Friday, February 21, 2014


I arrived back in Atyrau four weeks ago today.  It was a long journey, almost 36 hours door to door with about 24 of those on planes, but I arrived in the flight in from Astana at 6.15 Friday morning, just in time to see Sandra off to work and get on with a day’s shopping and cooking. In fact I had to get prepared for 

Saturday night as we had planned to have a surprise birthday party for Jon, who was going to be 60 years old.  His good wife had schemed with us and he thought he was coming over for a quiet dinner.  In fact we had a crowd of nearly 30 people hiding round the corner from the front door, to surprise him when he came in.  It worked! And he managed to take it well within his stride. 

I had been up at 3am after 4 hours sleep (that’s jet lag for you!) and cooked all day until 7pm, with just an hour for lunch.  We only had easy-to-eat finger food, but it is a fiddly task making little pies, little quiches, little pizzas, little samosas etc for that many people.  It was a lot of fun, i enjoyed it.

Then we had a week of very mixed weather.  

There are two short seasons in Atyrau, Autumn and Spring.  They are the brief and sudden transitional seasons between cold winters and hot summers.  Freezing winters and baking summers are fine, with little precipitation (this is a desert) I find the dry cold and heat very much better than winter damp and summer monsoons of other countries.  But the in-betweeny-bits are often a bit wet and very muddy.  They don’t last long but we had a brief taster that week…and then the temperatures dropped down to almost -50C with wind chill, or so they said.  It was pretty cold, my tough Canadian neighbor thought it too cold to come out walking, and I admit that I needed to wear my fur hat with the flaps down…a sartorial no-no in my book, but one which expedience overcame. 

Between the shopping and the cooking, walking and eating, I did make daily trips to meet Sandra for lunch.  We have rather changed our routine.  I think that maybe after a few years of business lunches the novelty might be wearing off.  As exciting as it sometimes is to see what appears and how it compares to the menu description, there comes a time when some predictability is a relief.  So I have been taking food in to the office and Sandra and I usually eat there, often begging colleagues to help us finish what we cannot eat.  I have started making use of the thermos flask to take in soups and sauces  (so far…pumpkin, leek and potato, spicy lentil and mushroom soups, bolognaise and chili, lamb stew and beef curry); this has been most valuable since the second microwave was purloined by the caterers and the rush hour queues make using the microwave for five minutes

We have been going out about once a week, but our dining satisfaction is not improving with that.  Last Friday I made the mistake of suggesting we go out to eat lunch (last day of the week, getting lazy and Valentine’s day too). We went to Winter Garden, one of our regular lunch spots that is not frequented by expats at lunchtime.  I broke my golden rule of not ordering European food in a Kazakh restaurant!  Well, it was pizza which is hardly European in Atyrau since it is as ubiquitous as pasta thanks to Atyrau’s long Italian heritage.  And the picture in the menu looked like a pizza that I had eaten before (Sandra pointed out that it was the same picture in many restaurant menus!).  

Anyway, in short it was a reasonable pizza except for some of the topping.  The fresh chopped tomato on the topping was fine, and the peppers were fine except I don’t like them on my pizzas, which meant the cheese and the salami were below par.  In fact to be blunt the salami wasn’t salami but thick slices of some kind of Kazakh frankfurter sausage thing, and the cheese was not cheese but some sort or processed chees stuff a bit like Cheez Wiz, the squirty cheesy stuff that only specially trained North Americans can eat.  I ate the edge and.  This is a picture of the pizza (after I had finished with it…ie missing a bite and an edge).

The next weekend was Sandra’s birthday party.  She graciously decided to have a smaller party of female friends and, if available, spouses.  This meant the cooking was more manageable, and as she chose to have Indian food I was able to cook a curry a day through the week and keep them in the fridge.  Many curries improve over a couple of days in the fridge so this made life very easy.  On the Saturday of the party all I had to do was make chapattis, papadums and a last minute quickly cooked cabbage dish. 

