Wine and Dine: Maqam Al Sultan

Every February, the only thing I find crazier than the people who go overboard on Valentine’s Day, is their antithesis the love-Scrooge militia throwing around words like “rampant consumerism”. Calm down everyone. As long as whatever you do is reasonably within your budget and lifestyle (it’s not just about romance, you can show love – for free or otherwise – to family and friends too!), why not get into the spirit and have some fun?

With that ethos in mind, this year I ended up having one of the best value-for-money Valentine’s Day meals I’ve ever had. It was at Maqam Al Sultan, a Lebanese restaurant right on the Larnaca seafront. Being so close to the point of origin, I had high expectations for Lebanese food in Cyprus – apparently Lebanese trading schooners would anchor in Larnaca Bay as late as the 1950’s, not far from where the restaurant now sits.

Still not used to “Cypriot dinner time”, my table was booked for 7pm and at that hour the restaurant was virtually empty – that did not last long though, and later in the night there were a lot of parties being politely turned away at the door, despite the restaurant being quite spacious with indoor and outdoor areas, all of which were flamboyantly decorated for the occasion.

IMG_20160214_190833796
Maqam Al Sultan’s outdoor and indoor seating

They were offering a special menu, which we knew would include a mezze, a main course, dessert and a bottle of wine for €65 per couple (a price unheard of in the US or UK on a Valentine’s Day weekend). So we had expected the mezze to be more of a sharing platter-type starter, but it was a full on mezze with 15 dishes. All the little plates were good, but what I most enjoyed was that they offered popular dishes like tabouleh and falafel, alongside dishes I’d never tried before like sambousek lahme, batata harra and rahib.

IMG_20160214_191742733
Just a small selection of the mezze dishes.

By the time the mezze was over we were actually already full and having serious doubts over our ability to ingest the main courses, and we could overhear other tables having the same struggle. We’d picked the ouzi, a slow cooked lamb dish served over rice mixed with ground meat and crushed nuts, and the pomegranate molasses and pistachio-encrusted salmon fillet. They were delicious but huge portions, so once we managed to make a decent dent into them and the belly dancers started, we decided to just sip some wine and share a shisha before tackling the dessert.

IMG_20160214_204514009
A variety of shisha flavours are on offer.

When the dessert did come, it was (thankfully) a dainty portion of ashtaliyeh, a kind of rosewater panna cotta, which was light enough to let us walk gracefully out onto the Finikoudes Promenade at the end of the evening rather than being forcefully rolled.

The quality (and quantity of food) for the price was extraordinary, especially considering the attentive service and the night’s entertainment. I would certainly recommend Maqam Al Sultan for a meal out in Larnaca, and next time I’m there I might even be persuaded to get up and join the belly dancers!

 

 

How to Forage for Wild Asparagus

It’s been raining on and off today. It rained last night. It rained last week and the week before that. Despite the shortness of the showers and the blazing blue skies that break out the second that they stop, I’d never been to Cyprus in the winter and, I think part of me was surprised and annoyed to realise that it does actually rain here. Didn’t I leave all this precipitation business behind in the UK?

BUT I found out this week that the upside to all this winter rain is the sudden availability of tasty, seasonal wild stuff like asparagus. In the the UK, I tended to think of asparagus as a spring- or summertime vegetable but in Cyprus the season for going out foraging for it is January to March.

Where to Hunt

I would suggest starting out by just having a walk around your local countryside and keeping a look out for the older, bristly stems of the asparagus plant. They are very spiky and have a grayish-green color to them:

IMG_0362

IMG_0363 (1)

There is an useful YouTube video on spotting wild asparagus plants, but rather than finding them out in the open, the best cheat I’ve learned is to actually go straight to Hawthorn trees. Mediterranean Hawthorns are called mosphila (μόσφιλα) in Cyprus (they make their own tasty fruits, but that’s a post for another day) and wild asparagus loves to grow at their base. That is where I’ve found 90% of my recent haul.

IMG_0360
Mosphila or Mediterranean Hawthorn tree in winter

Having looked at those photos, be prepared: the asparagus is spiky and the Hawthorn is, true to its name, thorny. So if you’re doing it right, you are going to get some scratches. Just don’t wear nice clothes and find a handy stick to help you push some of the barbed undergrowth out of the way.

Suck it up, because it’s worth it when you find this:

IMG_0361

IMG_0358Ideally, when you do find some, don’t take every single shoot nor the very young (too short, too skinny) ones. Leave some so that the plant can grow and go to seed – guaranteeing you more to harvest next year! Just be aware, that sometimes this asparagus business can get competitive, especially if you’re near a village. Other people will know where the good spots are, and some weeks you might go to your favorite location just to find a whole lot of nothing… except freshly cut shoots.

The Good Bit: Cooking and Eating

After all your hard work, make sure to prepare your asparagus the right way so you’ll enjoy it. Wild asparagus is more bitter than its domesticated cousin. Some people like it like that, but I prefer a milder flavor. So I would suggest always boiling it before grilling (or whatever other method your recipe calls for); just don’t boil it so much that it loses all its snap.

IMG_0383
Freshly boiled wild asparagus

Cypriots really like chopping it up and frying it with eggs for breakfast. I love grilling it with balsamic vinegar and parmesan. Otherwise, Christina, at Afrodite’s Kitchen (which is a really cool Cypriot food blog), has an amazing looking recipe for risotto, using wild asparagus.

So just find a favorite receipt and get out there foraging – despite my complaining, it is sunny most of the time so you have no excuse!