A tour of Iran
One morning in the early 1970s a slightly scruffy letter arrived in my public relations company in London. It was clearly a duplicated one, sent to a number of companies like ours – from the tourism attaché of the Iranian Embassy. The brief message enquired if we would like to tender for a publicity programme to promote the country’s tourism. I doubted the worth of following it up, but one of my directors said we should. So, we did, and to our surprise, from a field of 67, we won the contract – it was a job we would work on until the revolution in 1979.
Iran at that time was an autocracy ruled by Reza Shah. Although familiar with some of Iran’s Arab neighbours, I had never been there and knew little about it. This changed dramatically that same week when we were introduced to some new arrivals in our village – an Iranian family, whose entertaining was close to lavish and whose cooking was superb, nearly all done by wife and mother, Parto.
Parto’s cooking accomplishments included the ability (and patience) to make the famous middle-eastern sugar-and-nuts pastry called “Baklava”, which she would serve with glasses of Iranian tea.
Her rice dishes were examples of perfect blending of fine ingredients and were, usually, the centrepiece of utterly delicious dinner menus. The only contribution I made to her cuisine was to introduce her to frozen peas, which she used magically from then on. So, when the time came for a briefing tour of Iran, to prepare the way for the visits of travel writers, tour operators and other specialists, we had at least some small experience of Iranian or Persian food.
As part of our briefing, we felt most fortunate to have a ten day de luxe guided tour of that big, fascinating country steeped in history and a culture dating back more than 2,500 years. We went everywhere – from the tea-growing Caspian Sea coast in the north, through the vibrant, sprawling, smog-covered capital Tehran, to the rose city of Shiraz and the “oil coast” in the south. Our job was to take note, photograph places and people, and to plan itineraries. We were privileged to see village and rural life as well as modern cities. Some of this was ageold; for example, this water wheel, providing the energy for milling flour. The miller, unlike many people we encountered, was happy to pose for my camera. Sadly, this clearly lovely man spoke a language we didn’t understand.
Those days, of course, were before the rule of the Ayatollas, so the production and consumption of alcohol was allowed. The Iranian vodka was excellent – it had a most pleasant, light flavour and, with a twist of lime, it slipped down a treat. The Bulgarians had set up a large wine industry north of Tehran producing a very potable red called “1001 Nights”. In the south of the country, in Shiraz (“the City of Roses”) we encountered one of the most amazing wines I have ever tasted.
This wine was golden and tasted like no other. Slightly sweet with an under-tone of dryness (like un-sweet honey) and hints of apricots and roses, accompanying some grilled river fish, it was ambrosial. We ate chicken quite a lot, in various guises – there are strong regional themes. This recipe is fairly typical. 1. Peel the onions and chop fairly small. 2. Melt 25g of the butter with the olive oil in a large flameproof casserole over a medium heat.
3. Add the onions and stir around for several minutes until soft and browned, then remove to a plate using a slotted spoon. 4. Turn up the heat slightly, add the chicken joints and brown well on each side. 5. Return the onions to the pan and add the almonds, apricots and prunes. Sprinkle the cinnamon over, add a generous grinding of black pepper, then pour in the stock.
6. Put the lid on and bring to the boil, then lower the heat. Simmer very gently for 30-40 minutes until the chicken is tender. 7. Meanwhile, bring a fairly large saucepan of salted water up to the boil. 8. Drain the soaked rice, add it to the boiling water and boil briskly for 4-6 minutes only; the rice should still be slightly underdone. 9. Drain the rice into a large sieve, rinse through with running water and leave on one side. 10. When the chicken joints are cooked, lift them out with a slotted spatula and set aside on a shallow dish.
11. Then briskly boil the contents of the uncovered casserole for a few minutes, stirring now and then to prevent sticking, until the liquid is well reduced to a thick and syrupy sauce. If using pomegranate molasses, stir it in at this stage. If you have pomegranate juice, put in pan and reduce volume by at least half. Spoon the mixture onto the plate with the chicken. 12. Wash out the pan. 13. Melt the remaining 25g butter gently in the clean pan, stir in the drained par-cooked rice and place the chicken joints on top, spooning the thick fruit and nut sauce over each joint as you do so.
14. Finally, cover the casserole with a tea-towel, or aluminium foil, and put the lid tightly. (Tie the corners of the cloth over the lid to keep them from burning). Cook over a very low heat for about 20 minutes until the rice is fluffy and tender.