Thursday, February 6, 2014

Colonial Influences

A recent trip to Marrakech got me thinking about the influence of French food culture on it's former colonies and vice versa.

I was in fact surprised how little French influence there appeared to be on Moroccan food.  There are French restaurants of course, but then there are French restaurants everywhere.  However, everyday fare appeared to be predominantly Arabic.

I took a food market tour with a local guide (similar to the market tour and cooking day that I offer in Carcassonne, minus the cooking bit).  It was a fascinating three hours that covered all aspects of the local food culture and how it has been influenced by religion and outside invasion.  I would have to conclude that the Moors left a far greater legacy than the French.

My guide took me deep into the souks to places I wouldn't have ventured on my own.  We visited spice stores, pastry shops, olive and nut sellers, a local meat and fish market and a communal bread oven before finishing in the main square.

The etiquette of the making and drinking of mint tea was explained (heavily sugared and known as Moroccan whisky because of it's addictiveness - Moroccans have very bad teeth as a result).  I sampled harira (a staple soup), prickly pear from a street vendor, a snail stew also from a street vendor, a beef tangia (eaten by hand using bread as a spoon) as well as the olives and pastry and nuts.  The meat market had live chickens and rabbits which are slaughtered to order by the butchers - you can't get fresher than that.!

The tour finished in the crazy main square, Jemaa el Fna, an incredible nightly circus of market stalls selling everything from orange juice to sheep's head stew, from carpets to slippers to fake watches and bags, whilst snake charmers and henna painters vie for passing tourist business and touts try to persuade you into every small bar and cafe.  Wonderful, fascinating and slightly intimidating.

I know that in Vietnam (formerly Indochine) the baguette has become as much of a staple of the daily life there as it is in France - but I didn't see one single baguette during my week in Morocco.

The most famous dish of North Africa is of course the tagine (not to be confused with tangia) and it is interesting that North African food culture has made greater inroads into French cuisine than the other way around.  Tagine and couscous are very much everyday foods in France.  There is now a large Arabic population living in France - coming from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria (a million French citizens moved back to mainland France from Algeria after independence there) so it is hardly surprising that they have brought with them their food.

I adore tagine.  It's subtle flavouring of spices is in marked contrast to British colonial food from Asia and the Caribbean.  A chicken tagine made with green olives and preserved lemon is a thing of beauty and incredibly simple to make.  This is the recipe I usually follow (courtesy of Winter on the Farm by Matthew Evans)

serves 4
4 chicken legs
2 large onions, diced
4 garlic cloves, crushed
1 cinnamon stick
1/4 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp ground coriander
12 green olives
1 quince, peeled, cored and chopped
1/4 rind preserved lemon
olive oil

Preheat the oven to 160C
Heat the oil in a large casserole over a medium heat.  Brown the chicken on both sides and remove.
In the same dish cook the onion for 6-8 minutes until lightly caramelised then stir in the garlic and cook for a further minute.
Reduce the heat to low, add the cinnamon, cumin and coriander and cook stirring for one minute.
Add 250ml water to the dish, scrape up any bits from the bottom of the dish and add the chicken.
Add the olives and quince, cover and bake in the oven for about 90 minutes until the quince and chicken are tender.
Add the lemon, season with salt and pepper to taste and cook for a further 10 minutes with the lid off.
Serve immediately with rice or couscous.

The quince gives this tagine a wonderful sweet fragrant flavour but I know that it not always available for everyone.  You could use dried apricots instead but I find their flavour a little too strong and overpowering for the subtlety of the rest of the dish.  Fennel is a good addition as an extra vegetable and a good sprinkling of chopped coriander over the finished dish will not go amiss.

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