Once a year in late November, when the air has chilled, the days have shortened and homes and shop windows are starting to light up for Christmas, the French market comes to Chichester for a day.
The don’t only come to Chichester; they set up in one town or another every weekend, nipping over the channel on a ferry with bags packed with olives, cheeses, paté de foie gras, saucisse and jambon, so that some villages might expect the French market to arrive at Easter or in June. But Chichester is blessed to receive this little pleasure in the run-up to Christmas.
It always rains, but you pull on a coat, wrap a scarf around your neck and shove your hands in your pockets. You don’t necessarily take an umbrella with you. The rain in southern England is constant, but generally very light. And it stops and starts.
One Christmas in the four years we lived there, it was raining not cats and dogs, but tajines. A Frenchwoman had set up a stall selling these Moroccan cooking vessels and sundry other pots, all ceramic and beautiful. I bought a blue ceramic tajine and the lady, with whom I had been chatting about Moroccan food and how the conical lid of a tajine works, smiled and gave me two additional pots, medium and small, to fit inside the tajine base like Russian dolls.
It’s intriguing how different cooking vessels have their own distinctive effect on the foods cooked in them. A tandoor cooks chicken and lamb in a way that no other vessel achieves. Sure, there are the marinades and the spices. But the texture of meat cooked in a tandoor among very hot coals is splendidly identifiable.
A pizza oven has just the right space and concentration of heat to cook a pizza top, bottom and just-so in the middle, if you have your coals and dough right.
The potjie, the South African three-legged cast-iron pot that fed the Great Trekkers and which today is a campfire staple for weekends away, works by tightly encapsulating its contents so that no evaporation can escape, as long as you don’t lift the lid during its long cooking process. This concentrates the flavours within while the slow cooking over only a few coals at a time ensures that any meat inside is super-tender.
The tajine works in a similar way, with one essential difference – that conical lid. Like a potjie, the lid fits snugly to keep all vapours within. But in a tajine, they waft up inside the lid, condense and fall again, so that you have almost a self-basting process.
The tajine I bought from that French market served me well. Both its base and lid were ceramic, and you could put it either in a slow oven or on a low heat on the stove top, although that was a word we quicky stopped using in England. The Brits are quite aghast that colonials stil say stove when what we should be saying, apparently, is “cooker”. To a Brit, a stove is the old-fashoned kind you might find in a Karoo farmhouse kitchen.
Anyway, the lid of that tajine broke in our Karoo restaurant a few years ago, and I have missed the pot. But a new one slid its way down the chimney on Christmas Eve – a Le Creuset tajine, no less, which has a cast-iron base with a ceramic lid. It’s a modern European take on the entirely ceramic traditional implement, but that difference means that you can brown your meat more thoroughly at a higher heat before the slow cooking begins; you can also remove the solid items with a slotted spoon at the end and turn up the heat to reduce down the remaining sauce.
The technique is really simple: marinate your meats in olive oil and spices – cinnamon, turmeric, cumin and coriander seed are common in Moroccan cuisine, but the combinations and quantities vary from kitchen to kitchen. Another ‘ingredient’ might be Rass el hanout, which is not as frighteningly obscure as it sounds. This is just a term for a trader’s best spice mix, much like a grand cuvée might be a wine estate’s top wine. The constituent spices of a Rass el Hanout vary enormously; you could even make up your own recipe. As for harissa (hot chilli paste), this is spoken of today as a Moroccan ingredient even though it is actually Tunisian and Algerian. But it works, so use it.
The meats are most commonly chicken or lamb, and the additional ingredients often include fruits, from preserved (salted) lemons to figs, olives, apricots, dates and raisins, and nuts.
Marinate your meat in a little olive oil mixed with your choie of spices and plenty of black pepper, for a few hours or overnight. Brown your meats in olive oil, remove. Saute sliced or quartered onions, then return the meat to the tajine base and add stock (chicken or lamb) and any other spices, plus garlic, chopped ginger (if using), bring to a simmer, cover with the tajine lid and burble gently on a very low heat for two or three hours. There should be only a very gentle bubble. A half hour before you’re expecting it to be done, add any fruity items, then cover again to complete the cooking for half an hour or so more.
To introduce the new tajine to the household, I made two tajine dishes on consecutive nights.
First up was chicken thighs with slices of preserved lemons and olives, spiced with cumin, coriander, black pepper, garlic and fresh ginger. Mix them all together and marinate the chicken in this mix.
Next day I made a tajine of chunks of lamb knuckle flavoured with cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, chopped garlic and ginger, and grated lemon zest. Mix this all together with olive oil, douse the meat with it, marinate.
For either dish, follow the above process (add stock, simmer over low heat, remove solids, reduce sauce).
For the chicken dish, add the olives and preserved lemon shortly before the end. For the lamb and almond tajine, toast whole unpeeled almonds over a moderate heat in a dry frying pan, and scatter them over each serving.
Traditionally, the tajine wil be taken to the table to eat as a communal feast. In which case, Daisy, scatter the almonds over the dish before serving.
First published in Weekend Argus January 2011