Argan Oil

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Much has been written about Southern Morocco’s unique product – argan oil – which has become much sought after world wide for culinary and, more widely, cosmetic purposes. Native to Morocco, the ancient argan tree (argania spinosa) grows essentially in an area covering some 800,000 hectares in the Souss Valley  from the northern slopes of the Anti Atlas Mountain Range to the edge of the Sahara desert  and from the Siroua mountain in the east to the Atlantic coast to the west.  This argan plantation which numbers some 21 million trees was classified by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve Area in 1988.

The Argan , which can live for 250 years, is an important factor in the prevention of soil erosion thanks to its root system which grows deep into the earth and down to below the water table. The leaves and fruit it sheds and the  vegetation that grows in its shade all serve to enrich the soil. It has been used over the millennia for fuel, timber, fruit and fodder, all essential to the development of a traditional agricultural system that has continuously met the needs of a dense population living in an arid region.

During the summer months, from June to August, the ripe fruit drops to the ground and is collected and laid out to dry in the sun for several weeks. Subsequently, the outer peel is removed (and used for animal feed) to expose extremely hard kernels. These are cracked by hand to obtain the oily seeds which are lightly roasted in a clay vessel at a precise temperature to rid them of their natural bitterness. (The cracked kernels are then used for fuel).
The  roasted seeds are ground in a traditional stone mill and the paste obtained is kneaded and pressed by hand with the occasional addition of  lukewarm water.  This process yields the precious oil and a brown pasty residue which is formed into cakes and used for animal feed.  Chemical compounds for use in cosmetic masks can also be extracted from the paste.
Argan oil has a unique, nutty flavour and is used to flavour salads, omelettes, fish and couscous much as one would use extra virgin olive oil. It is also eaten as is with bread or combined with ground, roasted almonds and honey to make a delicious paste known as amlou.
Unroasted kernels are ground to produce oil for cosmetic use.  In traditional Moroccan medicine, argan oil is used to minimise scarring caused by acne, chicken pox etc. and as anti-ageing and moisturising treatments for skin and hair.

Over the past 100 years, the size of the argan plantation had decreased by one third as people had begun to uproot trees and replace them with what they considered to be more profitable crops and trees had been severely damaged by the herds of goats and camels which grazed on their leaves and fruit.

Between 1985 and 1991, scientist Zoubida Charrouf prepared her doctoral thesis on the argan tree and subsequently worked to help the local Berber population to exploit and preserve this precious resource. In 1996, Dr Charrouf began to organise the local women into a cooperative called Amal (hope) and other cooperatives followed. This enabled the local women to earn enough money to enable them to attend literacy classes, to educate their children and to become more aware of environmental issues. Membership in the cooperative is dependent on ownership of at least 1 hectare of argan trees. Women who do not own trees, work for the owners and receive a quantity of argan fruit in exchange for their labour.

The marketing of argan products, while helping countless families, has also created a huge demand and keen competition from industry which is, in fact, harming the plantation.  Instead of collecting only fallen fruit, the trees are being beaten with sticks to make the fruit fall before it is quite ripe. Inferior and stale fruit is also being sold in rural markets.
Argan trees are hard to cultivate and apparently, most attempts at propagating saplings in laboratories and nurseries result in failure. It is therefore necessary to conserve and exploit this precious resource without risking it being irreparably depleted.

The increased wealth created by sales of argan products mean that the locals can buy larger herds of goats which also harm the trees through overgrazing. As the lower branches of the argan tree grow out from the base horizontally, goats find it easy to climb to access the leaves and fruit higher up. Tourists have found this fascinating and, as a result, the ever resourceful goatherds along the road from Marrakech to Essaouira, have taken to tying them high up on the trees on little platforms and charging tourists to take their photographs.

Westerners are also fascinated by the myth that the argan kernels are collected after having been swallowed and subsequently excreted by goats.  Many women who earn their living from processing argan products have told me that they would never use excreted kernels as they have a strong and offensive smell and can therefore not be used to make oil.

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Moroccan Preserved Lemons

There are so many lemon trees thriving in the gardens of Melbourne and they are at their peak at the moment. Just last week, I took a wrong turn and as I wove my way through the back streets of Richmond to get to my destination I was amazed by the number of heavily laden boughs hanging over onto the footpaths… just begging to be picked. Two icons of the Melbourne back yard are the Hill’s Hoist and the prolific Eureka lemon tree that bears fruit all year round with the heaviest crop ripening in our winter season.  A friend brought me a huge bag containing about five kilos of the shiniest, most fragrant lemons last week and, as my supply of preserved lemons was dwindling, I set about making a new batch to see me through the next twelve months or so.

