Sunday 8 October 2017

A Fortnight in Morocco

I spent two weeks in Morocco way back in May; taking advantage of the Easter holiday bank holiday bonanza, we headed off to explore beyond Marrakech.

We started off in the coastal town of Essaouira (pronounced Ess-a-where-a). It's easy to mooch around here; there's a laid-back feeling to this windy town, protected by sandy ramparts. It was a perfect and easy introduction into Morocco, and we acclimatised well with warm days and chillier nights. While wind surfers dominated this part of the beach, we went on a camel ride.

Inside the medina, a UNESCO heritage site, shops lined the streets selling colourful pottery and tableware. Shopkeepers gently cajoled us inside to begin their bartering, and for a crockery addict it was incredibly difficult to resist.

Given it's coastal location, seafood was in abundance. Down by the port trays of ice hold fish and seafood, ready for you to select for cooking. It's simple and straightforward. 

It's a little hard to find restaurants that serve booze. Caravane Cafe was one that did, and set within a huge space, with many rooms and art on any available space on the walls, nooks and crannies we were bamboozled with a menu that served mango sorbet on top of ceviche (yes, the raw fish one) and vanilla with fish. We swerved chicken with pineapple and cashew nuts and mercifully my lamb chops with mashed potatoes were exactly that. It came highly recommended several times and while the setting was certainly lovely, it's easy to order badly. For the rest of my trip my friend kept incredulously muttering "MANGO SORBET!"

A couple of days was all we needed, before we headed off to Taghazout for some surfing. Or, we would have except it was as flat as a pancake all week. Every morning we'd leap out of bed and peer at the sea, but alas. 

No matter. We were staying at Amayour Surf, and we couldn't have asked for better hosts. Shiraz is from London, and she and her Moroccan partner, M'Hand opened Amayour a couple of years ago. There's a couple of private rooms and a shared dorm, and they offer surf lessons and day trips. It's down to them and their team that in the 4 days we were there it totally felt like home. The food was also some of the best we had on the trip; breakfast was tagine-cooked eggs, basted in spiced butter and topped with herbs, to be scooped up with bread. Yoghurt, fruit, and an incredible nut butter made from almonds that everyone became obsessed with, as well as jams and honey was also offered. 

We were told in advance what was on the menu for dinner, and apart from a deviation one night to satisfy a lasagne craving (don't judge me), we feasted on seafood tagines - octopus, sardines - and chopped Moroccan salad. Everyone ate together, everyone boozed together, and the one day we actually had some surf, we leapt into shared cars and attempted some waves together. As someone who isn't brilliant at making new friends - I dunno, something about a resting bitch face - it was incredibly easy at Amayour. 

When there was no surf, we went to Paradise Valley. First we stopped off at an argan oil cooperative, where we watched the ladies who worked there crack the argan nuts with smooth sharp movements, stone on nut. We had a go and I bashed my fingers in. Loaded with elixirs that will definitely make me lose 10 years from my face, we pulled up at the waterfalls. It was HOT. As we clambered over rocks further into the valley, it's easy enough to stop at the first pool like everyone else had - but we pressed on, sweating away, deeper into the valley. Here, just the sounds of splashes and cheering spectators dominate; the rocks here reach high, the pools are deep. A 10 metre jump is a real life-affirmer. Just point your toes on entry.  

The Atlas Mountains were beckoning us. I passed my driving test last year, hadn't driven since and was about to do a 7 hour mountain pass drive on the opposite side of the road - it was safe to say I was feeling a little nervous. Before we headed off to pick up the hire car, Shiraz gave me a quick driving lesson in her car around the village.

The Moroccans have a very laid-back driving style. The towns are hectic, and horns beep a lot; cars are keen to overtake and signalling is often ignored, but it is not aggressive. It's rare in Morocco to see a woman driving with a man in the car - my friend and I were a bit of a spectacle, especially in our baby blue car. When I would go to park, be it in supermarkets or the street, men would gather to watch, sometimes offering welcome advice in which way to turn the steering wheel.

