Thursday, March 17, 2005

Champagne and Caviar

I have had an interesting and busy week. Our social life has gone from steady to busy, with frenetic on the horizon. I am aware that being an Ambassador’s wife is, in the eyes of many, a wonderful string of parties and entertainment, at others expense. There are times when that feels like the truth. The fact that this is a public forum and can be accessed by anyone restrains me from some of the behind-the-scenes stories that you might find hilarious. Buy my memoirs – after I am dead!

Two nights ago we had had a drinks session – hot and cold running waiters, cheese platters, blinis (made by me of course as we still have no cook and are unlikely to have one) and caviar, mushroom tarts and feta and mint crisps. Fifteen people and Bob and I were a happy and convivial group. We like these arrangements as they are easier than dinners, cost a lot less so we can see a lot more people in small groups, and both of us manage to talk to everyone and this doesn’t happen at dinners.

Let us go behind the scenes.

Let’s look at the blinis and caviar. The blinis were tiny pikelets and I had made them. Aside from the fact that it took me two weeks to find a source of baking powder, and that you buy it by the teaspoonful in tiny packs, they were fine.

I had been told that the shop on the corner had sour cream so went to get some. No – they didn’t and had never had it. OK. Sour cream was obviously not available so I would think of a substitute. Four days earlier I had bought Philadelphia Cream Cheese here and that would be fine. “Sorry – we don’t have it and had never had it”. OK. Philadelphia Cream Cheese that I used for a dip was obviously a mirage - even though a tiny bit with the remnants of its sweet chili and mint topping was still in the frig.

I was offered a local substitute. They happily opened the sealed container, scooped out a lump on the end of a vicious looking knife, and offered it to me. I tried it. First taste was fine – coolish and creamy. Then the salt hit. It was almost strong enough to make me gag, and I only had half a teaspoonful. I declined and watched a bit amused as they folded the foil top back down and put it back on the shelf.

Now I was walking to Alfa – a bigger supermarket about six blocks away, but long blocks by Aussie standards, over execrable pavements, and I was in a hurry. I would buy pistachios while I was there as theirs were cheaper than my corner shop.

As I walked out of the shop and started to cross the road a taxi swerved at me (it certainly gets your attention) and beeped. Great – I would take a cab. I climbed into the back, legs wedged tightly in the minimal space there is for legs in Egyptian cabs. I had forgotten that the one way streets meant that the simple and direct walk to Alfa now became a long and winding road halfway around the island, choked with after-school traffic. In the middle of a road which was surprising free of traffic the driver reached back and casually grabbed me by the thigh, kneading as if he was punching down a loaf!

I am a grandmother of five, of generous proportions, graying in stripes, and well past my use-by date, and I was so shocked that for a minute I just froze. Then he turned and looked at me so I opened the door. I very nearly collected a car trying to squeeze into a tight parking spot – but it made the driver stop and I jumped out. I have to say that I get cabs all the time here and the drivers range from delightful to helpful to silent – but this was a first. I haven’t even heard of too many problems for other westerners.

Now I was a long way from Alfa, and just gave up, decided it was now peanuts instead of pistachios and I would rethink the caviar. On the way home I found a tiny cupboard of a shop which had Vache Qui Rit and decided that would do. Laughing cows seemed appropriate at that point. I was hot and dusty, fed up, and still had a really unpleasant and brackish taste in my mouth from the salty cheese. It reminded me of a time when I managed to open my mouth in the Dead Sea.

I picked up the caviar – I keep calling it that but of course it was lumpfish roe – and a container of tiny beautiful mushrooms for mushroom tartlets back at the corner shop again. I had run through my money and needed flowers, so walked to a nearby handy-teller and put my card into it. The machine ate my card.

By now I had decided that this was not my day. I bought the few flowers my money would stretch to and decided to prop them up with green stuff from the garden.

At home I realized there was no time to make pastry now so I pushed Arab bread (the thin aish balady) into mini muffin cases brushed with oil and baked them. I chopped mint and mashed it with feta and black pepper and spread that into the centres of mini Arab breads, brushed them with olive oil and dry fried them till they were golden and the cheese melted. Cut them into wedges and put them on trays ready for baking when people arrived. I cooked the mushrooms with cumin, black pepper, lemon, a bit of salt and olive oil and wedged them into their cases, then tore upstairs to change into something a bit slinky and cocktails-at-the-residence-ish.

