A Syrian Feast in the East
The incredibly pretty town of Wivenhoe, three miles out of Colchester has a strong history of fishing and shipbuilding due to its setting on the East bank of the River Colne. There’s also a long-standing artistic and academic connection; the University of Essex is a stone’s throw away in Wivenhoe Park. Artist Francis Bacon was a former resident who owned a weekend house here and it’s no mystery why anyone would choose to live here. Handsome 18th-century pastel-painted houses and weather-boarded cottages rub shoulders with independent bookstores and tea shops. Down by the water, there are pubs with views across the mudflats. So far, so quintessentially English.
Late last year a little piece of Syria came to the small town in the form of the Olive Branch. This small cafe, no larger than a garage, represents many things: inventiveness, spirit, and hope. Alongside that, it serves authentic Syrian and Lebanese dishes with a mainly vegetarian slant. For all these reasons it’s proving incredibly popular.
It was the local University that brought owner and manager Abdulrhman Kattan and his wife Fatema Kawaf to this corner of Essex. Part of the local academia, Fatema studied there for a master’s degree and then a PhD in marketing, which she now lectures in. Fatema and Abdulrhman, who also worked in marketing and the food industry in Dubai, mined those skills with the idea for the Olive Branch. The multi-reference name needs no explanation but is a positive reminder of what the Olive Branch stands for, not least providing work for some of the Syrian refugees being re-homed in Colchester, given training in food hygiene and preparation.
I visit the restaurant on a Thursday lunchtime with my mum. It’s a welcoming place: one entire wall is taken up with a giant photograph of a Syrian street scene, giving a holiday feel with pretty bougainvillea and the sunshine. There are larger communal tables and smaller ones. The larger tables made me smile to think how diners are forced to become more sociable when they eat here, whether they like it or not. However, they are always full, so it works.
The restaurant regularly hosts pop-ups drawing queues for the fragrant cardamon coffee and honeyed baklava, among other such delicacies.
We share a mezze, the most popular dish on the menu. We drink Syrian herb and rose tea and a fresh minty lemonade that isn’t sweet, but refreshing. The plate pictured is as colourful as can be with about a dozen different things to eat, all vying for our attention. What shouts out most are a few slithers of something that I can only describe as Barbie pink ’Pickled potato?’ I hazard a guess. ‘Turnip.’ Fatema corrects me from a neighbouring table kindly bringing up a picture on her laptop. Who knew that Syrian cooking elevated something as humble as the turnip just by pickling it.
There’s a freshly made deep red smudge of muhammara (a vivid red pepper and tomato puree mixed with finely chopped onions, nigella seeds and olive oil); baba ghanouj (their spelling) with grilled aubergines and tahini; hummus and vine leaves stuffed with rice and vegetables. Midammas - fava beans with finely chopped parsley, onion and tomato. Don’t forget the tabbouleh, simply created from crunchy bulgar wheat with parsley, mint, tomato, spring onion dressed with lemon juice and olive oil. We scoop it all up with warm flatbread.
It’s also cheap. Our selection cost £12.99 for two (£7.99 for one). They don’t sell alcohol, but you can bring your own with no charge. If you're inspired to try your hand, as you leave you can buy a bag of freekeh or pomegranate molasses from the store room-style shelves by the counter.
The story behind the Olive Branch is clearly a touching one, a story of hope among the millions of Syrians who can't return home. An olive branch indeed.
* Call 01206 615741.