Sport 8: Autumn 1992
♣ David Burton — A Mullet in Luxor
In 1941 L/Sgt Frederick Burton was swimming at a beach near Alexandria with a group of fellow soldiers from the and New Zealand Expeditionary Force, when a tsunami appeared from nowhere, broke on the shore and sucked them all out to sea in its aftermath.
In a desperate rescue attempt, those left on shore linked arms and formed a human chain. The man on the end managed to grasp my father by his luxurious shock of hair, but lost his grip as the frail chain of flesh itself was broken and swept away.
Frederick swam, struggled, and trod water with steadily decreasing strength, until eventually it became hell to resist, and bliss simply to lie back and let the water pour down his throat. And yes, his life did flash before him, along with the thought that he would be leaving his five-year-old daughter an orphan on the other side of the world. He entered the clear white light of the Void and his body was washed ashore. It was laid on the beach in a line with some thirty others.
A group of Frederick's loyal friends immediately began the old Holgier Nelson style of resuscitation, propping him from behind, taking his arms and stretching them out like Christ crucified, then folding them together in front of him. It was an ungainly and inefficient method—mouth-to-mouth was yet to be invented.
An army medical officer, walking up and down the line of the drowned men, gave Frederick a cursory once-over, and advised the friends to give up, as he was a lost cause. They persisted, however, for another ten minutes until the medical officer passed by again and formally ordered them to stop. They ignored him and carried on for half an hour, until the officer appeared once more and threatened to have them charged with disobeying an order.
Frederick's body was bundled on to the back of a truck and taken off to a British army hospital in Alexandria.
On this journey to the morgue, Frederick partially regained consciousness. He was aware only of something thumping up hard against him as the page 184 truck turned corners, and having to fend it off with his arm. It was a corpse.
At the hospital gates, without regard for his having just returned from the Void, Frederick was ordered by a hard-boiled matron to climb down from the truck and walk, naked and unaided, through the wards to a bed.
Exactly two decades later, in 1961, the events of Frederick's life assumed a grim symmetry: desperately weak once more, he was again forced onto his feet by a nurse, this time for a walk which took him back into the Void forever.
He contracted pneumonia and died four days later.
As a nine-year-old, I began to jigsaw my father's past together with the pieces he had left around the house: a collection of bayonets, the head of a time bomb, an Italian anti-aircraft bullet; a gas mask; a scabrous black scorpion packed into a tobacco tin with its tail arched permanently into a stinging position; some captured Italian army insignia; shrapnel from a thermos bomb and an incendiary bomb, labelled for posterity in his minuscule handwriting; an Afrika Korps camouflage gun cover which we used as a ground sheet on our family picnics; his service medals and their miniatures, and the solar topee Frederick was wearing in the Western Desert the day a shell exploded in the breech of a howitzer and blew three fingers off his right hand.
His personality was not, however, so uncomplicatedly macho: he also left a minute mirrored silver perfume bottle, an Egyptian woman's veil, a tasselled fez, a scarab, a jewellery box exquisitely inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl, and an Egyptian clay water bottle, which maintains coolness by allowing water to evaporate gradually through its pores.
In our kitchen was a row of bottled eggplants, a rare sight in the New Zealand of 1961, which Frederick had grown and preserved himself. Hidden away in the top cupboard was a trove of tinned treasures: Perigord truffles, Burgundian escargots, frogs legs and Meredith Bros. shell-brand toheroas. There was Frederick's mayonnaise-making gadget, which he had doggedly cranked for half an hour at a time, and his library of cookery books, including a bound volume of hand-written recipes he had used in his post- War career as Nelson's leading caterer.
What captured my imagination most of all, however, was a collection of page 185 leather-bound photograph albums, which presented a picture of Cairo in 1940 as an elegant city possessing a mixture of both Deco and traditional Arabic architecture, neat cobbled streets, scrupulously clean and largely deserted, with woven wire litter bins at each lamppost, impeccably manicured public gardens, sidewalk cafés, exotic men in fez, turban and a caftan known as a jelabiya, women beneath the veil, lemonade sellers plying their trade, and itinerant bread sellers with hoops of bread looped around poles.
