Category Archives: Postcards from Snackistan

The Snackistan Date Agency: A Guide

Nope, sorry, this isn’t some sort of Middle Eastern lonely hearts club. It is in fact an oh-so-brief (think speed-dating) guide to the different types of phoenix dactylifera (dates to you) on the market. For dates are, after all, the original, all-healthy, all-singing, growing-on-a-tree-near-you snackeroony. And with Ramadan coming up*, Snackistani shops near you will be filling with dates of all different shapes and sizes. Well, actually they’re all the same shape – but there are vast differences in the various types on sale. Dates are seen as the ideal food with which to break fast, you see: they are packed full of nutritious stuff. Anyway, if you succumb to the urge to purchase Snackistan itself, you will see that I wax lyrical about dates at length therein…

There are literally dozens of cultivars of dates, but there are perhaps only four that are well known in the ‘West’. The swankiest one is the medjool date (centre above), grown in North Africa and California. He’s plump, sweet and usually quite expensive.

Saudi Arabian dates are extremely popular. Fresh ones are sold, still-yellow, not-quite-ripened, still on the bough in the Summer months. They are kind of bitter sweet, and an acquired taste. But dried Saudi dates (mostly known as Khudry dates) are quite different: dark and sweet and very sticky.

The best known (at least in the UK) are the ‘deglet noor’ style of date (on the left in the picture): think of your grandpa’s Christmas stocking, Eat Me dates, Christmas… These are the dates on your childhood, small, light in colour, sticky and equipped with a silly plastic spear. These dates grow widely across Northern Africa, and are usually the cheapest on the market.

My Iranian husband pays me to tell everyone that Iranian dates are the best. I happily pocket the money of course: but really I don’t need to be persuaded. Iranian mozafati Bam** dates (on the right above) are probably the best in the world. (Never did understand though why said husband refused to let me sign-write his van with the words “For the hottest dates in town, ask the driver”…) Super-soft, dark, chocolatey, indecently sweet and fairly modestly priced. They are very fresh, and unusually for dates need to be kept cool. The dried dates (top right) are also Iranian and are known as Zahedi dates: they are not so well known, but are awesome as they taste of honey (and we sell them so I may as well plug them, no?).

So now you know. Next time the conversation lags while you’re out on a (real) hot date, you can dazzle with your fruity general knowledge (whilst carefully avoiding any fnaar fnaar moments of course).

*This year it is expected to run from around 9th July – 9th August – depending of course on the sighting of the new moon.
**Bam. Yes that’s right: the town in the South East of Iran that was so badly hit by the 2004 earthquake. Although the town’s famous ancient citadel was mostly destroyed, Bam’s main source of income, its date palms, survived.

Meet Team Snackistan

You know, it’s all very well to write a book, but it takes rather a lot of other clever people to put it all together and make it publishable. I thought it only fair that you meet some of them…

My first book, Persia in Peckham, although every bit as much of a labour of love, is devoid of photos (although it does have some delightful line drawings by Carlos Calvet). So it wasn’t until the nice people at Anova took on Veggiestan and introduced pretty pictures that I had the foggiest idea what a photo shoot was all about.

EmilyIt is the commissioning editor who, well, commissions (or accepts) and then edits a book. So that makes her (or him) quite important. Snackistan’s (and Veggiestan’s) editress is Emily – that’s her on the right smiling at you. Commissioning editors have to be super tough, as it is their job to tell you that much as they like what you’re written, it’s still going on the cutting room floor. Fortunately our Em is also super sweet. And funny. It is also the editress’ job to put together the rest of the team that will produce a book…

DSCF4752A book needs a designer: someone to work out fonts + how the pages will look, and make all the headers look pretty, and (perhaps most importantly) design the front cover. Everyone comments on how very lovely Veggiestan looks: we can but hope that you will like Snackistan as much, and ultimately this is all down to Georgie (on the left there – give her a wave).

DSCF4748When it comes to photos, there are three elements: the prop stylist, the food stylist (aka home economist) and the photographer. The prop stylist sources dozens of different bits of crockery, cutlery and accessories to add atmosphere and authenticity to every dish. In the case of both Veggiestan and Snackistan, the emphasis was on accessibility and informality, and hence a lovely mish mash of fabrics, mismatching pots and plates and ethnic-looking props was used. The clever lady that put all of this together was Wei: she’s a bit shy but we managed to get a picture of her (see right).

ValerieThe food stylist for both books was the astonishingly calm and competent Valerie Berry. A food stylist’s job is to prepare recipes exactly as written by the author, and then ensure that said food looks utterly exquisite. This involves minimal trickery, for all you cynics out there, although sometimes food is re-brushed/basted with its own sauce just to add a little lustre to the shot (this is especially necessary when several shots are required, as dishes inevitably dry out). There seems to be no end to this lady’s talents and patience: she is an author herself, and just for good measure has a nice little sideline in massage. I learnt a huge amount from her during the course of shooting both books.

YukiThe photographer for both books was the deeply and importantly talented Yuki Sugiura (on the right in the photo), who spent hours up a ladder and tweaking the light and shade to get stuff looking just right. Sheesh that camera stuff is complicated. I am a little bit in awe of her, but don’t tell her that. Photographers normally work with assistants, and for Snackistan we had help from the lovely Kim (2nd from left in the top photo).

And it doesn’t stop there. There’s also the proof-reader, the translators, and the ‘Americaniser’ (yup: that’s a thing), Kathy Steer, who checked all the recipes and converted the measurements into American.

So you see, the author really is just a very small part of a book.