As far as my research goes, there are two ways to get into the High Atlas; the road from Marrakech takes roughly an hour and a half, and the Tizi-n-Test pass, which you can get onto by heading south from Agadir, and it reaches 2092m. It's a hairpin-strewn road, and can take more than 5 hours - indeed, it took us 7 - but what a drive! I'd do it again in a heartbeat. The road wiggles around the mountains, up and down, often with sheer drops off to the side, often single lane. But it was exhilarating, and we spent a lot of time saying "WHOOOOOOOAAA" as we rounded corners to a new view (or an on-coming truck approaching at 60km / hour).

We arrived in the mountain village of Imlil, popular with hikers as it's the kick off spot to many long treks, but also pretty in its own right, surrounded by mountains. The temperature got cooler and cooler as we approached, and the 30 degrees + days we had been experiencing suddenly dropped  to the early teens. Shops line the main street selling woollen wear and loan-out trekking gear, while the ubiquitous tagines lined up neatly on the walls. Here, we stayed in Riad Atlas Prestige, at something silly like £30 per night and it was a lovely place. A donkey had to take our luggage up to the riad itself - accessibility is limited to the fit and able only, due to its position on a rocky outcrop, but once we got there the back doors opened out to this incredible view. 

After a long day's drive, we were offered dinner; lamb tagine with golden sultanas, topped with buttery potato hit the spot. Hearty and comforting, we sat back and patted out bellies while the manager talked us through things we could do. "You could climb Toubkal? Tallest mountain in North Africa?" 

"Okay!" We were an easy sell. 

The next day, he took us down to the hire shop to get us kitted out, since our on-the-whim decision meant we had absolutely no gear. We headed off to the market for spare socks and rucksacks. 

As we set off, our guide told us that we would be stopping off at base camp to spend the night there, to acclimatise to the altitude and then we would be heading off at 3am to get to the summit for sunrise. Alarm bells quietly twinkled as this sounded terribly like That Volcano Hike. An hour in, the soles started to flap off my hire boots. A grim sense of foreboding took over, but we pressed on. 

We passed several parties making the hike up Toubkal. Donkeys passed us on rocky rubble, shouldering all the equipment. Wooden shacks built into the mountain side sold drinks and refreshments, and we stopped at one for a surprisingly hearty lunch of meatballs and salad. It's incredible what can be rustled up in a remote mountain shack. 

As we neared base camp, the snow appeared. SNOW. In Morocco. I suddenly realised why we needed cramp-ons. I was feeling a little light headed, which I attributed to hunger and later found was the altitude. 

I'd love to say I bounded to the top of the mountain and got a cracking view but what happened was that apart from the blisters that were developing, the altitude sickness only got worse (obviously - we were going upwards) - and around 6 metres from the summit the guide looked at me nervously, my friend asked me if I'd just fallen asleep mid-step and I had to admit defeat. My mood lifted every step we took downwards, and by the time we returned to our riad at the end of that day, I was in positive spirits. And completely in pieces. For the next three days any step up or down warranted groans and whimpers from us. We rewarded ourselves with a glass of wine or two at Richard Branson's place, Kasbah Tamadot - if you have a spare £600 to spend on a night there, I'd say you should because it was GORGEOUS - before we headed off to Marrakech to connect to the second leg of our trip. 

Our internal flight took us to Casablanca, where we drove the 6 hours or so up to Chefchaouen on decent roads. The further north we drove into Morocco, the more we noticed the switch from French Arabic to Spanish and Arabic, due to the proximity of the Spanish enclave of Ceuta and indeed, only separated by 14 miles from mainland Spain.

Chefchaouen is a photographer's dream; the walls of many buildings in the medina are painted blue. There are several theories behind why, including the theory that when the Jews were hiding from Hitler they painted the walls blue to feel closer to the sky, heaven, and their god. Whatever the reason, you can't help but walk through the streets with wonder; the blue has a very calming effect. Overshadowed by the Rif mountains, where it's reported Morocco's cannabis is grown, we saw more tourists here than anywhere else.

