a new name

March 21, 2011

there have been a few misspellings over the years but this has to be the best:

 

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beer notes #36

December 22, 2010

The blog has lost its chronology, but try to stick with us while we put things right.

Goldstar Dark Lager Beer Israel   4.9%

Bluestar Beer would be more correct, don’t you think? Perhaps sacrilegious or, at the very least, in poor taste. That could link in though if you get my crummy pun.

Israelis aren’t really big drinkers but you can get beer everywhere, even in Jerusalem during Shabbat – although not without a few quirks. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, we and a few other die-hards were enjoying a quiet Goldstar in a mostly deserted area in the “new” (you know, post-Jesus) part of town,  when we were booed at by a group of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews. They were a good 30 metres away, but it was still a little disconcerting. I thought of shouting “It’s OK! We’re Catholic!” but that probably wouldn’t have calmed the situation.

But back to the stars: this beer doesn’t rate any although it is purportedly better than Maccabee, which I was forbidden to drink by our lovely host Michaella who, along with boyfriend Niv, was a willing imbiber. The beer colour is the most interesting thing about it (albeit brown = hardly ground-breaking), but doesn’t follow with any distinguishing taste. It’s worth having a look at their funny if, on reflection, misogynist advertising.

we’ve gone

December 5, 2010

from this:

to this:

day one in jerusalem

September 5, 2010

A siren sounds to mark the beginning of Shabbat and Jerusalem starts shutting down. As we amble up the stone steps of the old city, worn smooth and shiny with centuries of traffic, an Australian voice calls from behind: “Where are you guys from?” Two young Orthodox men overtake us, vaguely resembling hipsters in their skinny black pants, skinny ties and white shirts with the sleeves rolled up. They heckle us about being from Perth, joking that it’s barely even part of Australia – they’re from Melbourne – but concede “at least you’re not from Sydney.”
 
The next morning, we set off to follow the Via Dolorosa – the Way of Sorrows or the Stations of the Cross. Fifteen minutes of searching fails to reveal the location of the first station but we make do with starting at number two. By the fifth station, located in the heart of the bazaar, I find myself being slowly sidelined towards a stall selling men’s underpants by a geriatric Italian pilgrim group; after a string of prayers and a flurry of snapping cameras, their leader marches onwards, toting what looks like a tangerine impaled on the end of a long stick.
 
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on what is believed to be the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, is an absolute circus. Scores of Russian pilgrims, wearing yellow caps emblazoned with “Sunway Tours”, yell at each other as they queue. Most of the ladies have swathed themselves in lurid, gauzy sarongs to provide a degree of modesty beyond their pink hot pants and strappy singlets. They pose, unsmiling, for photos in front of the various altars and I imagine them explaining to their friends at home “… and here’s me at the place where they nailed Jesus to the cross…” The Greek Orthodox priest tending the area scoops up fistfuls of wax tapers, extinguishing them en masse barely seconds after their bearers light them in solemn offering. The crush of people is too much and we flee, vowing to return at an earlier, quieter hour.
 
Exhausted, we flop into the common room of our hostel and order some tea and hummus. As we breathe a sigh of relief, a guy using the computer in the corner looks over his shoulder and asks if we speak English; ten minutes later, we’re regretting answering “yes” as he regales us with details of how he worked as a secret agent for the US Defence Force when he was 14 years old but he still had to pay taxes until 2003 and how there are six branches of the US Marines, just like there are six points on the Star of David and, trust him, it’s no coincidence… He barely stops for breath as we grab our hummus and run away.

beer notes #35

September 1, 2010

Taybeh Beer Golden  Palestine  5%
Taybeh Beer Amber  Palestine  5.5%

Not unlike Chateau Musar, the story of the Taybeh Brewing Company is one of passion for family, place and quality product. Despite tremendous adversity, the Khoury family have been brewing in the West Bank since the mid-nineties. “The finest beer in the Middle East” is their slogan – one that is very easy to agree with. The Master Brewer, Nadim Khoury, an engineer by trade, returned to Palestine from the US with his young family and brother, David, after the Oslo Accords with the stated aim of contributing to a successful, independent Palestine. Nadim told us how he first got the idea of a Palestinian microbrewery as a college student in the 70s when he’d bring back various bits of home brewing equipment from Boston for his father who was unable to get any decent beer locally.

