Category Archives: Food

Le cuisine d’Ur

We are off site today due to gale-force winds. Having done all my paperwork and tried and failed to make a kite, I now have little to do this afternoon except think of all the things I’d like to eat but can’t. I am not enjoying the culinary side of life at Ur:

Lunch guns: no one's taking our hardboiled eggs

Lunch guns: no one’s taking our hardboiled eggs

Hors d’oeuvres – selection of disappointments

Breakfast consists of finding something edible in the fridge in the dark. The highlight is the Iranian yoghurts, one of the ingredients of which is ‘Thermophile starter’, suggesting that it originates in the enriched uranium-producing regions. Most of the team mix this with ‘dhibis’; a black date syrup closely resembling diesel oil, except for J who uses a table spoon of instant coffee. Lunch is the usual cold hardboiled egg love/hate experience, enlivened by carbtastic boiled potato sandwiches. It is served in the site tent against a backdrop of machine guns.

Entrée – Rice and Red

Foulness: transition from the christmas regime to a bean-based diet has not been smooth

Foulness: transition from the christmas regime to a bean-based diet has not been smooth

The diet here at the Ur dig house is a classic example of archaeological dining in the Middle East, as perpetuated by the least imaginative cooks to be found between the Bosporus and the Khyber Pass. Excavation cooks are by and large not selected for their culinary skills but for their ability to put up with the astonishingly bizarre demands of foreign archaeologists (fixed mealtimes, basic hygiene, refrigeration of dairy products, vegetarians(!?)) and their familial connections to other employees of the project. This generally leads to the hiring of the driver’s/site guard’s/land owner’s brother/cousin/uncle, who in fact only knows how to cook one dish; the one he cooks when his wife’s away. This dish is invariably ‘rice and red’, referring to beans and/or vegetables cooked for an average of four hours in a tomato sauce and served over boiled rice. In nearly three weeks at Ur we have now had rice and red every day except the first Friday when we got our own takeaway kebab. Even with our now formidable range of hot sauce bottles, it’s sometimes difficult to remember there are flavours other than tomato.

Rice and red: courgette variant

Rice and red: courgette variant

Plateau de fromages

The cheeses of Ur

The cheeses of Ur

The cheese board of Ur is a thing of wonder, featuring on occasion as many as twelve different types of locally sourced processed cheese, ranging from creamy yellow Happy Cow, through the harder canned cheeses such as Kraft Cheddar and Pinky to the rubbery delights of Kiri and Boy Cheese triangles. The mystery surrounding this apparent variety is that they all taste exactly the same, and not of cheese. Served with artisanal bread in a damp plastic bag.

 Carte de vin

The ration is five cans a day for every man and boy. Some of us are not sleeping well

The ration is five cans a day for every man and boy. Some of us are not sleeping well

There is of course no vin here or biére and we are limited to the one litre each of the strongest duty free spirits available which we were able to bring through customs (currently carefully curated against the harder times to come). Most commonly drunk is an execrable local brand of instant coffee called Coffee Prince (referred to here as The Prince or The Prince of Darkness) and the usual brown 100% sugar solution that masquerades as tea. The project is in fact almost entirely fueled by industrial quantities of Diet Pepsi.

Bon appetit!

False starts

Today was supposed to be the first day back on site after the Eid break, so I crawled weeping from my bed at 7am (I have been mostly getting up at noon), put my digging boots on, filled my pockets full of knives and string and stumbled off in search of a taxi. The office was locked which was a bad sign. I walked over to the site to find it full of crisp packets and plastic bags and completely empty of workmen. I walked back past Asad the guard; “Nooo buddy here!” he said “Ha ha ha”.

The third worst cup of coffee in the world. The world's worst coffee is of course brewed by the Garden City House Hotel, Cairo, which has now ceased trading for the good of mankind.

My third worst cup of coffee ever. The world’s worst coffee is of course brewed by the Garden City House Hotel, Cairo, which has now ceased trading for the good of mankind.

Determined not to wholly waste the taxi fare I went out through the main gate and down to the square where I sat at one of the tea booths and asked for a nescafe. A nine year old boy made me a mug of something that tasted like the milk from a bowl of Cocoa Pops, if you heated it up and stirred it through with petrol. I pretended to drink it while reading Wolf Hall and refusing a string of offers to have my boots cleaned. The nine year old boy charged me a thousand dinar, which was about three times as much as the going rate for a real nescafe. I rolled my eyes but gave him his money; I try to avoid having fights with primary school children before 10am.