I admit that I can’t really be bothered sterilising jars so I use a glazed cylindrical container with a perforated lid that I have had for more than ten years.  It was designed to pickle olives and has proved the ideal container for my lemons. I pack them in really tightly, filling the container right up to the brim and then place the lid and my heaviest mortar and pestle on top to press down on the lemons until the juices run and the level goes down.  I then change the mortar for my smallest one until the level goes down some more and then replace it with a well washed building brick so that the lid keeps pressing down on the lemons and the juice starts to seep through the holes in the lid.
I then leave the container in a cool place for 2 or 3 months… or even longer.  The way to tell if the lemons are ready is to take one out and see that the lemon juice and salt have turned into a viscous salty “syrup” and the lemon flesh comes away from the peel easily.  If the lemons are not properly cured, they will have a bitter, “pithy” flavour.  I prefer using only lemons and salt… with no added extras like cinnamon or, perish the thought, bay leaves which completely denature the fragrance of this wonderful Moroccan ingredient.. irreplaceable in tagines and salads.. divine with sardines!

PRESERVED LEMONS

whole lemons
fine sea salt
coarse sea salt

Wash the lemons well and soak in a tub of cold water overnight.  If the lemons are very thick skinned, replace the water each day for 3 days.
Drain the lemons, remove any stems and cut into quarters, but not cutting right through, leaving the bases intact.
Pour a thin layer of fine salt into the bottom of your container or jar.  This will help to draw out the juice from the lemons.  Pack each cut lemon with coarse salt and pack into the container.
Continue this process until all the lemons are salted and packed tightly into the container.  Sprinkle with another thin layer of fine salt and weigh down with a heavy weight.
Store the container in a cool, dark place for 2 to 3 months when the lemons will be ready to use.  They can then be transferred to sterilised jars.

To use, rinse the lemons and remove the flesh, using the peel as a garnish in tajines or cut into tiny dice for use in salads.
A restaurateur I know uses the diced peel with chardonnay vinegar as a dressing for oysters… delicious!

Below are pictures of the thin skinned “Beldi” or local Moroccan lemons that are pickled whole

Harira Bidaouia

Just a short two weeks till the start of Ramadan!  Melbourne is not a bad place to be in August for those who are fasting this year… chilly short days…and for those who do not observe Ramadan… the perfect weather to cook and enjoy this delicious soup. A few years ago, I spent time in the Casablanca home of dear friends during this month of fasting.  Each day we would prepare the Harira and the other dishes that would be enjoyed by the family as part of the ftour or breaking of the fast.
As soon as the first star was spied in the sky, a siren would sound and people would gather to break the fast with a date or two and a glass of milk or juice. This was invariably followed by a bowl of Harira accompanied by dates, bread, hard boiled eggs and the famous Moroccan chebbakieh pastries, formed into rosette shapes,  fried in oil, drained and soaked in honey.
This meal was a prelude to an evening of chatting, snacking and enjoying each other’s company.
Here is the recipe and pictures of the ingredients for those who are unfamiliar with some of them.

Ingredients 1

HARIRA

1 small red onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup chickpeas, soaked and peeled
1/3 cup small red lentils
1 tbsp smen
1 tbsp vegetable  oil
1 bunch Asian celery (krafes) chopped very finely
250g stewing beef cut into small cubes
1 tsp pepper
1 tsp turmeric
2 small pieces cassia bark
2-3  l water
1 kg fresh peeled and chopped tomatoes, or 1 can Italian chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato concentrate
salt
2 tbsp flour
50g vermicelli (shaariyeh) noodles
1 bunch fresh coriander,  finely chopped

 
Put the chopped onion, chickpeas, lentils, smen, oil, chopped celery and beef into a deep pot and heat over a low flame until the onion is translucent.  Add the spices and water and simmer  for an hour or two or until the chickpeas and meat are tender.
In the meantime,  cook the tomatoes in a separate saucepan until all their liquid has evaporated and they have reduced to a thick puree. Add to the first pot together with the tomato concentrate and the salt.
Dissolve the flour in a little cold water and add to the simmering soup, stirring until the soup thickens and any foam that has risen to the top has dissipated.
Add the vermicelli and coriander and cook for a further 3 minutes.
Serve hot with lemon wedges, dates and figs and, if available, chebbakieh pastries.



Bessara

One of the most comforting and easy to prepare soups for the winter months is Moroccan Bessara.  I first came across this delicious dish on my first trip to Morocco. I traversed the country with a young driver called Abdel ‘adim who was an expert in street food and Moroccan music… the best introduction to the simple dishes of the country as well as a stunning collection of tunes.

I still love eating bessara in the Medina of Fes el Bali with a fresh loaf from the neighbourhood bakery and mint tea made by one of the experts of the medina. Can’t think of anything better on a cold day!  If you can’t find ready peeled and split beans, you will have to soak and skin the whole beans (an extremely tedious business).

Bessara

500 g dried small peeled broad (fava) beans
6 cloves garlic, peeled
salt
extra virgin olive oil
ground cumin
hot paprika

Pick over and rinse the broad beans.
Put them  in a saucepan with the garlic, cover with fresh water and bring to the boil. Do not salt at this stage!
Skim any scum that rises to the surface and simmer for an hour or until the broad beans are soft and starting to fall apart.
Stir well with a wooden spoon, scraping the bottom of the pot to make sure that they do not stick and burn and mash them against the sides of the pot until a thick soup is obtained. (or puree with a mixing wand).
Stir in 1/4 cup of olive oil, salt to taste and 1 tbsp cumin and cook for a further five minutes.