In another album we called his ditty book, were menus from bars, cafes and brasseries of the period: the Pam-Pam, Buffet&Bar 'Bristol', Nelson's Greek Shop, 'Splendid' Bar; Claridge Bar; Bar & Buffet 'Pole Nord', the Washington Restaurant Brasserie. Most of these reflected the tastes of the British colonial rulers, offering permutations of eggs, steak and chips.
At the Brasserie Britannia, however, one could dine on poisson mayonnaise, riz á la financière, tripes a la venetienne, escaloppe á la viennoise, gateau praline, tartlette au fraise, and finish off with roquefort and gruyere.
At the Brasserie Restaurant Finish, on June 22, 1940, Frederick had been able to choose from porc en gelée, pommes vapeur; crevettes, sauce remouladé; poisson à la Grecque; jambon, sauce madère et épinards; and crème caramel.
At Groppi, still in existence today, one could even sip, at a price, vintage Veuve Clicquot and pick at pressed beluga caviar.
It was a sophisticated, cosmopolitan society, where wealthy Europeans of every nationality held garden parties for the troops in their leafy garden suburbs, in expensive villas surrounded by date palms.
In the intervening half century before I reached Egypt, however, a generation of fellaheen had sat at the cinema, and later reclined on the straw beds of their mudbrick huts in front of television, and had had their minds filled with hitherto undreamed luxuries of England and America; the consequence today is that they have all come to Cairo in search of them, and in the process, strained every facility to bursting point. Sewage now spews out onto those neat cobbled streets, pock-marked with unfinished road- works. Tides of humanity are forced to spill from the footpath out onto the road, ignoring the horns of impatient taxi drivers trying to cut a swathe through them.
Accommodation has become impossibly tight, with the result that in the tourist season, from November through to March, it can be a problem finding a room of any sort.page 186
This we were to discover, arriving in the city at the end of the day, having been detained for half an afternoon by Egyptian immigration at Cairo Airport, for entering the country without the visa the Egyptian embassy in London had insisted we would not need.
After trying four hotels and finding them all full, we arrived at the Pension Suisse. Its owners might well have benefited from a lesson in Swiss hygiene. The winds which blow in daily from the Sahara had caked the entire foyer—walls, floor and ceiling—with a film of brown dust. This should have been sufficient warning in itself, but we entered the rickety 1940s lift nevertheless. It dropped several centimetres as we stepped in.
At reception, four young Egyptian men were reclined on a large sofa in a writhing knot. One was sitting in the lap of another, who was fondling his crotch. At the sight of us, they simultaneously leapt up and came running. Fresh prey.
They led us off to show us a room. Down the hallway an Englishman complained his shower wasn't working. Nor was the toilet in our room: the bowl was full of faeces and the cistern was broken. The wooden floor was grey with dirt. There were brown, unidentifiable stains over the walls; a few scattered flakes of silver backing a pane of glass on the bathroom wall denoted it had once been a mirror. They showed us three rooms and they all stank equally of shit, stale sweat and unwashed sheets.
The Goden Hotel and the Hotel Tulip were much the same. As darkness fell we were on the streets once more with our baggage.
'Can I help you?' asked a young Egyptian, a pretty boy in his early twenties, with huge almond eyes, slanting down into each other. They roamed every inch of Kate's body, his thick lids flickering slightly, before resting inscrutably on me. 'You need accommodation? I know a place I could show you.'
'Are you a commission agent for the place?' I asked.
His face fell. He seemed genuinely offended. No, he'd have us know he was completing an MA in history at Cairo University. He didn't care at all if we didn't see the pension, he was only trying to help us.
And indeed he was. The Pension Roma was a haven: spotlessly polished wooden floors, ensuite bathroom, hot water, freshly ironed sheets and an ornately carved wardrobe, £8.50 with breakfast included. From our sixth- storey room, I surveyed what we had just escaped: a dismal landscape below of flat roofs, each and every one covered with a metre deep pile of rubbish.page 187
The next morning, dutiful tourists, we took a jolty trot atop a camel around the Giza pyramids to the sad mouldering mound which is all 20th- century air pollution has left us of the Sphinx.
We then decided to ferry down the Nile to see Old Cairo.
The ticket box had once been painted blue, but it now bore what I was soon to realise was the Egyptian trademark for public hatches: an accretion for perhaps 15 cm all around the frame of solid shiny brownish-black grime, from generations of clamouring hands. There was a layer of rubbish over the floor of the waiting area, and the seats were either broken or had split coverings, with the stuffing spilling out.
