Here is an extract from an article I wrote for the Telegraph newspaper, follow this link for the full article
From juicy lamb kebabs to delicate saffron and dried lime-infused stews and light-as-air pastries filled with thick slabs of rosewater cream, Iran is a destination where travellers are guaranteed to feast like a Shah. As relations with the West continue to improve, there’s no better time to visit the country which boasts 19 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the most exquisite architecture in the Islamic world and awe-inspiring landscapes. It is also home to one of the most sophisticated cuisines in the world as I discovered when I travelled 3000km through its rugged terrain armed with just a notebook and a bottle of pomegranate molasses, collecting stories and recipes for my cookbook,The Saffron Tales. Here are my tips for where to sample the best of Persian cuisine:
1. Tuck into some Chelo Kabob in Tehran
Succulent pieces of lamb or chicken kebabs cooked over charcoal and piled high onto mounds of buttery rice are one of the cornerstones of Iranian cuisine. Served with grilled tomatoes, strained yoghurt, fresh herbs and crunchy sour pickles, chelo kabob is found on practically every street corner and restaurant in Iran. For a high-end version, visit Shandiz restaurant in Tehran. Their grilled lamb chops topped with tangy sumac are unmatched for richness and flavour.
How to visit: World Expeditions offers an 11-day “Best of Iran” tour which takes in Tehran. Departures between April 2016 and October 2017, from £2,030pp including some meals; excluding flights. World Expeditions (020 8875 5060; worldexpeditions.co.uk).
2. Step back in time over Aash-e Reshte in Isfahan
Soups are an intrinsic part of Persian cuisine, so much so that the Farsi word for cook is aashpaz, which means “soup-maker.” Aash-e Reshte is a hearty soup packed with legumes, fresh herbs and noodles and is often served with a generous drizzle of kashk, an umami flavoured fermented whey which tastes somewhere in between parmesan and goat’s cheese. My favourite place to eat it is amid the blossoming trees and trickling fountains of the walled garden of the Abbasi Hotel in Isfahan, a 300-year-old former roadside inn which is reportedly the world’s oldest hotel.
How to visit: A 13-day “Introducing Iran with David Blair” run by Telegraph Tours visits Isfahan, and stays at Abbasi Hotel. May 9 and September 5, from £3,150pp full-board excluding flights. Telegraph Tours (03330 059118; telegraph.co.uk/irantour).
3. Get Dizi with it in Mashad
This rustic lamb, chickpea and potato stew is slow-cooked in a clay pot over a fire for several hours until the meat is so tender you can mash it into a paste with your fork. It is said to have originated in the city of Mashad, home to the shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth Shia Imam and one of the holiest pilgrimage sites of Shia Islam. Small cafés and restaurants all over town cook dizi for lunch and dinner and serve it warm flatbreads that you shred into small pieces at the table and place in your clay pot to soak up the meaty broth.
How to visit: Persian Voyages is offering a 14-day “Omar Khayyam” tour which visits Mashad, Iran’s holiest city. Departures between May and December, from £2,350pp including some meals but excluding flights. Persian Voyages (01306 885894; persianvoyages.com).
4. Stop to smell the roses in Kashan
The rose is indigenous to Iran and the country was the first place in the world to distil its petals to make rose water over 2,500 years ago. Each spring, the town of Kashan has an annual rose festival where you can watch rosewater being made, from the harvesting of the flowers, to the steaming of the petals. During the festival the whole town erupts in a cacophony of colour and scent and there is nothing better than taking a moment to rest in shade of the afternoon sun with a bowl of faloodeh, a sweet and tangy sorbet made with rosewater, rice vermicelli and lime juice.
How to visit: Magic Carpet Travel is offering a 12-day “The Rose Harvest” itinerary which visits Iran in May and is organised around the harvest. From £2,495 b&b excluding flights. Magic Carpet Travel (magiccarpettravel.co.uk; 01344 622 832).
5. Embrace the goodness of greens in Talesh
The lush green forests and rice paddies of Talesh, near the Caspian Sea are home to some of the most striking natural beauty in Iran and in spring and summer, Iranians flock here for hiking and camping holidays. The food of the region is as green as its landscapes, packed with herbs which adorn every meal. Torshe-Tareh is a signature dish, a tangy emerald green stew made with several kilos of spinach, dill, parsley, coriander and chives, sharpened with limes and served with poached eggs stirred through it.
How to visit: A 14-day “Iran: Walk through the Valleys of the Assassins” trip from Wild Frontiers visits Talesh. Departures between September 2016 and September 2017, from £2,595pp including most meals but excluding flights. Wild Frontiers (020 7736 3968; wildfrontierstravel.com).