Joanna Masters-Maggs, our resident Food Gossip, is back with her monthly column for like-minded food gossips.
This month, Joanna addresses the issues facing a wine-loving girl who finds herself living in a dry country for two years.
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“I don’t think I can do this,” I whined to my husband casting my eyes around the restaurant in something close to desperation. “I think it must be time for repatriation, don’t you?”
My husband had taken me to a smart restaurant in Al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia, on our first night in The Kingdom. It was such an attractive place: lovely china and glasses, a chic wooden floor, attentive waiters and delightful food. Yet it was all, so, so wrong. It wasn’t just that I was clad in a form-engulfing abaya, the sleeves of which kept getting in the way of everything. It wasn’t that we had been ushered to the less well-appointed “Family Section” without views over the The Gulf. Annoying as those facts were, they weren’t the only irritant.
“Look.” I held up my large balloon shaped wine glass for inspection. Full of San Pellegrino, it shimmered under the tasteful lighting. “What’s the point of all this wonderful food if you just wash it away with water?”
“It’s nice water. Italian,” encouraged David, whose heart must have already been sinking in the knowledge that he had two more years to live with a discontented missus.
“It’s. Not. Wine.” I enunciated my words carefully. “And I have beef.”
More to the point, I had a beef. Let me make this clear for anyone who has not had the Saudi experience: there is no alcohol to be had anywhere. It is forbidden, interdit, prohibido, indeed, haram. Occasionally a hapless supermarket manager might mistakenly stock chocolate liqueurs, but who wants those, with or without a good Chateaubriand?
Home-brewing, the expats’ hobby
I’m all for fitting into the lifestyles of the places where I wash up, but I like a bit of give and take. Several years without wine or bacon didn’t seem like give and take for a girl who is half English and half Irish. On that first night, I would have considered raiding a Church’s communion wine but, of course, there are no churches in Saudi either.
So started a two-year quest to find an acceptable alcoholic drink which would inject a little of the warmth wine offers to a dinner party, and a little of the naughty fun that oils the wheels of a party the rest of the world over.
Our starting point was the homemade wine with which most expats become acquainted. I won’t bore you with the recipe; suffice to say it involves a water cooler bottle, gallons of red or white grape juice, lemon, lots of sugar, yeast and a handful of teabags – for the tannin, of course. This lot is heated up then transferred to the water bottle and bunged up with the special cork and an impressive-looking glass “curly wurly” tube. After four or five weeks, when the smell of yeast has subsided, the wine can be bottled.
The resulting wines can vary surprisingly, but in one thing they are identical: each is truly appalling. It doesn’t matter the method used, the care taken or the expensive ingredients experimented with — fresh blueberries in Saudi, anyone? — it is just dreadful. We knew someone who actually made a batch from grapes he had trodden himself. Well, perhaps that never did sound promising.
Vimto — with a Tixylix chaser
During the weeks of waiting for our wine to ferment, I realized why even cough mixture was banned in The Kingdom. A few dry company dinners complete with presentations and speeches convinced me that teetotalism is not advisable, at least not before retirement. If you must spend dinner with a bunch of people not entirely of your choosing, a slug of Tixylix would be welcome.
I began to view anything sold in bulk with grave suspicion. Why, for example, would anyone wish to buy large quantities of Vimto, a cordial traditionally found in fish and chip shops in Northern England? Could it be possible that it was the secret to a sloe gin sort of drink? The adverts on massive billboards throughout the city suggested a sophistication more readily associated with champagne than a fruit squash. That observation led to an ill-advised attempt at a Vimto-based wine. Sadly, and perhaps predictably, the result was the cough mixture a million sleepless Saudi parents would have been grateful for. Never mind; undeterred, we continued our experiments with a dedication and wanton disregard for our health that the Curies would have admired.
Putting the fizz in compound life
Early in our stay in Saudi, I heard rumours of “The Champagne Lady” of another compound. She had, so it was said, perfected a sort of sparkling wine which, if not exactly champagne, was a far more pleasant drink than Saudi Ordinaire. My search for her was rewarded in time and she proved generous with her recipe. The key requirements were a strong lemonade bottle with a wired cork, unsweetened white grape juice and just two grains of yeast. Even one grain over requirements could result in a nasty glass-shattering explosion. One must resolve to keep the fledgling beverage in the fridge and not agitate it for two weeks — harder than it sounds in a household with four kids. After guarding the fridge door like an over-zealous Rottweiler for the required time, I could pull down the wire to cork the bottle then leave it in its comatose state for a further two weeks. The “pop” on opening was deeply gratifying; the flavor, surprisingly, “not so bad”. Rather like Appeltiser, it did not cause one’s face to reflexively contort while downing it. Champagne it was not, but drinkable it was.
Add the Perrier and face the grapes of wrath
Two years of experimentation taught us two things. Firstly, the only way to make a drink that approximated a bone fide drink one might find on sale elsewhere was not to serve our wine straight but to make a “Pimms” cocktail from it. We would pour it over a glassful of ice and top up with lemonade. After adding plenty of mint, cucumber and any other vegetation to hand, we could, at a stretch, imagine ourselves at Wimbledon. Unlike the wine alone, it was vaguely similar to what we wished it was. That alone justified the considerable number of Pimms parties we hosted in our time.
The second thing we learned, as a direct consequence of the first thing we learned, is that a wine snob is a wine snob whatever his situation. Making our “cocktail” on occasion caused as much offence as if we had used a Grand Cru as the base, especially if mixed it with someone else’s wine. The snorts of outrage could have been no stronger. Indeed cutting someone else’s wine with anything from Perrier to club soda to ice, was to run the risk of causing deep and enduring offense. There are certain people (and you know who you are) who should remember wine is meant to be fun. You need every laugh you can get in certain circumstances, and a dodgy Saudi Red ought to be the perfect vehicle for hilarity.
Oh, and in case you were wondering — why the popularity of Vimto? It turns out that it is the Saudi drink of choice during the Iftar breakfast enjoyed at sundown each day of Ramadan. It addresses low blood sugar levels after a day of fasting and stands up well to the full flavoured food on offer – and it doesn’t make you screw up your face when you drink it.
Joanna was displaced from her native England 16 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself and blend into the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”