Friday, 28 December 2007

French Chocolate Macaroons!

I've long loved French macaroons with their crispy shell, gooey interior and flavoursome filling - and indulged in quite a few during our fortnight in France a couple of months ago.

During that trip I purchased not one but two recipe books dedicated to the macaroon.

I've been planning to make some over the Christmas break and Pete and I finally made these beauties yesterday!

We're rather pleased with them!

The macaroon biscuits are much paler than those in the recipe book because I decided not to add food colouring, which appears in pretty much every recipe I've come across. And they are a touch flatter than those in the books, though only a little. I assume their mixture is a touch less liquid than ours was and so allows one to make slightly taller circles of goo on the baking sheet.

But the taste and texture is just perfect - had I bought these from a shop in France I'd not have been disappointed!!!

(And YES that photo really is of the ones we made!)


Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Restaurant Review: Moti Mahal, London

Friday night one of my best friends treated me to dinner as her Christmas gift to me. We went to Moti Mahal in Great Queen Street (between Holborn and Covent Garden tube stations).

Last year we went to Zaika for Christmas and we’d been planning to visit Benares this year. My friend lives in Canada and we meet about once every six weeks, when she’s in London for work. Last night’s date was made at the last minute as she thought she’d still be at a client’s site in South Africa but her plans changed last minute. Unfortunately, a few hours notice for a table in Benares (on a busy Friday night) was unlikely (though I did phone and check just in case) so instead I booked us a table at Moti Mahal, 45 Great Queen Street, between Covent Garden and Holborn.

Having eaten a few times at a Moti Mahal restaurant in Delhi (when visiting family) I had been keen to try one of the London branches for some time. Moti Mahal is quite a Delhi institution. I expected the same as what I’d experienced in Delhi – familiar annd tasty dishes cooked very well at reasonable prices. Apparently, although the other London branches are more along the lines of an above-average curry house, the one we visited was something else entirely.

The food was absolutely fabulous. Really, really good! And far more refined and elegant than standard curry house fare.

After cocktails we were served an amuse bouche of carrot and celery soup in miniature white mugs. On top of each mug was balanced a dinky disk of pastry with a chutney or vegetable compote on top. Luckily I couldn’t taste the celery so enjoyed the thick, carroty soup.

For starters we shared:

Sagar Rattan - Scallops seared with onion seed and coriander stem, tamarind glaze, pan fried Devon crab cakes

The scallops were meltingly soft, coated in an unctuous brown sauce that complimented without overwhelming their flavour. The tiny crab cakes were rimmed with a ribbon of aubergine peel and full of flavour.

Barra Peshawari - Tandoor roasted lamb chops with kashmiri chillies, cumin mash, spiced puy lentil salsa

The lamb was beautifully flavoured and very soft. A touch too hot for my wussy preferences but still delicious.

For our mains we shared:

Khyberi Nalli - Braised lamb shanks glazed in the tandoor, tomato and green pea upma, orange and mustard cress salad

I don’t think I’ve ever had a lamb shank with such tender, meltingly soft, beautifully flavoured lamb. The meat quite literally fell off the bone and the spices were subtle enough to let the flavour of the lamb shine. I even sucked the marrow out of the bone end – lamb marrow is one of my very favourite things! We both thought this dish was a highlight.

Paneer Akhrot ka Salan - Paneer, walnuts and peppers simmered in Hyderabadi ‘Salan’ sauce

The paneer and sauce were very nice though without the wow factor of the other courses and I wasn’t as keen as I hoped on the walnuts in the dish.

Crab Pepper Fry - Crisp-fried spiced soft-shell crab, shrimps, red onion, green mango and ginger

Wow, this was spectacular! Tender crab within a soft crunchy shell that itself was encased in a thin but spicy batter and then deep fried. Even with the strong spices the crab was still part of the whole. Served with king prawns and other vegetables, we cut it down the middle and had half each. I’d only had soft shell crab in oriental cuisines before. This Indian version was fabulous and another of the evening’s highlights.

With our mains we had a saffron pulao rice and a plain naan, both good.

Greedy as ever, we made room for desserts:

Custard apple kulfi, summer berry soup

A nice variation, was delicious though I couldn’t discern the custard apple flavour I did enjoy the bite of pistachio nuts within the kulfi. The soup was more of a sauce in which the tower of kulfi was stood and was nice enough.