By my second week I was starting to sleep past 4am and recover from the jet lag.  This meant that it was time to experiment with my new toy…  Sandra had bought me a meat grinder from the Netherlands (220V).  Of course you can buy grinders here, there are many, many to choose from in shops like Technodom.  The trouble is knowing or finding out which ones are any good.  By getting a model that was reviewed on the internet I new what it would deliver.  If this sounds to you like a paranoid expat writing (and I probably am) last week I bought a blender at a local store and can only conclude QED!

So having come to Atyrau this time with a supply of hog gut I was ready to make sausages.  We have missed having English Bangers with our occasional weekend breakfasts, toad-in-the-hole for supper and a good sausage and mustard sandwich, but I intended to rectify this. 

I visited our “pork lady” in Rahat, locals will know the specially segregated “pork-room” at the back where we can find some things porky like very smoky ham,  Kazakh “salami” and pork loins and chops.  She was rather perplexed that I was looking for pieces with a good percentage of fat on them as the local think that Americans (and we can put the British in the same pot) have an irrational fear of fat in all shapes and forms.  I found something suitable and went home and made sausages.  They were not too bad!  

I also experimented with some chicken, apple and onion sausages which I produced in a cumberland style and will cook as a dish for four people if I can find two guinea pigs willing to join us.

Less successful were my attempt at beef sausages. As the beef is all so lean and I cannot buy pork fat alone I decided to make Frankfurter style sausages which use lean meat.  The problem was producing a smooth enough meat puree that wasnt too liquidy.  This is where my new blender failed me, and I don't have a food processor.  The mix was too wet and resulted in a sausage that was not firm enough.  I do not have sheep guts with me so I tried to use hog guts but not tightly stuffed to make some thinner sausages and this further compounded the texture problem. The sausages were poached after cooking and then cooled in the freezer (it may look like a balcony to you but at -20C it is a freezer to me!).

But at the end of the day it was all about breakfast...

And something else that I didn't really realised I had missed having until I started to think about it,  pork sausage rolls fresh from the oven...

The third weekend back was the social event of the year, Burn's Night.  This is my third blog about Burn's Night so I will not repeat myself.  In fact my comments about previous Burn's Nights could just be repeated.  Except this time we had a table right next to the doorway to the kitchen (always the best seats!) and so I could actually see what was coming back from the tables. And I can confirm that my observations about the food are corroborated by the evidence of uneaten meals on the plates.  I would estimate that from our table less than 25% of the main course was eaten.  The beef Wellington was again inedible, The beef was so overcooked I couldn't even cut it, and the use of liver instead of a good duxelle or a pate/duxelle mix is far too strong.  It is such a shame to see good food wasted because of overly ambitious cooking.  This is not a recipe for mass catering, but I the Renaissance cooks wont learn.  They probably think the food comes back because people have had sufficient, but the desserts get eaten! But to end on a positive note, once again the haggis was the highlight of the meal, even if the tatties and neeps were actually tatties and something else!  Could it have been sweet potatoes, or were carrots mixed with something, perhaps it was swede...but lovely haggis!  We do enjoy Burn's Nights but it is important to remember that it is all done, with generous donations from the business communities too, for local charity.

Last weekend was the start of Spring!  That is not an official start, but a start signalled by the weather.  The temperature crept to around zero and snow started to disappear.  On Sunday we went for a walk with our friend, Phil, to have lunch at Venezia and introduce him to Rahat.  We walked across the river and discovered a new phenomenon.  

This year the river ice has some fairly significant cracks in it.  They have refrozen so there is no danger.  I have been told that this is because the water level beneath the ice increased due to the winds across the Caspian forcing water upstream and so causing cracking and subsequent falling and cracking of the ice on the river.  Whatever happened there are cracks and water is now seeping on top of the ice at the edges of the river by the banks.  In the cold period this water just froze, but last weekend it was only frozen on its surface.  So when we got to the edge of the river we suddenly felt the ice cracking beneath our feet and we went through into the water and onto the thick layer of ice underneath.  It was rather disconcerting as we didnt realise what was happening.  Today I noticed fishermen walking through ice and water at the river edge to get to the middle to begin fishing.  The view from the bridge shows the difference in the ice down the edge.