King Farouk’s eating habits are legendary. I have encountered at least three different stories about his breakfasts. According to Jimmy Wilds, a British signalman attached to naval headquarters in Alexandria, Farouk used to have six roast chickens in the morning, eating the choice bits off the legs and wings and then throwing the scraps off the balcony to the poor waiting below.
More than once I have been told that the king started his day with caviar, eating it directly from the can, which he then followed with boiled eggs, toast, chicken, pigeon, steak, lamb and lobster. Who knows? It is also said that he consumed up to thirty bottles of carbonated drinks per day. No wonder he was dyspeptic.
I have also heard that he used to eat as many as thirty eggs for breakfast. That this is the same as the number of bottles of pop he was alleged to consume each day makes me suspicious of the story.
Still, there are too many such tales to ignore them completely. It is not recorded whether Farouk liked his eggs boiled, fried, poached or scrambled, but with all the weight he gained towards the end of the monarchy, and his reputation for gambling and drinking and keeping mistresses, I’m guessing that if she had had a choice his second wife Narriman would have preferred her eggs unfertilised.
Whether or not these stories are true, you can still live them, which her royal self and I most assuredly did. In time-honoured, family-style, holiday fashion, on the last day of the Eid, at the Helnan Auberge Hotel in Fayoum. It was a command performance. The head of the family invited the rest of us for the day and it made for a perfect holiday get together.
Situated on Lake Qaroun, the setting was fit for the occasion, as the Auberge du Lac Fayoum was one of the king’s hunting lodges, built in 1937. Lake Qaroun is now a wildlife sanctuary with over 80 protected bird species. The lodge itself was used for some of the negotiations that were conducted between Allied and Arab leaders after WWII. There is a large portrait of a largish Churchill in the drawing room, and one can easily imagine him sitting in the breakfast room eating six roast chickens and thirty eggs of his own.
It takes about an hour to get to the Helnan Auberge from Cairo; it’s easy to find and it’s well worth the effort. There were a dozen of us and the kitchen staff did itself proud by covering every available centimetre of the huge dining table with home-made Fayoumi food.
(Sensibly, my father-in-law knew what he was doing and had called ahead and arranged the timing so that everything was set before us the minute we sat down, an excellent tip if you have a large party and want to recreate the Farouk experience for yourself.)
A list of the more than forty dishes that were served to our party of twelve would no more fit on this page than the dishes themselves fit on the table, but to give you an idea, there were some excellent variations on the traditional Egyptian salads, often featuring pomegranate seeds both as decoration and ingredient; this worked especially well in the fruit salad.
The salads were followed by a heaping tray of tomato, cabbage, zucchini, peppers and eggplant mahshi as well as wara einab, rice, bamia (okra in tomato sauce), and betingan makdoos (spiced, pickled eggplant). The mains included grilled meats of every imaginable variety, including lamb chops, chicken and filet, and two kinds of fattah, one with a spicy tomato sauce that was new to me. And on and on and on. It was fantastic.
Any time I have the privilege of being invited to a family holiday feast is fantastic, but the setting on the lake in the old hunting lodge made this one particularly fun, as did the superb service of the hotel staff and the fact that there were little Fayoumi twists on these traditional dishes that in good Egyptian fashion had us talking about food throughout the entire meal.
The spirit of the king lives on in this place. It is perfect for a family outing or a weekend couples’ excursion. As for myself, I am hoping it turns into an annual family tradition.