At 6am on the dot, the energetic bustle in Alexandria’s wholesale fish market breaks into pandemonium. For the past hour the auctioneers and callers have been setting out their pitches; now Morning Prayer is over and the market is ready for business. Wellie-clad porters steam into the main hall, their shoulders stacked three-high with wooden crates overflowing with the night’s catch. Red and grey mullet, sole, sparkling sea bass, and octopus, tentacles dangling through the slatted bases of the wooden crates; the porters smack the crates to the floor and rush to get more, making clicking and whistling sounds to warn anyone in their way. They are paid by the morning, but they work as if it were by the crate.
‘Kabouria, ged’aan!’ (Crabs, guys!) shouts a caller, indicating an auction is about to start. Ten crates, writhing with small pink and blue crabs, are laid in a row along the shin-high trestles. A crowd of potential buyers gathers, stout matrons in headscarves jostling with young men, linking arms to stay upright like rugby players in the front row of a scrum. ‘Sold!’ As one crate is whisked off, the scrum heaves down to the next and the bidding intensifies. Across the hall other auctions are taking place: clams, eels, mounds of twitching prawns, and squid which slip-slide out of their crates on to the tiled floor.
Alexandria is not a city that offers itself easily to the casual visitor. Despite its antiquity (it was founded in 332BC by Alexander the Great), there are few ‘trophy’ monuments to visit. The Roman catacombs of Kom es-Shoqafa are beautiful and the modern library magnificent, but they are no match for the picture postcard sights of Luxor or Giza. And although its Mediterranean beaches are packed in the summer, with Cairenes escaping the ferocious heat of the capital, they cannot compete with the pristine waters of the Red Sea.
Once a cosmopolitan city, filled with louche Europeans, Alexandria is no longer a place of beauty. Its neo-classical and Art Deco villas, in melancholy decay since the westerners fled during the Suez crisis in 1956, are now squeezed between the square shoulders of concrete high-rises. Most of Alexandria’s classical past has disappeared too, buried beneath the modern streets and under the sea. Its most famous monument, the colossal Pharos lighthouse that marked the entrance to Alexander’s city, was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world; it was reduced to rubble by an earthquake in 1303.
Yet Alexandria contains rich rewards for the persistent visitor. It is a city of layers, cultural and historic, laid down over 2,000 years by a succession of foreign rulers. And there is an easy – and pleasurable – way to peel back the layers: through the food. The foundations of every cuisine are built on geography. Alexandria sits on the olive belt, the strip of land that encircles the Mediterranean, bounded by the olive line in the north, where the olive groves stop, and the palm line in the south where palms begin.
Each region on this narrow coastal strip, from Morocco sweeping east across Africa, then north through Syria and finally back west again as far as Spain, has adopted the same fundamental style of cooking. They have an abundance of seafood and olive oil and, marshalled carefully, the water to cultivate vegetables. The result: fish simply grilled over small quantities of charcoal (there isn’t enough firewood for ovens); not much dairy because the dry Saharan winds don’t lend the land to pasture; plentiful offal to ensure maximum return from what meat there is; lots of olive oil and citrus; and small vegetable dishes on the side. On the north coast, fresh herbs are more plentiful; in the south they add flavour with spices from the orient. Alexandria is celebrated for its seafood, cooked in this simple style. To taste it at its best, head north-east from the fish market to the top of the El-Anfushi district. Behind the boatyards lies Safar Street, a narrow dirt-strip of shops and restaurants serving fish by the kilo, some still twitching on their beds of ice. You could choose any one of five or six restaurants on Safar Street and come away happy. We picked the cavernous Hossny, tiptoeing over a stream of freshly slaughtered lamb’s blood that was forming a valley in the dust outside the neighbouring butcher’s shop. We ate clams cooked on a skillet with parsley and garlic; a delicate fish broth of crab and clams; and from the charcoal grill, prawns with garlic and cracked black pepper, sea bass with chopped tomatoes, olive oil and spices, and tar’b – spiced lamb mince stuffed into a fatty strip of small intestine.
Like all good Muslims, the Alexandrians pride themselves on being generous hosts, and are not content unless their guests crawl from the table engorged and groaning. At every restaurant, waiters rush forward bearing armfuls of mezze to be eaten while the main dishes are cooked. Most of these recipes have worked their way down from Lebanon, where the mezze tradition was invented in the Twenties. We walked off lunch with a stroll down The Corniche, the dramatic promenade which forms the seaward boundary, and the backbone, of this long, thin city. Here, vendors sell chargrilled corn-on-the-cob, and brightly painted fishing boats bob in the harbour behind them.