Christmas pudding, whisky ice-cream

My friend seemed to enjoy this dessert. No Indianisation applied to it.

The bill before cocktails, wine and tip was about £85.

Both of us had really enjoyed our 9 course degustation menu at Zaika last year, though we’d agreed that the starter dishes were far better than the main course dishes there. We both agreed that we had enjoyed the majority of the dishes at Moti Mahal more.


Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Gorvett & Stone Fresh Mint Truffles

I may have mentioned previously that I bought two lots of posh chocolates at the Cheese Festival (yes I do know that chocolate isn't cheese) from producers called Gorvett & Stone and Chococo.

Well, I have to say that Gorvett & Stone's mint truffles are the most incredible combination of mint and chocolate that I've ever tasted. Somehow, they don't taste like dried mint which is the flavour in every other mint drink or food I've ever had, but like fresh mint picked minutes ago from the garden. Incredible!

Not cheap but if you're wanting to be extravagant check out their site: Gorvett & Stone


Monday, 1 October 2007

A rather lovely birthday weekend full of food and friends!

On Friday we started the weekend off as we meant to continue by going for lunch to OrientalCity (roast duck, char sui buns and pork dumplings) before heading for our lovely hotel in Burford, Burford Lodge.

After settling in, we had a walk down through Burford which wasn't as pleasant as it sounds in the rain. Sadly, quite a few shops shut earlier than theirposted times because of the weather and lack of visitors. Anyway, in the shops that were open I bought myself a rather lovely flashing rubber ducky for the bath (pale blue with little flowers on it but flashed through pink, purple and blue) and also some traditional sweets (cola pips, parma voilets etc) and posh violet cream chocolates from Hamiltons sweet shop.

We had dinner at the hotel that evening; highlights were my starter whichwas a mushroom and stilton tartlet with crumble topping and my dessert which was a belgian milk chocolate fountain with fruit, marshmallows and profiteroles to dunk under the chocolate! I like the fruit best so it was healthier than it could have been but only marginally!

Saturday morning started with a wonderful breakfast of fresh fruit (I dunked mine in the chocolate fountain again), juice, tea and coffee, yoghurt, toast and a full cooked breakfast including delicious Clonakilty black pudding. We didn’t have room for the cereal and muffins also available.

After breakfast we stopped in Burford again so I could buy some decorations in the Christmas decorations shop (I’d shopped in there a few years back but had resisted buying myself the same hippo ornament I’d bought for a friend. I rectified this by buying said hippo plus matching elephant).

We also browsed the little church flea market running for the day. Bought a fabulous coffee table photo book on African wildlife (yes, another one), some little owl ornaments for Pete's mum and (don't ask) a 1972 copy of Chairman Mao's little red book. I wanted it from the history buff perspective and Pete thought it might prove useful when debating politics with a right-wing American who has a tendency to refer to Pete as a communist. He figures that if he's going to get called one (although he's not) he may as well drop in the occasional quote here and there!

So after this we went off to the cheese festival in Millets Farm Shop in Frilford. We arrived at about 11.30 am. I tasted lots and lots and lots of goodies, not just cheese. Bought some pear and ginger jelly, some mint chocolate from a posh chocolate stall and lots more chocolate from another posh chocolate stall (which came with a rather fantastic fuschia pink bag).

We’d arranged to meet an online friend and he and his Mrs found us at the special Blue Cheese tasting session which we all enjoyed. Just as well they found us as I thought it might be quite fun to wander through the queue asking plaintively “Are you my friend?” but Pete vetoed that!

After that session a good friend of ours (from uni days) arrived and the three of us pootled around together through the various food and drink tents. Enjoyed a hog roast roll with apple sauce and crackling. Bought some cheese and some sausages. Resisted many more cheeses (as we’re going away soon and there's a limit to how many cheeses even we two cheese fiends can eat). Oh and we tried some divine ginger wine and ginger cream liqueur but resisted buying as we've so many bottles of liqueurs in the cupboards at home. Ooh and tried some stilton flavoured ice-cream, which was odd, so bought a scoop/ cone of the pistachio instead!

