Prickly Pears & a Berber Halloween: Food stories from Morocco

We were in search of some Autumn sunshine and a few days of rest and relaxation after a rather crazy few months selling our house in London, moving to Northern Ireland, house hunting, setting up The Edible Flower and doing our first few events. It’s all been brilliant but it’s been tiring too, and we really felt we needed a change of scenery before the next big push. Fingers crossed we’ll be moving into our new place in mid October and beginning the renovations, setting up a catering kitchen, refurbishing an old cow byre for our events space, cultivating a market garden, acquiring chickens, and maybe pigs, the list of what we’re planning to do is exciting but endless…

When we get the chance, we like to combine sunshine with some food research, because what we really like to do on holiday is eat tasty food (who doesn’t?) so we headed to Morocco for a week – Marrakesh for a few days and then into the High Atlas mountains. Duly booked and with visions of aromatic spices, bubbling tagines and mint tea dancing in my head I thought I should do some advance research. I bought Paula Wolfert’s The Food of Morocco (definitely the English speaking ‘bible’ on Moroccan food) and the excellent Claudia Roden’s Arabesque, which includes a section on Moroccan food alongside the food of Turkey and the Lebanon. Both give a great overview of Moroccan cuisine, how meals are structured, main ingredients, techniques and equipment. Paula’s book includes a really useful section on the main spices used in Moroccan cuisine which helped me decide on which spices to buy in the Marrakesh souks.

We only had a week in Morocco, so this definitely isn’t in any way comprehensive, but here are a few reflections on the food we ate and cooked on our travels.

Merguez Sausages

Street food is a big deal in Morocco. From the very early morning roadside stalls all over Marrakesh set up selling bessara (a hearty fava bean soup spiced with garlic, cumin and sweet paprika) to the men heading out to work – A substantial breakfast with hunks of Moroccan bread. There are stalls on every street corner selling fresh, seasonal fruit for shoppers and walkers to nibble on, the stall holders will cut the fruit up for ease of eating if you ask.  We saw prickly pears, apples, peaches, plums and more unusual fruit too including a small berry type fruit that was sold in bags of about 50 at a time, it tasted a bit like a toffee apple and from googling it may be a relative of the jujube, but I’m not sure. There are also stalls with women rolling out dough and then cooking fresh Moroccan breads with butter or oil on hot plates. One morning we made a tasty breakfast at a streetside cafe of these buttery flat breads (not so dissimilar to an Indian paratha) with sweet black tea.

The Marrakechi Mecca of street food (certainly for visitors and a fair few locals too) is the Djema El Fna. A vast square in the centre of the Medina filled with hustlers, bustlers, street performers and food sellers. Not relaxing, but definitely fun. In the early evening, once the heat of the day is waning, a large street food market sets up complete with benches and tables for the punters to perch on as they munch on the local dishes. On the recommendation of our Riad Manager, Kate, we headed to No.32, running the gauntlet of all the other stall owners trying to lure us into their establishments with their ‘Mockney’ banter. Stall No. 32 was heaving and we were squashed onto a bench with several local families, a good sign!

Enjoying the Djema El Fna

The speciality at No.32 is Hassan’s Spicy Merguez sausages. All around us groups were wolfing down platefuls. We received a fresh tomato dipping sauce and a loaf of Moroccan bread on arrival, and ordered the sausages (of course), some ‘minced meat’ which turned out to be lamb kebabs served with rich oily olives and the aubergine. The guy sitting opposite us with his wife and sleepy toddler asked if we liked spicy food, and when we said yes he ordered us a spicier version of the tomato dipping sauce, it was gorgeous, spicy but sweet with the tomatoes. The merguez sausages were intense, chewy, meaty, aromatic and bloody delicious. With the bread and fresh tomato dipping sauce  it was like a deconstructed hotdog, but so much better. Perfect BBQ food.

Prickly Pears 

We chose our Riad (a Moroccan town house built around a courtyard, many have been converted to small hotels and guest houses) in Marrakesh based on its culinary credentials. Ottolenghi had filmed there for his ‘Mediterranean Feast’ show, and if it is good enough for Ottolenghi… Dar Les Cigognes on the edge of the Old Jewish Quarter butts up against the palace walls in the Medina and is named after the storks (cigognes in French) that nest on the palace walls. From the Riad’s terrace you can watch these huge yet graceful birds nesting, flying and calling to each other. Dar Les Cigognes’ restaurant “Salt” offers an evening tasting menu of six courses combining traditional Moroccan dishes with more contemporary dining. They collaborate with different local and international chefs to design regularly changing menus, our menu was a collaboration with 2012 UK Masterchef Champion, Keri Moss. It seemed a little strange to come so far to eat a menu designed by a UK chef and cooked by dadas (traditional Moroccan female chefs), but we were curious to eat a reimagining of Moroccan food, and we weren’t disappointed, it was delicious.

