THE FRESH TASTE OF MARRAKECH

SUMMER SALAD DAYS 1: MOROCCO; Forget wet lettuce. Michael Bateman delves into the cuisine of Morocco for endless salad variations, all united by superb combinations of sweet and sour, nuts, fruits and fresh vegetables
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Salad days are here again. Across the land, kitchen staff in a thousand and one British pubs are confidently arranging plates of wet lettuce, quartered unripe tomatoes and slivered green pepper scattered with cress. There must be another way. In this two-part series, we look at Morocco and Turkey, two Mediterranean countries where salad-poking is not a drudge but an art, where it's at the very roots of food culture.

One of the world's great chefs, Paul Bocuse, counts Moroccan cuisine as one of the three best in the world. For tourists who only know the street food of Morocco this may be hard to credit. Joining the crowds thronging to the Place Jamaa el Fna in Marrakech, for example, you are spirited back to medieval times, encountering wailing music, dazzling costumes, snake-charmers and fortune-tellers. A haze of smoke from charcoal braziers drifts across the square, where tribesmen in djellabahs suck at soups made from sheeps' heads, the skinned skulls grinning at you from the surrounding food-stalls.

So what is it about Moroccan cooking that inspires Bocuse, the only Frenchman to have been awarded the Legion d'honneur for cooking, courtesy of President Giscard d'Estaing? Well, he may have a privileged view, being fortunate enough to have participated in luxurious banquets organised by King Hassan II. He has also been a regular visitor to La Mamounia in Marrakech, once Sir Winston Churchill's favourite hotel, that is set in seven acres of date palms and orange groves within a high bougainvillaea-clad wall. Indeed, Bocuse celebrated his own 70th birthday in this very hotel.

But is it not French culinary tunnel vision which enables him to put Morocco next to France (and China) in the world ratings? Remember that Morocco was a protectorate of France from 1912 until just after the Second World War. Bocuse considers this but does not believe the French influence has been significant except in the role of appreciation. He thinks instead of the tagines and tangias, in which the tenderest meat from young animals is subtly spiced and cooked slowly in earthenware pots for eight to 16 hours.

This is a unique form of cooking which derives from the mountain style of the native Berber race, a tribe of blue-eyed bedouin people who inhabit the Atlas mountains. But the Arabs also played a significant part in the cuisine during their 800-year conquest. They brought an understanding of pastry which endures in many dishes such as brik (meat or egg in pastry). Pastilla, the most famous of all Moroccan dishes, is a superb refinement of the pastry-cook's art - layers of fine pastry filled with shreds of cooked squab (baby pigeon) and almonds and dusted with icing sugar.

The Arabs who returned from occupying mainland Spain, also injected new- found skills and new ingredients to expand the country's cuisine, especially the use of olives and olive oil, oranges and lemons and nuts. Nowhere is this more marked than in the creation of a vast repertoire of salads, which use both raw and cooked ingredients, sometimes together in one dish.

Order the salad course at La Mamounia, for example, they will send out no fewer than a dozen contrasting appetisers, including violet olives with preserved lemon, sour green olives with red chillies, and plates of aubergine, tomato, green peppers, grated cucumber and oranges and lemons, with almonds, pine nuts and dates. All will be keenly seasoned with fresh herbs such as mint, coriander and flat-leaf parsley, or perfumed with spices like warm paprika powder and piquant cumin. Here the notion of salad extends to include meat - cubes of liver, maybe, in a sharp dressing, or the prized delicacy of sheep's brain.

We don't really have a grasp of this kind of sweet-sour salad in the UK. But to get some idea of the pungent, juicy, zestiness of a Moroccan salad, you should think of the garlicky and fruity chilled gazpachos of Andalusia. The American writer Paula Wolfert, the author of Good Food from Morocco (published by John Murray), describes the historical connection between the two. The Spanish first learnt this dish from the Arabs, the word gazpacho being Arabic for "soaked bread". This was modest peasant fare - dry bread moistened with water, flavoured with garlic and olive oil, sharpened with lemon juice and seasoned with salt.

About the time that the Moors were ejected from Spain, Colombus returned from the New World bringing tomatoes and peppers, the two vegetables which became the mainstays of the gazpachos. These new ingredients were reimported to Morocco, where they took on a new role, developing into the dazzling repertoire we now find.

I was lucky enough to spend a day in the kitchens of La Mamounia in the company of executive chef Boujimaa Mars. Even before seeing how the dishes are prepared, it was impossible not to be envious of the quality of the fresh vegetables, herbs and spices.

The tomatoes are large, ripe and sweet. It is considered too ordinary to serve these succulent monsters as they are; he will cook them spread on a tray in a low oven for three hours sprinkled with sugar and salt, to condense them into a rich preserve. The peppers give off an aroma as they cook like that of poppies. Cucumbers are not watery green truncheons, but small and hardy curved scimitars, all flesh and little seed - you can buy similar ones here in Greek Cypriot shops.

In Britain, we can only do our best, choosing the ripest and tastiest products where we can. Moroc-can ingredients, not to mention beautiful earthenware tagines and couscousieres to cook them in, can be found at Le Maroc, 94 Golborne Road, London W10; tel: 0181 968 9783.

