Written by William Dobson
I think that the two most instantly evocative things in life are smell and music. Both of them are constant. Cinnamon or cloves, for instance, will always smell of cinnamon and cloves which, personally, will immediately evoke images of winter and of Christmas time. Music, as well, doesn’t change. A certain piece of music will always sound like that piece of music and, as such, reawaken memories of when we first heard it or a particular period when we listened to it a lot.
For me, this recipe encapsulates both these senses. It was the only meal I ever cooked while living in Damascus (except scrambled eggs once at five in the morning after a late night drinking arak). Restaurants were so cheap and all we had in our kitchen was a couple of very worn out gas burners and a few dented saucepans. It was in March if memory serves, when the weather there is at its best; hot but comfortable days turning into long, balmy evenings. We were living in the most incredible house at the time. It was down an impossibly narrow alleyway, dinghy, dusty and dirty, but, once through the unprepossessing door, it opened out into a huge open air courtyard, with a couple of bedrooms off to the side and three more bedrooms set back from the balconied upstairs. It also had a flat roof where we would, completely inappropriately and probably blasphemously, sunbathe whilst drinking beer during the lazy afternoon to a panoramic view of the Omayyad Mosque; one of the most important buildings in Islam.
However, at the time, I was also feeling slightly disconnected from everything going on back home which had the effect of making me feel more and more frustrated with the petty annoyances and difficulties that come with living in the Middle East. Sourcing the ingredients for the meal reminded me of why I was so excited to be living in such a wonderful country; no heading down the monotonous Waitrose aisles but rather getting lost among the labyrinth of streets before finding our way to the vividly coloured and exotically fragrant spice souk; a scene straight out of 1,001 Nights. Suddenly shopping was an adventure rather than a chore. Being able to sit outside in the privacy of our own courtyard and enjoy the dry warmth of a desert springtime evening, with little care for the real world, reinforced the charm and the perk of Damascene living. I distinctly remember that, during the meal, we were listening to Brandi Carlile’s album ‘The Story’ on the huge speakers which I had inherited from the previous occupier of the house. Now, everytime I hear one of her songs, I am returned to that particular evening with hazy memories, further clouded by too much Lebanese rosé, of stumbling across Old Damascus as I walked one of my friends to her house in the early hours of the morning, feeling totally and utterly content.
Rich with Levantine flavours, it’s fresh, fruity, sweet, sour, slightly spicy and has deliciously contrasting textures, with the lamb melting in the mouth. Serve with couscous, enriched with softened red onions, cherry tomatoes and red peppers, brightened with some coriander, parsley and lots of mint and finished off with plenty of seasoning, perhaps some feta cheese and a good squeeze of lemon juice.
- 1 tsp cayenne pepper
- 2 tsp ground black pepper
- 1 ½ tbsp paprika
- 1 tbsp turmeric
- 1 tbsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp salt
- 10g fresh ginger, crushed
- 1.2kg lamb shoulder, cut into large chunks
- 2 onions, finely diced
- Olive oil
- 4 garlic cloves, crushed
- ½ pint tomato juice and ½ pint pomegranate juice, mixed together with 1 tbsp pomegranate molasses
- 2 x 400g tinned tomatoes
- 100g dried apricots
- 60g dates, halved
- 60g sultanas
- 85g flaked almonds
- A pinch of saffron, soaked in cold water
- 1 pint lamb stock
- 1 tbsp clear honey
- 2 tbsp coriander, roughly chopped
- 2 tbsp parsley, roughly chopped
- Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 150C. Mix all the spices together. Place the lamb into a large bowl, add half the spice mix, the ginger and half the garlic and a splash of olive oil, and toss together. Cover and leave to marinate overnight in the fridge.
Heat a good couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a large saucepan. Add the onion and the spices and gently soften on a low heat for about 10 to 15 minutes. Add the remaining garlic for the last few minutes.
In a frying pan, heat another good couple of tables of olive oil and, on a reasonably high heat, brown the cubes of lamb on all sides and add to the saucepan. You'll probably need to do this in batches. After each batch, deglaze the pan with some of the tomato and pomegranate juice. Add those juice to the saucepan as well.
Add the remaining juice, the tinned tomatoes, the dried fruit and nuts, saffron, lamb stock and honey to the saucepan. Bring to the boil and then transfer to a casserole dish with a lid, or a tajine if you have one. Place in the oven and leave to cook for about 2 ½ hours, by which time the meat should be meltingly tender. Alternatively, you can leave the stew to simmer gently on the stove, with the lid three quarters on. If the sauce needs thickening, strain it into another pan and reduce vigorously until you get the right consistency. Sprinkle the chopped herbs over, check for seasoning and then serve with the couscous.