Monday, 24 September 2012


It’s hot in North Africa in August. The month of Ramadan, while interesting and impressive to witness, is perhaps not the best time to travel to the Maghreb in search of foodist inspiration. A sunny day on the Andalucía coast, a broken car window and a missing bag (handily filled with all the steal-worthy stuff) is a tiresome way to discover that travel insurance isn’t worth the paperless ether it’s written on... Ah, the pearls of wisdom we uncovered this summer!

Of course we still had a great time: holidays are brilliant! The car was granted convalescence in a posh car park in Algeciras and we dithered around Morocco via boat, train, taxi, bus and smellybus, getting into as many adventures as 45° would allow.

I was excited about the prospect of revisiting the food-stalls at the Djemaa el Fna in Marrakesh. At first it was very disappointing: a massive tourist trap; fun but frustrating. Later, though, we found a little adventure in the shape of a sheep’s head. They’re genuinely delicious. Really. We tried cow’s titty, which was a bit strange but perfectly okay. It was dense and not overly interesting – it reminded me of the time I cooked lamb’s fries*... The mutton face was great though. Like a lamby pig’s trotter. Not everyone’s cup of tea perhaps, but if you can cope with a pig’s foot for your tea then you should find something to love...** The heads have the brains removed and are then boiled. They come straight from the pot onto your plate, so dispelling any worries about bad hygiene, and are topped with some sultry juices from the other item on sale:  Beef Tanjia. The sauce was beefy and bold, but also delicate with saffron and preserved lemon. Yumity-Yum! Grouped in the centre of the market, the guys who sold this stuff were ten times more chilled than the barbecue merchants who clawed at us for custom. Clearly not too many tourists bothered them - and with their gruesome displays it is no little wonder - but even if you’re not a weirdo offal fetishist, go see them to try the beef stew; it’s not a bit scary and it’s the real deal.

 *That’s bollocks to me and you.  I’ve only tried it once... But to be fair I don’t think I nailed it.
**That sentence could be read as a philosophical statement. Harsh, I’d say.

Tanjia is peculiar to Marrakesh. The man who told us about it made it sound cool so we stayed another day and found someone to show us how it’s done. The sneak preview at the market came by chance and now we knew it would be worth the effort!

Like plenty of others, the dish is named after the dish – a terracotta urn, tall and with handles and a lip at the top which ready it for its rather particular cooking method. Tanjia is cooking for boys – when women make it, it doesn’t taste right, Brahim says. Young men in Marrakesh, perhaps at the stage before they have a wife with a stove to cook them their tea, have developed a pretty fancy alternative to a dirty keebab.  Ingredients to a simple stew are plonked in a pot, sealed tight shut, and then carried to the Hammam where they spend the day gently braising in a bath of hot embers from the wood-fired oven that powers the steamy local wash house. Bread and a bowl, and maybe a chum or two, are all that are needed in the evening to complement the finished dish, carried, piffling and steaming through the back streets of town and back home, for a baddass bachelor beast of a feast!

Brahim got me a pot for about 2 quid, and set it to soak overnight, as, when new, the tanjia has a tendency to drink all your gravy. We did a spot of morning shopping: a kilo of beef on the bone, shin or suchlike, pickled lemons, garlic and some Smen (now, now... it’s salty fermented butter. Oh...). I’d already been charmed by a spice vendor, so we didn’t need any more of the two remaining ingredients: cumin and (proper, pungent) saffron. Back to our hotel kitchen to put it all together. This was almost alarmingly simple. The meat had been chopped into large chunks by the butcher; we gave it a rinse in fresh water and stuffed it in the pot. Six or seven cloves of garlic were vaguely chopped and went in too; about ¾ preserved lemon, some of its innards discarded, the rest roughly torn and into the mix; 1 ½ tsp cumin; a small pinch of my saffron was infused in ¼ pint of water, that went in, along with the same amount of olive oil and a good blob of salty Smen. No salt, there’s enough in the lemon and butter. Three or four layers of brown paper, supplied by the butcher, were tied over the top to provide a tight-fitting lid, and we were ready to roll! I walked rather proudly, pot in hand, through the little maze of alleyways to the hammam. Brahim explained that this type of cooking was infinitely variable; it is quite normal to cook tanjias of chicken, rabbit, lamb or fish (conger eel works well), with or without vegetables, with just a little variation on the amount of water (none for chicken), the cooking time, and maybe the spicing.

Click on any photo to get a better look
We got in through the back door and were led into the dark cellar – cluttered with sawdust and bits of kindling – that housed the oven. It was blazing, of course, so that the patrons upstairs could sweat out and scrub away the filth of the day, or the week or whatever*. Adjacent to the fire was a hump of ash, nestled within which were several pots of different sizes from my brother bachelors of the neighbourhood. The boy who tended the fire took my tanjia, gave it a connoisseur’s shake, snuggled it into the embers and handed me a small metal ticket with which to retrieve my dinner in six hour’s time. Shockran. Ya la!

* or a lifetime, if you’re like me. These places are a humiliating lesson in how dirty we are all the time – the layers and layers of filth that came off me... But, by crikey, I was clean when I left!

When we returned, the fire boy had tidied up. Our urn was sputtering along nicely with the others in their smoky lair. He picked it up and gave it another shake, pronounced that it was indeed done, and rigged us up a wire handle with which to carry it home. He got a lobbo for his sterling work and we got a pot full of feast!

