“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.)
This is a tale of two tagines. A tagine, of course, can be either a particular sort of Moroccan stew (for want of a better word) or the dish it is cooked in.
I’m not comparing our misadventures to the hope and horrors of the French Revolution, but some years ago we bought a pottery tagine on a visit to Marrakesh. The man who sold it to us turned out to be unpleasantly weird and aggressive. That’s no reflection on the majority of Moroccans, who I’ve always found to be extremely kind and hospitable people.
This man, though, was just plain nasty and then the tagine base got broken on the flight home. We stuck it together but (call me over-sensitive if you like) the tagine felt oddly tainted by the experience we’d had when we bought it.
Glued-together pottery is, obviously, useless either on top of the stove or in the oven. So when we made tagines it only ever got used to serve the finished dish. This rather defeated the object, because the whole point of a tagine (no pun intended) is that its conical lid condenses the steam produced during cooking, helping to keep the meat succulent and juicy.
Things took a turn for the better when I got into conversation with my Egyptian friend, Magdi, who urged me to buy one with a cast iron base and a pottery lid. You won’t regret it, he said. It’s the best of both worlds, as you can use it on the stove and in the oven. So although I already had more cooking pots than the average restaurant, I followed his advice. We had the best of times eating the results.
Lamb and Apricot Tagine
I like my tagines very fragrant with spices but if you want a milder flavour use the lesser quantity.
800g-1kg shoulder of lamb, trimmed and diced into bite-sized pieces
2 tbsp light olive oil
1-2 tspn ground coriander
1-2 tspn ground cumin
1-2 tspn ground ginger
1/2-1 tspn cayenne pepper
3 fat cloves of garlic, crushed
2 onions, peeled and roughly chopped
400 ml lamb stock (or use a chicken stock cube dissolved in water)
1/2 cinnamon stick
2 tbsp runny honey
1 large bunch of coriander, roughly chopped
1/2 tspn saffron threads, dissolved in a little warm water
250g dried apricots, soaked in a little hot water (I used dark, chewy Hunza apricots but the bright orange ones look prettier)
Salt and pepper
In a large, deep pan, melt the butter and oil together over a gentle heat and add the coriander, cumin, ginger, cayenne, garlic, onion, half of the fresh coriander and the lamb chunks.
Stir to coat the lamb and cook for a few minutes to allow the aroma of the spices to develop, without browning the meat.
Add the stock, honey, saffron and cinnamon stick. Bring to the boil, lower the heat, cover the pan and simmer gently for an hour to an hour and a half, until the meat is tender.
In the meantime, cover the apricots with a little hot water and leave them to swell.
When the meat is done, remove it with a slotted spoon and keep it warm. Reduce the sauce until it thickens a little, then put the lamb back in and add the drained apricots. Heat through gently but thoroughly.
Scatter the remaining fresh chopped coriander on top of the tagine and serve with rice or couscous.
Tagines are so ridiculously easy and tasty, aren’t they? Yum. I’ve been reading lots about British food history and apparently back in the mists of time we used to love a tagine-type dish (well, the rich people anyway, not your average bread ‘n’ cheese quaffing peasant).
I know we used to use spices a lot more but I’d be interested to know the source of that. Where did you read it?
Hmmm, it would either be Colin Spencer’s From Microliths to Microwaves or Kate Colquhoun’s Taste (been reading them both recently). I will have a flick back and see what I can find…
If you have time I’d really like to read up on it. I love Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England but more good food history recommendations are always welcome, thanks.
It’s in ‘Taste’…p55…not specifically tagines but talking about the 12th century and the influence of people returning from the Crusades in the Middle East, in particular spices: “It seems that what they were aiming for was a juxtaposition of the piquant with sweet fruits, nuts and sugars, the characteristic feature of many modern Moroccan recipes such as pastille – a shredded-pigeon pie flavoured with mace, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, almonds and saffron and powdered with icing sugar. If so much about the European Middles Ages seems bewilderingly remote, contemporary Moroccan food, robust and subtle by degrees, broadly unchanged for centuries, offers a hint of our own culinary past.’ It’s a good book, I recommend it if you’re interested in the history of British cookery.
Thanks! I have a funny feeling I have Taste somewhere but if not think I’ll get them both, I’m a big fan of Alan Davidson.
I’d say the original Moroccan guy was upset because you didn’t spend half a day haggling before sealing the deal with some strong coffee. Either that, or he wanted to kidnap you and sell you into slavery. Lovely tagines all the same. All three, that is, the decorative, the practical and the edible.
Thank you, Conor. You know, I’ve enjoyed many a haggle over a glass of mint tea (and am now the owner of several over-priced carpets) but this bloke verged on the certifiable. I hope he’s still taking the tablets.
Lamb tagine is delicious! You know, your anecdote about the purchase and subsequent crack in your tagine is exactly the sort of story you find in a Shirley Hazzard novel, probably part of a longer description about the female protagonist being an unlucky tourist. Ken
Now I’ll have to go and read a Shirley Hazzard novel to find out whether that’s good or bad! I’ve mostly been very fortunate in the people I’ve met on my travels but this guy was definitely skiing off piste.
Shirley Hazzard is very good. Read TRANSIT OF VENUS. That’s her best. Ken
I’ll look it out, thanks.