There wasn’t a dud course but the highlights for me were:

The bessara, a twist on the traditional fava bean soup with lentils, carrot, tonnes of cumin and served chilled and thick with a silky baba ganoush like texture and crispy shards of warqaa pastry for dipping.

Perfectly cooked soft lemon sole with a saffron butter sauce and steamed courgettes, carrots & squash. Super rich, the butter sauce drew heavily on the French influence in Moroccan cuisine, with the saffron adding the Moroccan magic.

A prickly pear granita, perfect palate refreshment before the pannacotta dessert. I hadn’t tried prickly pear before, these are the fruits of the prickly pear cactus and they grow like little nodules along the edge of the fleshy paddle-like branches (leaves?) of the cactus.  They were in season in September and when we drove out of the city you could see them growing abundantly along the roadsides. The flavour was similar to a cantaloupe melon but with large edible seeds, rather like a passion fruit. Unable to source prickly pears in Northern Ireland we’ll be attempting to recreate the flavour with melon and passion fruit for a sorbet at our A Taste of Marrakesh supper club next month.

Ras El Hanout

I’ve bought and used versions of the spice mix ras el hanout in the UK without thinking much about it, beyond it being a mix of Moroccan spices to use in tagines. My advance reading, before our trip to Morocco revealed that it is actually an incredible mix of, often more than 30 different spices. The literal translation of ‘ras el hanout’ is ‘head of the shop’ implying the very best spices the shopkeeper can offer, thus each spice merchant makes his own  spice mix to his own recipe. My reading revealed that ras el hanout sometimes includes berries or spices that are not recommended for human consumption, perhaps because of their supposed mystical or healing properties. To avoid these ‘extras’ it is best to go to a reputable spice merchant, we went to the one recommended and used by our Riad. It isn’t cheap either, the merchant we visited was selling his ras el hanout mix for 800 Dirhams per kilo, about £65-70. This was a fixed price and the spice mix was labelled accordingly.

We bought the mixture unground, this is what you should look for when you are buying ras el hanout in Morocco. It means you can see the spices in the mix and you are also assured it is as fresh as possible. The spices will start to lose some of their potency once they have been ground, though kept in an airtight container in a cool, dark place they should stay pretty fresh for at least six months. The mix we bought was pretty chunky and the shopkeeper ground it for us in his heavy duty grinder. You could grind at home but you’d need a serious piece of kit. The spices I managed to recognise from the unground mix included star anise, cardamom, cassia, all spice, cinnamon, mace and long pepper, but I’m sure there were many more. The spice merchant we visited told us that ras el hanout was strictly to be used to season red meats, as it would overpower fish or chicken. In our cooking class we used it in the pigeon pastilla but it would be a key ingredient in a lamb tagine or for beef kofte.

Based on the recommendations in Paula Wolfert’s The Food of Morocco I also bought the following spices, either because they are particularly good or cheap in Morocco or because I’d have trouble getting them at home.

Cumin Seeds – cheap and apparently some of the best in the world come from just outside Marrakech.

Green Aniseed – I haven’t seen this in the UK. I think it will be great to flavour drinks, breads and desserts.

Cinnamon sticks – cheap and good quality

Saffron – cheaper than the UK and from a reputable spice merchant should be good quality

Sweet paprika – a very common ingredient in Morocco and apparently sweeter than the Hungarian paprika

Cubeb pepper – mainly because I can’t get it in the UK and haven’t used it before, so I was curious

Gum mastic – this is a tree resin and I mainly bought it because it is hard to get hold of in the UK. I haven’t decided what to make with it yet, perhaps ice cream or an almond cake.

Warqa (Ouarqa or Brick Pastry)

Our riad, Dar Les Cigognes, offers private half and full day cooking classes, keen to maximise the cooking we opted for the full day cooking class. The market tour in the morning with Pierre, the Riad Manager, was great – informative, included a bit of local history and not pushy about purchasing at all. Though considering I went to the spice merchant armed with a list perhaps that wasn’t a worry! The recipes were taught by the female Moroccan chefs that run the riad’s kitchen, the Dadas (women who have learnt to cook from a young age, by experience rather than any formal training).

