I love Moroccan food. Love it. Exotic, exciting revelatory flavors (for a westerner...) make up the engine of this culinary tradition, and it is indeed a tradition. You quickly form the idea when you read the cookbooks or visit the countries of North Africa that the entire populace is comprised of foodies. In the U.S., it is the foodies who have gotten into Moroccan, Algerian, and Tunisian cuisine for its fascinating combination of sweet and savory made ever more enchanting by its aromatic glow. Slow Food adherents have also gravitated to North African food, as much of it is cooked in a tagine (pronounced tah-zheen'), a conical cooking vessel in which foods are braised with a small amount of water. I have even found that avowed non-foodies cherish the experience of this food because its charms are so foreign yet undeniably winning (don't think it converts them into foodies, though).
Culinary Responsibility--Putting Moroccan Food on the World Stage
Keeping up with the Joneses--acreage-wise--was a serious, occasionally very bloody European pastime for a few centuries, extending well into the 20th Century, long after imperialism was unfashionable. After relinquishing conquests in India and the Western Hemisphere to other colonial powers (mostly the British), the French needed something else to do. Perhaps they were seduced by the exotic fragrance of the souks (open air markets) of the southern Mediterranean, because one of their first steps was to occupy North Africa. France invaded Algeria in 1830, and within fifty years they added Tunisia as a protectorate, and did the same with most of Morocco by 1912.
Well, ever the epicures, the French were curious about the culinary traditions of the colonially oppressed (such equanimity!), and you the can find the fruits of this in the Vietnamese and North African restaurants that are ALL OVER Paris. I stumbled upon a small Moroccan place on a Paris side street and had a quick lunch of harira (soup) and b'stilla (a filo pastry with a sweet and savory filling--squab in this case), both of which were delicious and well-priced. And they served a Moroccan wine, a Cinsaut-Grenache-Carignan blend, that was very good with the food.
Dinner at L'Atlas
We went to l'Atlas, a serious Moroccan restaurant, for dinner after my day in Champagne. I had heard of the place from an American I met in Paris a couple of years ago. Despite having a somewhat overdone website, it is not a formal place at all, and is an extraordinary dinner experience. Within moments of taking our seats, our server brought out a small bowl of olives and another of spiced potatoes. Add some mint tea with a few dashes of orange flower water and you begin to get the idea of the heady experience to come. I started with a delicious plate of house-made merguez sausages, but when I tasted my wife's harira (the soup), I was insanely jealous. It was cold outside and the soup was not only warming, but exquisitely flavored--balanced and evocative, like the best cooking always is. We decided to split the Couscous Fassi, a fabulous dish of lamb, steamed chicken and vegetables served over couscous. The scent turned heads throughout the dining room as the server brought it to us, and it was as delicious as the aroma promised. The menu said it was for two, but it could have fed four easily.
Yes, yes...but what about the WINE???
Oh yeah, we had some and it was good! The Phoenicians got the ball rolling wine-wise in this region some 3,000 years ago. The Romans (God love 'em) amplified wine making traditions across North Africa 1,000 years later, after they pasted Carthage (for the third time) and decided to stay. As the Romans pillaged their way west from Tunisia to Morocco, they planted more vines (without which they apparently never traveled) in the most ideal locations. No place was more ideal than the foothills of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, where the best wines are still grown today. We ordered a bottle from this region: Zniber Vineyards 2006 Domaine Riad Jamil Rouge, from the A.O.G. of Beni M'tir. (A.O.G. stands for Appellation d'Origine Garantie, of which there are 14 in Morocco, each with its own specified grape varieties. It is intended to be an indicator of location and quality, and but only time will tell if this actually tells us anything meaningful.) The Riad Jamil turns out to be a dynamite wine made of 100% old vine Carignan. North Africa was once the source of an ocean of cheap wine bound for consumption in France, so in a sign of how determined the wine industry in Morocco has become in the last 15 years, the grapes for this wine are hand harvested from strictly limited vine yields. A world away from that bistro plonk of yesteryear, this dark, dark purple wine has intense black fruit oriented flavors, especially in the black plum and black raspberry range. The spicy (cinnamon) aroma is driven by a rich scent of black fruit preserves, and the cinnamon returns on the interminably long finish. By the way, as is common with concentrated (low-yielding old vines) Carignan, the texture is loaded with glycerin--the kind that makes your teeth slick. It's a great feeling. This wine is available in the U.S., but not widely, so check Wine Searcher if you are interested in tracking some down.
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