Friday, December 21, 2007

Tourists and Courgettes

I'm pleased to report that it is not just the British who sometimes behave like a bunch of arrogant feckwits while on holiday. I've spent a bit of time lying in the sun down on the petite-cote since I've been back, trying to shake out the stress of being on overdrive in Rwanda for the last four months. By god I wish I'd taken a shotgun with me.

Hiding behind my sunglasses and my book (Joanna Blythman's superb 'The food we eat') with some serious tunage on my baladeur, my fellow tourists just looked like the overweight, sunburned, British scum that are familiar to anyone who has ever been to the Greek Islands or parts of southern Spain. Except these folks wore French football shirts, and spoke, rather shouted, in French. Meanwhile a banlieu outside Paris is ablaze. I wonder what the Senegalese make of these idiots. Does it put them off applying for a visa, or getting into an overcrowded pirogue and braving the atlantic for a chance at getting a job cleaning the floors for these people.

It was down on the petite-cote that I discovered my 'new favourite courgette recipe'. If you've ever eaten sunday roast chez jiffler then chances are you've tried one of my many sauteed courgette variations - chilli courgette, mushroom and courgette, cherry tomato and courgette in balsamic vinegar, courgette enema. All good. There is something I love about the humble courgette, it always seems to bring another taste dimension to a sunday roast, without looking out of place on the plate.

One sweltering lunchtime I found a charming little restaurant outside my hotel in Saly, where I enjoyed a seafood pasta lunch and good coffee overlooking the beach. It was quiet, and there were no interruptions from bumsters, prostitutes, or other tourists, so I decided to return for dinner that evening, satisfied that I could read my book alone and enjoy cracking the tops of a few bottles of Gazelle lager.

I'd tipped the waiter handsomely at lunchtime and was pleased to see his shift hadn't finished when I arrived for dinner. He made a small table available for me outside with a view of the waves and a pleasant breeze. The restaurant was almost empty, and the owner, a white Senegalese, came out to greet me cheerfully. After apologising for my wooly French, we exchanged a few pleasantries and set about discussing the menu. Sadly the steak was off, and I'd already had the recommended seafood pasta for lunch. Settling for Pork chops with a sauce of brie, sauteed potatoes and courgettes, I ordered a gazelle and took a brief wander onto the deck outside to examine the sea.

Returning to my seat, and cold frothy beer, I noticed the restaurant had started to fill with other pinkish foreigners. Older couples mainly, one couple accompanied by a twenty-something daughter who shot a look of bored resentment in my direction. Over in the bar area, a large and cheerful looking man settled himself alone into an overstuffed couch and set about lighting a cigar as fat as his fingers. He sported a magnificent moustache, bushy, handlebar-esque, the sort that makes wearing a motorcycle helmet very difficult. I imagined him as some sort of Jose Bove-type character, a man who enjoys his food, a fine wine, a well made cigar.

I was disturbed by a sort of light grunting from the ground nearby and leaned over the table to witness two cats rutting away energetically. I'd never seen cats on the job before and watched with curiosity for a few seconds chuckling into my beer. The man at the table adjacent stamped his foot and frightened the fornicating felines away. I looked up at his wife sitting across from me, shrugged and smiled "C'est tout naturel, eh?". She responded with something gutteral in French that was beyond my vocabulary. From the look on her face she didn't seem to find the situation at all amusing, and I exchanged raised eyebrows with the waiter.

My food arrived, and I stuck my knife into the pork. Tough. It served me right for ordering pork in a muslim country. Luckily the cheese was thick and rich enough to make up for this. Sauteed potatoes were competent, and the sauteed courgettes packed tightly into a small glass ramekin. Interesting... I tipped out the courgettes and scooped up a forkfull, and instantly - Courgettes, garlic, olive oil, thyme. Fantastic - why hadn't I thought of that before? Thankfully the chef had known in advance what my reaction would be and had given me too much in my little ramekin. Compliments indeed.

