These light, crumbly, melt in the mouth almond biscuits remind me of cherished holidays in the Canary Islands, when the arid afternoon air induces a need for the perfect pick-me-up; delicias de almendra with a short strong coffee. Easy (dairy-free) recipe here.
Southern Italy and North Africa, not so distant cousins.
I adore dishes which bear testament to shared histories and the exchange of tradition, the type which are so strikingly alike that they surpass borders between two seemingly different lands. With the Arab conquests of Sicily and Calabria, the presence of the Spanish with their Moorish influence until the 18th century and the natural proximity of land, its no wonder we can find huge similarities in food, language and architecture between the regions. The occasion pastries of Southern Italy and North Africa demonstrate just this with the common use of of floral essences, spice, ground almonds, pistachios and honey. In Italy at Christmas we see deep fried honeyed dough steeped in honey (like fragrant Neapoletan Struffoli and Puglian Cartellate), and around Ramadan we find Moroccan Chebakia in abundance; rose shaped, spiced pastries also deep fried and steeped in honey. The trick is to use a light honey, such as Rowse Light & Mild, so the flavour of the spices aren’t overcome.
My recipe is a take on the afore mentioned dishes, on the methods and depth of flavour shared by both regions who it seems are not so far apart. These spiced honey and sesame curls are best accompanied by a strong, unsweetened Turkish style tea; since we’re already in the Mediterranean flavour mood, why not!
Today I visited one of my favourite bakeries in Shepherds Bush, Maison Sousse (read about it here), a necessary pilgrimage in the name of late pregnancy cravings for mountains of freshly fried chebakia (in the pic above), North African spiced honey & sesame cookies more commonly seen around Ramadan.
Breaking fast (Iftar) in some parts of the southern Mediterranean sometimes sees lavish table spreads and lengthy meals that commence with dates, Harira soup and chebakia.
My best wishes to those fasting on the hottest, longest days of the year in the ultimate test of faith and endurance. Ramadan Kareem to all of those to celebrate!
All Souls day, which falls on the 2nd November, is a significant event in the Catholic calendar which pays homage to the dead, especially those whose souls are stuck in purgatory.
In Napoli, a city obsessed by superstition, shrines and catacombs, All Saints day (1st Nov) and All Souls day (31st Oct) present an opportunity to pay respects to deceased relatives by visiting graves and tombs. Older, alarmingly morbid practices are still carried out where church crypts are lit up and coffin lids are opened or removable glass panels taken out so that relatives of the decaying can see their faces, caress the corpses and make the sign of the cross over their head. This of course is no longer common practice and remains a ritual for the religiously devout.
In Napoli, every event calls for an edible homage. Around the time of All Saints & All Souls day, sugared skulls and skeletons appear and temp children for a pittance.
Here is my version of Torrone dei Morti (Torrone of the dead), in which layers of chocolate and nuts give a sweet taste to an otherwise bitter remembrance.
Slices can be wrapped and gifted – why not?! 🙂
We arrived in Marrakech in the dead of night. Our driver, sent by our riad to pick us up, stops at the end of a deserted dusty derb and leads us to our home for the next few days. Aziz greets my sister and I with a massive smile as his head ducks out of a tiny studded doorway. Its nearly 2am and he has waited up, knows we need to rest and shows us to our room. As I drift off to sleep in our traditionally decorated room, my mind bubbles with excitement. I am finally in the land of my dreams.
In the early morning sparrows chirp and flitter back and forth between plush orange trees in the courtyard. Breakfast is served beneath them by figures who fast become our friends; Aziz, Azizah and Sayeed. Their enthusiasm and warmth was our first and lasting impression of Marrakech; these qualities seem to come so naturally to the people of Morocco. We are presented with a detailed and jovial orientation, a map and possibly one of the most important tips we were to receive “If they say the road is closed, don’t believe them.”
Aziz then accompanies us the small distance to the main square, Jmaa el Fna, Marrakech’s tireless heartbeat. Just as he leaves us, we miss him immediately. We seek each others arms for comfort in a moment of anxiety, linking tightly as we struggle to make sense of our surroundings. We see snake charmers and monkeys, we hear cat calls and unfamiliar music, we narrowly escape being run over more than once. We squeeze each other at every loud noise and sudden movement. Veiled women follow us, overly eager to decorate our hands with henna which is rumored to be poisoned. Men in turbans motion and shout, others pass us by a bit too closely. Svelte horses appear out of the dust and charcoal smoke, mounted by majestic faced men donning wide brimmed hats. Its arid, the baked ochre buildings hum under the relentless sun. I couldn’t have guessed that in just five days from that moment I would have fallen deeply in love.
My experience in Marrakech wasn’t a holiday; it was a roller coaster of emotions which threw me from extreme anxiety one minute to absolute calm the next. Continue Reading…
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Yes it really is as glorious as it sounds with a heavenly crust and oozing insides, even more so with a few extra embellishments. Invoking the spirit of the Mediterranean, this dish is frugal and beautiful in its simplicity; it sates this salty craving I have which never seems to disappear when temperatures soar.
