Pomegranates: for many the word evokes images of biblical gardens, sensuous feasts and fertility myths. For me, it recalls The King of the Vitamin.
The King of the Vitamin was a juice shop In Aleppo, Syria. The counter and shop was crowded with bunches and bags of fruit, its decor and layout looked like a carnival stall. There were a number of juice shops on that street, a sight we became familiar with in the Middle East countries we visited two years ago.
Approaching the counter, I ordered in Arabic, hesitantly making unfamiliar, sinuous sounds from a phrasebook.
The beard man behind the counter smiled broadly. Another man began to squeeze cut pomegranates on a heavy duty citrus press. Deep red juice ran down the press and into a bowl below as he pulled the lever with force. I could almost see each translucent seed bursting under the pressure, giving up the ruby liquid inside.
The emptied half pomegranate was taken off the press. Another went on the press. He filled a paper cup the size of a giant Starbucks latte. There must have been half a litre of pomegranate juice in that cup, extracted from maybe 10 pomegranates.
Then he started on another cup. Seeing my wide-eyed amazement, he briefly paused, mimed ‘body building’, and laughed with us.
I paid less than $1. The bearded man handed the cup to me with the by-now familiar phrase, “welcome to Syria.”
The juice was tart, tempered with just enough sweetness. The flavour was as intense as the colour, and so, so fresh I could almost smell the sun on the pomegranate tree. Forget old fashioned lemonade, this had a complex, nourishing taste that made my taste buds tingle for more. I may have done a little dance on the grey dusty pavement.
After the first sip, bottled pomegranate juice in Australian shops would always taste stale, plastic even.
Was it any surprise the King of the Vitamin became my favourite shop during our stay in Aleppo?
After two days, the bearded man with the broad smile began to greet us as regulars. We drank our juice at the counter, from glasses. “He should drink pomegranate juice to lose weight”, the juice press guy says pointing at Mr Gander, and we all laughed. We wondered, but never asked, which vitamin they were the king of.
From that time, I will always have a soft spot for pomegranates.
In the next couple of weeks, I will be writing about some recipes that showcase this fruit, in memory of the people in a country (Christian and Muslim alike) that gave us a glimpse of their tradition of hospitality, and welcomed us to their country, its incredible sights and food.
[As it turned out, we were there barely 12 months before the Arab Springs swept the region. Now we watch the news and wonder about the people we met, however briefly, during that trip.]
Note, photo of the King of the Vitamin is from Wandering Earl. We were trying to blend in and look less tourist-y (ha!) and didn’t take photos of restaurants or food vendors as a rule.