Fancy pigeon

Morocco's pastilla - one of the world's great pies
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The Independent Culture
If the Mystic Megs of the food world are to be believed, this will be the year of the Middle East. In which case, one of my favourite pies is likely to crop up a good deal on menus.

I have had pastilla just once so far this year but, unfortunately, it bore no relation to what I understand as this great Moroccan dish. The chef, famed for his creativity, had seen fit to do away with its character and idiosyncrasies. I am not bound by the notion of there being a single, authentic recipe of a dish, but as one of the greatest products of Moroccan cookery, pastilla cannot readily be played around with.

Imagine a pigeon pie about 20" across, although usually smaller, with squab or chicken - often on the bone - that has been braised with spices, and the juices scrambled with eggs, which form another layer. Flaked and toasted almonds mixed with icing sugar and freshly ground cinnamon make up yet another.

My introduction to this magnificent pie was in the restaurant of the Tichka Hotel. Marrakech is small enough for its hotel wars to be battled out by just two or three. For many years the winner was the Mamounia, said to be Winston Churchill's favourite haunt. I doubt, though, that its current incarnation as a padded leatherette piano bar and casino would find favour, so the Tichka was order of the day.

Marrakech lends itself to camp, and the Tichka doesn't disappoint with its replicated Arabian arches, woven scatter rugs, low seating and candles concealed in brass holders that stencil shadows onto surfaces. Just the place to be initiated into the delights of pastilla.

I had always thought that the Medieval pies of England, the ones made with a combination of meat, sugar and spices, were a failed concept dreamt up through circumstance. But my preconceptions were banished at the first taste of pastilla. Here is proof that the combination works incredibly well, and my first disappointmentwith the Anglicised version was that the sugar had been omitted.

Admittedly, there are many variations and it need not contain sugar, though I feel quite strongly that in the finest it is there to provide a note of judicious daring. Eggs, and plenty of saffron and lemon almost always play a part. And there are sweet versions, too. There is one in particular that I have in mind where an almond custard, scented with orange flower water, is poured between layers of crisp, buttery pastry.

The pie is served very, very hot. The Moroccans risk blisters and burnt fingers by plunging the thumb and two forefingers into its lightly golden centre, dusted with icing sugar and usually criss-crossed with lines of cinnamon.

Any more representational decoration would be forbidden by Muslim law. This spills over into bakeries which are centres of stated symmetry. Here you find piles of nut-packed syrupy pastries carefully arranged in spirals or lines travelling out from a central point.

The pastry - called warka - is a cross between a spring roll wrapper and filo. I have watched this being made and it is not something I ever intend to try at home. Fine sheets are extracted by dabbing a wet ball of dough onto a hot, flat pan. The layer that sticks is peeled off.

Many hours later you should have a pile of pastry leaves, and any cook or chef could be excused for substituting filo. But please, creative chefs, as to the rest of its make-up, it ain't broke, so don't fix it.

Pastilla, serves 6 as a starter, 4 as a main course

I developed this recipe several years ago for Vogue, after exploring the spice stalls of Marrakech. Having cooked it several times since,I have not wanted to change anything, so here it is.

Stew:

1 guinea fowl, jointed

400ml/34 pint chicken or vegetable stock

1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 level tsp ground ginger

12 tsp turmeric

20 saffron filaments, ground and infused with 1 tbsp boiling water for 20 minutes

12 tsp freshly ground black pepper

1 x 8.5cm/312" cinnamon stick

1 level tsp salt

Egg layer:

5 large eggs, whisked and sieved

1 level tbsp each, finely chopped coriander and flat-leaf parsley

Almond layer:

75g/3oz flaked almonds

2 tsp vegetable oil

12 tsp freshly ground cinnamon

20g/34oz icing sugar, sifted

75g/3oz unsalted butter, melted

5-6 sheets filo pastry, 25.5cm/10" x 40.5cm/16"

To serve:

icing sugar

freshly ground cinnamon

Place all the ingredients for the stew in a saucepan, bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 30 minutes, turning the guinea fowl once. Lift out the bird, skin and remove bones when cool enough to handle. Shred the meat and reserve.

Reduce the remaining liquor to 200ml/7fl oz, discard the cinnamon stick, add the eggs and cook over a very gentle heat until scrambled but not too dry. Remove to a bowl and stir in the herbs. Heat the oven to 180C (fan oven)/190C (electric oven)/375F/Gas 5. Toss the almonds with the oil and toast them for 8 minutes until they are a pale gold, then toss them with the cinnamon and the icing sugar in a bowl. You can prepare the recipe in advance to this point.

Preheat the oven to 200C (fan oven)/220C (electric oven)/425F/Gas 7. Brush a 20.5cm/8" tart tin with melted butter. Place a triple layer of filo pastry on the base, so that the sides overhang the rim, brushing between each layer with butter before you lay it in place. Arrange the guinea fowl on top, then the egg, and the almonds. Drizzle over 1 tbsp of the melted butter, cut a double layer of filo pastry to fit the surface of the pie and place on top, brushing with butter. Seal the pie with the overhanging sides.

Brush the whole surface with butter and bake for 20 minutes. Invert it onto a baking sheet and bake for another 15 minutes until golden. Sieve a fine layer of icing sugar onto the smooth surface, and make thin lines of ground cinnamon, criss-crossing at 5cm/2" intervals. Serve very hot

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