And for a taste of Morocco visit Momo, the recently opened restaurant at 25 Heddon Street, London Wl (0171 434 4040), which is a descendent of the original at 69 Rue des Gravillioro in Paris.

Or, if you'd like to try Moroccan salads at home, here are seven to choose from. Vary the spicing according to taste. Paprika, cinnamon, cumin and chilli powders are frequent flavour notes, as are flat-leaf parsley, coriander leaf and orange flower water.

ORANGE AND OLIVE SALAD

Salty, sweet, sour and bitter, a perfectly balanced and refreshing salad, is common in Morocco, home to wonderful rich olives and sweet oranges.

Serves 4 to 6

6 to 8 oranges

at least 20 purple or violet olives (such as the Greek Kalamata)

generous pinch of cumin powder

juice of 12 a lemon

1 teaspoon of sugar

pinch of salt

Cut off the peel and pith of the oranges. Cut segments free of membrane, collecting the juice. Leave the pieces whole or chop them smaller, as prefered.

Stone the olives. In a bowl mix them with the oranges together with the lemon juice, salt and cumin powder (with an optional pinch of chilli pepper too, if you like). Serve chilled.

CUCUMBER SALAD

Mars never salts his cucumber the way they do in the eastern Mediterranean (to draw out moisture). In any case, Moroccan cucumbers are firmer and less watery than ours.

Serves 4 to 6

2 cucumbers (or about 6 small Cypriot cucumbers)

juice of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons sugar

Peel cucumbers and slice lengthwise, scooping out seeds with a teaspoon. Grate into a bowl. Squeeze out surplus moisture between your fingers. Dress with sugar and lemon juice. If desired garnish with some black olives, or a sprinkling of fresh herbs, parsley, thyme or oregano. Serve immediately.

LEMON SALAD

A piquant, refreshing appetiser. Olives are salty so the salad may not need added salt, taste to check.

Serves 4 to 6

4 lemons

12 black olives

12 green olives

12 wine glass extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon cumin powder

12 teaspoon chilli powder

tablespoon of finely chopped parsley to garnish

Peel the lemons and chop the flesh. Stone the olives. Mix all ingredients together. Garnish with parsley.

BEETROOT SALAD

A colourful and tasty salad which can be a meal in itself. A little chilli powder is always the extra option. A garnish of stoned black olives is another.

Serves 4 to 6

1kg/2lb 4oz raw beetroot

500g/1lb 2oz ripe tomatoes

500g/1lb 2oz potatoes (preferably new potatoes), boiled and skinned, and sliced or cubed

1 red onion (or 12 Spanish onion)

1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley

juice of one lemon

12 a wine glass of olive oil

12 teaspoon cumin powder

salt and freshly milled black pepper

1 teaspoon sugar

Chop onion finely. Skin tomatoes (after briefly dropping them into boiling water), de-seed and dice. Wash but do not peel the beetroot. Cook in boiling water until tender (about 30 minutes, depending on size). Remove skins and dice. In a bowl mix together all ingredients except potatoes.

Arrange potatoes around the edge of a dish, and heap the salad into the middle.

CARROT AND ORANGE SALAD

La Mamounia chef Boujimaa Mars adds orange flower water for extra aroma.

Serves 4 to 6

500g/1lb 2oz carrots

2 oranges

juice of 12 a lemon

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 tablespoon sugar

Peel the carrots and grate them finely into a bowl Pare away peel and pith from the oranges. Cut away segments with a saw-edged knife, reserving juices. Toss with the carrots, lemon juice, cinnamon and sugar. Chill before serving.

GRILLED GREEN PEPPER AND TOMATO SALAD

One of the most common Moroccan salads, this is made with cooked vegetables served cold. There are variations in which the peppers and tomatoes may be grilled, roasted and even fried.

Serves 4 to 6

4 green peppers

8 large ripe tomatoes

4 spring onions, chopped

1 tablespoon chopped parsley (flat-leaf preferably)

2 tablespoons olive oil

juice of 1 lemon

salt and freshly milled black pepper

black olives to garnish

Roast the tomatoes and peppers in a hot oven for 30 minutes or until tender. To loosen the skins on the pepper put them in a plastic bag and tie it. After five minutes you can remove skins easily with a knife. (Alternatively cook the peppers over a gas flame, turning until the skins are blackened. Remove skins in the same way.) Skin the tomatoes, cut in half and remove seeds. Cut tomatoes and peppers into small cubes. Mix with oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper; sprinkle with parsley and decorate with olives. Serve with a dressing.

SPICY CARROT SALAD

Serves 4

500g/1lb 2oz carrots

For the dressing:

2 tablespoons olive oil

juice of 1 lemon

12 teaspoon chilli powder or cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon cinnamon powder

1 teaspoon sugar

clove of garlic crushed with a teaspoon of salt and chopped

12 teaspoon powdered ginger

chopped parsley to garnish

Scrape the carrots and cook them whole in boiling water until soft, about 20 minutes. Leave them in the cooking liquid for an hour. Strain and, when cool enough to handle, cut into 12cm (14in) slices (or any size you prefer, inch-long chunks if you like).

Return to pan, cover with the other ingredients, and heat for a few minutes to blend the flavours. Leave to cool, and serve with parsley garnish.

Comments