The British contribution to Erbil's historic citadel

1920s water tank: The British contribution to Erbil’s historic citadel

The Eid holiday continued as it started; as a litany of drink related incidents punctuated by extreme boredom and the World Cup Qualifiers. As the alcohol-to-archaeology ratio of this blog is already embarrassing me, I shall instead tell you about a book I partially read. It should have been an interesting book about the British Mandate period in Iraq, but the undoubted talent of the author turned it into a turgid wade through late Imperial bureaucracy, unrelieved by style, narrative or pictures. He leaves out all the fighting.

I did learn some interesting things however. The British took on the mandate of Mesopotamia after the First World War, partially because they wanted the oil, but mostly because they didn’t want the French to have it. The British were initially in favour of Kurdish independence but this mostly fell through because the Kurds were entirely unable to come up with a single leader with whom the British could sit down and have a cup of tea. Frustration over the lack of a proper tea drinking partner eventually led to the RAF bombing Suleimaniya in 1925. Things were not especially helped by Gertrude Bell running around giving some fairly poor advice. Gertrude Bell was an archaeologist, political officer, writer, traveller, spy and mountaineer who was largely responsible for the creation of Iraq. It is possibly down to the fact that she spread herself so thinly that she was able to do a moderately large amount of damage in so many different spheres. I personally restrict myself to the damage of archaeology and that’s enough for me. Perhaps one day I will finish the book and there will be a happy ending (maybe a wedding) but I’m not optimistic. The major legacy of British rule in Iraq seems to be the sensible use of three-pin plugs.

Gertrude Bell, on whom I won £30 at Ascot the autumn before last

Gertrude Bell, on whom I won £30 at Ascot the autumn before last

The devil makes work for idle hands

The wheelbarrow ramp situation on site is starting to resemble a fairly challenging early 90s platform game

The wheelbarrow ramp situation on site is starting to resemble an early 90s platform game

I’m undergoing a process of decontamination. I’ve had a long shower, put all my clothes in the washing machine, eaten two pro-biotic yoghurts and brushed my teeth twice. If only I could give my brain a good rinse under the tap I might be ready to rejoin society. I have the week off work because of Eid, which is a time when people are supposed to return to their families for a period of peace and sober contemplation and sheep sacrifice. Naturally, I took this opportunity to go on a two day nihilistic drinking bout of unusual ambition.

Octoberfest in Iraq

Octoberfest in Iraq

The first stage was a basic re-run of my very first night in Erbil in the spring: https://oldstuffinhotplaces.com/2013/05/12/disgracing-myself-in-erbil/ I started at the German Bar, where the delights of Octoberfest have begun. On arrival I ordered a two litre stein of a powerful wheat beer and settled in to watch the freshly imported German um-pah band being led by a vastly fat, drunk man in lederhosen. As my bucket of wheat beer was delivered it was announced we were leaving in fifteen minutes and should drink up, which, against expectation and good sense, I did. With this strong start under my belt we moved on to The Edge in the American compound. Above the bar is proclaimed ‘What happens at The Edge stays at The Edge’, for which I am profoundly grateful. I remember spectacularly winning at darts by ending with two darts in the green of the bull, and I remember dancing (sort of) and being pursued by a very very drunk American.  My last memory of the evening was of watching Thai boxing in the British consular building, then I woke up in all my clothes on a friend’s bed with a German woman on the phone asking where I was because I was supposed to be going with her to Lalish.

Schwartzbier: evil in a tall glass

Schwartzbier: evil in a tall glass

I did not go to Lalish. Instead I stumbled off to the German Bar breakfast porkathon in an effort to recover my wits. Unfortunately, just as I looked in danger of sobering up, someone bought me a beer and things went south from there. In the end I stayed for eight hours, drank seven litres of schwartzbier and played a German drinking game that involves hammering a nail into a tree. When it got dark the um-pah band played Waltzing Matilda and handed out free beer. But all things must end, and eventually it becomes necessary to change one’s clothes, so a very drunk friend drove me home where I took some ibuprofen and watched two episodes of Downton Abbey.

I do not recommend the digestive effects of a diet consisting only of bacon and schwartzbier.