I looked up from my courgette epiphany and saw that the moustache had been joined my a young, slim Senegalese woman. No older than sixteen at best. I pondered if she were a relative, or friend, but was disabused of this by his wandering hands. My gourmet hero was just another tourist pervert, getting his rocks off on the cheap down on the petite-cote.

I finished my coffee and hit the hotel bar.

Roast chicken supper - with courgettes and thyme.

The French butcher in Yoff-Virage probably does the best meat in town. It is claimed that the chickens are Bresse, imported and bred locally. At five quid a pop, even at local prices, I doubt it, but the yellow-ish tinge to their flesh is enough to convince me that they've been brought up well, and I take a largish one for a sunday roast.

(Use your common sense and the art of zen for quantities here. I always cook too much chicken, so I can graze off the carcass for a couple of days)
1 chicken, a good one. Organic if possible. Spend some money on this and make the most of it. £2.99 supermarket chickens are vile, pumped with fat and water, raised in shitty conditions, full of chemicals, and tasteless.
Roasting potatoes - Desiree, or King Edwards. Maris Piper is a good all rounder.
A big courgette, or a couple of small ones.
Some carrots.
A lemon
Butter (unsalted)
Olive oil
About half an inch of fresh ginger root
Fresh coriander chopped.
Fresh or dried thyme
Colman's mustard powder
A large pinch of flour
Salt and pepper
Some wine, or Marsala for the gravy.

Roasting the chicken:
Let the chicken come up to room temperature and stuff its cavity with half of the lemon and a few cloves of garlic. salt and pepper. Rub butter or olive oil all over the bird, massaging it into the skin. Roast in a hot oven for 30 minutes breast side down under tin-foil, then invert it and cook it uncovered for the remaining time (depending on the weight of your bird...). Baste occasionally with the juices.

The potatoes:
Peel the potatoes and cut into two-bite sized chunks. Parboil until the edges are softening, then drain and return to the hob to dry for a couple of seconds. Mix a level table spoon of mustard powder with the same amount of flour, a pinch of salt and pepper. Place the lid back on the pan and gently shake until the edges of the potatoes are bashed and coated with the flour-mustard mixture.

Heat some olive oil in a baking dish, and when it is very hot, empty the potatoes in, shaking to coat in the oil. Bake with the chicken for 50mins to an hour, shaking the pan and turn the spuds occasionally. (If you have goose or duck fat, or perhaps beef dripping, this makes an even better alternative to olive oil).

The carrots:
Slice the carrots julienne style, and press the ginger through a garlic crush. Stir fry the ginger and carrots in olive oil for a couple of minutes before adding the chopped coriander and stir-frying a minute or two more. The carrots should still have some bite, and the colours of the coriander and carrots should still be bright.

Dice the courgettes into cubes no larger than 1cm. Press the garlic. If using fresh thyme, strip the leaves from the branch and chop finely. With dried thyme, follow the same approach beach give the dried leave a good grinding in a pestle and mortar. Stir-fry the courgettes and garlic in olive oil for a few minutes until the courgette is softening and then add the thyme for a couple more minutes.

When the chicken is done, remove it from the roasting dish and leave it to rest for a few minutes. Place the roasting dish over a medium to high hob, and add a generous glug of red or white wine, marsala, cider... whatever you have. Heat until it starts to bubble a little, and use a flat whisk to bring the booze and the juices together. After reducing to your desired consistency, skim off any excess fat, and pass the gravy through a sieve before serving hot. Do not use flour or gravy browning. If I find out that this has been going on I will come round your house and give you a stinging slap on the back of the legs.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Marrakech part II.

