Written by William Dobson
Crac des Chevaliers, or ‘Alat al Hosn as it is know in Syria, is a 12th Century crusader castle located on the Syrian side of the Syria-Lebanon border, about 30 miles west of the Homs, a city which has recently become infamous thanks to the ongoing problems in the region. Described by T.E. Lawrence, who knew a thing or two about crusader castles, as ‘perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world,’ it is one of Syria’s archaeological jewels. Not only is it almost perfectly intact, but it’s also devoid of the huge hordes of overweight and inappropriately dressed tourists who seem to populate many of the region’s other famous landmarks.
The castle is located in a tiny village, almost impossible to get to using public transport, with one very small and basic, although incredibly friendly hotel and one very small and basic, although incredibly friendly restaurant – made even friendlier due to the fact that the waiter is not just ‘the only gay in the village’ but, if you believe Syrian propaganda, the only gay in the country; perhaps not openly but he was certainly the campest man I’ve ever met. The restaurant’s main claim to fame is that it was once visited by Sean Connery and the staff were very keen to show me the guestbook that he had signed; quite why the restaurant had a guestbook before he arrived, I’m not sure, but it’s an example of one of the many weird and wonderful occurrences which only seem to happen in the Middle East.
However, more impressively, the restaurant is also home to one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten anywhere in the Middle East. I think the fact that one is situated next to a full panoramic view over this indomitable and magnificent structure probably heightened the experience but the mezze was as tasty and fresh as any of the restaurants in Damascus or Aleppo. Yet, the stand out dish for me was their grilled chicken, very lemony and very garlicy. One of the greatest things about food is that it has an ability to transport you instantly to a particular time and place. It’s so evocative. I was at a dinner the other day and was seated next to a lady who had spent 14 years living in Lebanon. Unsurprisingly the conversation turned to the Levant and she mentioned how Crac de Chevaliers had been one of the most memorable places she had visited. Instantly I started thinking about that grilled chicken I’d so enjoyed.
The next day, feeling too tired and hungover to go to the shops, I opened the fridge to discover I had some boneless chicken thigh fillets in there, perfect for this dish as they are sweeter and more moist than chicken breasts. So, I marinated them in lemon and garlic, along with a few herbs and spices I had knocking around, before grilling them. The result was absolutely delicious; very succulent and a great balance of flavours which didn’t overpower the chicken. It also cost less than £1! It instantly evoked memories of the bitterly cold December day when I’d first frequented the restaurant. For me, there is no better time to visit the desert than midwinter. The sky is almost always a clear, very pale aquamarine blue, and possesses an almost translucent and slightly melancholic quality. I’ve always found winter to be the most nostalgic season; memories of crisp, frosty mornings, long countryside walks in the afternoon, roaring fires in the evening and, of course, Christmas. So to be able to spend that time of year so close to where the very first Christmas actually happened was rather special.
This recipe will feed one on it’s own or can be used as part of a selection of different mezze. If you want to serve with something else, then a simple salad such as fattoush or tabbouleh would be perfect. Regarding the picture, I assumed that more people will know what grilled chicken looks like than Crac des Chevaliers…
- 300g chicken thigh fillets, skinless and boneless
- 4 tbsp lemon juice
- 4 fat garlic cloves, crush with some salt into a paste
- ¼ tsp ground cumin
- Pinch paprika
- 1 tsp freshly picked thyme or za'atar
- Pinch dried marjoram
- ½ tsp salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
Make regular cuts into the chicken flesh, not too deep. Put all the marinade ingredients in a bowl, add the chicken and, with your hands, mix it all together so that all the chicken is coated in the liquid. Leave in the fridge for a couple of hours.
Heat a griddle pan until very hot and grill the chicken for about 6 – 8 minutes, or until cooked through, turning regularly so that it doesn't burn and eat while piping hot. Both simply delicious and deliciously simple.