Just back from Oman in the Persian Gulf and five days of blue skies, sunshine and heavy duty feasting. Just the escape you need from England at the back end of January. It was a visit organised by the Omani Tourist Board for the Guild of Travel Writers – a freebie .
Singing for our supper involved being wined and dined on a hyper-lavish scale by the country’s most glamorous hotels. Tough work? At times, yes, but no sympathy required.
We stayed at the brand new Millennium Resort (www.millenniumhotels.com) a 230 bed hotel built to host the Asian Beach Games, with its own harbour and 54 berth marina, though like those Spanish hotels of old, the swimming pool, spa and climbing wall were yet to be completed. And it was 90 minutes on a coach from anywhere.
Still, a banquet under the stars at the Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah Resort (www.shangri-la.com) – a 600 room luxury beach resort overlooking the Gulf of Oman, dinner in the grounds of the Las Vegas style, Grand Hyatt (www.muscat.grand.hyatt.com) or drinks and nibbles at the super-minimalist, £400 a night Chedi (www.ghmluxuryhotels.com) [top pic] was more than fabulous even if it didn’t tell us much about how ordinary Omanis lived.
We dined at lavish banquets on barbecued lamb, fat prawns, mildly spiced curries, kebabs laid directly onto charcoal, king fish, yellow fin tuna, barracuda, pureed aubergine, ultra-smooth hummus, tabbouleh and thin round flat bread called rukhal. For dessert we had ripe mango, dates, baklava and a homely bread pudding made with sultanas, almonds, sugar and cinnamon.
Real life intervened when we drove inland to Nizwa where a genuine, not-for-tourists goat market operates every Friday for local men and women and bedouin who might travel hundreds of miles from Salalah in the south to trade their cattle. It was quite a melee with much pushing and shoving of people and cattle,
Food markets were also in full swing: spring onions, sweet potato, coriander, aubergines, lemons, limes, bowls of dried herbs, garlic, methi, cashews, pistachios, dried limes and dates.
We lunched in a traditional Omani restaurant, sitting on the floor with tin plates heaped with rice and indistinguishable chewy meat and fish. At other times we ate gently spiced curries but unless you are dining in someone’s home, (or a six star hotel) the range of Omani cuisine is limited.
But date palms are everywhere, a staple of the Middle East from time immemorial. They look beautiful against the white washed two story houses of Nizwa and Old Muscat. At the ancient forts of Nizwa and Nikhal, the date stores are still intact – you could even smell them. It’s said there are 800 different uses for the date palm, including at the fort, pouring boiling hot date syrup down special channels above the doors, onto the enemy below.
The fruit, which is 70% sugar, may account for the Omani’s love of sweet things. Dates also contain protein and vitamins. So when you are lost in the desert, a bunch of dates, and a pint of camel milk should keep you going.
We couldn’t buy fresh dates since summer is the season for those, but there were plenty of dried and pressed dates to bring home as well as halwa – a sweetmeat made not of sesame, but of eggs, sugar, ghee, nuts, saffron, cardamom and rose water. I could have found some uses for that boiling date syrup, too, but the version in the market sold in old Vimto bottles somehow didn’t look as if it would get through security at Heathrow.