Stepping out of the bar onto the street with our new friend, I turned to wink at the Count and warn him to keep his hand on his ha'penny. A paving slap the size of a toilet seat shattered on the pavement between us, and we both leapt back assuming a fighting stance (The Count had neglected to carry his usual walking cane, which would have offered us something of an advantage due to the eight inch blade concealed within its shaft). A cropped haired youth looked us up and down and laughed, before bending down to pick up brick-sized lumps of the paving slap. Two of his troglodyte friends followed suit and started lobbing the brick-grenades at another group of youths on the opposite side of the street. They returned fire and the Count and I beat a hasty retreat up the road. Rashid had disappeared.

Along the road we encountered the Chesterfield 'English Pub' and ducked inside to escape further cement bombardment. It was less of an English pub than a smartish hotel bar, serving pints of Moroccan brewed Flag Speciale with a soundtrack of expats and an unlimited supply of olives. Therein we relaxed and got quietly wasted, chugging back pints of flag. It was a long walk back to our respective riads, so we had one for the road, and made our way through a silent maze-like medina, where the only sounds where the rattle and scratch of hundreds of tramp-cats, the occasional murmur of a security guard reading his Koran in the darkness, and the thud of our feet on the cobbles.

Back to the food. I do strongly recommend trying a pastilla. Sort of a locally made flat pie resembling a large Eccles cake. The filling varies but often involves Chicken, egg and lemon, wrapped in a thin flakes of sweetened pastry dusted with icing sugar.

If you're looking for the best Tagines in the Medina I would stay away from the main tourist drag and find the filthiest, scariest looking shithole cafe you can. I can recommend a suitably wretched unnamed place: From the PLace Ben Yousef, head Northish through the Medina away from the leather souks. You'll pass a woman selling slices from a massive flat bread that resembles, and tastes like, a giant chapathi. There is a bit of street that smells of drains, and then directly ahead, where the street bears right, you will see a group of old men sitting around smoking, and a young chap with a grill and a dozen tagines chuntering away. Before you take a plastic chair you may encounter an aggressive alsatian dog, who responds promptly and respectfully to a sharp kick in the neck. Order a tagine and see what comes. I had a beautifully herby and tender lamb tagine which set me back about £1.50. Don't drink the water - it smells vile. A boy will run out and get you a bottle of lemonade or something for a small tip. Don't worry, its not a hive of scum and villainy - its all very friendly. Keep an eye on that dog though.

I did have something of a jam-related epiphany while staying at my Riad. Each morning I looked forward to our breakfast selection of jams. Not for the Moroccans the jellified, oversweetened petri-dish muck beloved of many British and Continental Bed and Breakfasts (an easy way to judge the standard of a British hotel is to inspect its preserves), proper compote-like jams - of figs, oranges and strawberries, unctious, almost drinkable, served in bowls with marvellous slightly chewy flatbreads. My mouth is watering at the mere thought of tearing apart the flatbread and ladling on a glossy vin rouge-coloured dollop. Watching as the pockets of air within the bread take up the sweet preserve, before wolfing it, greedily, with sticky fingers and chin.

Enough food porn. I'm thinking of getting into jam making at some stage. Sadly, here in Dakar tis the season for Watermelons, which I doubt will make good jam. Indeed, after the first slice of watermelon one has had enough and wonders what to do with the rest of the basketball. Mrs Jiffler has the perfect solution, and we're off to the roof of an office block downtown where, on a quiet day (perhaps during Friday prayers), you can drop your unwanted melons 18 stories onto the pavement below. They make a feck of a lot of mess I can assure you, especially if you get a bit of spin on them. I've heard rumours that the US Embassy downtown is building higher fortifications around its premises in the event of a watermelon catapult being employed in anger. I reckon a decent sized melon could take down a helicopter, so any Saigon-style evacuation would be thwarted.

Monday, December 17, 2007

A jiffling hiatus

Yes, yes... its been about 6 months since the last post, but I've been in Rwanda: the land of a thousand hills, with work. Rwanda is also known in the jiffler household as the land of a thousand mediocre meals. This otherwise fine country was after all the scene of the goat'n'chip omlette, served to a bleary eyed Monsieur et Madame Jiffleur prior to a trek through the bush in search of gorilla action. I haven't forgetten about that, oh no.