Further south, we stopped for tea in the main square, Midan Sa’ad Zaghloul. It is here that the European influence is most keenly felt. The Hotel Cecil, where Churchill, Lawrence Durrell and Noel Coward all stayed, dominates one corner by the sea. Trams clatter by as newspaper vendors and shoe-shine boys tout for business. Friends meet at Art Deco coffee shops to eat French pastries and exchange chit-chat. This square, with its colonial-style architecture, was the creation of an Albanian, Mohammed Ali, who saw the city through its second golden age. Pasha of Egypt under the Ottomans from 1802 to 1849, he launched a huge building programme, bringing in French engineers and Italian architects to give the city a sophisticated, European look. He encouraged foreigners to settle and sent Egyptians to be educated in Paris. Trade flourished.
It was Ali rather than Napoleon (who ruled the city for four brief years before him) who gave Alexandria its Gallic streak. Patisseries sell croissants and pain au chocolat alongside mearmish, sameed and thum. Crèpes are everywhere. Alexandrians use the word ‘merci’ interchangeably with the Arabic ‘shokrun’. So completely has French cuisine been absorbed that I found it impossible to persuade one woman – with whom I was discussing Egyptian home cooking – that béchamel wasn’t an Egyptian word. Yet some elements of Egyptian food remain stubbornly native. At the tram station close to the square, you can pick up exquisite sandwiches of sliced brain – either marinated overnight in lemon then coated in bread and fried (à la schnitzel), or steamed and marinated in a vinaigrette sauce.
Glossary of terms
Aaysh feeno – Baguette
Babaganoush – Aubergine hummus
Baharat – A ground spice mixture that is usually a combination of black pepper, coriander seeds, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg and paprika
Balawa – Layers of filo pastry and nuts, soaked in syrup
Basboosa – Semolina cake with nuts, soaked in syrup
Falafel – Chickpea based pattie
Fel forn – Baked dishes
Frakh – Chicken grilled or stewed with vegetables
Gibna – Cheese
Fuul – Brown Egyptian beans similar to broad/fava beans, usually served with oil and lemon, sometimes also with onions, meat, eggs or tomato sauce
Halawayat – Desserts
Khodar – Vegetables
Kofta – Spicy ground meat patty
Koushari – Rice, macaroni, lentil, chickpeas, topped with spicy sauce
Ma’lee – Fried dishes
Mahalabaya – Milk pudding with rice, cornflower and rosewater, topped with pistachios
Mahshee – Stuffed dishes, usually with minced meat, rice, herbs, pinenuts
Mashwee – Grilled dishes
Mearmish – White, crisp, savoury biscuits
Meze – Small dishes served as an appetiser, usually of different colours, tastes and textures
Sameed – Crisp savoury biscuits in the shape of a loop
Shakshooka – Chopped meat and tomato sauce with an egg on top
Stakosa – Lobster
Tagin samak – Baked fish with rice or cracked wheat
Tahini – Sesame paste
Ta’amiya – Falafel
Tar’b – Spiced lamb mince stuffed into intestine
Thum – Sweet date biscuits
Zayt zatoon – Olive oil
Kahooa – Coffee
Ziyada – Sweet coffee
Miya maadanaya – Mineral water
Nebeet ahmar – Red wine
Nebeet abyad – White wine
Saada – Bitter coffee
Shay bel laban – Tea with milk
Shay ben – Mint tea
Behind the square on Shakour Street, the bustling fast-food institution Mohamed Ahmed serves up the most ubiquitous Egyptian dishes of all: fuul (a simple stew of fava beans, topped with spices at your own discretion) and ta’amiya – otherwise known as falafel. Falafel is a staple on the Leon menu, so I was keen to see how they do it here.
Eygptians make the best falafel in the world, and Alexandrians, by common consent, make the best falafel in Egypt. Unlike the Palestinians, Lebanese and Israelis, they use dried white broad beans – also from the fava family – rather than chickpeas. Soon the Formica table was covered in dishes; full with various toppings, fried white cheese, tomato salad, and finally a pyramid of piping hot falafel. The falafel was extraordinary: light and crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside, flecked green with fresh coriander and spring onion. Four of us ate until our waistbands could take no more, and the bill came to eight Egyptian pounds per head – or 88p. In a Red Sea resort, that wouldn’t even buy you a Big Mac. Henry Dimbleby is co-founder of Leon restaurant in London, leonrestaurants.co.uk. Henry and Martin Thompson flew courtesy of British Mediterranean Airlines. See page 118 for recipes from the trip.