 
Taybeh Beer is named after the village that it is located in, the ancestral home of the Khoury family. It sits high above Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. In a happy coincidence, the word “taybeh” means “delicious” in Arabic; the town was renamed by Saladin, having been formerly known as Ephra, meaning “unpleasant” – probably for the best as far as marketing is concerned. Taybeh is the only remaining Christian town in Israel and the Palestinian Occupied Territories; like everything in these parts, it’s got an incredible, long history, even cracking a mention in John’s gospel. If you’re interested, there’s a great history section on the town’s webpage. 

 
These days much of the brewing process is managed by Nadim’s delightful daughter, Madees. About our age, she was onsite the day we visited and we had a great hour or so chatting away, despite occasional visits from tightfisted, septuagenarian Italian tour groups and a working day that had kicked off at 4:30am. She poured us a wonderfully fresh Golden from the keg. It was refreshing and subtle – everything you want from this style of beer. A quality sessional, it has slightly sweet malts and some hops. My little notebook insightfully records: “It tastes like good beer.” 14/20. I brought some of the Amber back to Jerusalem (along with a poster, two stickers, postcards and a Tshirt, being the sucker for merch that I am); it’s more complex; not as successful as the Golden, but still very drinkable. 12/20. There’s simply no other amber or dark beer in the Middle East, so the fact that Taybeh is even attempting to turn people onto it is a victory for good beer.

 
The beers are available thoughtout Europe and the Middle East and are even brewed under licence in Germany. Despite some enquiries, it’s not been profitable to send it to Perthland just yet. Israel has signed a free trade agreement with the United States that covers the West Bank and would allow for the export of Taybeh, but so far the beer’s export has been blocked because of a labeling issue: the family don’t want to change “Made in Palestine” to the mandatory “Made in Israel”. 
 
A little part of me was worried about going out to Taybeh – would it be depressing? Good people with a good idea, going slowly broke under the stresses and vagaries of occupation? But we found a vibrant and happy family courageously working against the slow burn of the occupation and, seemingly, every wrongheaded stereotype of the Palestinians. But things are very hard. As I walked out of the microbrewery, I picked up a pamphlet advertising Taybeh’s annual Oktoberfest, which attracts thousands. I was stunned by the power of its closing words written by Dr Maria Khoury, David’s wife;
Taybeh Beer means everything right now. It means that we want to work for a modern Palestine where democracy, freedom, and human rights would encourage all to thrive. It means that we are just craving to be “normal”.

a heat of biblical proportions

August 28, 2010

Jordan has somewhat of a reputation as a worthless sandpit that fortuitously happens to be home to a few of the Middle East’s most amazing attractions. The capital, Amman, is not one of them. To be fair, it’s not exactly held out to be one of the jewels in Jordan’s tourism crown, but it seems that the main way to pass the time is wandering up rubbish-strewn hills in 50 degree heat.*  We spent only two nights in town, long enough for an ATM to eat our card and to watch the mighty Oranje go down to those Toni & Guy-patronising Spaniards. Actually, I should mention that Amman is home to the world’s second tallest flag pole; North Korea takes out the number one spot – make of that what you will. The best time we had was unexpectedly sharing a meal at a crowded local hummus joint with a lovely and vivacious group of local women who took no end of delight in giggling in disbelief at the pictures we showed them of a chubby, cleanshaven Linds on his admission day – “That’s you?!” Invariably, it’s this sort of chance encounter that lodges in the memory as a true highlight. And lodged it has.

 
We did manage to team up with an awkward American and a Japanese pothead to do a day trip out of town. Winding our way through still acacia groves to the baptism site on the Jordan River, we both agreed there was a definite sense of serenity and hallowedness, although Catie still managed to inappropriately blaspheme – woops! – in the heat, which could only be described as having taken on biblical proportions.
 
