We hear a lot about Iran being a dangerous place, but food writers Greg and Lucy Malouf found their journey filled with incredible cuisine and warm hospitality.
It is a bright autumn day and the sun is baking down on the low-lying rooftops and mud-brick alleyways of the Old Town. We are in Yazd, an ancient city at the meeting point of Iran's two vast central deserts, the Great Salt Desert and the Desert of Emptiness - aptly named, as we discovered on the long dusty road that brought us here.
But despite the blinding sun and the merciless heat, here in our traditional Persian hotel we have found all the promise of paradise. We recline on low, cushioned daybeds in a cool courtyard garden. There are tall cypress trees and brightly coloured flowers; water tinkles musically in a long pool lined with bright turquoise tiles; a young man serves us chilled watermelon and long glasses of iced pomegranate juice. All is languid pleasure, delight upon delight.
It is a far cry from the images of a secretive, dangerous and religiously repressed country that are so prevalent in the West. Indeed so entrenched are these images, that for many months before we travelled, people were asking us, "Why Iran?"
But for us, the answer was simple: because it was the only way to really find out about Persian food. In our previous books, Saha and Turquoise, we explored the food of Syria, Lebanon and Turkey, and it has always seemed that, in one way or another, the culinary trails lead back to Persia.
From the research we have done over the years we knew that Persian cuisine influenced the food of the great Arab caliphates, the Ottoman Empire and even the tagines and pastries of Moorish North Africa and Spain and we sensed that it would turn out to be exotic, diverse and sophisticated. But in most Western countries Persian restaurants are thin on the ground, to say the least.
We realised that if we wanted to truly explore the food of Persia we would have to travel to modern-day Iran.
And now here we are in the heart of the country, experiencing the unexpected and unimagined delights of Old Persia.
Before arriving here in Yazd, our travels have taken us from the misty green rice paddies and densely forested mountains that border the Caspian Sea in the north, to the islands and port villages of the Persian Gulf. We've met pistachio farmers and beekeepers, fishermen and bakers; we've risen before dawn to watch the saffron harvest and seen sugar spun into the silky sweet called pashmak (Persian fairy floss).
We've visited exquisitely tiled mosques and palaces, strolled over 16th century bridges, smoked hubble-bubble pipes in tiny tea-rooms and spent hours getting lost in the bazaars. We've clambered over the ruins of Persepolis - that great ceremonial capital that was razed in a night by Alexander the Great - and we've marvelled at the skill of ancient civilisations that for several millennia have built ice-houses, wind-towers and qanats - irrigation pipes - so that crops, animals and people could thrive in the inhospitable desert terrain.
Best of all, any vague anxieties we might have had about travelling here evaporated in the face of the warm welcome we received from our guide, Ali, who met us at the airport with his family in tow. And this warmth - and an overwhelmingly generous hospitality - have proved to be a defining feature of our journey. We've been approached time and again by locals - many of them young students, both male and female - asking for our opinions of their country. "How do you like Iran?", they inquire shyly. "Where are you from? How do you like Persian food ... Persian architecture ... Persian people?"
It's hard to resist this eager friendliness and we've received frequent invitations to people's homes for chai (fragrant Persian tea) and other refreshments, ranging from dainty sweet pastries and chilled fruit platters to a full-on feast. We've accepted them all with alacrity, and as a result, we've been lucky enough to dine on wonderful home-cooked food - and to make some charming, fascinating and funny new friends.
In many Persian homes (and restaurants) we've found that meals are eaten on the sofreh - a brightly coloured cloth, spread on the ground, where you sit, cross-legged, to eat - and instead of cutlery, warm flatbread is used to scoop up or wrap food.
All Persian meals begin with sabzi - a basket of fresh, mixed herbs, such as tarragon, basil, mint, dill and chives, which are served with creamy fresh, feta-like cheese. Small salads, pickles, stuffed vegetables and yoghurt dishes follow, and perhaps wedges of a thick, tortilla-like omelette known as kuku.
The centre of any meal is the legendary Persian rice with it's irresistibly crunchy golden crust, known as tah-deeg. There might be a plain chelow - perhaps flavoured with a little saffron - or a more complex polow, layered with herbs, spices, nuts and dried fruits. Rice is served with delicately spiced kebabs from the grill (and many Iranian homes have a small charcoal brazier in their garden) or a khoresht - slow-cooked, sweet-sour meat dishes combined with exotic ingredients such as dried limes, quinces, saffron or fresh fenugreek.
To drink there is dugh, a lightly sparkling yoghurt drink, or pomegranate "beer", or sherbets made from fruit syrups and perfumed with flower waters.
The food here has been wonderful, exceeding our expectations, really, but we have found that it is only a part of the rich and complex culture of this extraordinary land. Perhaps the thing that has thrilled us the most about our time here - apart from the warmth and generosity of the Iranian people themselves - has been the real sense of being explorers in an unknown land.
In these days of the internet and the National Geographic channel it is rare to feel you are seeing sights that are strange, wonderful and new. But travelling around Iran, where Western tourists are thin on the ground, it felt as if we were being spun back to the days when travel was an adventure, as if we were seeing places and things about which others from our world knew little.
Sad to say, in recent years the beauty of Iran has been largely hidden from Western eyes, but for those bold enough to cast prejudice aside, the rewards to be found here are immeasurable.
Cardamon-pistachio butter fudge from Qom
This wickedly buttery, cardamom scented sweet is from the religious city of Qom, about an hour south of Tehran, and is famous all around Iran.
The texture is hard to define - it is perhaps closer to fudge than brittle or toffee - but it is absolutely addictive.
Make in one large slab, and cut or break into random pieces, or drop spoonfuls of the mixture on the prepared tray to make individual round portions.
The high butter content means it can "sweat" a little bit, so store it in a cool place in an airtight tin, rather than a plastic container. It will keep well for up to two weeks.
500g caster sugar
80ml corn syrup
300g unsalted butter, roughly diced
2 tsp ground cardamom
2 Tbs saffron liquid (infuse 20 saffron threads in 2 Tbs boiling water for 1-12 hours)
50g unsalted shelled pistachios
50g slivered pistachios
1. Line a baking tray with baking paper.
2. Combine the sugar, corn syrup and water in a heavy-based saucepan over a low heat until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat and cook until the mixture begins to become golden in colour, then whisk in the butter, cardamom and saffron liquid and cook for a few minutes more, until an even butterscotch colour.
3. Pour the mixture on to the prepared baking tray and use a spatula to smooth it out as thinly as you can. Sprinkle on the pistachios, pressing them gently into the surface of the toffee. Leave to cool completely before cutting into pieces with a sharp knife.
* Saraban: A chef's journey through Persia by Greg and Lucy Malouf (Hardie Grant; $79.99).