Serve in small soup bowls. Pour another tablespoon of oil onto the surface of each bowl of bessara, sprinkle with extra ground cumin and serve with hot pepper or chilli on the side.

Fresh bread and fried eggs make this a filling and satisfying meal.

NB Fresh cumin is of the utmost importance as is the quality of the extra virgin olive oil.

Imperial Mandarins

Winter is officially here… the weather in Melbourne has been crisp but deliciously sunny – the leaves are still falling and the air is misty.   Couldn’t resist buying a bunch of the first white jonquils to appear and am loving their heady perfume. Piles of shiny mandarins are in all the fruit shops and markets, golden, fragrant and juicy.  Time to make the first Mandarin Sorbet of the season. My take on sorbets is that they should taste more like the fruit than the fruit itself… with that third dimension that  I like to call the IMAX effect… !  Adding an alcohol made from the same fruit used to make the sorbet gives it a depth and smooth texture that is otherwise hard to achieve without adding too much sugar and making it oversweet.
An ice cream churn is a must to get the smooth, ice free texture that makes your sorbet so perfect – I’ve had my trusty Simac Il Gelataio for nearly 30 years.  (It’s a huge monster but I wouldn’t be without it… the results are perfect every time and it has only needed a service twice since I’ve owned it.) It lives on a shelf in my pantry and never comes out except for spring cleaning.

Several types of mandarins appear as the season progresses but only the Imperial variety is fragrant enough for making sorbet with a flavour to make you swoon.

MANDARIN SORBET

500 ml mandarin juice
250 ml simple syrup (1:1 sugar/water)
juice of 1 lemon
1 tsp finely grated mandarin zest (use fine microplane)
2 tbsp Mandarin Napoleon liqueur

Combine all the ingredients in a jug and chill.
Taste for sugar and acidity adding more syrup or lemon juice if needed.
Churn until smooth.  Transfer to a container and freeze for a few hours to let the flavours develop.

A little salad of fresh mandarin segments tossed in a tbsp sugar syrup and a tsp Mandarin Napoleon is a lovely accompaniment.

Christmas Hams

Every year, Donati’s Fine Meats in Carlton is named in food publications as the supplier of one of the best hams in Melbourne.
People have a standing order year in year out and Leo Donati, pictured above, gets his production going for what is probably his busiest and most stressful time of the year…. producing enough hams to satisfy the seasonal demand.

I took this picture of him last week, while he was still smiling…..  This week it will be hard to get into the shop. People will be queued up 6 deep collecting their hams, turkeys etc. for Christmas lunch.

Luckily for me, I am not cooking this Christmas…. having been invited by my lovely friends…. so I won’t have to queue.

If you have missed out this year, you can always try Leo’s ham and other products after Christmas and all year long.

Donati’s Fine Meats
402 Lygon Street
Carlton Vic 3053
(03) 9348 2221

Wishing all my Christian friends a very Happy Christmas!

Date Harvest Morocco

I am missing the beauty of the date harvest in Morocco this year. The colours must be seen to be believed and are so stunningly captured by the French artist Jacques Majorelle in his 1921 portrayal of the Date Market in Marrakech, one of the few paintings I truly lust after.

(Image from Les Orientalistes, Jacques Majorelle, by Felix Marcilhac ACR Edition Internationale 1988,1995)

The oases of the great river valleys in Southern Morocco, the Draa, Dades and Ziz, stretch for miles and are the main livelihood of the local inhabitants.  The succulent medjool date  (medjhoul in Moroccan Arabic) originated in Morocco and is also now widely cultivated in California and the Jordan Valley – our main source of this delectable fruit.

Dates are native to the Middle East and were spread by the Arabs to North Africa and Spain. They are mentioned in the Bible and constituted one of the seven species so important to human survival and ritual, alongside wheat, barley, the olive, pomegranate, fig and grape.”For the LORD thy God bringeth thee into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths, springing forth in valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, and (grape) vines and fig-trees and pomegranates; a land of olive-trees and (date) honey;” (Deuteronomy 8:7-8)

In 2005 seeds of the Judean date, a cultivar extinct for almost 2000 years, were found by Israeli archaeologists on the site of Herod’s palace on the fortress of Masada. Scientists at the Arava Institute in the Negev managed to germinate one of the seeds and the resulting plant, named Methusaleh after the oldest man mentioned in the Bible, is now about two metres tall.

Following an ancient Arab Tradition, La Maison Bleue in Fes offers arriving guests dates  filled with roasted almonds together with a bowl of orange blossom scented milk.  This sets the scene for the peaceful, fragrant stay in this haven of luxury in the ancient medina of Fes.

Dates are the first food consumed to break the fast each evening during the month of Ramadan and are the traditional accompaniment to Harira soup,  served at the traditional Ramadan Ftour or breakfast.

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