To Israel… For the first time in 20 years. That’s a lot longer than my annual, improvised, and unconventional tribute to the world’s longest-running song contest has been going. This year, the Eurovision Host-feast hits the streets of Tel Aviv for an Israeli banquet. The traditional Eurovision dishing up is on…
“Abba actually won with a song about war, but this is not something we recommend”
THAT KIND OF JOKE, FROM THE INTERVAL OF THE 2016 CONTEST, IS AS TENTATIVELY POLITICAL AS THE STRIDENTLY APOLITICAL EUROVISION ALLOWS – SATIRE, 200 YEARS OUT OF DATE. But of course, politics will always simmer underneath. Any hope that it’ll will fade from a competition that emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War and hosts as many many former allies as former enemies, would be better spent wishing the UK out of the bottom five.
It’s a coincidence that my annual Eurovision host-feast arrived with a new kind of Eurovision. As quoted above, Sweden’s ceremony in 2016 was its fifth as host, cementing the Scandinavian country’s reputation as the spiritual home of the Contest – they’re the only country to have welcomed it across their borders in five consecutive decades. Three years ago in Stockholm, their innate understanding of the show hinged around their absurdly apposite interval dissection of what Eurovision is. (“Nothing says Eurovision like a violin“). Love Love Peace Peace. Gleefully tongue-in-cheek it proved that Swedes were in on the joke. If you detest Eurovision, a ridiculous celebration that deserves celebrating, you take yourself too seriously.
Sweden raised the bar and it’s been kept high, helped by innovations in technology and voting that have kept things lively and banished pondourous results, even if they haven’t shortened the show’s final section. The introduction of two semi-finals in 2007, while carrying an inevitable sense of unfairness – especially with the queue-jumping of the Big Five highest contributors, including the UK – has created a leaner and but interestingly more inclusive ceremony. A broader season of events have formed in mid-May, naturally roping in podcasting and additional television coverage. On stage, countries like Azerbaijan have taken things increasingly importantly, pulling in American producers to keep quality high. Streaming has matured the content. Many of the favourites have been floating around European charts for months ahead of the ceremony – something that Britain, the greatest exporter of pop music on the continent who’s able to grind out a last place, has yet to appreciate.
This year’s contest was wracked by a noticeable undercurrent of politics. Orthodox Jews protested the show’s staging on a Sabbath in Jerusalem while a semi-final broadcast was hijacked by footage of a fake missile strike. The conflict between Israel and Palestine that the organisers were desperate to keep away from proceedings crept into the results segment and the interval’s huge guest performance – Madonna, the latest American performer to realise the huge potential of an international audience upwards of 600 million viewers. While the studio audience duly booed or kept shtum, it was interesting they reserved judgement for other renowned ‘political’ components of the competition that seem part of the Euro-furniture. When Greece picked up 12 points from Cyprus, they were roundly booed. The semi-final sieving of entrants has at least limited the appearance of bloc-voting.
Rather inevitably, the UK claimed a miserable and undeserved last place this year. The saving grace was that shortly after we gathered a measly three points from the non-jury vote, Germany picked up keine punkte.
At least we’re not who the public of Europe despise the most.
No need for gimmicks. the rules remain the same.
Fortunately, you’ll be relieved to know, this year brought another, marginally more successful British production – the return of my Eurovision Host-feast! Following last year’s Portuguese peri-peri chicken and steamed clams, attention fell to the east of the Mediterranean. The simple rules remained the same:
- A feast of food as authentic to the host country as possible.
- Something I’ve not attempted to make before.
- It’s just fun, right?
Isreali Eurovision Feast
This was the most ambitious yet, comprising five different dishes commonly found on the streets of Tel Aviv – all made at the same time in a chaotic kitchen.
A cooked dish of seasoned tomatoes and peppers, adopted from Morocco (it’s Arabic name means “cooked salad” – a good description), it’s a very common appetizer in israael.
Roasted peppers, one yellow, one green, were peeled, seeded then diced along with minced jalapeno. Combined with six large tomatoes garlic, chilli flakes, salt and a dash of pepper it was brought to be boil. The recipe should simmer for over an hour, but I left it 30 minutes – and slightly less thick than it should have been – before adding in a whisked mixture of olive oil and paprika. Left to simmer for another 30 minutes it was then plated up and chilled to serve.
There was real need to get aubergine into this feast. three of them were pricked and roasted for that crucial smokiness before (when cooled) the flesh was scooped out and mixed with garlic, lemon juice, tahini, olive oil and a pinch of pepper, all crushed by pestle. Left at room temperature and served with a drizzle of olive oil and sprig of fresh parsley, generously donated by my neighbours. At least they tasted delicious.
The crucial, crucial falafel. I combined a couple of recipes for this, poring over comments because making felafels, as was proved soon enough, is very tricky indeed. Onion and garlic were fried over a low heat before being mashed in with chickpeas, cumin, coriander, mixed herbs, and black pepper. The chickpeas had been soaked over night – canned and pre-soaked legumes are too soft to bond in successful felafel patties- be warned! I ran into some mashing problems thanks to a lack of the right tools, but muddled through with judicious use of a blender (not too fine!) and added two eggs for binding. The mixture was hand rolled into six balls, which I then refrigerated to aid the bonding even more. It just about worked, and 30 minutes later I flattened into separate patties and fried them for far longer than the 3-minutes a side they should have needed. Served hot with pitta bread.
Israeli Couscous and Lemon Dressing
All these dishes avoided gluten, so just as a gluten-free alternative was found for the pitta above, I replaced the cous cous with quinoa, soaked then boiled down for 20 minutes. Garlic and onion was sauteed until browning then combined with the cooked quinoa. Chicken broth was added and the dish left to stew for 10 minutes until the liquid was absorbed. Separation of quinoa isn’t as necessary as cous cous, and it was left to cool in a bowl. The salad that naturally goes with this was left thanks to the fresh veg of the matbucha and baba ganoush. I did make the lemon dressing however, a lovely addition to the cous cous that combined lemon zest
and juice, olive oil, a tea spoon of Dijon mustard, salt, pepper and garlic. Yes, there’s a lot of garlic in these.
The meat addition was a lamb, chopped into inch-or-so squares from a lamb shoulder and covered in a deep marinade paste of olive oil, garlic (of course), smoked paprika, cumin, salt and pepper. I didn’t take of the option of leaving this to soak in overnight, but did with some of the leftovers, which were equally as good fried. On the night these were heading to the grill, the lamb combined on a skewer with similarly sized squares of onion and pepper. They were ideal after turning occasionally under the heat over 10 minutes or so.
I couldn’t track down any satisfactory local wine so, informed by the lamb, complemented the above with a French Cabernet Sauvignon, one of the French grapes that flourish in Israel.
My usual ‘cauldron cooking’ struggled a bit this year, with a six hour cooking time, a lot of luck, and even more mess. When the results came in, it was a bit of a relief that the Netherlands stole the crown, promising an intriguing but hopefully less ambitious Host-feast for 2020. It that least means I won’t be tackling felafel for quite some time…