We stayed at Dar Dadiclef, which couldn't have been more in the middle of the medina. Of course this entailed humping your luggage up and down long steps and hills, and with achey legs it was very... challenging. Billed as a hostel, we had a private room that could have been any hotel. Abdul, who runs the hostel couldn't have been nicer to us, offering us maps of places to go and things to do. There was a beautiful garden, and the breakfast was plentiful.

Many go trekking in and around Chefchaouen, and since we were all trekked out we spent a couple of days wandering around. Abdul, with a bit of a shrug, told us that the only decent place to eat was at Bab Ssour, round the corner from our hostel. Their tagines arrived to the table sizzling and were incredibly sweet with dried fruits, rich and meaty; meze-like starters, such as an aubergine dip were very popular too. From eating mediocre meals elsewhere, we could see where Abdul was coming from.

Onwards to Fes, Morocco's captial city. Happily, one of the people we met surfing had done our trip backwards to us and he advised us to stop off to see Volubilis, a place that had never come up in any of my research. A part Berber, part Roman excavated UNESCO World Heritage site, it was pretty mind-blowing. And hot. Very very hot. We wandered around the ruins before retreating for an ice cream.

We arrived into Meknes and we were immediately overwhelmed by the bustling city. Smoke wafted from street food stalls, and we stopped off for grilled skewers, bright with spices and stuffed into bread. It really amazes me how all the way up and down the country the bread stays exactly the same. We wandered the streets of the medina for some rotisserie chicken before continuing our journey south.

I loved Fes. I loved the old versus new architecture, and I loved the feeling of the working city. The riad we stayed in was insane - Riad MV, such an unassuming doorway to such a breath-taking room - and was so new we were the only people staying there. The cook was the nicest lady; we'd come back in the afternoons for a sit down and to read before dinner, and delicious biscuits scented with cardamom, and mint tea would appear for us.

They killed us with kindness with an incredible spread for breakfast, including spiced buns, dense honeyed cakes and french toast. Eggs were offered but we were fit to burst by this point, and waddled off into the medina instead. It so happened that we'd hit Fes on a public holiday, and most of the shops were closed, allowing us to navigate the maze-like streets unbidden. A few offers of tannery tours were made, and we spent a while peering into forbidden mosques.

Fes has some serious tile game. I think that's why I fell in love with it.

In the evening, we witnessed the most spectacular of thunderstorms from our riad. We had to wait it out, before we legged it over to another riad for dinner. A huge spread was put before us of spiced, cooked vegetables - carrots, spinach, aubergines, lentils - before the tagines arrived. Tender lamb, sweet, melting prunes. We then finished with pastilla - spiced pigeon wrapped in paper-thin pastry, dusted with cinnamon and icing sugar. It was... interesting. I'm not sure I want my dessert to have pigeon in it. 

Knowing me as only I would, I knew we were likely to be quite tired by the time we spent our last night in Casablanca. I'm not good at sitting still. I booked us into The Four Seasons. We turned up to the valet in our dusty Kia Picanto, and were scorned until I produced our reservation triumphantly. We settled around the pool to find that the hotel was booze-less. No little beers in the sun. Ice lollies were offered. Afternoon tea - beautiful little French pastries and sandwiches, glossy cakes and delicate constructions went some way to pacifying us. 

We went for dinner at Taverne du Dauphin. The waiters rescued us from a would-be rip-off taxi merchant and ushered us before a tray of seafood on ice to pick our dinner. Giant red prawns, full of prawn flavour and grilled just with salt, parsley and garlic made us incredibly happy. 

Morocco and its people stole my heart. The food didn't; tagines and bread were ubiquitous, with waiters seemingly reluctant for us to veer off-course. One day in a tiny village I pursued a huge simmering pot the locals were eating from, and after much cajoling got what I wanted; tripe stew stuffed into bread pockets, one of the best things I ate from the trip. But the scenery, from seaside to mountains to ornate architecture in the cities, many feeling like sets from Game of Thrones, gave us food for our eyes. I'm only sad we didn't have time for the desert. 

