camouflaged as an imaginary place called Phraxos – and falls into the clutches of a wealthy Greek philosopher and two beautiful but enigmatic English twins, who prove to be conducting an elaborate masquerade game that he is unable to comprehend. We were pleased to discover the overgrown and nearly abandoned grounds of an improbable English-style boarding school where Fowles taught briefly and which matches his narrator’s description in every particular, and spent much of the remainder of the afternoon entertaining competing conjectures as to where the other events in the novel occurred. Sadly, much of the landscape has been altered dramatically since Fowles lived on Spétses; two forest fires in 199o and 2001 laid waste to more than half of the island’s pine forest. Still, the beaches and views to the other islands and back to the mainland were breathtaking, and we came across the occasional pine grove that made us look around for the mysterious masked figures that populate the pages of Fowles’ novel.

Before catching a ferry to the mainland on Sunday morning, we witnessed some of the revelry on the island as the locals celebrated the confluence of Greek Independence Day and the Feast of the Annunciation. The cafés were filled with musicians and children in traditional Greek costume. We blended right in.

Next stop: the Peloponnese!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Consulting the oracle

We took a day trip from Athens to Delphi to consult the oracle. Alas, there’s not much to report culinarily. (Truth be told, we got ripped off at the snack bar for a dry sandwich and some completely unpalatable olive oil potato chips – yuck!) Nevertheless, the sights both ancient and natural were unbelievable and the clouds and drizzle made it all the more dramatic.

The oracle’s advice, which we added to the accumulated words of wisdom already adorning the inside of the desk drawers in room 107 of the Acropolis House Hotel:

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


Descending from the clouds, we caught site of some Greek islands and then - Athens, spreading out in all directions as we gazed out our airplane window. After finding our hotel and gawking at the view of the Acropolis (lit up in rather garish green lights) from our little balcony, we found a small ouzeri where they brought a huge platter of mezédhes to our table from which we chose our dinner: fried sardines, eggplant, calamari, a salad (Greek, of course) of tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, red onion, feta cheese, olives, capers and olive oil, and tzatziki, all washed down with some ouzo on the rocks. This method of service was quite a relief, since neither of us had made much sense of the menu posted out front, which made no concessions to non-Greek-speakers – culinarily a good sign, but logistically problematic!

Greek cuisine is heavily dependent on a few ingredients: olives and olive oil, local fish, lamb, eggplant, lemons, yogurt and feta, and vegetables like tomatoes, spinach, okra and bitter leafy greens. These basic ingredients are combined in any number of ways: lamb and eggplant could be served together as moussaka, or grilled and fried to make separate mezés. (The fried eggplant we’ve had has been a revelation.) Cucumbers appear in salad and are also chopped to give texture to tzatziki, a garlicky yogurt dip. Meats are sometimes grilled, as in souvlaki, but are also stewed with vegetables to produce mayirefta dishes– literally, “cooked.” Some of our favorite dinners so far have been in this category, like the delicious lamb shank braised with okra at the Platanos taverna in the Pláka district of Athens.

Ouzo is the characteristically Greek tipple. It’s made by boiling the fermented grape-mash residue left after wine-pressing and flavored with star anise or fennel. If you’re familiar with other licorice-y Mediterranean drinks, like pastis in the south of France, raki in Turkey or arak in Lebanon, you’ll recognize the concept immediately. Like all these, it’s served in small glasses accompanied by a bowl of ice and a pitcher of water, so that you can dilute it to your preferred strength; it’s clear in the glass, but turns cloudy when you add water. Laura thinks it turns her tongue numb. The word “ouzo” probably derives from the Italian osu Massalia, used to label early raki shipments from Ottoman distilleries in Smyrma, Constantiople and Lésvos to Marseille. Similar drinks go by tsipouro (in the north mainland) or tsikoudhiá (on Crete), or there’s the unflavored soúma available on islands in the eastern Aegean.

Like any first-timers, we spent our first full day in Athens touring the Acropolis complex with the hordes of just-off-the-cruise-ship tour groups and field-tripping students. Tam had been laboring (though not too hard) under the mistaken idea that our British Airways flight from Heathrow would mark a departure from hearing fluent English for the coming months. Not so! While we have no illusions that we are on anything but the center of the proverbial beaten path, it’s still amazing how many Midwesterners one can meet in Athens even in the off-season. We mingled with them outside the Parthenon, where classical Athenians paid homage to their gods, and in the ruins of the agora (market) where philosophers and citizens gathered to buy figs and lay the foundations of Western society.

We finished our afternoon with a quick snack at a café just east of the ancient sites within view of the Acropolis, where we enjoyed cheese saganaki (deep fried and topped with honey and sesame seeds), “Greek cheese pies” (cheese-filled filo), and another Greek salad (what to prevent the scurvy – so far so good).

Monday, March 19, 2007

Northward Ho!

We took the train north from London, through York and Durham. The scenery took a dramatic turn north of Newcastle, with glimpses of wild coast, crashing waves and huge rocks jutting into the North Sea, with little stone villages nestled into crags along the shore. Alighting in Edinburgh, we emerged into the twilight to see the castle looming above the city on ancient volcanic rock. Thunder crashed. A million shades of grey colored the medieval Old Town. It was a dark and stormy night.