Now back in Dakar, its time to renew-things blogwise. I've feck all else to do until the next contract, so this should keep me out of trouble (thinks Mrs Jiffler).

Hmm. we'll see.

Anyhow, I've accidentally imbibided the spirit of Hunter S Thompson while I've been away, so forgive me if some or all of the blog is made up gonzo bollocks. It will only get worse as things proceed. There will still be recipes, but they will be gonzo recipes. OK?

Back in Senegal things are different to Rwanda - the Francophones hung around here and didn't play nasty games with the lives of innocents. There are nice beaches here, so Jacques and friends have bought up the best stretches, and withered ballbag-like French matriarchs can now enjoy front row deckchairs on the sand.

On the plus side, this means the restaurants outshine our friends in the Great Lakes region. There is good bread, an abundance of seafood, and mayonnaise with your frites. Tres Bon.

But before that even, there was a trip to Marrakech, for a neb around the souks and some general loitering in the Djemma el fna. A certain distinguished Count Parker accompanied me on this particular trip, and it was non-work related I'm pleased to say.

A talentless chef swine once said that Moroccan food was the 'fourth of the three great world cuisines'; the three being French, Italian, and Chinese (honestly, if I ever meet said chef I shall set about his hands and face with a stale baguette). I'll concede that Moroccan food does have a certain something though, if you can find your way around the blanded-out tourist slop and ubiquitous pizza margherita. Better still though, Morocco is a great place for eating, rather than just the food.

Sitting on the top floor of the Cafe de France in the grand place Djemm el fna, watching the ebb and flow of the masses in the market area below more than makes up for chewy beef brochettes. Snake charmers charm, little feckers with manky monkeys on strings creep up on, and scare the living shit out of tourists, and everything is for sale... you want hashish? Hashish my friend, very good hashish, best hashish, good price for you my friend. Hashish?

Or perhaps a supper in the place itself? If you're not brave enough to pop a sheep's eye ball in your mouth, or even work your way through the whole head, you can scuttle over to stall number 114 of the many identical food stalls. There, the tout speaks some Welsh, enjoys watching Only fools and horses, and (if he is to be believed) is the love-child of Jamie Oliver and a Berber. Make your own dirty minds up. It'll be in Heat magazine next week no doubt.

Stall 114 serves up an array of cheapo dishes. Order all your bits separately - roasted sweet peppers with a dash of crunchy sea salt is worth ordering twice, between little bowls of spicy sausages, aubergine, squid, and tomato salad. These were shared with the Count while we watched tourists and touts fight it out in the grand place. I'm amazed by the ability of the touts to determine the nationality 9 out of 10 of the tourists walking past, and then call out to them in their native tongue. The count and I mused on this for a while, but I'll save our conclusions for the pub.

Ah yes, the pub. There we find the fundamental flaw in Marrakech's nightlife. Unless one wishes to go to some of the finer hotels to sit with the tourists and the occasional braying expat shite (I can spot my own kind a mile off), there is little choice but to enter into a sort of grotty tobacco stained underworld of sullen-looking middle aged Moroccan gentlemen in grey anoraks and dirty moustaches. The Count and I entered one such establishment, chests out, with an eye on the exit. We were left in peace for the first half of a rather violent local football match on TV, before being accosted by one of the moustaches at half time. After three bottles of Stork lager my bad French is pretty appalling, and the Count merely nodded and muttered 'Oui' occasionally, while maintaining the air of an aristocrat.

Our new friend, Rashid, was a friendly sort, if a little inebriated. He earned his beer money by fixing the many pinball machines to be found in Marrakech. After some messy communication and the appropriate hand signals, he offered to take us to a nearby club where there is belly dancing of the sort where you can both look and touch. The Count is the sort of chap who couldn't possibly be seen dead in such a place, and I've had to fight my way out of such places in the past.

So we agreed to go.