The ferry itself was even more disgusting. It was a late model, no more than ten years old, but it had never been cleaned. The friction of bums had ensured the plastic bucket seats had remained orange on one side, but their backs were like the ticket hatch—coated solid with shiny black grime. A sheet of canvas had once covered the floor, its brown and grey ragged remains long since trampled under. The portholes were so streaked and splotched that we could barely see where we were going.
The ferry moved in a painfully slow zig-zag from one side of the bank to the other, stopping all the way, until we reached what an elderly passenger told us was Old Cairo.
Our visit lasted approximately five minutes. A stench of donkey dung and human excrement assailed my nostrils as I viewed a scene of desolation: streets of crumbling mud buildings, not a leaf or a twig in sight, and an ankle-deep layer of rubbish everywhere—frayed remains of plastic bags, scraps of cardboard packaging, bits of yellowed newspaper. A group of dirty children played and wallowed in the midst of this, obviously knowing nothing else.
Stepping back aboard the ferry, we were accosted by a commission agent who invited me to see his 'father's' perfume shop. Father my foot, I thought, but I followed him in any case.
We were not sorry, for the Thousand and One Nights Perfume Shop proved to be everything that Old Cairo should have been. Pushing aside the beaded glass curtain over the doorway, we entered a dimly lit room which was the embodiment of a 19th-century Orientalist painter's fantasy: a silk canopy was suspended from the ceiling, finely woven kilims covered the floor with a riot of colourful patterns, and around the walls were richly carved cabinets containing jars of perfume, the scent of which pervaded the page 188 whole shop.
We were ushered to chairs inlaid with mother-of pearl while the tout's 'father' launched into a well-polished spiel: what is sold in the West as French perfume, he claimed, is made at Grasse from a much diluted base of Egyptian oil, distilled from flowers grown in vast commercial crops in the Nile Valley. Once home in New Zealand, I could dilute his Chanel No. 9 or Opium base nine times with ethyl alcohol, and end up with French perfume. Whatever the truth of this, his oils certainly smelled wonderful, and with a black market exchange for my US dollars at twice the official rate, his prices were unbelievably cheap.
Our deal haggled over and successfully concluded, the merchant sent his shop boy out on an errand. Several minutes later he arrived back with glasses of heavily sweetened mint tea and a plate of scented semolina and coconut cakes, simple but very delicious:
Boil together 1 ½ cups sugar and ½ cup water for 8 minutes, until the syrup is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Stir in the juice of ½ a lemon, and ½ tsp rose essence. Allow to cool.
Melt 125g butter and add 2 cups semolina, ½ cup plain white flour, 1 cup castor sugar, 1 cup desiccated coconut, 1 tsp baking powder, and 1 tsp ground cinnamon. Pour in ⅔ cup milk and stir until you have a smooth batter. Spread it about 1 cm thick over a greased baking dish. Bake at 180 C for 30-40 minutes, until golden brown and crisp on top. Remove from the oven and immediately cut into diamonds. Pour over the reserved syrup and serve hot or cold.
Despite our misgivings about Said, our unofficial dragoman whose salacious glances Kate had not failed to detect, we felt beholden to him and, out of guilt, agreed to meet him at his favourite haunt for lunch that day.
His hangout was a despicably filthy little outdoor café down an alley. Fag ends, bottle tops and scraps of paper littered the ground, providing wayside distractions for flies doing the rounds of improperly wiped table tops.
Kate sat down gingerly, her mouth set like a disapproving memsahib. No thank you, she didn't want anything to eat or drink. Nor did I, but out of politeness to Said, I ordered a casserole. This was promptly brought down page 189 from the first storey kitchen in a crude, lopsided black dish by a grimy waiter, clutching a handful of pitta breads in his other hand. These he slapped down onto the bare tabletop. I made a mental note not to eat the bottom piece; not that it would have made any difference.
The outside of the dish was coated with lumpy patches of an unidentifiable black substance which I was able to scrape off with my fingernail. Thrice cooked grease perhaps. Inside was a mixture of mutton, green fava beans, tomato paste and broth.
The vessel was an aquarium of unseen amoeba and bacteria, with the mutton no doubt a particularly genial host. Setting my face as bravely as I could, I scraped together a spoonful of the beans. Swallowing it, I had an urge to order some water, but thought better of it.