This dish can form part of the legendary meze table and is known commonly as ‘Saganaki’, referring to the pan in which it is seared. Usually Kefalotyri, Kefalograviera or Kasseri cheese is used.
This winter is stretching out until the bitter end. As a cloud of toxic smog looms over the UK, I’m stuck at home, gazing out the window at bare branches and uninspiring grey skies. Its at times like these I welcome memories of balmy summers in the Mediterranean where pleasures are simple; the rasps of crickets in the hot arid air, the smell of ripe tomatoes and freshly grilled fish. Why not reminisce with me and revisit the enchanting island of Crete.
One of the most basic human needs is to feel accepted. In London, where diversity is abundant and individualism embraced, we are blessed to be able to express ourselves.
So why, even in this liberal society do we continually strive to adhere to perceptions of normality and shy away from revealing our own differences for fear of being judged? Society’s expectations of how we ‘should’ be, or what we ‘should’ be doing, or what we ‘should’ have achieved by a certain age plays on our subconscious. Perhaps we are not as modern or free as we like to think.
We’re bombarded by media reports of horrific hate crimes from every corner of the globe. Their motivations may be as menial as a difference in creed or faith, sexual orientation or political view, the ‘daring’ act of dressing as one pleases, for refusing to conform. Genocide, honour killings, random attacks; all point to the refusal to accept or embrace difference. There are alarming levels of intolerance in this ‘modern’ era.
I was in Istanbul when I discovered an idealistic concept of acceptance and tolerance in the most ancient of thoughts, mounted on my sister in law’s wall.
Dilek, the eldest of Murat’s five sisters, lives in an apartment block amongst the extended family of her husband. I immediately identified her as she waited for us outside her doorway on our first meeting; she has the same wiry raven-coloured hair and deep brown eyes as her brother.
“Welcome! Hoşgeldiniz!” She led us inside, past a huge evil eye charm, up a crumbling staircase and into her modest home.
“Please.” She motioned to sit down and disappeared momentarily to prepare Turkish coffee.
“What is that?” I asked, pointing to a stone plaque on the muted pink wall.
“Ah…That’s a Mevlana quote. You may know him as Rumi.”
Amid delicate strokes of calligraphy twirled a Dervish, turning blissfully with his eyes closed. He seemed utterly content.
“I’m not sure how to translate what is written…Look,” Murat searched on his iPhone and showed me a translation.
‘Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.
Come, yet again , come , come.’
I looked at Murat. “Acceptance?”
“Exactly.” We both smiled.
Jelal ad-Din Rumi was a Persian philosopher, born in the 13th Century. After his death, his followers founded the Mevlevi Sufi order which uses his poetic prose as inspiration for its teachings.
It seems we can look to the not-so-modern wisdom from the heart of the Middle East for ideas of acceptance, tolerance and contentment.
In the final weeks of my pregnancy, I couldn’t help but notice another of Rumi’s poems in which he addresses the unborn, whether it be the physically unborn or spiritually is a matter of interpretation.
‘The world outside is vast and intricate.
There are wheat fields and mountain passes,
and orchards in bloom
At night there are millions of galaxies, and in sunlight
the beauty of friends dancing at a wedding.’
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After significant absence from NazarBlue, my apology comes in the form of an easy to make, tasty treat; Turkish style semolina helva with my own special twist.
It can be served hot (with ice cream) or once cooled in slices as the perfect accompaniment to tea (in our case, çay!).
The various words for ‘Halva’ derive from the Arabic Halawa, meaning sweet. Halva / Helva / Halawa is a typical Mediterranean / Middle Eastern / Asian / Balkan / Eastern European confection which can be made from various ingredients; primarily grain flour resulting in a gelatinous texture (most typically semolina or wheat flour is used) or ground nuts which result in a more solid texture (you’ll be familiar with sesame halva.) Other more exotic bases for Halva are chickpeas and other beans or carrots and flavourings vary wildly from pistachio to chocolate, honey or simply plain.
Here is my recipe for Cardamom and Pistachio İrmik Helvası.
Dried fruits and nuts give much-needed energy and nutrients when fresh produce isn’t readily available. One example of their significance is found in the traditions of the Middle East at Ramadan, when evening Iftar (breaking of the fast) commences with a date.
At the moment I’m suffering from one of the pregnancy niggles, where you, ahem, simply ‘can’t go.’ Lucky then, that when Murat went to Green Lanes, Harringey last week he returned with kilos of dried fruit and nuts!
Apart from enjoying them in their deliciously sticky state, I decided to make Khoshaf, a perfumed compote of rehydrated fruit and nuts, hailing from various Middle Eastern kitchens.
Use whatever you have at hand.. It’s the type of recipe free to artistic licence (aren’t they all?). Fruit are soaked in a mixture of water and orange flower essence until plump, and nuts rejuvenated to their former milkiness. Most versions call for the use of sugar too, however let’s keep it healthy and appreciate the natural sweetness of the fruit themselves.