Moroccan Mint Tea

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be heading off to Morocco again to lead another of my culinary tours. One of the highlights of the time spend travelling around the Kingdom of Morocco is the drinking of tea infused with different kinds of mint and other aromatic herbs – a gesture of hospitality and a way to engage with the people we meet along the way.
Mint is the most common herb infused in Moroccan tea but it is often accompanied with seasonal additions, fresh Seville orange blossoms in the spring and Wormwood in the winter.  The desert people like to add marjoram whereas I have tasted tea brewed with thyme and sage in the Atlas Mountains.  Marrakech is known for its “atay m’khalet” or mixed herb tea containing a selection of herbs including two kinds of mint, lemon scented verbena, rose geranium, sage, wormwood and marjoram and very delicious it is!  The Moroccans use loaf sugar which I have described in a previous post entitled “Moroccan Sugar Cones”.

Aromatic herbs for Infusion in tea
Common Mint           Mentha viridis                       na’ana
Spearmint                  Mentha spicata                           ”
Peppermint                Mentha piperata                  menta
Pennyroyal                Mentha pulegium                 fliou
Lemon Verbena        Lippia citriodora                   louisa
Marjoram                    Origanum marjorana          merddedouch
Rose Genranium      Pelargonium roseum           laatarcha
Sage                            Salvia officinalis                   salmiya
Wormwood                 Artemisia absinthium           shiba

The tea is prepared very carefully and a tea service is used which comprises a tray, teapot, containers for tea, mint and sugar and decorative glasses.

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MOROCCAN MINT TEA

1 heaped teaspoon Gunpowder Green tea (loose leaves)
lump sugar
1 bunch mint, well washed

Bring the kettle to the boil.
Scald the teapot and put the tea leaves into the pot.
Pour in 1/2 glass of boiling water, swirl the pot and immediately pour it out into the glass. This is the “soul” of the tea.
Pour in another glass of boiling water, swirl it around and then pour it out into another glass.  This will be dark and cloudy and should be discarded.
Put a handful of mint into the pot, add the “soul” of the tea and fill the pot with more boiling water.
Add sugar to taste and allow to draw for about 2 minutes (over a low flame for the best result).

Pour the some of the brewed tea into a glass and then pour it back into the pot.
Repeat this process  to make sure the sugar is fully dissolved and then pour out a small glass of tea and taste it.  Add more sugar if required.
Pour the tea into the glasses to only 2/3 full. If poured from on high, the tea will be more aerated and will be topped with a layer of fine bubbles known as r’za (turban in Moroccan Arabic).
This will allow the aroma to develop.

According to tradition, each guest should be offered multiple glasses of tea.

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.

Morocco with Meera 2011

FULLY ACCOMPANIED SPRING TOUR (UP TO 10 PARTICIPANTS)  26 MARCH – 9TH APRIL 2011

Join me from 26th March 2011 for an exclusive and exciting 14 day adventure in the Kingdom of Morocco.
Early spring will have us touring through areas full of wild flowers.
The cherry blossoms will be out in the Atlas mountains and the Seville orange trees will be in full bloom. A magical time to be visiting Morocco.
Download flyer here. If this whets your appetite, Email me for a full itinerary and costing.

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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Saffron

At this time of the year, I am usually in Morocco. I love Autumn in the Maghreb. The date harvest is in full swing as is the olive harvest and the pressing of the new season’s oil. But the absolute highlight for me, is the 2 week saffron picking period. We get up at dawn to drive for the hour or so from Marrakech to the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains. The young girls of the area arrive at about 7am, warmly dressed against the biting cold, to pick the saffron crocus flowers before the sun rises and the flowers open. The girls are all in their teens and supple enough to bend from the waist, plucking the crop and filling their baskets. The bright purple flowers contain just three red stigmas each – the part of the flower that, once sorted and dried, will constitute the most expensive spice in the world!

It takes 140 flowers to yield 1 gram of saffron.

As the flowers are picked, they are transferred to the sorting room where older, more experienced ladies  (no longer able to bend from the waist as easily as their daughters and granddaughters) remove the stigmas from the flowers and send them to the drying room where they will give up their moisture and develop the exquisite flavour and colour that make them such a prized commodity in the culinary world.

True saffron (zaafran horr)  is used in many Moroccan dishes, and is often combined with ground ginger and black pepper, and sometimes a little  cassia bark, in the most lavish of tajines and celebration couscous  preparations.  Those who cannot afford it resort to zaafran roumi (yellow  food colouring powder) to emulate the appearance if not the flavour of these extravagant dishes.

In the saffron growing area of Taliouine in the High Atlas Mountains, I have been lucky enough to have been served saffron tea, brewed with a scant spoonful of green tea leaves, a pinch of saffron and sweetened with pieces of cone sugar!

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