We had a whistle stop tour of Moroccan cuisine, making two different tagines (a chicken and a fish), cous cous from scratch, steamed vegetables to accompany the cous cous and three Moroccan salads (an Aubergine ‘caviaar’, a courgette & egg and cooked peppers, akin to a shashuska) before lunchtime. In the afternoon we made warqa which is a super thin Moroccan pastry, similar to a filo. We used it to make Pigeon Pastilla (b’stilla), briouat (little Moroccan fried samosa filled with spicy veg or cheese) and a Moroccan dessert a bit like a Mille Feuille where small circles of the pastry where cut into circles, fried until crisp and then layered up a sort of orange blossom custard. Delicious! The fish tagine was a highlight for me, and it along with a few of the other dishes are featuring on our Moroccan supper club menu soon. I’ll also be blogging a tagine recipe soon, once I’ve had a chance to do a few cooking experiments of my own at home.

The method we learnt to make warqa was much easier than the method we saw in the market, the ‘commercial’ market method involved men with a wet but still solid dough dabbing it extremely quickly onto domed hotplates (heated by boiling water in vast pots underneath). The layer of pastry then steamed briefly before the men pulled it off in large round sheets.

Under the expert tutelage of our dada teachers we made a thin batter with plain flour, water and a little vegetable oil. It was thin enough to run off a spoon in a thin stream. We then used a wide pastry brush (or paint brush) to paint layers of the batter onto a hot non-stick frying pan (no oil) over a pan of boiling water – well sealed with tinfoil to prevent the steam escaping. I reckon it took about three layers of batter all over the pan, applied as quickly as possible. If you take too long the bottom layer will have cooked already and then it is much easier to tear the pastry. Then you leave the pastry to cook for about two minutes, until it starts to bubble a little and you can easily peel it off at the edges. We peeled the pastry off one side of the pan and then quickly but carefully pulled the whole sheet off. Finally we put the pastry on a plate with a little vegetable oil on the plate to stop it sticking and then using a pastry brush lightly oiled the top of the pastry too. Clean the pan of any crispy bits and repeat!I thought it would be an interesting skill to learn but I wasn’t sure I’d do it again, but it was actually easier than it looked and quite therapeutic.

Sheep & Goats

After the Marrakesh madness we headed to Imlil in the High Atlas Mountains for a bit of tranquillity. After just 90 minutes’ drive we arrived at Douar Samra (a cute traditional guesthouse in small Berber village just past Imlil). Many people come here to hike, we instead, sat in the sunshine and read our books. While we were in the mountains it was the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha, which means the festival of the sacrifice. This festival commemorates the prophet Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son on God’s orders. Just before Abraham killed his son Allah replaced the son with a ram and the boy was saved. In Morocco the festival is celebrated by sacrificing a sheep or goat, feasting and distributing the meat to relatives, friends and the poor. In Morocco, any family who can afford a lamb or sheep acquires one and then gathers together on the first day of the festival  for the ritual sacrifice. In Marrakesh we saw sheep being dragged through the narrow streets of the Medina, carried on motorbikes, penned on balconies and in riad courtyards, in preparation for the festival. In the High Atlas, taking a walk though the village we were staying in butchery was happening in every front yard, groups of men gathered around skinning and hacking. It was a slightly surreal (possibly stomach- churning) sight, but a reminder of where the meat we sometimes take for granted actually comes from, and also the value of that meat. A goat or sheep for the festival sacrifice costs approximately the equivalent of an average worker’s monthly wage in Morocco.

In the High Atlas Berber tradition links Eid al-Adha with a festival called Boujloud, a sort of Berber Halloween. Boujloud means ‘the person who wears sheepskin’ and the festival involves a few men in each village dressing up as sheep or goats with real sheepskin or goat skins, masks and horns. The skins are frequently not cured and may be the skin from the animal sacrificed the day before, so fairly ripe smelling. The men carry sacks filled with ash or plaster dust and then rush through the streets whooping and chasing the small boys of the village. If they catch them they shower them in the ash or plaster dust. The other men of the village dressed in their finery and bringing their drums process through the village and to other villages, singing, dancing and music making. The goat men dart about, sometimes leading the procession, sometimes lurking at the back and sometimes speeding off through the fields or in pursuit of some small children. It was fascinating, from the terrace and rooftop of our guesthouse we spent hours watching the various processions from different villages dancing up and down the mountain roads, meeting groups from other villages for a dancing circle and then separating again.





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