Despite ongoing problems in the Middle East, Jordan is still safely on the tourist map, as CELIA PAUL discovers on a gastronomic tour of the country.
As the sun disappears behind the cluttered skyline of Amman and the call to prayer echoes through the city, I’m sitting down to dinner.
Like most evenings, it’s a meal I’ve cooked myself. But that’s about the only similarity to my day-to-day life.
Here, in the artists’ quarter of Jordan’s bustling capital, lies a house tucked away from the hubbub of the city, wreathed in scented flowers, intricately tiled with mosaics and fronted by a shady terrace.
At Beit Sitti, which translates as ‘grandmother’s house’, I’ve been tackling the basics of Jordanian cooking.
After a day of wandering through the markets, stalls and shops of Amman, it’s a relief to distinguish between the aromas that have been bombarding my senses. Cardamom, cumin, fresh mint and cinnamon all play a role as I attempt – with a lot of help from my host Maria – to recreate some Jordanian classics.
We sit down to ouzi: filo pastry parcels filled with lamb and vegetables, flavoured with all-spice, cinnamon and cardamom; the charred eggplant dip mouttabal, thickened with tahini paste and given added punch with garlic; home-made bread baked in Maria’s bread oven, and we wash it all down with sharp, fragrant mint lemonade.
Squeezed between Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel, Jordan is a country described by locals as a quiet voice in a noisy neighbourhood, managing to maintain stability and relative prosperity, despite the turmoil and conflicts that have rocked the Middle East.
Its success as a tourist destination has always been primarily thanks to the ancient Nabataean city of Petra – a community of dwellings hewn from the mountains, lost to the world until the 19th century. For many visitors, Petra marks the beginning and end of a visit to Jordan.
But there’s so much more to Jordan than the Rose City. And before I make it to view one of the most spectacular sights the Middle East has to offer, I’m set to get a taste of life – and the local specialities – in the rest of the country.
More and more visitors have been drawn by the country’s thriving food scene – and from the falafel and shawarma stalls dotting the capital, to Rainbow Street, where the city’s teens gather to eat, date and hang out, and the welcoming terrace of Beit Sitti, where I’m lovingly taught generations-old recipes, Amman provides ample opportunity for me to get to grips with Jordanian cuisine.
The urbane, multicultural capital is a world away from rural life – but the strong sense of hospitality that marks Jordanian cooking and entertaining finds its roots in traditions that have been passed down the centuries.
And my next destination, deep in the desert to the south of the country, helps illustrate just how strong those traditions are.
In the Dana Biosphere Reserve, to the south of the country, lies the Feynan EcoLodge – a remote desert outpost reachable only via a bumpy 4x4 ride.
Amid the arid, rocky hills that surround the lodge, on a blisteringly hot, hazy afternoon, I sit down with the Bedouin.
At the centre of Bedouin culture lies hospitality, and it’s a key part of their creed that no traveller is turned away.
I’m shown how to behave appropriately during the ritualistic preparation and drinking of the cardamom-spiced coffee; how to bake bread in the ashes of the fire that’s still the Bedouin’s sole method of cooking, and how to line my eyes with home-made kohl.
I then trudge back through the rocky terrain to be served a rather different dinner.
Soundtracked by the jangling bells of the goats and, at intervals, the call to prayer that can still be heard loud and clear deep in the desert, we feast by candlelight.
After an evening of moon-gazing on the roof terrace, using Feynan’s impressive telescope to make the most of the clear, unpolluted skies, I’m not ready to head back into the modern world.
Instead of the mosquito-netted comfort of my simple but elegant room, I opt for a mat on the roof, under the stars, and the cooling breeze that’s blowing across the desert.
It proves the perfect preparation for the Jordanian big hitter, Petra.
The city is a breathtaking feat of ancient engineering – hidden from the Western world until Swiss explorer
Johann Ludwig Burckhardt discovered it in 1812.
Celia Paul was a guest of the Jordanian Tourist Board. Visit visitjordan.com
MasterChef Travel (mastercheftravel.com; 020 7873 5005) has a six-day/five-night tour of Jordan, priced from £1,245 per person, including flights, transfers, excursions, accommodation, with breakfast and other meals as specified. Splendours of an ancient land departs on November 4, 2014 and February 17, March 17 and April 21, 2015.