German pig and Scottish Whisky

Round two of three. The german bar pig-based friday brunch of kings

Round two of three. The german bar pig-based friday brunch of kings

I just returned from brunch at the German bar, I think I might have civilisation poisoning. I just ate two bratwurst, one weiswurst, two other unidentified sausages, parma ham, baked ham, salami, several thick slices of honey roast gammon and a very very large quantity of bacon. The non-pig-based elements consisted of scrambled eggs, pickled cabbage, a bit of salad, a diet coke and two litres of good german pilsner. It was a bargain at $42; I might die of happiness. Or some other internal complaint.

The strange fruits of the iraqi earth

The strange fruits of the iraqi earth

My joyful reunion with Schweinefleisch has not been the only reminder of the things of home this week. Digging out a deep vertical pit on site, which I suspect to have been for a lavatory, we recovered a number of interesting items including shoes, clothing, tobacco pipes, umbrella fragments, a plastic flower and an almost undamaged whisky bottle produced by James Buchanan co. Ltd, Glasgow, Scotland. I feel a stronger connectedness to the people of ancient Erbil, now that I know they were drinking a decent Scottish whisky and hiding the empties in the toilet.

The Iraqi prince William comes with considerably more hair

The Iraqi prince William comes with considerably more hair

There are in fact a series of slightly un-nerving home-like things about Erbil, such as the very sensible adoption of the three-pin-plug and the way the mosque in the main square looks uncannily like Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. In a wedding shop on my way home from work, two of the dummies have been dressed up to look like Prince William and Kate Middleton. The first time I drove past I thought I’d imagined it and was having some kind of mid-life royalist fit. Last night I went to the UN bar where I met a fair few British people and ended up talking about awful British towns we’ve lived in. I think I won having worked in Stoke-on-Trent for two years. The UN bar was unexpectedly nice and gave out free beers and Tuborg t-shirts, although it was slightly over-populated with earnest looking men wearing ethnic scarves. I’m always disappointed by cliché.

Art imitating life: Brad Pitt  as earnest scarf-wearing zombie-fighting UN worker in World War Z

Brad Pitt as earnest-looking scarf-wearing zombie-fighting UN worker in World War Z

Repack

I just completed the process of taking everything out of my big blue bag, washing it/throwing it away, and then repacking it into my even bigger green bag (plus some new underwear and a very large bag of coffee). I hate packing, it makes me realise how little I own of any value. I’m off to Heathrow in the morning and then hopefully to Erbil if they let me in (https://oldstuffinhotplaces.com/2013/05/12/disgracing-myself-in-erbil/).

At Warmington village fete I lie on the grass drinking beer and let things get away from me

At Warmington fete I spend too much time in the village pub and end up getting abducted by morris men

I’ve tried to make the most of my six days in fair England; I went down to visit my twin for two days, who just rusticated to a tiny cottage in Oxfordshire where she has adopted an elderly cat and taken up bell ringing. I fear for her mind. She took me to a local village fete (where I became entrapped into playing the base drum for the Morris dancers), we played darts in the pub next door and went shopping for teaspoons, garden chairs and rolling pins. She is starting to nest.

We also ate a pack of Serrano ham, a pack of Parma ham and a 2kg shoulder of pork. At home I’ve managed three large sausages, two packs of baked ham, a packet of bacon, two pork chops and over half a kilo of smoked salmon. My luggage is full of pork scratchings: I am ready.

Emergency equipment: there comes a point when only pig will do

Emergency equipment: there comes a point when only pig will do

Şeker Bayramı (sugar holiday)

On top of the high mound the Germans make plans

On top of the high mound the Germans make plans

6am this morning found me sitting in the dig house listening to BBC 6 Music (which the Turkish education ministry server will let me access as the station name does not contain the dangerous word ‘radio’). I am attempting to write up an area of the site which someone else dug up six years ago, discovering more or less nothing. The big red circle on the geo-physics in fact turned out to be where the farmer drives his tractor round and round during threshing; a salutary lesson to all those who put too much faith in machines that go ping.

The chain gang giving me attitude

The chain gang giving me attitude


The reason I’m not on site today sweating away over my own expanse of nothing is that today is Şeker Bayramı; the holiday at the end of Ramadan when every man, woman and child in Turkey attempts to eat their body-weight in refined sugar. In furtherance of this noble goal, yesterday we bought our workmen thirty kilos of assorted revoltingly sugary brightly coloured sweets to share between them. They are currently sleeping off their biggest meal of the year.