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Grande Randonée

Holidays have come at last and I need a break to take a deep breath before the self-employment adventure.

The GR10 is an epic footpath through the valleys, villages and mountain passes of the French Pyrenees from Hendaye on the Atlantic coast to Banyuls on the Mediterranean. Sixty very dedicated and determined days walking. We have six days. We're told some have completed the Spanish version, the GR11 in 8. Well done to those people. We content ourselves with a walk across our adopted kingdom, the Béarn.

There are a number of ways to tackle a trek of this kind. In a (perhaps misguided) attempt to be HARD CORE we have opted for wild camping. In contrast to similar expeditions in Britain, there is a noticeable lack of nice pubs along our route. These are replaced with mountaineers refuges which offer food and lodgings to walkers with the foresight to book ahead. We have eschewed these centres of warmth and conviviality in favour of carrying tents around on our backs. Some refuges allow camping, another option are the soothingly/worryingly remote shepherd’s cabanes, which tend to have a fresh water source and room for a tent or two nearby. Of course this decision also means humping food along the trail; my rather predictable solution is pasta n rice.

On an organised trek in an underdeveloped adventurer’s country the food can be startlingly good. On the Inca Trail to Machu Pichu in Peru, me and the other white dudes would sweat all day, trailing up and down amongst breathtaking scenery with our heavy packs to arrive with our guides at an agreed camping place. Dinner would be almost ready, Indian porters having legged it past us, often more than once, with a super non-lightweight kitchen or dining tent or giant gas-canister-and-stove combos, tied to their shoulders with a bit of string. There would be soup to start, a tasty stew and some fruit. Plus coca leaf brews to ward off altitude sickness. I seem to remember there being booze too, but maybe this is just rose-tinted memory... In Scotland we had Pasta’n’Sauce, Rice’n’Sauce and Pot Noodle – and a trip to the ale house most nights. Anticipating a total lack of alcoholic sweetener, I hope for some success with Peruvian-inspired ambition.

We start along the Chemin de la Mature, an ancient path riven into sheer rock face. We hump our way in the heat of the day, along and up, through the Vallée d’Aspe. (Rather excitingly*, the next day we discover that while we were there – perhaps eating our fat homemade paté butties – a bear had munched on a couple of brebis** amongst the dainty mountain flowers of the open valley.) We struggle, but manage to peep above the fog as evening approaches. The tough-loving pass into the next valley rewards us with our first view of the Pic du Midi d’Ossau, Béarn’s most iconic alp. Before it is the largest of the very beautiful Lacs d’Ayous. Golly... Better now, it’s a skip down to the lake and our camping ground, near the mountaineer’s refuge which astounds us by having not just water – but beer!

I make a big pot of sticky, spicy, garlicky rice. An austere meal ordinarily, but calm and comforting† and tasty. And lightweight. Some merguez and left-over liver paté provide some protein. A startling sunset. Knackered. Bed.
*Terrifyingly, dot might interject. There's no pleasing some folk!

**A dairy sheep.

† ©™ Nigel Slater.

A refuge in the next village supplies a hearty meal of carbs and a buggered-but-tasty confit sausage. And another beer! Detox? Bollocks to it...
Third day initially splooshes us with a storm, but it passes and leaves just fog. There is a hairy corniche, again riven into the sheer rock, that might be a little more worrisome were we able to see the bottom, lost in the murk. We arrive at a shepherdess’ cabane on the plain of Cézy. We can’t see ten yards in front of us. Sometimes you can’t see your own feet, she says. She’s been living here making sheep’s cheese in the middle of the arse end of nowhere for ten years. Quite right. We are wimps. She says it’s fine for us to pitch our tent – watch out for the pigs though, they’re big buggers.

We have a very jolly and very French apéro*, minus the booze, with the three others who are camping here tonight. It’s all very convivial this wilderness lark. Dried cèpe risotto and saucisson fill us up.
*Nibbles and booze –sometimes preceding, sometimes replacing dinner.

Dot dreams of the various disasters waiting for us in the night: who will devour us first? The bear or the pigs? And will we be eaten raw or cooked to a frazzle by a great bolt of lightning?..

The morning lifts the fog, and then it resettles. We have just enough time to realise the majesty of our backdrop. Is it dangerous to attempt the 2400m Hourquette d'Arre? Stuff and nonsense! says the shepherdess. Righto. Pruney porridge fires us as we pick our way up and back down to the ski resort of Gourette.

Our last night is a belter of a spot in a tight green valley near the Col de Soulor. We spend a relaxed evening joined only by big bonging cows and their bells. Supplies from Gourette include tomatoes, chorizo and pasta. Tomato and chorizo pasta, then. Onion sweated in olive oil with a few fennel and cumin seeds picked out from my spice mix. Chorizo fried and rough-chopped tomatoes added. Plenty of pepper and some mountain savoury* in flower. We washed it down with my stashed hip flask of scotch AND Marcus’ stashed bottle of wine! This is the life...
* Like thyme. In fact, so much like thyme, that it might actually be thyme...

We had lunch with a couple who were waymarking the route. Two little pots of paint
 and a network of sixty volunteers keeps the entire 866km route startlingly well signposted.
 Dot's souvenir is an official GR10 tatoo on her troosers.
These people are our heros!