After exhausting the stalls at the festival we visited the Farm Shop and bought a number of things including two fabulous elephant shaped tea tins by Williams, one pink ele and one grey ele.I lLove them! And some delicious bottled apple and pear juice. Definitely building up the Birthday present count by purchasing bit by bit!

That evening we had wonderful company for dinner in a nearby pub with the online friend and his wife from earlier, another friend from the same board (who I’d metbefore) plus her daughter (who IS, we discovered, my twin when it comes to our tastes infood, our determination never to iron or to waste too much time tidying and our propensity to accidentally break our toes), plus their family friend who turned out to be someone I knew – we’d both been on a fantastic trip to Kenya in 2004, plus our friend Dave as well. A lovely evening.

Next morning was my birthday! Woke in the hotel and enjoyed another fabulous breakfast (including more fruit kebabs coated under the chocolate fountain) not to mention the yoghurt, toast and cooked breakfast. Spoke to my sister on the phone (she’s on holiday in Croatia) and exchanged birthday greetings. Plus opened cards including one from the hotel owner/ manager, which was an unexpected touch!

On leaving the hotel this morning we had planned to stop at the Burford Garden centre very close by but it wasn’t open yet so instead we returned to Millets Farm to visit the garden centre there as we hadn’t had energy the previous day. They had a fantastic selection of Christmas ornaments so I purchased some gorgeous ones for myself and sister, ignoring the fact that she doesn’t actually have a Christmas tree most years and I've already got too many ornaments for ours"

We decided to take the slow roads home and came across signs for a car boot sale which we entered as the stall holders were calling it a day. I was quite pleased to pick up two boxed 1970s raclette sets for £1!

Then on to Henley where we asked to see one of the large rooms in the Hotel du Vin (for a future visit), pootled around the farmers market and had tapas for lunch at La Bodega.

After all this I had to take a short nap on getting home, before a brief surf online to pick up birthday emails before heading out for dinner (with more friends) at our very favourite restaurant, La Lotta (Italian). Not only did they have a Happy Birthday banner stuck to the wall behind "my" table, they also gave me a card - which happened to feature my very favourite bird in the world on it - a row of little bee eaters on a branch. I asked how they knew I loved that particular bird and the manager said they didn’t but the photograph reminded him of the kind of photographs I take! Also, they gave us a cake he'd baked specially, liqueurs on the house (which they do quite often) AND a bottle of nice wine as we left, as a gift!

It was lovely to see our friends (who spoiled me with more presents) and was the perfect ending to a rather perfect weekend!


Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Blackberry Picking!

On Sunday Pete and I went blackberry picking with a friend, who we were visiting for the weekend. We started out near her house where she'd noticed some brambles ripe for the picking and whilst we were there a kind neighbour recommended some other locations slightly further afield which we drove to afterwards.

There's something very fulfilling about enjoying the autumn sunshine, gathering traditional fruits from the side of country lanes, chatting to walkers rambling past...

We gathered three full ice-cream tubs (not to mention the mouthfuls I crammed whilst picking), some of which went into a crumble for dessert on Sunday (I had mine plain with artificial sweetener) leaving plenty for our hosts plus a tub for us to bring home as well.



Thursday, 6 September 2007

The Soda Bread Diaries

Having enjoyed the soda bread my friend made for a picnic in her garden recently, she sent me the recipe. It's published in a book called The Baker's Tale by Catherine Brown but is credited to James Burgess.

The first time I made this soda bread (last Wednesday) I followed the recipe exactly and the bread was just gorgeous.

The second time I made it (on Saturday) I accidentally added a touch too much buttermilk which made the dough too sticky to shape easily but texture and taste were still fine.

Third time, tonight, I added two "heaped" teaspoons of treacle, reduced the volume of buttermilk (adding a little at a time until all the flour and oatmeal were absorbed into a dough without it getting too sticky). Formed ball, flattened it, criss crossed the surface and baked for the normal 20 minutes.

Came out really, really well. The treacle made it only slightly darker in colour (so still not sure quite what went into the really dark brown stuff we encountered in County Cork last month) but definitely added a subtle depth of flavour.

