Magical Moroccan recipes take you from the Souks to the Sahara »

Travel through the land of Orange Blossom and Honey with John Gregory-Smith

By Robyn Lewis
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<i>Orange Blossom & Honey</i> by John Gregory-Smith

Orange Blossom & Honey by John Gregory-Smith [©Octopus Publishing Group ]

 

Moroccan food and hospitality is legendary. Situated at the West of the Arabic world, Morocco’s culture is a blend of indigenous Berber, Arab, West African (Maghreb) and European (mainly French and Spanish/Moorish) influences, and its cuisine is considered one of the most diverse in the world, having been fusion food for centuries before the term was invented.

Along with Spain and France, Morocco borders both the Atlantic and Mediterranean seas, which provide abundant fish and seafood. It is also geographically diverse; a large part is mountainous (the famous Atlas Mountains lie in the centre and southwest, and the Rif Mountains in the north) and to southeast lies the Sahara Desert.

With a population of over 33 million packed into an area just over half the size of NSW, 80% of which is not arable, that’s a lot of mouths to feed from a small amount of farmland (not much bigger than Tasmania). Thankfully the coastal plains are fertile, and support 95% of the population, with wheat, citrus, vegetables, herbs, spices and pulses widely grown. Sheep, cattle, goats and chickens provide the main meats, even (or especially) in mountainous areas.

John Gregory-Smith writes: “Ginger, paprika, turmeric and cumin and all produced in Morocco and used in abundance in the country’s cooking. To add more character to special dishes, elaborate spice blends like ras el hanout, chermoula and baharat – a musty mix of ground pepper, clove and cumin – are used. They are bought in the market (souk), ready ground, in small quantities to keep fresh and full of flavour.”

The food of Morocco is far more than you will find in Marrakesh however, or at your local Moroccan restaurant, if you are lucky enough to have one. According to Gregory-Smith “the real food of Morocco is served at home and eaten with friends and family: delicately steamed couscous that’s topped with meat, vegetables and cinnamon-spiced onions; rich Berber tagines; little kefta cooked in thick sauces with egg, savoury, fruity salads, sweet stews and sensational seafood.

Everything is seasonal and made with local ingredients. Flavours such as saffron, powdered ginger, cumin, preserved lemons, honey, olives and orange blossom elevate the everyday into the extraordinary.”

If, like me, you’ve been missing out on this rich diversity, Orange Blossom and Honey is the book for you. Author John Gregory-Smith is a food and travel writer, presenter and chef. He has written three other cookbooks: Turkish Delights, Mighty Spice and Mighty Spice Express, and currently lives in London and travels the world, visiting some of the most far-flung, remote destinations for inspiration. He has a particular interest in North African, Middle Eastern and Eastern Mediterranean food. Sounds like the perfect food explorer for Morocco to me!

His book starts with some food history, quickly moving into street food, which despite what the author says about eating at home, is obviously a big thing. Maybe when you go to the souk for those fresh spices, you can’t help but be tempted by some local takeaways like Noodles and Ox Cheeks; Harissa Beef Msemen (pancakes); Souk Kebabs or Marrakesh Lamb Tangia.

Salads and vegetables follow: some dishes are meaty, like Chicken, Preserved Lemon and Oliver Salad, but most are vegetarian, like Goat’s Cheese and Grapefruit Salad; various mixed vegetable salads with and without couscous; Atlas Mountain Salad with its pomegranate seeds and mint leaves; and a Berber Frittata from the Atlas Mountains for both hungry trekkers and those wanting a different lunch at home.

The meat and poultry section is just as extensive and varied, starting with a knockout fried or grilled chicken recipe D’jaj m’Hamer (which translates as red chicken), and a Chicken and Date Pilaf that is reminiscent of Malaysia’s famed Chicken Rice. Chicken obviously features in Moroccan family celebrations, as several other recipes attest – all look delicious and achievable at home, although the list of spices is extensive. If you are going to get into Moroccan cooking, you’ll need to stock up on spices first!