Back down and the Vache Qui Rit which I had opened and left out to soften a little looked decidedly different. I had left it under the fluorescent light and it was now a cemetery for thousands of almost microscopic bugs. I scraped off what I could, added a sprinkling of herbs to hide any remains, and slathered it with elegant (I hoped) haste onto tiny pikelets, I had quartered little slices of limes ready to top it, and started to gloop on portions of black roe.

Then I realised that it was about ten minutes to arrival time – and the waiter who is always at least half an hour early to set up a bar hadn’t come. Now I was charging around trying to set up the bar and wondering which of the array of lovely Australian wine in the locked basement coldroom was the ‘quaffing’ quality, and which was the ‘extra-special-Prime-and-other ministers’ quality. A frantic call to Bob’s delightful and extraordinarily efficient PA and she rang the waiter. Then rang back to say he was on his way, there had been a mix-up over the time. Then the doorbell rang and everyone seemed to arrive at once.

Needless to say the waiter did arrive, and took over the efficient serving of drinks, but I was left realizing that I can never, ever assume that things will go as planned here. What takes an hour at home might need triple that here.

This function was like Bob’s favorite definition of diplomacy – like a duck on the water – all calm and serene on top, and a huge flurry of activity and effort below.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You definitely have a customer for your book... but do it soon or I will be too old to read it!!!!!
Just loved (and laughed at)today's edition of the blog. Thank you!
Dorothy in NZ.

11:34 am  
Blogger Helen from Canberra said...

Hi Jenny
You really do need to write that book. I had such a good giggle over today's episode and I don't know how you manage fit so much into one day. We had some lovely rain in the ACT yesterday.

Regards Helen

2:59 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jenny

I'm 3rd on the list for the book! Your blogs make my day, they are so entertaining, and a real snapshot of Egyptian life. I think you have incredible patience and marvellous ingenuity - especially when it comes to food!

Thanks for the laughs
Cheers Ros in Wellington, NZ

7:56 pm  
Anonymous Pat Finn said...

Oh dear, Jenny, you did make us laugh at your expense. You reminded me of one of my favourite shows "Yes Prime Minister", when Jim complained he didn't have a cook. Was told a cook could only be provided with diplomatic guests. So, he arranged diplomatic luncheon parties until a cook was provided. You must be getting very fit in a 4 storey house if you don't have a lift. Cheers - Pat Finn

6:39 pm  
Anonymous Bar Price said...

Hi Jenny - You must be feeling better! Thank you for a really good laugh. The beads are fabulous. How could one have a favourite colour? I have - turquoise.When do you get time to create your lovely quilts? Cheers Bar

7:54 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jenny, Sally Acomb here in Kuwait. I am reliving my first time in Cairo that was over 26 years ago thru your blogs. FYI you can buy cream in cans slightly larger that tuna fish can size, like Nestle or Puck, then sour it with one TBS vinegar or lemon, that is what we all do in Cairo. It is much more stable than relying on the local sour cream. You also know it was "good" when you made it. As for the taxi driver, you need to learn a phrase, "Ya Haram"!! Shame on you and haughtily take his hand away and slap him. Comes in handy. The Maadi Community church publishes a cookbook. We usually put in recipes that can be made with items all available locally. CSA in Maadi usually have some available to pruchase. We used to put a lot of How to basic recipes in like the above one for sour cream. Will see you for classes here in Kuwait in early April. Enjoy your experiences, they will be like NO OTHERS! Cheers, Sally

4:43 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh my goodness Jenny - certainly the stuff of B grade movies!!! Keep smiling!

Cori in Perth

11:39 am  
Anonymous Izabela from Melbourne said...

Oh, well. Here go my imaginings of lofty embassy life. You've got a job and a half! And no attached salary, I bet.
I really enjoy your pictures (and text too, but if you do publish a book, do make it a coffee table confection).

9:35 pm  
Anonymous Julie from Roxby Downs said...

Hi Jenny, I enjoyed reading your "Postcards from Jerusulum" awhile ago and have just discovered this site. I look forward to reading your experiences from Cairo & would also look forward to your book being published. Julie from Roxby Downs (where I thought our summers were hot!)

9:47 am  

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