Recipe (method re-written by me)

175g (6oz) wholemeal flour
75g (3oz) strong white flour
25g (1 oz) medium oatmeal
half teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
half teaspoon salt
300ml (10 fl oz) buttermilk* (I buy a 284 ml pot and don't quite use all of it).

*Apparently, if you can't get buttermilk you can use milk soured with the juice of a lemon.

Measure all dry ingredients into a mixing bowl.

Add the buttermilk a little at a time and mix into flour/oatmeal with hands to form a soft dough.

Take care not to add too much or dough will become very sticky.

No need to knead dough or leave it to rise/prove etc.

Shape dough into ball then flatten into a circle about an inch deep.

I've taken to slicing parallel lines across the top with a sharp knife at two angles to form diamonds. Not traditional for soda bread but I like it more than the more traditional quartering.

Bake for 20 minutes in pre-heated oven at 210 (fan assisted) or 230 (non-fan). (If you don't like a very slightly moist and dense bread, which I do, leave it in a couple of minutes longer).

Check it's done by tapping bottom - should be a firm crust and a slightly dull thwack form inside.

Leave to cool for as long as you can stand it - I didn't last 4 minutes tonight!


Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Restaurant Reviews: County Cork

We got back on Sunday from a week in County Cork with friends...

Dinty's in Union Hall
A tiny, simply decorated, casual pub restaurant on the harbour in tiny Union Hall, the setting belies the excellence of the food. On the first night several of us had deep fried brie as a starter - two tranches per serving, each one the size one would normally buy for a cheese board, about 6 inches long and utterly delicious. The other half of us had crab claws in garlic butter served with brown soda bread. So good I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. For mains two of us had the smaller seafood platter each - so large I couldn't finish even half and had some of the leftovers for dinner another night - my plate was piled high with a huge mound of fresh crab meat, a pile of succulent king prawns, another of crab claws, 3 smoked mackerel pieces, 2 hot smoked salmon pieces, a mound of regular smoked salmon, several pieces of regular cooked salmon fillets... Others had the fish pie, the very tender and generous sirloin steak and the breadcrumbed plaice - a serving of 4 large fillets - 1 alone a normal perhaps slightly small serving, 2 a generous main meal, 3 already excessive and 4 too big even for 2 to share! With (limited) drinks, the bill was less than 35 Euros per person and well worth it. We went a second night and many of the same dishes were enjoyed as well as a generous chicken wing starter, some tasty breaded mushrooms and a T-bone steak (though second time around, we knew to share some of the dishes as they were just too large)!

Max's Wine Bar in Kinsale
Recommended by someone on the BBC Food Chat board, this was a very elegant and adult place, the opposite in decor and style of food to Dinty's. Four of us enjoyed a fantastic lunch there. The brown soda bread was as good as that at Dinty's. My dublin bay prawn salad very tasty (though I did pick the celery out), my foie gras (second starter instead of main) the equal of any I've had in France, freshly sauted, served with a port or sherry sauce on a small bed of tagliatelle. The saffron monkfish special one friend had was beautifully cooked and presented. The omelette and saute potatoes Pete chose were also very well executed as was the creamy chicken pasta chosen by our other friend . The chocolate orange gateaux (we ordered two between us) oozed hot liquid centres which went well with the vanilla ice-cream. The cheese plate was delicious too. With wine the bill was only just over 30 Euros per person. Oh and for those who like dessert wine, the taster glasses are plenty big enough - you won't need the full glasses, as we're glad the waitress advised us. Fantastic meal, would go back in a heartbeat.

We also ate well elsewhere in County Cork enjoying simple home-made lasagnes, a delicious crab mornay, gubeen cheese crumbed and fried, seafood chowder, sandwiches, ice-cream and snacks in various cafes, pubs and restaurants.


Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Our first harvest of home-grown potatoes!

On Sunday Pete harvested the first of our home-grown potatoes from our back garden "allotment" - a variety called Edzell Blues! Of the 10 plants he's grown he harvested the potatoes from just 2 of them which came to a little over 2 kilos. Apparently our yields would have been even higher if he'd earthed them up or something...

Sadly, the colour (which I think is more of a bright purple than a blue) fades almost completely on cooking. But we've enjoyed the potatoes for the last few nights. Tonight Pete roasted them in stock (no oil or butter) and they were even more lovely.