It was then on to the Dead Sea for a “refreshing” dip which, given the aforementioned heat and shallow depth, was more like bathing in a sweltering oil slick, albeit with the undeniably fun element of irregular buoyancy. The excitement of posing for obligatory “reading the newspaper” photos was clearly too much for me; I promptly splashed seawater in my eyes – I’d been rubbing it on my hairline in a misguided attempt to halt hair loss – which caused temporary blindness and required the wife to tow me to the shore and douse my face with the remainder of our drinking water. 

 
In terms of the region’s tourist magnets, Petra ranks second only to the Pyramids and even a seasoned naysayer like me can’t deny its magnificence – well worth the investment of a multi-day pass. Fearing we may actually perish in the reflected heat of all that stone and sand, we formed a habit of getting down to the site at 7am and calling it quits by midday. Nevertheless, as we retreated each day for felafel and a cool shower, we couldn’t help but stare in disbelief at the busloads of daytrippers from Israel and Egypt arriving in the heat of the day, sans hats, dressed in their finest strapless tops and flimsy footwear. For the sake of the survival of half of Europe, someone really needs to translate the “Slip, Slop, Slap” campaign into French, Spanish and Italian.
 
Suckers for meteorological punishment, we booked on to an overnight 4WD tour of Wadi Rum, which involved us, three Danish lads and a pair of French mademoiselles rattling around the desert in the (mercifully, canopied) tray of a ute. Fairly spectacular, I’ll let the photos speak for themselves:

 

* There was a burger at the top, so it was all worth it.

how to have a rather perfect day

August 23, 2010

 

When in Beirut, do as the Beirutis do and get out of town for some beach times. A forty-five minute bus ride will deposit you at the gate of Edde Sands Beach Club. Shuffle down the winding driveway, taking care to dodge the shiny, speeding 4WDs driven by maniacal valets, and arrive at reception trying to look confident – you’re punching well above your weight here. A few minutes later, you’ll be reclining on a sun lounge and calling for the waitstaff to bring you a beer and a club sandwich. If you’re Australian, be prepared to be the only person on the beach not reeking of coconut oil and resembling a rotisserie chicken.

When you’ve had enough of doing very little, shuffle back up the driveway and into the nearby town of Byblos. Survey the tourist tat in the cobblestoned, vine-shaded laneways before making your way to the picturesque harbour for sunset; you might see a frou-frou bride nervously awaiting her entrance to the tiny stone church perched above the water. Inhale and salivate over the smell of other people’s barbeques. If you’re not already skint from paying the extrance fee to the beach club, you can linger for a seafood dinner; if you’re us, you can head back to the highway, flag a bus and snooze all the way back to Beirut.

it was the best of days; it was the worst of days

August 18, 2010


Chasing beer delivery men aside, another highlight of arriving in Lebanon was our return to the land of the grape. We foolishly flirted with a bottle of Syrian plonk, which was tipped down the sink in its entirety mere moments after wrestling the cork out. But unlike their Syrian and Israeli neighbours, Lebanese winemakers have chosen to embrace the “new-fangled” techniques of those “crazy Europeans” and hence, their product has risen above being complete rubbish.

Minor illness and bizarre opening hours thwarted our early attempts to visit some of Lebanon’s lesser wineries so we decided just to shoot for the hottest part of the flame: Chateau Musar. Despite having alluded to our tight-arse backpacker status, so as to avoid disappointment when the inevitable buying part of the visit came around, our tentative email enquiry about a cellar tour elicited a startlingly enthusiastic response and so we decided to move whatever logistical mountains were required to get ourselves up to the small town of Ghazir.

And indeed there was a rather significant mountain to be moved: Lebanese taxi drivers. If there is one group of people against whom we have developed an unabashed prejudice during the course of our travels, it’s taxi drivers. After 15 minutes of explaining that we didn’t want to go to Beiteddine and negotiating an only moderately extortionate price, the whole process had to be repeated once inside the cab as a driver, seemingly a complete stranger to the previous conversation, was assigned to us and attempted to renegotiate the whole deal on the basis that the traffic was bad, it happened to be a day ending in “-y” or because the price of tea in China went up last week. Things didn’t improve when we rounded the corner to make a 10-minute stop so the driver could race inside a faceless building and have a piece of Very Important Paper stamped. I mused that it was probably his parole record. We would have abandoned ship there and then if he hadn’t made off with our guidebook, which I’d recklessly given to him to lean on while he scribbled on the bit of paper, as ransom.