The state of the kitchen preyed on my mind until finally I arose, walked up the stairs, and poked my head through the door. The kitchen was stained black with smoke and decayed food scraps. A squalid figure was huddled over, 'washing' glasses—rubbing them with his fingers in a basin of cold water, its shade of grey matching his filthy splotched jelabiya. Around the inside of his collar, the ribbing of the linen was accentuated by a row of shiny black knobs of dirt. He wore a skull cap and a hurt expression on his wrinkled face, from which sprouted a grey four-day growth.
I walked back to the table feeling sick.
At adjoining tables men were sitting around smoking hookahs and playing backgammon and cards. A wild-eyed young man appeared at the table. Said introduced him as Mohammed, his friend. But he didn't seem particularly friendly; standing there, glaring, he began firing questions at me: country? name? profession?
Journalist,' I replied, thinking, who is this guy? A cop? 'Do you understand what I mean?'
'Of course I understand. I speak English, not double Dutch.'
He moved over to the next table and sat down by himself. Calling for a hookah, he produced a small dark brown lump and began crumbling it.
Hashish? Here in public? I turned to Said for an explanation.
'Oh, everybody smokes hashish in Cairo,' he laughed. 'It's always been this way, even in my grandfather's day. It's almost unknown for us to get arrested. And Mohammed's certainly okay. He's a policeman. But no problem even for you in some parts of the town. Come with me tonight, and I'll show you some Cairo nightlife.'page 190
We began soon after nightfall in another little grot hole off Kemal Ataturk, with more men sitting around smoking hookahs and playing backgammon and cards. I was captivated by the dramatic gestures of the men; their self- important expressions were so unintentionally comic, as they slapped the cards down on the table, that I found it difficult not to laugh.
I was introduced to another student friend of Said's, a rather imperious young chap who positively glowed as he was introduced as a descendant of King Farouk. With a few niceties, a stroke of his fingers through his beard and a flick of his shoulder length hair, he excused himself and went back to his backgammon: he had an audience, and he was winning. Up, up into the air went each counter, and then bang! slap down on to triangles which had all but been eclipsed by wear and grime.
He later joined us in a taxi ride across town to the Khan Khalli market, where we alighted and walked through a maze of narrow, unsealed dirt streets. Out of doorways men and boys hissed 'Hashish?' at us as we passed.
Finally we stopped at a doorway where Said had to strike a match to show the way upstairs to a room. More accurately, it was the remains of a room, since the roof and part of one wall were missing.
A group of men were sitting in a circle, one old man in turban and jelabiya reclined on a bed.
It was only when I saw the hookah, and beside it a custom-built tray filled with neat rows of prepared bowls, that I realised I had been brought to a hash den. Each bowl had a little crumbed brown hashish mixed with a few strands of jet black Egyptian tobacco, shining with glycerine.
Smoking the hookah was a well defined ritual. First some lumps of charcoal had to be fired over a gas stove. A hollow tin was placed over them to act as a chimney, and a piece of cardboard used to fan them. After they had flamed and begun glowing, the live bits were broken off and placed in a small sieve, which was then swayed violently from side to side to make it glow all the better. A prepared bowl was taken from the tray, covered with live coals, which were then patted down as the smoker drew in, taking it very gently.
When it came to my turn I impressed them with my ability, though the first pipe had no effect. Then came the second, and the third pipe. Still nothing. Well, I thought to myself, either hashish is vastly overrated, or this is a really dumb way to smoke it.
It certainly seemed to have affected the others however, as they seemed page 191 to find unlimited hilarity at a little game I was having with the old fellow on the bed beside me. He would say 'Saida' (good morning) and I would echo the Arabic word back to him. Then the same for 'good night', 'go to sleep', 'go to hell', etc.
After the fourth pipe an anvil descended from the cosmos and landed upon my skull. I was rendered speechless and sat there, catatonic, until 15 minutes later I managed to move myself in slow motion through the gap in the wall in time to vomit over a rubbish pile conveniently sited outside.
Said immediately took on the role of nurse, and sent out for some basboosa, which he assured me would settle my stomach. As he fed it to me, he began questioning me about me relationship with Kate. Ha! I thought, so he is finally going to come out and reveal his ulterior motive.