Monday, 2 July 2007

Restaurant Review: Rasa (South Indian) restaurant, London

Tonight I met a friend for dinner at Rasa, a South Indian restaurant in London. Apparently they have 8 branches - the one we went to is in Dering Street between Oxford Circus and Bond Street tube stations.

Neither of us familiar with South Indian dishes we went for their "feast" set menus, one vegetarian and one "vadakkan" (meat) one.

First came a selection of pre-starter snacks:-
* Achappam - my favourite, a flower shaped snack wth a very slightly sweet taste, made of rice flour, coconut, black sesame and cumin seeds.
* Pappadavadai - pappadoms dipped in a light rice flour batter with seeds and fried, for added crunch
* Pappadoms
* Banana chips
* Murukku - crunchy little sticks made from roasted rice flour and seeds

These came with various pickles and chutneys (6 in total).

My starters were
* Chicken samosa - different blend of spices to those I'm familiar with
* Lamb puff - like mum's Indian sausage rolls, very nice
* Parippu - a 3 lentil soup
* 2 chutneys

My friend was given the same soup plus
* Banana boli - a battered plantain thing
* Rathrikka - a battered aubergine thing
* 2 chutneys

For my mains I had
* Thalassery Chicken Massala - a fairly familiar chicken curry dish
* Calicut Chicken Kurma - nothing like the korma I'm familiar with, this was coconuty and had cashew nuts as well - a wonderful flavour
* Malabar Erachi Chaaru - a lamb curry not disimilar from Norther Indian ones

My friend was given:
* Moru Kahiathu - sweet mangoes and green bananas in a yoghurt sauce - the only dish she didn't like
* Rasa Kayi - mixed vegetable dish
* Cheera Parippu Curry - lentil and spinach curry
* Savoy Cabbage - a stir fried cabbage dish

Plus we had a shared dish of spicy potatoes, lemon rice, paratha bread and some Uzhunappam (rice flour bread).

And as if we weren't full enough already the feast finished with some Pal Payasam - a rice pudding with raisins and cashew nuts.

Very nice food, good service, nice little restaurant. Only minus is that looos are 2 floors up!

Total bill (2 red wines, 1 lassi and tap water) came to £59.50 including their service charge!


Thursday, 17 May 2007

Jellyfish, Tripe and Turnip Cake!

Today I went to a fun GTG of folks from the BBC Food Chat board. We met for lunch at Crispy Duck on Gerrard Street in China Town and shared a huge array of dim sum. Many dishes were familiar favourites (scallop dumplings, prawn dumplings, pork dumplings, thai octopus, turnip cake, sticky rice parcels and more) but I also tried some new dishes including jellyfish, served cold, sliced with cucumbers, a little like bang bang chicken and tripe, served, well just in gelatinous little strips.

I was surprised to enjoy both, especially the jellyfish. I hadn't expected to like the tripe given the sheer number of people who find it disgusting. It's still not something I'd necessarily choose to order but I'd happily eat it again.

I really like being able to try something new... I think it's good to expose myself to something different alongside all the firm favourites.



Sunday, 6 May 2007

Mini Restaurant Review: Al Shami (Lebanese), Oxford

On Saturday Pete and I visited Oxford to attend a BBC Food Chat board GTG in Lebanese restaurant Al-Shami.

We had a very nice meal indeed. I always forget how prices are so much less outside London.

For £15 a head (group of 9) we were served a fantastic mix of cold and hot starters (9 different ones plus bread and they took care to duplicate each one at both ends of the table). Starters included hummus, crunchy falafel, grilled chicken wings, pastries filled with a bitter green leaf, little lamb kebabs, deep fried cauliflower, a cold haricot bean and tomato sauce dish, some pale green beans and a lovely leafy tabbouleh. After those we had a nice selection of mains such as lamb and chicken pieces grilled on a skewer, lamb kebabs, a lovely mixed vegetable dish and some more that I can't remember served with two rice dishes and more bread. The cover charge of £1 per person covered the large serving of un-dressed fresh, raw salad vegetables that came out pre-starter - a refreshing start actually. Drinks, desserts and dark, cardamom-infused coffee were extra but the bill was still very reasonable indeed.