After finally getting on the road and explaining for the umpteenth time that we wanted to visit Jeita Grotto after visiting the winery, it became clear that the driver had no idea where we were going. Cue a ridiculous series of stops to ask a motley parade of local characters for directions – a mechanic at the petrol station; a lady with a pram; a young woman at a juice stall wielding a paring knife and, even more dangerously, an enormous pair of breasts – united only by their complete and inexplicable ignorance of the whereabouts of one of Lebanon’s finest and most proud establishments, housed in a large castle in the centre of a very small town which, trust me, has nothing much else to recommend it. Accusations started flying from the driver that no such place existed until we drove back through the centre of town and spotted a sign directing us 500m up the hill. Our animated pointing at the sign prompted the driver to then park the car under the watchful gaze of said sign, as though this was our intended destination, until we did some more animated pointing up the hill.

Despite being forty minutes late for our appointment, we were very graciously received and immediately transported to a wine wonderland. Atmospheric stone cellars and a very good product aside, the history of the winery is undoubtedly its most impressive aspect. You’d be hard pressed to find much written about Chateau Musar that doesn’t mention the steadfastness of the Hochar family during the civil war. Amazingly, they stood guard over their remarkable cellar – which contains bottles from every vintage since the winery’s inception in 1930, for the owners’ personal tasting or to be sold only on application to the owners themselves – at the winery’s HQ and continued production right through those nightmare years.

Even if what you were drinking didn’t have such a background, it would still stand up as one of the classics of wine making. Everything about the Chateau Musar operation is uncompromisingly old world, which manifests in the wine itself. For the amateur Australia wino, it shocks with its near total difference from the big, juicy fruit that is the cliche and reality of many Australian wines. Their flagship red is a blend of cinsault, carignan and cabernet sauvignon; savoury, gamey and grown-up, it’s great stuff.

We were pulled down off our cloud the moment we stepped outside; our driver immediately engaged in another attempted renegotiation of the fee based, I presume, on the extra time and distance consumed by getting lost. We dug our heels in, which provoked a string of the sort of vitriol that transcends language barriers and fist-shaking of unprecedented magnitude. Faced with the prospects of being punched in the face, abandoned on a Lebanese highway or stuck in the car with this lunatic driver any longer than absolutely necessary, we called off the detour to Jeita and shut up, making for a fairly tense journey back to Beirut. Stuck in traffic not far from our hotel, we seized the moment to thrust forward our payment and escape down a side street to seek refuge in the loving arms of an Armenian sausage sandwich.

After writing this, I now feel the need to go take a cool shower and have a lie-down. My rage has been further fuelled by the discovery, in the course of searching links for this post, of a map on the Chateau Musar website that not only details the cellar’s location but also confirms that we could very easily have taken a bus there. But then we wouldn’t have really earned that sausage sarnie, would we?

beer notes # 34

August 13, 2010


961 Red Ale Lebanon 5.5%

961 Traditional Lager Lebanon 5.2%

Is this is what I have become – the sort of person who stalks beer delivery men?

Thanks to the tragic amounts of research previously mentioned, 961 – a microbrewery named, I think, after the country code for Lebanon – was earmarked as a priority beverage target. I should have known better than to trust their hip yet remarkably uninformative website; after two hours of combing the street in the blazing sun, the target (in the form of the brewery’s eponymous bar) remained at large.

This isn’t the first time we have endured the elements in search of a Dodd folly, so I remained only slightly deterred. Meanwhile, we adopted a local cafe, Bread Republic, as our HQ and it was here that I noticed a stubbie of the elusive brew in the fridge. An unusually competent waitress informed me that while the bar had closed due to its financially premature opening, the brewery was still battling on albeit with supply issues due to a recent relocation of their brewing operations. Encouraged – not that I needed it – by this information, I ordered said stubbie of 961 Traditional Lager and it was a few days later that I chased the beer delivery man down the street as I saw him lugging a carton of Red Ale into a nearby corner store.

