Our host for the day has spent much of the day taking phone calls, but as we sit under the shade of an olive tree the phone is ignored and left to ring without reply. We’re tucking in with eager hands to a large silver tray piled high with mansaf, and as I’ve already learned, nothing comes between a Jordanian and their much-loved national dish.
We started the day at Shobak Castle, originally a 12th-century Crusader fortress that’s been destroyed and rebuilt several times by a succession of invaders. The castle enjoys a prominent position, perched on an isolated hill around 30 minutes north of Wadi Musa at the entrance to Petra. A re-enactment of a 12th-century battle was just about to start as we arrived, and we watched as men in metal armour fought off a surprise attack from two bad guys dressed in black. It was a brief and low-key show, put on by men whose enthusiasm and friendship made up for a rather chaotic spectacle. Once it was over, one of the castle’s defenders, Amin, stepped out of character to take us around the ruin, showing us the surviving Crusader, Mamluk and Ottoman features.
For many visitors to Shobak Castle, the highlight is a trip through the ‘secret’ tunnel. This is a steep descent down a passageway that begins within the castle walls and ends some 30 metres below at the base of the hill. Our slow scramble through the pitch-black tunnel was led by a volunteer guide and took around 25 minutes. The group of six (including a lady wearing heels) survived the slippery, sandy passageway and emerged into the daylight, smiling broadly, despite being coated in a generous layer of sand.
Amin then took us to the nearby village of Mger’eyeh, where he showed us his grandparents’ now-abandoned stone cottage and his parents’ house, where he stays when he makes return visits to his home village. It’s outside this simple home that we sit on a carpet in the garden with Amin and other members of the Jordan Heritage Revival Company (JHRC). The mansaf has been prepared earlier in the day — a lamb was freshly slaughtered and the meat boiled with onions and spices, while the dish is completed with rice and yoghurt.
As Amin explains, mansaf is often served for family gatherings, and the quality of the lamb is all-important. Only Jordanian lamb is considered acceptable; to serve cheap imported meat can be taken as an insult to guests. “People here can tell where the meat is from,” he tells me. “Many people will serve mansaf with the sheep’s head on top of the platter, just to show that it’s freshly slaughtered Jordanian lamb.” I’m quite happy to take his word for it without being shown the head.
We chew away in contented silence (apart from ringing of the odd unanswered phone call), each guest dipping their hand into the platter and helping themselves to meat and rice, flavoured with fatty yoghurt to their own taste. The men — most ex-army friends who’ve chosen to get involved with JHRC in Shobak — joke and share tales of eventful hikes in the local mountains as the mound of mansaf is efficiently dismantled. I struggle up from the carpet, understanding why every Jordanian I’ve met has such an instant smile when mansaf is mentioned. The dish itself is very tasty, but it’s the coming together and congeniality around the common plate that marks it out as something special.
The Montreal Hotel offers a mansaf lunch at a local village home for 30 JD (£30), including hosting fee, tea and mineral water (minimum, two people). montrealhotel.jo
Follow Andy and Sam over the next two weeks as they travel around the Jordanian region of Aqaba, blogging and posting on social media as they go #NGTUKnomad