For those in Oxford craving Lebanese (a lot in common with Turkish and most Middle Eastern cuisines) I'd recommend this place.


Wednesday, 2 May 2007

What did I eat on holiday?

We recently returned from a 5 day holiday (3 nights in Bruges and 1 in France) that I'd organised as a GTG for members of an online photography community.

In just a few days I put on 1.5 kilos! How?

* Belgian shrimp croquettes (coated in breadcrumbs and deep-fried)
* A fabulous shrimp starter in a creamy sauce
* Ostrich in a rich, cream and boursin sauce
* A huge waffle smothered in fresh strawbs, chocolate sauce and whipped cream
* A fabulous breakfast (3 times) of smoked fish, cheese, cold meats, fresh fruit, tinned fruit and boiled eggs, fruit juice. No carbs but fairly calorie heavy anyway!
* A croque madame (toasted ham and cheese sandwich topped with a fried egg) and frites
* A thick banana milkshake
* A thick chocolate milkshake
* Several full fat coca-colas over the course of the trip
* Some Belgian fruit drinks branded Looza
* Another starter of shrimps in creamy sauce
* Flemish beef stew with frites and apple compote
* Ice-cream filled profiteroles with chocolate sauce and whipped cream
* Steak and frites
* Another waffle with strawberries, chocolate sauce and whipped cream
* A starter of smoked salmon with toast
* The best spare ribs I've ever eaten in my entire life with a few frites on the side
* Chocolate mousse, ice-cream, raspberry sauce, chocolate sauce and whipped cream
* Mussels in garlic butter and bread with butter
* Foie gras with brioche and a fruity compote
* A glass of Sauternes dessert wine
* Scallops in puff pastry with creamy sauce
* Duck breast with cooked fruits and gravy
* Cheese
* Dessert
* Another breakfast consisting of croissant, bread (with butter and jam) and pains au chocolat
* Some belgian chocolates (though actually not very many)
* Some raspberry jelly suits called Cuberdons/ Noses
* A lunch of cheese-filled pasta with mixed cheese sauce
* Probably some other stuff that I've missed out!!!



Tuesday, 2 January 2007

Restaurant Reviews: Marrakech, Morocco

We certainly ate well during our stay in Marrakech.
Read my reviews of Chez Chegrouni, Brasserie Orientale Le Tanjia, Café Arabe, Le Tobsil and Dar Moha.

Chez Chegrouni (inexpensive) is one of the grand dames of the Place Jemaa El Fna and, in common with the others, has dining on the ground floor as well as on two terraces overlooking the square. Popular with locals and tourists alike so arrive early whether it’s for lunch or dinner. Since the Place is definitely worth keeping an eye on it’s worth waiting for one of the tables with a view. The menu (in both French and English) features the standard selections of soups, tagines, couscous dishes and grilled meats and does include some vegetarian options. Order by writing down what you want on a paper napkin - this is taken away to the kitchen but will be returned to you as your bill at the end of your meal. Main dishes are between 30 and 50 dirhams. That price gets you a reasonable portion of tagine (well-flavoured and the long, slow cooking renders the meats tender too) but the grilled meat dishes are a little on the small side.

Brasserie Orientale Le Tanjia (mid-priced) was recommended to us by our hotel receptionist when the restaurant we wanted to book was already full. Located on Derb J’did (near the Bahia Palace) Le Tanjia is much more special on the inside than it’s exterior might suggest and don’t let it’s name fool you – it’s Moroccan, not Oriental, cuisine that it serves. The décor is sumptious Moroccan with a modern twist, the tables are well spaced out and the staff are welcoming, attentive and helpful. All our dishes were very good from the pigeon pastilla starter to the fish pastilla my mum had for her main to the lamb tagine I had for mine. Pete was a real fan of his honey chicken tagine which was right up his alley and worked very well. Most special of all was the restaurant’s special mechoui lamb (available for a minimum of two people only so my dad and sister shared) which was moist, tender and beautifully flavoured. Red wine drinkers were also keen on the Domaine de Sahari special reserve (which they’d been introduced to in back at the riad). All in all a lovely meal in beautiful surroundings. I’d have loved to have found time to return for lunch one day as the manager mentioned that it was usually served on their roof terrace but it leaves me something to look forward to next time.