All change in Alexandria
Alexandria was run by foreigners for 2,000 years until Nasser’s 1952 revolution. Founded by Alexander the Great in 332BC, and built by his successors the Ptolemies, the city was ceded to the Romans after Cleopatra killed herself rather than be taken prisoner by Octavian.
In 616 the Roman Empire – by then the Byzantine Empire – lost it to Abu Bakr, the prophet Mohammed’s successor. The city remained under Islamic rule – Turk, Circassian and Ottoman – until Napoleon’s invasion in 1798. The French lasted only four years, and it was the Albanian Mohammed Ali – in name an Ottoman Pasha, but effectively an autonomous ruler – who brought about the cultural renaissance.
His heirs, however, brought the economy to a state of collapse under the weight of massive foreign loans used to finance the building of the Suez Canal and construction projects in Cairo. In 1876 a Franco-British condominium took control of the economy and, following nationalist uprisings, the British shelled Alexandria and took control of the country as an effective protectorate until 1952.
Eat and drink
– Mohamed Ahmed, 17 Shakour Street, is a packed little café with Formica tables and a sawdust-swept floor. The best fuul and falafel in town. Dinner for four for under a fiver.
– Mohamed Hossny, 46-48 Safar Street. Point at your fish and they’ll grill it for you. Very friendly waiters, grumpy owner, delicious food. Elaa, 3 Al-Quwat, Al-Musalaha. Tucked behind the fish market, it’s a simple place doing fresh fish and little else.
– Adu Shakra, The Corniche. A combination of a fast-food joint and casual restaurant with a standard Egyptian menu and a kitsch leopard skin theme. The chef kindly agreed to cook us the traditional molokhyia, a glutinous soup made from the eponymous herb – delicious, but something of an acquired taste.
– Trianon and Athineous, both near the main square, are the places to drink tea or coffee, eat mille feuille and soak up the bygone spirit. Worth it for the opulent décor alone.
– Saber, Saber Street. Such an institution that the locals have named the street after it. A small strip-lit shop, it may look unprepossessing, but it serves some of the best puddings you’ll eat anywhere on earth. It specialises in mahallabiya (milk pudding flavoured with rosewater), rice pudding and ashoura (like rice pudding but made with wheat). The rice pudding with ice-cream is pure genius.
– Le Cap d’Or, Sharia Adib. If, like John Mills in Ice Cold in Alex, you are after a beer ‘so ruddy cold there’s a sort of dew on the outside of the glass’, you could try this wonderfully atmospheric bar, although we found the management a little light with our change (the Spitfire nearby is said to be more friendly).
– The dialling code for Egypt is 00 20.
– The currency is the Egyptian pound divided into 100 piastres. £1=EG£10.12.
– Alexandria is two hours ahead of GMT.
– The best time to travel is between April and September when the temperature rarely goes over 30ºC. Avoid travelling during Ramadan (usually October-November).
– British travellers require a passport valid for at least three months and a visa (valid for 30 days), which can be obtained upon entry or at a consulate, and costs £15 (single) or £18 (multiple).
– Vaccinations are recommended but not required. For current advice visit egypt.embassyhomepage.com.
Where to stay
– Sheraton Montazah, Corniche Road (00 20 3548 0550; sheraton.com/montazah). This hotel is in a superb location overlooking the Mediterranean shoreline and Montazah Gardens. It is a well-equipped modern luxury hotel and its restaurants and cafés offer a fine dining experience with a choice of either local or European cuisines. Doubles from US$275 per night.
– Hilton Alexandria, Green Plaza, 14th of May Bridge Road, Smouha (00 20 3420 9120; hilton.co.uk). A modern five-star hotel with friendly staff, located at the heart of one of Alexandria’s biggest shopping areas. Doubles from £54 per night.
– Hilton Borg El-Arab Resort, Km 52, Alexandria-Matrouh Road, Borg El Arab, Alexandria 94 (00 20 3374 0730; hilton.co.uk). This is worth considering if you feel like a break from the city. Doubles from £57 per night.
– El Salamlek Palace Hotel, Montazah Gardens (00 20 3547 7999; sangiovanni.com), is the former hunting lodge of the Ottoman rulers of Egypt. It’s considered one of the most luxurious hotels in the city. Doubles from US$258 per night.
– Sofitel Cecil, 16 Saad Zagloul Square (00 20 3487 7173; sofitel.com). Steeped in the history of the 20th century, the hotel was built in 1929 and has played host to Churchill, Elvis and Omar Sharif among others. Doubles from £92 per night.