The enormous gluttony all around us is sadly contrasted by our own state. Our cook and kitchen staff have all gone home to cook obscenely large quantities of oily Turkish food for other people and left us to fend for ourselves in the deserted school building for the next three days. I’ve already faced the horrors of the school’s basement kitchen(/dungeon/bacterial laboratory) having unwisely volunteered to help wash up from breakfast. There’s an all-pervading smell of rancid dairy substances and the cupboards are full of flies and dirty kittens. I bitterly regret not bringing my usual back-up supplies of beef jerky and instant noodles. I’m so hungry.

A group of academics attempting to feed themselves

A group of academics attempting to feed themselves


Things on site are also a bit grim. All I want is architecture and all I find is pits, big ugly pointless pits; if I was interested in those I would have become a prehistorian. The tedium has been somewhat relieved by my trench assistant who is the seventeen year old son of the British ambassador. On Tuesday we had a dirty joke-off, which I was pretty confident about having played on many rugby teams, but it turns out that rugby humour simply doesn’t have the depth and variety current in English boy’s boarding schools. We have our little japes – one day he said he’d found an important artefact and when I put my hand out he deposited a large white maggot in it. I threw this forcefully at his head, sadly missing his face and instead it adhered itself to the brim of his hat. He obligingly provided further entertainment by drinking some of the workmen’s water and being spectacularly sick for two days. Oh what laughs we have.

I’m going to drag myself upstairs and lie on my bed and think about bacon sandwiches for an hour.

Turkish word of the week: it appears at the bottom of all the many school notices and means 'they will be punished'.

Turkish word of the week: it appears at the bottom of all the many school notices and means ‘they will be punished’.

Scrag end: whiplash and offal

Blood in the sherd yard

Blood in the sherd yard

So at last my time is up in Iraq and I’m just a few short hours away from a world of sleep and television and ham. The last week, as on most excavations, has had it’s little surprises, one of which was coming over to the boys house to find the cook and our driver beheading goats on the patio.

Our dig director, who appeared to be videoing the executions, had bought two goats and invited the workmen to an end of season kebabathon. This benevolent gesture was only slightly undermined in the event by the workmen having to butcher, clean and cook their goat themselves and by the director not realising that there is in fact more to parties than goats, and sometimes you also need things like bread, salad, drinks and somewhere to sit. By the time these fripperies had been prepared most of our guests had gone home, leaving us with around 30kg of goat meat and a strong smell of blood emanating from the garden drain.

Unable to fit into the fridge, a partial goat lingers morosely by the kitchen sink

Unable to fit into the fridge, a partial goat lingers morosely by the kitchen sink

The next morning found me on the floor of the sitting room trying to drag a site report from under the colossal weight of my goat-barbecue hangover, when Mohammed the cook entered bearing a vast tray of raw offal. With a sinking feeling I watched him start to cut the various parts into bite sized pieces before I was driven from the room by the distinctive aroma acting on my weakened constitution. Lunchtime came around with an air of foreboding and mutterings about not being very hungry. Once each of us had been presented with our plate of fried brown objects a tense silence descended as we all tried to work out exactly what we were dealing with. My lucky dip was almost entirely liver (my personal offal bête noire) with a smattering of heart and a large section of wind pipe. I ate the heart and the wind pipe and felt my duty done. Tongue turned out to be a surprising hit, but M. took a turn for the worse after eating half of what transpired to be an ear. If life gives you lemons make lemonade, if life gives you goat offal throw it away before anyone cooks it for you.

All the makings of a lunch of great anatomical interest

All the makings of a lunch of great anatomical interest

On our final day in Sulaimaniya we went to the funfair to drink and smoke. We found a beer garden full of rabbits at the Nawroz Tourism Park and sat down to enjoy the atmosphere of an escaped 1950s Butlins camp that’s been living rough for sixty years. After a suitable amount of chemical stimulants we bought our tickets for the Bumber Cars and asked for all the children to leave before we started. We then took our whiplash to the ghost train, the first exhibit of which was a strobe-lit mannequin of Saddam Hussein dancing on the end of a rope. On that note, I bid Iraq adieu for the moment.

The entrance to the Nowroz Tourism Park ghost train: indeed the portal to another world

The entrance to the Nawroz Tourism Park ghost train: indeed the portal to another reality