I have never been to Marrakech. Never weaved my way through the souk, inhaling the scent of fresh spices heaped in colourful pyramids, never seen the glistening olives piled high alongside vats of pickled lemons.
These experiences are yet to be savoured, but the cuisine of Morocco is very much alive in my kitchen. I have a long time love affair with pickled lemons and, thanks to the Belazu range of imported foods, have never run short of these citrus delights nor of their heavenly tiny jars of rose harissa. Tagines and couscous are staple dishes in my family’s repertoire and frequently find themselves taking pride of place at the dining table. So it was no surprise that when discussion began on how to feed the 70 guests attending my son’s coming-of-age celebration, Moroccan food was a popular choice.
For months I experimented with tagines of beef, lamb, fish and fowl. We tasted and debated until my son cried out ‘please mum, no more tagines!. By then I had found my favourite with which I hoped to please the crowds.
In my search for the best ingredients for this feast I revisited an old favourite haunt that I had neglected for years. Before we became parents, my husband and I were regular visitors to Golborne Road, a street in West London adjacent to the more famous Portabello Road.
Like an old long lost friend, Golborne Road sat waiting without recrimination, looking much the same if perhaps slightly older.
It is home to a number of Moroccan shops, halal butcheries where lamb hearts lie dormant alongside merguez sausage, and bakeries filled with delicate almond cookies and baklava.
These are shops in which can be found authentic Moroccan groceries as well as people with whom to discuss the virtues of different sizes of couscous, the strength of the harissa, the provenance of the argan oil. These are places to indulge the senses and to dream of meals to come.
Shop fronts are adorned with tagines of all sizes and jewel-coloured plates with intricate patterns.
Venture inside and you will find huge containers of fresh harissa, pickled lemons and olives, shelves filled with umpteen varieties of couscous, rose water, orange water, gloriously pungent pomegranate molasses and the finest pistachio halwa.
Arrive at lunchtime and you will be drawn to the food stalls serving tagines of chicken or fish, grilled sea bass, prawns or calamari served with huge helpings of chips, rice and salads.
You eat perched on a plastic bucket with a plastic fork and roll-a-towel as a napkin. You are transported to a sunnier climate at least for a while. This is seriously no-frills eating and all the more fun for that.
After lunch we made our purchases and staggered home with 10kg of couscous and all manner of ingredients with which to prepare the feast.
Over several days the kitchen was transformed into a Moroccan oasis with tagines bubbling slowly, mezze evolving from towering piles of vegetables, and tummies rumbling. At last the big night arrived and, in a marquee transformed into a Moroccan interior, 70 guests sat down to dinner.
Moroccan Magic Menu began with four mezze served with piles of Lafah, an Iraqi pitta which is round, flat and slightly chewy, excellent for mopping up sauces. Find yourself an Iraqi bakery if you can or use another kind of flatbread. The mezze selection included beetroot tahini with mint, chickpea salad with pomegranate, carrot puree with caraway, mint and feta and, finally, za’alouk – a spicy aubergine, tomato and garlic salad (see Recipes).
The main course revealed the long awaited lamb tagine (see Recipes) and a vegetarian offering served in large decorative tagines of emerald green, mustard yellow and deep blue.
Alongside were large platters of couscous and date salad adorned with jewel-like colours of green pistachios and red pomegranate seeds twinkling in the candlelight.
Dessert offered a choice of pistachio or walnut baklava – bought in from a truly fabulous Turkish bakery, Lebanese pistachio halwa and fresh Iranian dates.
Our taste buds were transported as were our spirits for a few brief hours. It made me so grateful for living in a multicultural city where the world’s cuisines are on the doorstep, and one can, when necessary, travel so far without leaving home.
The Arabian Nights by Madeleine Morrow, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.