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!
I knew I would adore Zayane as soon as I caught wind of it. With Moroccan fusion food, warm hospitality, authentic music and right on my West London doorstep, the venue became a personal favourite as soon as I stepped foot inside. I’ve previously shared the draw of Golborne Road with its diasporic values and English eccentricity, recently opened Zayane seems like a perfect fit.
Zayane, so called after Tamazight speaking nomadic tribes of the Atlas Mountains, was born from a clear vision; refined Moroccan cuisine in a relaxed, unpretentious setting. Casablanca born owner Meryem has created not only a beautiful venue but an amazing atmosphere; her grandmother’s traditional Berber style dress hangs proudly on display and zellige inspired bronze lanterns add a warm glow to the white washed walls. The air is delicately scented with cinnamon and the seating is sociable and intimate with wooden carved partitions and flashes of burnished orange and turquoise. A Gnawa musician sings without a sense of urgency on weeknights, welcoming diners with the type of raw edged infectiously happy voice unique to southern Morocco and a DJ drops beats on the weekends.
With former Thackeray’s Michelin starred chef Chris Bower at the helm, the menus are well thought out and offer alluring dishes for all tastes. Chris masterfully creates a unique Moroccan–British fusion, using British seasonal ingredients and a genuine knowledge of authentic Moroccan spices used with a delicate hand. There are elements of highly refined cuisine here yet elements of utmost authenticity too. Think cured sea bass with a preserved lemon sauce or milk fed lamb mechoui with aubergine caponata. Think also of traditional wholemeal flatbreads which are sold on every street corner in Morocco…
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…
This frugal dish is authentic in its simplicity and makes for a substantial, economic and tasty meal.
Out of all the dishes to come from the Mediterranean, I adore those which exemplify the movement and oneness of its people. Although made by many hands, essentially this dish remains baked chickpea flour batter, embellished with localised flavours.
Named Farinata di Ceci in Liguria, it is also known as Karantita / Karane / Kalinti in North Africa and Calentita in Gibraltar. It is also a testament to my second favorite saying ‘Una Faccia, Una Pancia‘ – One Face, One Belly!
I like to eat this dish when still warm, either topped with a light salad (think healthy pizza!) or with Harissa paste in a sandwich. Any spicy pepper or tomato sauce such as Luteniza or Aivar will do equally as well!