A little more than an hour's drive from downtown Dubai is an ancient Emirati village. Located in the northernmost emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, it has been abandoned since the late 1960s.
Described by many as a “ghost town”, Al Jazeera Al Hamra Heritage Village is riddled with nautical folklore of the pearling community that once thronged its alleyways. From next week, the village will play host to the month-long Ras Al Khaimah Art Festival, an event partly aimed at demystifying the venerable ruins.
More than a dozen of the now-restored stone houses will be turned into makeshift exhibition spaces, others into pop-up eateries. Coming to Ras Al Khaimah from another rural town – located thousands of kilometres away in Carcoar, in the central west region of New South Wales, Australia – is Antica Australis.
Meal around the old ghaf tree
For frequent RAK revellers such as myself, who tend to visit the popular pristine beaches of Al Marjan Island, the heritage village is a breath of fresh air. There are about 450 buildings on the historical site and most remain untouched.
Buildings that have already been restored are marked with signage that includes an old picture, the full name of its owner and other details.
“Owner: Hayee Abdullah Qadeeb Al Zaabi”, reads the sign where Antica Australis, run by husband and wife Paolo and Kelly Picarazzi, finds its temporary residence.
It's a complex with small blocks surrounding a spacious courtyard, and at the centre is an old ghaf tree that has been preserved amid the renovation.
As in the original Antica Australia, described as a “Ciociarian slow-food locanda”, most of the cooking is done by Paolo, who is from a village in central Italy. Using ancient cooking techniques and traditional ingredients, the couple recreate medieval recipes as an ode to Paolo's roots.
The restaurant is “in the middle of nowhere in Australia”, says Kelly. After all, Carcoar only has a population of about 200 people. The couple have an unorthodox way of serving diners, too. “There is no menu,” she adds. “We feed them what we are cooking at the time.”
The dining journey, really, starts even before the antipasti is served. A passionate Kelly welcomes our party to the temporary bayt (Arabic for house).
Located inside the heritage village surrounded by rubble that feels at once ancient and majestic, I am transported not to a different world, but a different era altogether – getting a glimpse into the modest lives of the people who previously reigned over this labyrinthine enclave.
Part of the ethos of Antica Australis is its commitment to the responsible sourcing of ingredients. Back in Australia, the couple personally drive to surrounding farms to get what they need.
For the pop-up, many of the ingredients are plucked from private organic farms owned by Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, the ruler of Ras Al Khaimah.
“His Highness has been so supportive of what we're doing. He's personally passionate about sustainable farming,” says Kelly.
She explains they were taken to three farms, where they got organic produce such as olives, Sidr honey and dates.
“We were taken to this very special farm on a side of a mountain … I can't even tell you where it was, we were driven there, and it's just so incredible,” she says. “He wanted to share his produce with us, so we can share it with those who will join us at the pop-up.
“We strongly believe in eating in context. There's a reason things grow in the place you are in.”
The four-course set menus – which changes every week – feature Italian dishes, such as risotto and polenta. However, Paolo says it is important for them to tweak the recipes to incorporate local flavours.
“It's a process of experimentation,” he explains as terracotta plates of the colourful antipasti make their way out of the kitchen.
The first course is fried polenta with Ciociarian truffle salsa. It is served with watermelon tartare garnished with chunks of goat's cheese and anchovy. The richness of the truffle and cheese are balanced with the freshness of the watermelon. The polenta itself is the perfect canvass for the salsa's kick of umami.
A mascarpone risotto follows, cooked al dente with pink peppercorns and toasted macadamia nuts for texture.
The star of the meal is the UAE barramundi poached in parsley oil and thyme. The fish is both firm and delicate, complemented by a side of caramelised capsicum and fried cauliflower.
The meal ends with a saffron-infused camel's milk pudding, topped with popcorn and organic date molasses for a faint caramel profile. A stovetop espresso is also served, alongside traditional Ciociarian Amaretti biscuit.
Taste aside, it is the tales that make this dining experience evermore special – as Kelly weaves personal anecdotes in between every course. After all, Antica Austalis is all about “serving food and stories”.
The Antica Australia pop-up has two sittings, at 1pm and 7pm, from February 3 to 18; from Dh300 per person. The Ras Al Khaimah Fine Arts Festival is from February 2 to 29; rakart.ae