A few weeks ago Tescos found themselves at the centre of a furious twitter-storm after they put out a Christmas advert which included a Muslim family. For the first time in my life I felt sympathetic towards them. (Well, mildly.) So, here goes.......a Moroccan dish for Christmas time.
In 1958, Zette Guinaudeau, a French woman who had lived in Fez for thirty years, published a cookbook, Fès vue par sa cuisine, which was apparently – difficult to believe – the first book on Moroccan cooking since an anonymous compilation of Maghrebi and Andalusian recipes appeared in Arabic in the twelfth century. ‘The time has come,’ she wrote, ‘to fix the tradition of cooking in Fez before it becomes too Europeanised’, a wonderfully ambiguous task for a French person to undertake. One suspects she considered herself an honorary Arab.
Now re-published in English as Traditional Moroccan Cooking, it’s a fascinating, lively, sometimes unintentionally hilarious book. Guinaudeau conjures up the cooking and eating habits of a wide cross-section of Fez society, from poor homes in the medina to the palaces of aristocratic families. The recipes are subtle, sophisticated, often hugely time-consuming. There’s a mouth-watering recipe for El Majoun, a mixture of nuts, fruit, honey, spices and hashish; and an eye-watering one for Mechoui, barbecued mutton: ‘Plunge the knife into the carotid artery and let the blood spurt out to the last drop. Wash the gash in the throat seven times.... Give the tripe to the women, who will scrape, rinse and put it to dry.’ Oh, they will, will they? And there are sentences which have to be read with great care: ‘Kdras are tagines cooked in smen.’
One of the most alluring dishes in the book is Bstila (pronounced pastilla – so why spell it bstila? whatever…), a celebratory pie which Guinaudeau describes as ‘the most perfect dish in the traditional cooking of Fez, simultaneously sweet and peppery, soft and violent.’ Her recipe is for fifteen people, and involves using a whopping kilo and a half of butter and two kilos of flour to make a hundred and four sheets of ouarqa pastry. The main ingredient is pigeons, and it takes a whole day to cook. Time to Europeanise. To modernise, you might say. To bastardise, you might say.
The total cooking time is about three hours, which is, well, less than a day.
Serve with olives (black or green), and a cucumber and mint salad.
You can make this dish very successfully with leftover turkey and turkey stock. Omit the chicken (obvs), bay leaves and onion. Instead you’ll need 650g leftover turkey and 200 ml turkey stock. This reduces the overall cooking time to a trim couple of hours.
A chicken, weighing about 1.5 kg
2 bay leaves
1 onion, peeled and halved
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 generous tsp cardamon seeds
2 tsp coriander seeds
120g dried apricots, chopped
40g preserved lemon, peel only, chopped finely
30g fresh ginger, chopped finely
1 generous pinch saffron threads
salt and pepper
120g blanched almonds
50g caster sugar
1 generous tsp ground cinnamon
12 sheets filo pastry
125g butter, melted
an egg yolk, extra sugar and cinnamon
Put the chicken in a saucepan, add the bay leaves and the onion, cover with water, bring to the boil and simmer gently for a hour. Remove the chicken, take the meat off the bones and chop it into small chunks. Discard the bay leaves and the onion, and reduce the stock by half.
Heat the oven to 180°C.
Dry-fry the cumin seeds for a minute or so, and grind them up with the cardamon and coriander. Mix with the chicken, apricots, preserved lemon and ginger.
Beat the eggs, mix with 200ml of the stock, add the saffron, season with salt and pepper, and cook gently in a saucepan for about five minutes, whisking continuously, until lightly set, like loose scrambled egg.
Spread the almonds onto a large baking tray and roast for about 20 minutes until light brown. Keep an eye on them – they can easily burn. Chop up, and mix with the sugar and cinnamon. (The presence of the sugar seems weird, unprincipled, and unmodern, but keep the faith. Remember – sweetness and violence.)
Choose a shallow baking tray about 800 sq. cm., preferably circular, about 32cm diameter (a classic Bstila is circular), but otherwise square or rectangular. The ideal is one of those pizza trays with holes in it – no Soggy Bottom….
Brush the tray with melted butter. Lay out a sheet of filo pastry, brush melted butter on to it, lay out another sheet on top, overlapping the sheets so that they not only cover the bottom but crawl up the sides of the tray. After six sheets, put in first the almond mixture, spreading it out evenly, then the turkey mixture, then the egg mixture. Then six more sheets, overlapping as before, buttered. Tuck the edges under the pie, as if you were making a bed.
Paint the top of the pie with beaten egg yolk, sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon.
Bake for 40 minutes. Slide out on to a serving plate.
Guinaudeau opens her book with a description of a visit to an aristocratic home where she is served a meal which she refers to as a ‘simple reception’. It begins with Bstila and moves through Choua (‘rather insipid steamed mutton...which rests the palate...’), Chicken with almonds, a Turkey Ma’amrra stuffed with a Qamama Tagine, a Couscous (‘to subdue our hunger’), sweet steamed semolina and fruit. There is, apparently, little conversation – that would ‘spoil the pleasure and appreciation of each dish’. Nothing is drunk – ‘it is not seemly to offer water’.
Good news – you may serve Bstila on its own. And you may talk. And drink. And, if you insist, be merry.
Words by Orlando Gough. Image by www.whitbitkitchen.com