I assured him Kate and I were very close and there was no question of her sleeping with other men.
He laughed: 'But I'm not at all interested in Kate ... don't you see? I want you!"
The GPO in Cairo is not signposted. As we stood outside, parcel in hand, wondering if it could indeed be the same building marked on our map, an Egyptian man of around 40 stopped beside us and asked if we needed any assistance. We explained.
'I am a lecturer at an agricultural college near here, and this is my lunch hour. You are in luck.'
Indeed we were, I mistakenly thought, as we entered a courtyard lined with a Kafkaesque series of counters.
Each counter was marked with elegant swirly Arabic calligraphy. Unlike every other sign I saw in Cairo, whether it be for a street, a softdrink or a shop, these did not have English translations.
The lecturer enquired at one counter, then another, then at a third, where we waited for 18 minutes in a queue, only to be told we were required to go to a separate office to get permission to send a parcel out of the country.
We walked around the building and delicately sidled around a giant puddle which filled an entire courtyard. 'Drainage problems,' the lecturer explained, as we clambered over a mound of deserted earthworks.
The 'office' in question I mistook for a derelict warehouse. We opened the barn-sized doors to reveal a group of youths in berets and patched black page 192 woollen uniforms, lounging around on the floor. One of them was absentmindedly drawing doodles in the dust of the floor with the muzzle of his rifle, a World War I vintage Lee Enfield. They eyed us curiously as we passed.
As we turned to mount the stairs, we were greeted by what I at first took to be a monumental modern sculpture, but then realised was a four-metre high pile of debris: wheels, engine parts, some bent and twisted rods, bald tyres, the whole melange coated with brown dust.
So thick and even was the icing of dust over the windows beside the stairwell, that at first I thought they had been painted out. I ran the tip of my finger over one to make sure.
At the top of the stairs was a wooden room, devoid of furniture or decoration. This in turn led to the 'office'—another room, bare except for a trestle table, behind which sat two women. We were fifth in the queue and waited for 15 minutes.
Was our parcel above or below five kilos?
'By sea or by air?' By sea.
'Write your name, address and passport number here, and here, and here,' ordered the younger of the two, handing me a form in triplicate, without any carbon paper.
In the meantime, a youth appeared and wrapped my parcel for a small fee. One of the women pasted on a stamp, wrote on the parcel and collected another fee.
'Now,' the lecturer explained, 'we must apply for permission to send the parcel out of the country.'
'I thought we just had.'
'Oh no, that was just to get it registered and weighed.'
Back down the stairs, over the pond, and down the street for half a block, was another similarly barren office, only with three rather grander desks with men seated behind them. At the central table sat a middle-aged man with pebble glasses and an open-necked shirt in a hideous riot of greens, yellows and browns.
Two more forms were to be completed, one of which came with an English translation, headed 'Application for the Viewing of Printed Material Leaving the UAR'.
So, he was an official censor. He ordered me to open the parcel so meticulously wrapped half an hour earlier. I showed him the dangerously seditious galley proofs for my cookbook.page 193
The censor didn't speak a word of English, let alone read it, so for all he knew the manuscript could have been details of Egyptian troop movements bound for the Israeli secret service. He beckoned a minion leaning against the door post, dressed in a jelabiya and turban, who took the parcel away and returned a quarter of an hour later with it done up with a cobweb of thick brown string, sealed at irregular intervals with blobs of tarry pitch. I grabbed the parcel impatiently and strode out, elated, to the counters in the courtyard where we had started out an hour and a half earlier.
While our friendly Egyptian flipped over the wad of documentation one by one and explained the details through the grille, I pulled out my wallet in eager anticipation.
The exchange went on for several minutes, until finally the lecturer turned to me and said the clerk had just told him there was no sea connection between Egypt and New Zealand. The parcel would have to go by air and our documents were thus invalid. We would have to repeat the whole process from beginning to end, in order to have this amendment entered on all five forms.
By this stage Kate was in tears. I sincerely thanked the lecturer for his help but explained I would dump the parcel in the nearest rubbish bin. So it was that Delectable Fruits Cookery for New Zealanders went to print uncorrected.