Scotland was home to Tam’s forebears, and he felt his blood stir with ancestral memories of tartans and mossy crags as soon as we arrived. After a brief jaunt through a freezing downpour, we downgraded our culinary ambitions for our first night and supped on mussels and haggis-stuffed chicken in a lovely pub near our little guest house, washing it down with some ale and a few sips of whiskey, chatting with some proper Scottish locals, and bearing witness to the unexpected St Patrick’s Day victory of Ireland’s cricket team over Pakistan. Tam was pleased to note that B. Rankin was of material assistance in the glorious triumph.

By morning, the skies had cleared and we headed off to Edinburgh castle to relive Scotland’s glory days (not that they’re over, of course). The climb up the almost sheer rock face on the north side of the castle was enlivened by thousands of yellow daffodils, swaying in the bitterly cold wind but lending a spring-like air to the view. The vista at the top was nothing short of spectacular, as we watched a snowstorm blow across the Firth of Forth, then turn west around the city. The castle itself is pretty neat, too, capped by a tiny Norman chapel – possibly the oldest building in Edinburgh – built by King David and dedicated to his mother, St Margaret.

We spent the (entire) afternoon at lunch with friends (one a fellow blogger) at The Grain Store, a rambling stone-walled second story restaurant serving an excellent three-course lunch that featured Scottish smoked salmon with capers, hare confit served on beetroot risotto, grilled mackerel, pork belly with wilted greens, and a bitter chocolate cake with espresso cream sauce that recalled a pint of Guinness. After a few hours at the restaurant, we retired for a brief tutorial on single malt across the street at the Bow Bar, where we sniffed lots of fancy bottles and were instructed that a little water in your scotch awakens the peaty flavors. It’s a fine line, though; Laura was scolded by a fellow customer standing by the bar for having overdone the water in her drink. Fortunately, it wasn’t too weak to act as a necessary fortifier for the icy walk home in the howling wind.

The next day, we finished our tour of the Royal Mile, spit on the Heart of Midlothian for luck, marveled at the Thistle Chapel in St. Giles Kirk, saluted John Knox’s House and stopped at a tapas bar full of kilted Spanish speakers. We ended at the Holyrood Palace and Park and hiked straight up the Radical Road – named not for its intimidating incline, but for the leftist political leanings of its builders – for another thrilling view of the city and surrounds.

Confident that we’d earned it, we had what may be our last pint of real ale for some time at what was surely our favorite of the pubs we tried in Edinburgh, the “Oxford” Bar on Young Street. There, we mingled with the thickly accented and bushy-cheeked Scots that gather nightly to warm themselves inside and out sipping scotch and water by the fire and watching ancient British sitcoms with great enjoyment.

For our final dinner in Edinburgh, we decided that it was time to come to terms with Scotland’s most notorious culinary creation. Haggis is a kind of pudding made of sheep's 'pluck' (heart, liver and lungs), minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and traditionally boiled in the animal's stomach for approximately an hour, which is nearly universally disliked around the world, but which the Scots embrace and adore. A Room in the Town presented an upscale – and delicious – version in the form of a terrine: haggis, neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes) layered, molded and topped with chili-spiked gooseberry chutney. The haggis was earthy and meaty-tasting, and the spicy tartness of the chutney cut nicely through its richness. Our waiter explained that different butchers – and many families – have old and highly secret recipes for combining oats and sheep parts, differing dramatically in consistency, spice and strength. There’s also a ubiquitous and seemingly oxymoronic product known as vegetarian haggis, in which the meat is replaced by pulses and vegetables.

The other highlight of the meal was a slice of ginger snap cheesecake, flecked with crystallized ginger and caramelized just a bit around the edges. We were impressed enough to consider concocting our own version - once we get home to our spring form pans.

More pictures of our exciting adventure are available here:

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Hoax Horror Seizes Shepherd's Bush

This morning, we were lounging around in our flat (enjoying the last of the sticky toffee pudding with some tea) when sirens blared outside and there was a frantic knock on the door, followed by shouts of "Police! Open up! Police!" We leapt up and opened the door to a fully armored and shielded young policewoman, who informed us that there was a "suspicious package" very close to our building and that they were evacuating the area. Running outside in our pajamas, we joined crowds of people gawking at the army of ambulances, fire trucks, police cars and canine detectives milling around in front of our hitherto unnoticed building. They talked about getting out the "little robot" to defuse the bomb and assembled lots of impressive-looking equipment. Deciding that nothing was going to happen any time soon, we wandered down the street for some coffee, watching double-decker buses and delivery trucks trying to back down the street while the fruit vendors who line the Uxbridge Road looked on with undisguised amusement.

When we returned, the crowd was dispersing and the bomb scare was declared a hoax; we're now happily back in our unharmed little flat.

The tabloids, which have already decided that our neighborhood is a hotbed of undesirable political activity, will have a field day. Perhaps it will be quieter in Egypt...