Saturday 23 September 2017

Spinach & Chard Manti - Turkish Dumplings

I LOVE DUMPLINGS. I was helping a friend out with a pescatarian supperclub recently, and in doing so we made manti - a Turkish dumpling that's also found in Russia and Central Asia. The origins of the dumplings are uncertain, though it is believed that the recipe was carried from Central Asia through the Silk Road to Anatolia and China by Turkic peoples (thanks Wikipedia!). Essentially, they're dumplings made with an egg-enriched wheat dough, filled with a spiced meat mixture, and often served with yoghurt.

I tested the recipe first because I LOVE DUMPLINGS but also dumplings can be notoriously difficult to fold, and vegetarian fillings can sometimes be a touch on the bland side. We made this up completely as there weren't many of its vegetarian kind to be found on the internet and I'm not sure how traditional they are given our tweaks, but it has warming spices like cinnamon in them, mixed with the zest of lemon, the zip of parsley and a robust minerality of spinach and chard. Balanced on garlic yogurt, drizzled with chilli oil and dusted with sumac, these dumplings were swept off their plates hungrily. They're not too much of a pain to make, either, as long as you have a bit of patience.

The dough and garlic yoghurt is largely taken from this recipe, though we had a couple of tweaks - I'm not a massive fan of the flavour of dried mint, so I reduced it down. You need to roll the dough as thinly as you can, using a long, thin rolling pin and work to small parcels so that they're light and delicate rather than huge and stodgy. These are tips I picked up from Helen, so hat tip to her as well.

The folding of the dumplings is wonderfully simple - you take opposite corners and you pinch together to form a cross shape. This one was one of my first; you'll want to make them a little smaller. This recipe makes many many manti, but they're freezable and because they're baked first, they keep in the fridge a while. I have no idea why this is baked and then boiled, while most recipes straight-up boil but the baking means they do last longer - if you're going to eat them right away, you can go straight for the boil and miss out the baking stage. 

Spinach & Chard Manti

Serves LOADS

300gr plain flour
A pinch of salt 
1 egg, beaten with 100ml water
2 tbsp olive oil

Sift the flour and salt into a bowl, then add the egg and the oil and bring together to form the dough. Knead for 6 minutes, until you get a smooth dough, and then cling film and leave to rest for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, make the filling. 

A bunch of spinach
A bunch of chard, leaves and stalks separated 
A bunch of flat leaf parsley
20 walnut halves
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 large pinches of salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp Palestinian za'tar (available at the Turkish Food Centre) 
Zest of 1 lemon
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp breadcrumbs

Blanch the spinach, refresh in iced water. Blanch the chard by adding the stalks 40 seconds before the leaves, as they take longer to cook. Refresh in iced water. Drain and squeeze the moisture out of both vegetables thoroughly, and place in a food processor. Add the walnuts, parsley, garlic, cinnamon, za'tar, lemon zest and olive oil and pulse until well pulsed. If it's looking too wet add the breadcrumbs - it should hold together well but not be sloppy. 

3 cloves of garlic, blanched in boiling water for 1 minute 
500ml yoghurt, at least 10% fat
1/2 tsp salt

Mince the garlic well with the salt and add to the yoghurt. Stir well. 

150ml olive oil
1 tsp pul biber (chilli flakes you can buy in the Turkish Food Centre) 
1 tsp urfa chilli flakes (again, buy in the Turkish Food Centre) - these are slightly darker, and milder and smokier than pul biber. You can use just pul biber if you wish.
1 tbsp hot pepper paste (biber sulcasi) - you can sub in half tomato paste half harissa paste if you like
1 tbsp sumac
1 tsp dried mint (kuru nane)

Heat the oil up in a small saucepan and add the hot pepper paste. Fry until fragrant, around 2 minutes, on a medium heat and then add the chilli, sumac and mint flakes. Simmer for around 3 or 4 minutes, then take off the heat. 