Our first truly edible meal was served us in the most unlikely of places, aboard the Cairo-Luxor train: roast chicken; an excellent pilaff, sliced aubergines baked in a thick, egg-enriched béchamel; and a truly delicious cumin-tinged yoghurt and cucumber salad, variations of which are to be found in just about every cuisine of the Middle East from the Balkans to India. Another pan-Arab favourite followed: a very sweet, gluggy rice pudding, sprinkled with coconut and sultanas, served with that symbol of US gastronomic imperialism, a can of Pepsi Cola.
By Cairo standards, our First Class carriage was clean: the now familiar patches of black grease were confined to the edges of the thick plastic seat coverings, and the canvas laid down over the carpet still showed some white.
Even more cheering was the succession of small mudbrick villages flashing past our window, free of rubbish piles and raucous signs and hoardings. Housewives in headscarves and three-quarter-length dresses chatted while their children played a popular game using an old tyre as a page 194 hoop, darting in and out amongst a stream of donkeys, horses and carts, and the odd camel.
Here was the Nile valley scene of popular imagination: in the foreground fields in lush bright shades of green, divided by neat hoed lines into a patchwork of smaller squares. Within each square were rows of miniature irrigation channels, some of bare soil, others in full crop, still other lying fallow. Set among clumps of much darker green palms were one- or two- storied, flat-roofed farmhouses. Then behind, the Sahara loomed up abruptly in the distance as a knobbly line of barren yellow hills, etched with rambling ravines, silhouetted against a clear blue sky.
Birdlife abounded: scores of a cheeky bird which resembled a stork hit with a mallet, a reddish-brown kingfisher, and swallows which flew up quite near to the windows of our carriage, veering up and back more deftly than any jet fighter to expose a shiny midnight blue belly turning iridescent green in the sunlight.
A number of late model tractors were at work, but equally there were plenty of water buffaloes, paired up in teams and pulling an ancient Egyptian plough held by men in turbans and jelabiya.
They were tending cabbage, cotton and field after field of melokhia (Corchorus olitorius), a mucilaginous green leaf which goes into Egypt's national soup. The making of it is thought to be depicted in Pharaoic tomb paintings. At its coarsest level, the leaves are simply boiled with a vegetable stock and taken out as lunch to the men in the fields.
Melokhia soup, however, has today become a sort of self-conscious symbol of Egyptian nationalism, a rustic dish in reaction to the cosmopolitan, decadent cuisine associated with King Farouk and the old regime. The chastened middle class now prepare melokhia soup also, albeit in a gentrified form, with meat stock as a base and flavoured with garlic and perhaps even the odd meatball.
Nearer Luxor, the sugar plantations began; as sunset approached, they turned an electric lime green.
Safely ensconced that evening at the Pension Riviera, we drank rum mixed with the local cane juice, a vile-looking murky brown liquid, cranked out on the street between the rollers of ancient wringers.
The label on the rum bottle read 'Better than Egyptian rum'. It is distilled and bottled in Alexandria.
Luxor, home to a host of famous Pharaoic temples and tombs, is a charming town provided you realise the locals have been catering to tourists for the past four thousand years. It has obviously taught them not to underestimate our stupidity.
'Psst, sir!' hissed a stall owner from behind a table of tacky souvenirs, carved from snot-yellow alabaster. He looked theatrically back and forth, then from under the folds of his jelabiya produced a badly focused photograph of a tomb painting, set into a broken plaque fashioned from bandages and plaster of paris.
'Robbed from a mummy in the Valley of Kings. How much you want to pay?'
The Pharaoic tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens are indeed the two sights truly worth seeing at Luxor. Those who linger at demolition sites in New Zealand cities may appreciate the ruins of Luxor Temple, Karnak Temple and the Ramaseum, bearing in mind, of course, that these particular mountains of broken rubble lack the added interest of bulldozers at work.
A handful of burial chambers in the Valley of the Kings are, however, almost miraculously intact, with blue painted ceilings, gold leaf motifs around the walls, and figures of Horus, Isis and Ra in colours as vivid as if they had been painted yesterday.
The side rooms of one tomb featured scenes from the royal kitchen. They were in poor condition, but I managed nevertheless to make out a cook stirring a cauldron, and his assistant sitting over a group of smaller pots.
In another tomb a mural depicted a team of bakers. They would, indeed, have been very busy, as some thirty distinct varieties of bread were known to the ancient Egyptians: some raised, some flat, some with mashed dates mixed into the dough, some with milk, honey or eggs, plaited, made into cones, or into the shapes of bulls and geese.