Café Arabe (mid-priced) is a funky and casual café and restaurant based to the North West corner of the souks which themselves are north of the Place Jemaa El Fna. My guide book recommended it as one of very few options for a break within the souk area and Pete, my dad and I stopped for coffee during our walk from the tanneries back to the main square. We returned the next day for lunch with my sister and mum too and enjoyed our meal at an outdoor table in the lovely ground floor courtyard. The Café is deceptively spacious as the courtyard is flanked by two internal dining areas plus terraces on higher floors too. What’s different here is that the menu offers a mix of Moroccan and Italian dishes which can make a nice change after one too many tagines! The complimentary nibbles served were delicious and were generously refilled a couple of times. My dad and I enjoyed lamb chops crusted with mustard and breadcrumbs, down as roast lamb in the menu. Very nice. My sister had some grilled chicken skewers. Mum had another vegetarian tagine and Pete had an unusual tagine with meatballs in a tomatoey sauce and an egg broken into the dish and baked in situ. We all enjoyed the meals and I’d definitely recommend the Café Arabe not just for a pitstop if passing but as worthy of a special visit in itself.

Le Tobsil (expensive) is one of the very top restaurants in Marrakech and has a reputation to match. I found recommendations not only in my guidebook but on several online guide books and travel sites too. Oddly enough given the islamic nature of the country, Christmas day is a very busy one in Marrakech, full as it is of so many European travellers escaping another same-old same-old Christmas at home so it’s lucky that I had prebooked a table at Le Tobsil for dinner on Christmas Day evening about a week before leaving home. Our taxis dropped us off at an anonymous looking archway where we were met by a gentleman from the restaurant who led us through a maze of narrow alleys to the restaurant door in Derb Abdellah Ben Hessaien. A team of men wait in the archway to do just that and then return to the restaurant so they they can do the same on one’s departure! Greeted at the door by the owner Christine Rio we were shown to a table on the ground floor directly next to the gnawa musicians but were offered a choice between this one and another upstairs. We stuck with the ground floor and enjoyed being able to watch the musicians at close quarters – infact they even let my mum and I try one of their instruments. The décor of the restaurant was beautiful and luxurious and with rich fabrics, lovely lighting and rose petals strewn over the tables. A sprig of holly was added too. Our waiter explained that Le Tobsil offer a set menu only (which I already knew) and I confirmed the note I’d made on booking that one of our party was a partial vegetarian and ate fish or vegetables only. Not a problem. I hadn’t realised that aperitifs and wine were included, though we didn’t order any aperitifs, they did keep the wine flowing and wine drinkers said it was a pleasant one. First came a huge array of what I usually call meze dishes but which were introduced as a “salade marocaine”. These were all vegetarian and we were given some lovely bread to have with them. The first ones to come were all cold but soon after that a selection of hot options arrived, all but one also vegetarian. I sensibly limited myself to very little bread as the next course was a wonderfully flavoured chicken tagine. This was followed by a lamb tagine served with delicious vegetable couscous (and gravy). All very tasty. Next came dessert – wonderfully sweet and soft poached pears. Just when we thought we were all done we were given another dessert, a delicious orangey cake which none of us could manage more than a bite of two of. After tea (for those of us who had space) we gave them a number to call a taxi for us and one of their guides showed us back to the collection point where our taxi soon arrived. The set menu was priced at 600 dirhams per person but do note that this includes aperitif, wine, a true feast (where more of any course is offered to those who have the appetite) as well as tea and coffee. We felt it was good value.