1 tbsp sumac
Chopped flat-leaf parsley

Line up a baking sheet or tray with greaseproof paper. Split the dough into 3, and re-wrap the other two. 

Working with one ball at a time, roll out as thinly as you can and then cut squares out of it - working to around an inch size. Maybe start slightly bigger until you have the hang of it. Use a pizza cutter to cut the dough as it's slightly easier. 

Add a teaspoon or less of filling to the centre of each square and bring the opposing ends up to join into a cross shape. Seal well and place on the baking tray. Repeat until the dough or the filling is gone or you're bored shitless. 

Preheat the over to 180 degrees and bake for 10 minutes, until slightly golden. Wait for them to cool if you're going to saving them for later - they last about 3 days in the fridge, or can be frozen - otherwise then simmer them in water for 8 minutes, before draining. 

To serve, add a generous amount of yoghurt to each dish. Place the manti on top of the yoghurt and drizzle with the spiced oil. Garnish with a hefty pinch of sumac and a sprinkling of parsley.  

Wednesday 30 August 2017

A Week in Western Sumatra

When I was a kid my mum took me to Singapore - well, she snuck us to Singapore - on one of her business trips. It was just a skip over from Hong Kong, so not so far really, and we were taken to the hotel pool, left with the room key card and off she went to her conference while we happily splashed about. I imagine she would've got away with it, except of course, we lost the key. A knock on the conference room door revealed two dripping wet children, asking could we please have Mum's key so we could go back to our room now, as my mother covered her face with her hands. The conference stared. Luckily we were cute kids, and her colleagues insisted on taking us all for black pepper crab every single night that we were there. I remember coming home and announcing I was quite sick of crab now, thank-you-very-much. What a brat.

Anyway, since then my main goal in life has been to get a job where I get to travel and stay in nice places and eat platefuls of crab. So far that has got me to a fair bit of crab-less Eastern Europe, a restricted military island where the coconut crabs are reportedly extremely delicious but illegal to eat, and now, Indonesia. I've been before, in 2014 - Indonesia is huge and this time our destination was Western Sumatra.

Padang is a large, sprawling city. Situated on the coastline, the beach and the sea beyond were not recommended for swimming in due to what the city puts in the sea at that point. There are far better places to do this - we were here to see the markets and the hustle and bustle of daily life. It was sweltering, and as we picked our way through we noticed the distinct lack of foreigners. Tourists usually arrive into Padang as a jumping off point for the islands, such as the Mentawai, for popular surf spots but judging by the attention we were receiving, they don't hang around much. Full of smiles and curious glances, we were celebrities with the locals and were often stopped to have our photo taken, a novelty value on the streets.

The architecture of this particular part of Indonesia is particularly note-worthy - spiked like horns, many buildings took this form. This was a football pitch, no big deal.

We wandered around night time food stalls and ate plenty of satay and mee goreng - the Indonesians really love the instant noodles - but for a more comfortable and air conditioned dinner, Apollo Seafood was so good we went twice. Sure, it's a Chinese restaurant but it serves beer too which is pretty rare in Padang. My beloved crab in chilli sauce was sweet and fairly mild, the claws cracked for ease. I was absolutely covered in sauce by the end of it but you try eating that and staying pristine. They have a huge menu of Chinese classics - depending on how much fresh seafood / crab you order the price can get quite high, though that's only relatively speaking to, say, London.

I had an afternoon to myself so I wandered off in search of Pak Tri, a warung recommended by many on the internet and a local guy we met. It was sweltering, and after a 20 minute walk I arrived dishevelled and lightly glowing. The place was huge, and given it was 3pm no one was in there - I sat down and began a very broken exchange of ordering lunch. They were very sweet and patient, and showed me the fish straight off the ice to check are you sure you really want that much yes thank you I do.

It came grilled over an open barbecue, slathered in a sweet and spicy sambal, with more on the side should I need it. Stir-fried morning glory with a little garlic and more chilli and some rice accompanied it, and it was possible that this was the best meal I'd had in a while. The fish was smoky, charred but expertly cooked, the sauce on the verge of making me suck in air periodically. It was £4.