In somewhat of an anticlimax, this beer actually caused me to plunge into a sort of existential beer crisis, realising that it had been so long since I’d sampled a decent beer that I was now having trouble identifying one, no longer able to distinguish between “good” and “trying too hard.” I think the Traditional Lager falls into the latter category – funky citrus and yeast, it’s anything but an industrially produced larger, just a pity it’s not much chop. The Red Ale is more successful, a straight amber ale with nice hops and simple structure.

what $40 buys (or doesn’t buy) you in beirut

July 31, 2010
We arrived in Beirut geared up for a good time, having devoted a tragic amount of online research to ferreting out the best restaurants and bars on offer in the city once known as “the Paris of the East.” Giddy with excitement, we even splurged – wait for it – on a US$40 room. But it soon became clear we were little fish in a big pond, no longer in the truly developing world where even budget travellers are situated disproportionately at the top of the capitalist food chain. As it turns out, in Beirut $40 buys you nothing more than a windowless box with a seatless toilet and such proximity to a drum ‘n’ bass club that we could feel the vibrations through our pillows until 9:30 the next morning. I now feel like I have some insight into what it would be like to be a Guantanamo Bay inmate.
 
There’s a lot of money being thrown around in Beirut – the Lebanese are apparently notorious for living beyond their means. Ferraris and Land Rovers squeal around corners driven by preened trophy wives with pink spangly Blackberrys glued to their ears. A Filipino nanny seems to be the latest fashion accessory – restaurants advertise half-price meals for yours if you bring her along to mind the little darlings while you lunch – and you can buy Cohibas and Bombay Sapphire at the petrol station. For the first few days, I think we were actually labouring under a certain degree of culture shock. It’s easy to reject the trappings of consumerism when a) there’s nothing on offer that you want to buy, and b) you’re really just pretending that you don’t have much money, knowing that “you could call your dad and he’d stop it all” and you can waltz into the best establishments in town with impunity, solely by virtue of being foreign. It’s not so easy when turbo capitalism is in your face 24/7 and you’re just one of the crowd. For the first time in ages, we felt poor and shabby and it dealt a bit of a blow to our morale. That, and a night glued to the seatless toilet, care of whatever I ate that didn’t agree with me.
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Thankfully, it didn’t take us long to find a hotel that included toilet seats in the room rate and to learn to laugh at ourselves again. Reliably informed by Taste of Beirut, we set out for the Souk el Tayeb farmer’s market and had our spirits immediately lifted by homemade arak enthusiasts and the wares of Georgina the Tabbouleh Queen. Actually, if ever there was a case for the benefits of comfort eating, we made it as our mood was buoyed with each bite of everything we’d been missing (roast beef and caramelised beetroot sandwiches; sushi; 70% cocoa Lindt) and everything we quickly grew to love (Armenian spicy sausage; fattouch; anything with zaatar), all washed down with many glasses of crisp, chilled rose. Actually, that might have been what buoyed our mood. It certainly wasn’t my haircut, which I had been so looking forward to and was so disappointed by. Somewhat akin to the haircut I had when I was two years old, I now bear a remarkable resemblance to Julie Bishop.
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Still, the way Beirut has risen like a phoenix from the ashes is undeniably impressive. The city’s nightlife is second-to-none – reservations essential at the rooftop clubs that have revellers dancing on the tabletops ’til dawn, sandwiched between the mountains and the Mediterranean – although we could barely afford to sip a few glasses of cheap plonk in the dive-iest of Gemmayzeh’s bars; the renovated downtown area is superbly glamorous although the ghost-like shell of the nearby Holiday Inn, its walls riddled with bullet holes, belies its recent history. Wealthy Lebanese diaspora are returning in droves and we frequently heard American and Australian accents pop up in this comfortably trilingual city.
 
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Thankfully, after a day of dodging Aston Martins and covering up religiously while everyone else on the beach slathers coconut oil on their bronzed, buff bodies, strolling along the Corniche at sunset is free.