Dar Moha (expensive) is another of the top restaurants in Marrakech, indeed many feel it’s Marrakech’s finest restaurant beating vaunted leaders such as Yacout. As such, it’s advisable to reserve a table in advance, especially on Fridays and Saturdays and during peak periods. In a city of beautifully restored riads, the setting too is more stunning than many others - once a royal palace and more lately the home of designer Pierre Balmain, dining tables are scattered throughout many interconnected rooms and those around the pool are most sought after during warmer months. The cuisine itself is innovative – traditional Moroccan dishes given a nouvelle twist by chef Mohamed who lived and worked for many years in Switzerland. As at Le Tobsil there is a set price for all diners but here diners are offered a choice for several of the courses and drinks are chosen from an a la carte wine and drinks list. The salade marocaine selection wowed me immediately. I couldn’t believe how much flavour the chef had packed into this array of tiny dishes such as sweet pumpkin puree, grilled aubergine slices wrapped around sticky dates, sweet shredded cucumber, red onion paste, a thick red pepper sauce and many more which I no longer recall. As well as all these cold dishes we were brought a selection of hot appetisers too such as little filo-pastry wrapped or breadcrumbed meat, fish, cheese and vegetables. After that fabulous start we moved on to the pastillas enjoying between us traditional pigeon, vegetarian (with a tomato sauce served alongside) and white fish versions between us. Having already enjoyed a couple of pastillas elsewhere we agreed that these were again a step above the competition. Most of us went for the beef fillet tagine, with one of us opting for the vegetarian one – they were served with two generous dishes of couscous and vegetables. All of us enjoyed our choices immensely. For dessert we enjoyed fancy apple and pastry concoctions called chakhchouka, subtle and refreshing fruit sorbets served in hand made biscuit boats and some freshly sliced and lightly marinated orange served with a mildly flavoured syrup. Service throughout was excellent and again we felt the experience was good value at around the same total price as Le Tobsil.


An Introduction to Moroccan Food

Influences & Ingredients

During Morocco's long history many, many different visitors, invaders and settlers have influenced it’s cuisine which is, today, a mix of Berber, Moorish, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and African cooking. The other major influence, of course, is the availability of produce which is dependent on the climate and the fertility of the land - Morocco is blessed in both departments.

Morocco produces a large range of food itself including sheep, poultry, cattle, seafood, a great many fruits and vegetables (including citrus) as well as saffron, mint, honey and olives. Other spices such as cinnamon, cumin, tumeric, ginger, pepper, paprika, sesame, coriander and many more have been imported for hundreds, and in some cases even thousands, of years.

Foodie travellers may want to pick up some harissa, a fiery paste of garlic, chiles, olive oil and salt and some ras al hanout spice mixture which combines anywhere between 10 to 100 spices - sellers are proud and secretive about their exact recipes.

Moroccan Dishes
With the exception of Ramadan, the main meal is traditionally taken at midday although this custom is changing due to the habits of visitors and more recent immigrants. The meal typically starts with a series of hot and cold salads or appetisers (often referred to as a salade marocaine or meze). The bread, eaten at virtually every meal, comes out at this stage. The tagine comes next in it's signature cooking dish (though these days many restaurants serve up in individually sized serving versions) - it is essentially a slow-cooked stew and the combination of meat with fruit is quite common. This is followed by couscous (a ground semolina pasta shaped into miniscule grains) topped with either meats or vegetables and a delicate gravy is sometimes served with it. Desserts aren't eaten regularly - instead most meals are ended with either sweet mint tea or strong coffee. and with much in common with a Middle Eastern


Another dish you may come across is pastilla, a delicious sweet-savoury pastry made with pigeon, cinammon, sugar and filo pastry. Harira, a thick traditional Moroccan soup, usually eaten during Ramadan to break the day's fast, is a hearty meal in itself. One of our favourite dishes was the Moroccan roast lamb or mechoui which was so tender that the meat truly did fall off the bone.

Sweet pastries tend to be served during breaks rather than after a meal and include sugary pastries stuffed with almond paste, moist honey cakes which are deep-fried, pretzel-shaped morcels of dough dipped into honey and sprinkled with sesame seeds, a sweet semolina paste known as halwa and a range of biscuits (cookies) and cakes.

I've already mentioned the ubiquitous sweet mint tea served in tiny glass cups and often poured from a great height by seasoned servers. Visitors to Marrakech who are a little tea-ed out might enjoy freshly squeezed orange juice in the Jemaa El Fna Square at a government fixed price of only 3 dirhams a glass.

Street Food
Speaking of the Jemaa El Fna Square it transforms in the evening into a vast open-air array of street food vendors selling a huge range of food from soups, to skewered meat kebabs to items most Western visitors won't even recognise (or want to)!

Sheepshead on a souk stall

Please see my blog article, Christmas in Marrakech, for detailed reviews of several restaurants we enjoyed.

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