We headed inland to Bukittinggi, a couple of hours drive from Padang. Our brilliant guide, An, took us to see cow racing, which consists of everyone bringing their prize cows to a mud pit. They have wooden constructions, much like skis, to stand on. The tail goes into the mouth for a quick nip to really get them going, and they're off. There is no such fun-sucks as health and safety, no barriers. Spectators line the sides watching. I stood there terrified as the cows came thundering towards us, eventually leaping out of the way. I was told to stick with the majority of people leaping out of the way, as the cows will go through whichever gaps, and it's better you're not the loner in said gap, for obvious reasons. It was a proper family day out, crowds were there to spectate, and food stalls were set up. Sticky drinks in plastic bags filled with various tapioca shapes (cendol-like) refreshed us.

Bukittinggi itself was all interesting horned temple architecture, lush verdant rice paddies and incredibly kind people. We navigated wet markets and shopping centres, we went to a football match and I've never had so many selfies taken. We were local heroes. All we did was turn up. (Okay we did have a film camera with us.) Unfortunately we missed out on Lake Maninjau which is the reason most tourists head there, but we were on a rigid schedule.

The tradition in Padang, Bukittinggi and the environs is that restaurants have many big bowls of food in the windows - when you arrive they spoon a serving portion out onto tiny plates and place them on your table. They all stack up and you eat what you want - some, you leave completely if it doesn't take your fancy - and you're charged for whatever you eat. I have no idea how you don't get sick from this. There's no refrigeration and the food is out a while, meat and fish alike; we didn't though, and we ate like this a lot. All the dishes were heavily spiced, and the rendangs were especially incendiary and delicious. Fish head curries delighted and challenged our group, and a mystery sausage that was definitely cased using cow guts had the consistence of a firm tofu mousse. Shredded vegetables were tossed in soothing coconut, and nasi goreng and mee goreng (fried rice and fried noodles) were made to order, along with fresh, hot steamed rice. Invariably, every time we neglected to leave anything behind.

Desserts were few and far between but we did have this insanely delicious banana pancake-esque cake - smeared with chocolate, it was fluffy and felt like the insides of a crumpet. They were served warm with a crisp top. I ate them until I felt queasy because if there's one thing I've learnt about travelling abroad, never do the "oh I'll have some next time when I'm less full" because you'll never find it again (Nicaraguan banana cake, I'm looking at you).

We set off to find some beach. Never in my life have I seen so many utterly gorgeous deserted beaches, which was particularly frustrating as I actually needed an abundance of people for the work we wanted to do there. Nevertheless, forget traversing the Thai islands, the place you want to get to is Ricky's Beach Huts, south of Padang. We were picked up in the dark and we were jiggled around for about an hour and a half on a very rustic road. We then met Ricky and his friends in a terrace surrounded by bathtubs of turtles swimming in a foot of water. It took me about 10 minutes to work up the courage to ask if they were for eating. Turns out Ricky also runs a turtle sanctuary.

We were then taken in the pitch black night, in a tiny boat we had to scramble into around the coast for a few minutes. I laughed hysterically, half submerged in the rain, as this was my idea and I was just wondering what I was going to tell our bosses / insurers when we all ended up drowned or murdered. We stumbled into our huts and fell into bed and when dawn broke I woke up to an almost 180 degree panoramic of sand and the sea from my bed. It was pretty amazing.

Go here if you want to sit on a beach, or go on a couple of boat trips but otherwise be largely left alone. It's run by Ricky and his friends, and evening entertainment consists of guitar music and you might get coerced into singing Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd ALL ON YOUR OWN due to a series of bad decisions. Thank god they also have beer.

For somewhere a little less secluded, the Painan is a great jumping off spot to get a boat to neighbouring islands, also incredibly unspoilt but without the commitment of the hour-long jiggle-jeep ride.


Roni's Tours looked after us, and An in particular was brilliant. Very very patient and fun and took us to all the best spots.

Ricky's Beach House also runs tours, though we just stayed in their huts.