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Taking Stock and Pulling Up Stakes

We're off on Saturday to celebrate St Patrick's Day in Edinburgh and then to see the world. Will the Greeks understand our rhyming slang? How are Egyptian bangers'n'mash? What's the best real ale in Jerusalem? These and many more pressing questions will soon be answered. Stay tuned!

London has been great - we'll miss it.

More pictures of our exciting adventure (so far) are available here:

Monday, March 12, 2007

Spontaneity Schmontaneity

The following is absolutely 100% true:

For the past few days, the weather in London has been uncharacteristically amazing - sunny and warm during the days, brisk and clear in the evening. So this afternoon, upon emerging from the travel clinic, we decided on a whim to forget about our pressing need to do some serious itinerary arranging and spend the day soaking up the sun at the Tower of London. Why not, after all? It was beautiful out, and we thought we should be sure to make the most of our last days here in England. So, we grabbed our tickets and a quick snack and made our way to the surprisingly long entrance queue. While in line, we learned that the King of Ghana was visiting the Tower and that security was exceptionally high for his visit. Beneath the portcullis, the guards rifled through Laura's handbag and even opened her wallet, in case she was secreting some kind of tiny but deadly weapon (a poisonous spider, perhaps). Undeterred, a crowd was forming around the Beefeater just inside the gate for the next tour. We followed the nattily dressed Yeoman Warden through the Tower for an hour, learning lots of sordid details about the various executions and murders that punctuate its history and laughing dutifully at his well-practiced jokes. When we ventured past the inner wall, a member of our group noticed the Royal Standard flying over the White Tower (the original central keep built by William the Conquerer). Our beefeater explained that this was Prince Charles' flag, signaling his presence in the Tower this afternoon. We thought little of it; HRH was surely in some posh, secluded room, discussing the fine points of postcolonial theory with the king of Ghana over tea and scones. But as we emerged from the Waterloo Barracks and into the light of the central courtyard, we noticed a group of tourists growing larger down by the new armouries. We hurried down, just in time to see Prince Charles himself step out into the crowd and make his way towards the White Tower, shaking hands and chatting about the weather with the camera-happy crowds. We were within feet of His Royal Highness, close enough to hear his practiced small talk and jovial guffaws - and, thinking we were in for nothing more exciting than a morning at the doctor's office, we had left our camera at home!

You'll just have to take our word for it.

P.S. Sue, he looks like he's pining.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

How English can you get?

As our time in London draws to a close, we're starting to cast about for some conclusions, making lists of all the loose ends we need to tie up and the places we need to visit before the next leg of our trip around the world. We're creating ever-more-interesting concoctions and casseroles from what's left in the fridge and the back of the cupboard. Recipes using pork belly and Special K will be gratefully accepted!

Today, though, on our last Sunday in London, we shrugged off the mantle of responsible leftover consumption and embraced that quintessentially English culinary tradition, the Sunday Roast - in this case, rare roast beef seasoned with cumin, coriander, garlic and ginger. This might seem like a rather un-English combination of spices, but it was inspired by a highly regarded eighteenth-century English recipe published by the doyenne of English cooking, Elizabeth David. In her Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, she argues that the use of such apparently exotic spices as coriander and ginger was actually fundamental to English manor house cooking from the seventeenth century onwards, a result of England's strong ties with the Middle East and North Africa.

We accompanied the beef with roasted root vegetables, and sticky toffee pudding for "afters." The roast was fantastic, but the sticky toffee pudding was the most fun to make, as it turned out that the secret to its stickiness is to poke lots of holes in a newly baked spice cake and pour hot toffee sauce into them, thus imbuing the cake with its characteristic gooey goodness. Traditionally it also has dates in it, which we left out for two related reasons: 1) we didn't have any dates and 2) we both hate dates. If you feel differently, by all means add some in, finely chopped or even pureed.

We served this with the last dregs of Tam's delicious Christmas port from Fortnum and Mason; it's also good with tea and, like all of our dessert recipes, makes a fine breakfast.

Sticky Toffee Pudding

For cake:
1 1/2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 large eggs
1 cup chopped toasted walnuts

For toffee sauce:
1 cup whipping cream
2/3 cups sugar
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Sift dry ingredients together. Cream butter, sugar and eggs together. Combine wet and dry ingredients, mixing just until blended. Mix in walnuts. Pour batter into 8x8 buttered pan and bake until skewer comes out clean, about 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the toffee sauce. Combine half of cream with sugar and butter in heavy large saucepan. Boil over medium-high heat until mixture thickens slightly and is deep golden, stirring constantly, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat; cool 5 minutes. Gradually whisk in remainder of cream (mixture will bubble vigorously). Stir over low heat until mixture is smooth.
Poke warm cake all over with a chopstick or the handle of a wooden spoon and pour half of toffee sauce over, making sure it soaks into all parts of the cake. Let sit for at least 30 minutes.

Serve warm, topped with remaining toffee sauce and creme fraiche or unsweetened whipped cream.

Makes about 9 servings.