Gregory-Smith travelled deep into the Atlas mountains to source some of his lamb recipes, including Pulled Lamb Méchoui, adapted to the home kitchen by slow-roasting a lamb shoulder. The Boulfaf (barbecued lamb liver on skewers) is very reminiscent of a Jamaican recipe which I cook quite a lot, and I’ll be keen to try this version. Lamb’s fry takes on a whole new dimension with spices.

There’s even a recipe for left-over roast lamb stuffed in a sort of pizza pocket, called Berber Medfouna, which I’m sure would be a winner with teenagers especially, along with the author’s version of Marrakesh Bazaar Burgers (which use lamb mince).

Lovers of aniseed will enjoy Lamb and Ouzo Chorba, “Morocco’s answer to minestrone”, and for wintry fare there’s Lubia Belkarah, spicy lamb shanks which sound mouth-wateringly excellent.

Beef features in only two recipes: meatballs (Kefta) and Baharat Beef Rice, until you get onto the Tagines section, where there are another two, including an Artichoke and Beef Tagine which I look forward to trying in spring.

The author say that you don’t need a traditional Moroccan tagine to achieve the same results: a slow cooker, a lidded casserole dish or a pressure cooker will work just as well (and the latter saves time and energy). Just make sure you have beautiful serving platters for presenting such dishes as Mrouzia (lamb neck tagine); Berber Lamb Tagine; Quince and Lamb Tagine; Saffron and Lemon Rabbit Tagine; Coastal Calamari Tagine, or what might become my new fave way of cooking trout (or salmon): Middle Atlas Trout Tagine. No more bland and tasteless trout! And for vegetarians there’s Potato Tagine.

I had little idea that Moroccan cuisine was so rich in Seafood, from both the west and northern coasts (obvious when you look at a map, however). Mediterranean influences are strong in recipes like Anchovies in Olive Oil and Tomato; Fouad’s Paprika Prawns; Saffron-scented Monkfish Stew, and Moroccan Paella, and there are many from the Atlantic coast too: Green Harissa Lobster; Fried Atlantic Prawns with Preserved Lemon and Oregano; and Roasted Chermoula Bream with Potatoes and Olives.

They even produce oysters in Morocco, in a town called Oualidia – there are 2 recipes, one for natural dressed with a simple spicy dressing, the other chargrilled with harissa butter. Yum.

Most of the recipes have photos so you can see what you’re aiming at, and there are also some lovely scenic photos, but best of all, shots of some of the characters Gregory-Smith has met and been inspired by along the way.

The book is rounded out with Desserts, including the recipe that inspired its title: Orange Blossom and Honey Cake, which looks like a decadent version of the old classic Orange and Almond Cake, but filled with ricotta and yoghurt, and topped with candied oranges, honeycomb and rose petals. Truly a cake for a sumptuous Moroccan dinner party.

The Pomegranate and Chocolate Cake looks divine, and for sweet-toothed snacks there are Sfenj Doughnuts (drizzled with honey); almond biscuits called Ghoriba; Pomegranate and Rosewater Mille-feuille; Fragrant Figs and Orange; Marrakesh Orange and Dates, and more. Wash all this down with the “welcome drink of Morocco”, Mint Tea.

The book concludes with recipes for various spice mixes including Cumin Salt; Dry Chermoula; Chermoula Paste; and Harissa; Preserved Lemons and lastly a Fig and Lavender Jam, made with the summer glut of figs to bring a touch of sunshine into your winter days.

Overall, this book is an inspiration and has made it into my Top 10 for the year already! I’ll need the spice recipe mixes as I’ll be cooking from it frequently, and if you’re looking for something creative and a bit different in your culinary repertoire, or if you’re already a fan of Moroccan food, I’m sure you will be too.

 

Orange Blossom & Honey by John Gregory-Smith is published by Kyle Books (UK, Sept 2017; hc 192 pp) and is distributed in Australia by Simon & Schuster.

Read the media release here »

It is available at good bookshops (RRP $39.99) and can be purchased online via booko.com.au »

 

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June 20th, 2018
 
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