The crudest type of flatbread, known as ta, was sold at street stalls as early as the 12th century BC, and together with beer and onions, formed the basic diet of the peasantry.
The rich and lordly, however, would hold three-day feasts, at which whole oxen would be spit roasted and served by dancing girls naked to the waist. Mullet caviar would be washed down with wine served in gold goblets, preceded by a good portion of boiled cabbage, which would, they wishfully believed, prevent drunkenness. Mushrooms were reserved for the page 196 Pharaoh himself, but the court partook also of cheese, stewed figs, fresh berries and pastries.
The Egyptians persisted for many centuries with attempts to breed and domesticate such wild beasts as the gazelle, antelope, ibex and oryx. Around 2200 BC, however, they gave up in disgust and went back to hunting and gathering the spoils of the marshes: berries, lotus root, fish and birds.
Ducks, quails and all kinds of small birds were hunted, some of which, according to Herodotus, were pickled in brine for a few days and then eaten raw. And Hipparchus, in the second century BC, noted disdainfully that the Egyptians were 'forever plucking quails and slimy magpies'.
Among the food remains excavated from a third century BC tomb was the remains of a pigeon stew, a dish still enormously popular in Egypt today. Given its reputation as the rat of the sky, I was not willing to eat pigeon reared in the urban filth of Cairo. In the relative cleanliness of the countryside around Luxor, however, they are to be seen everywhere, flying in and out of the elaborate spires into which they are enticed to breed, a clay pot set on its side into the mud wall for each family. At the tender age of four weeks, they are considered ready to eat.
Tender they certainly are too. I first got to taste this ancient delicacy in a sterile post-modern restaurant above a shopping arcade on the outskirts of Luxor. A small pile of the birds was brought on a platter. They had been simply halved, grilled, and sprinkled with lemon juice and chopped chervil, but needed nothing more: they were full of flavour, and tasted more like beef or lamb than any game bird or poultry.
Another taste from ancient Egypt was the mullet served at the Chez Farouk, a restaurant on the bank overlooking the Nile, done out with rusticated ceilings and walls of rush matting.
A tweedy Englishman whom we had invited to join us at the table pointed out the sights, including a 1920s steamboat berthed at the water's edge, the very one used in filming Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile.
Over a bottle of rude Egyptian Three Cats vodka ('Winner of International Exposition, Brussels, 1938-391 he told us he had been a teacher at a minor public school, but had taken early retirement after learning that 67 was the average life expectancy for a male who saw his full teaching career out. His time was now divided between Kent, Luxor and Aswan.
He recounted the tale of an elderly Englishwoman who lived in Aswan and proclaimed herself as the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian queen. page 197 'Perhaps the locals believed her, because after she died in 1981 they preserved her home as a shrine, just as she left it, with a bookcase with a few Agatha Christie and Daphne Du Maurier novels, and a tin of Nescafé on the kitchen table.'
Oh holy Nescafé.
He told us how the ancient Egyptian priests had worshipped the eel- to the point of encrusting certain live specimens with precious gems. They, of course never touched the flesh, but the laity commonly ate them, along with mullet, carp, perch and tigerfish.
As the feluccas with their prehistoric triangular sails paraded down the Nile at sunset, the mullet on the menu seemed the obvious choice.
'Oh, by all means order the mullet!' urged the Englishman. 'That is, of course, if you actually enjoy a little dice with The Grim Reaper. You know what happened to Peter Ustinov the morning after he ate the mullet here, don't you? Seriously, the Nile is really one great river of poison these days. Truly, you mustn't even dip your hands in-there are millions of parasites ready to permeate your skin and turn your liver into Swiss cheese.'
He unsteadily emptied the bottle of vodka and ordered another.
The mullet, grilled and served with a tarator sauce, was delicious, and my liver remains intact.
Set a food processor with the metal blade running and drop in a cloves garlic one by one and pulverise. Add 250 g pine nuts, almonds or walnuts, and grind them to a powder. Now add a slices white bread, the juice of 2 lemons, salt to taste, and any liquid left after the fish has been baked or grilled. With the machine still going, add sufficient water to make a smooth paste.
Spread over a whole grilled or baked fish before sending to the table, and garnish with lemon slices and green pickles.