Articles in World
I gaze at the 400-plus-pound silverback in what I hope is a submissive fashion. I was warned not to stare. But Humba, the king of a family of mountain gorillas, is a spectacular animal.
He’s as big as a piano, but somehow able to leap up and grab the top of a slender tree and bend it to the ground like a slingshot. Human-like, but not human. And those piercing eyes. To be within a dozen feet of one of these amazing creatures is a bucket-list experience I didn’t even know existed.
Emmanuel de Merode hopes others will make the long trek to Rumangabo, Democratic Republic of Congo, where Virunga National Park is home for 220 of the endangered beasts. But as the park’s chief warden, he knows only the hardiest travelers are likely to accept an invitation to a UNESCO World Heritage site located in the country, one of the world’s deadliest war zones.
To make the park safe for wildlife and visitors, De Merode and his army of rangers have had to take on gun-toting guerrillas, poachers and illegal charcoal traders. Since 1996, more than 130 rangers have been killed, most of them by poachers or armed rebels.
Can tourism lead to a better way of life in war-torn nation?
The latest and most serious threat is what critics call the “oil curse.” The Congolese government is considering revising its laws to allow oil drilling in Virunga and other protected sites. The World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, Great Britain, Belgium, Germany and the European Union Parliament have opposed such a move. They fear oil exploration will introduce serious threats to the park’s fragile ecosystem and worsen the regional conflicts.
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De Merode believes he can offer the people of the Congo a better life than poachers or oil companies. He has launched an ambitious partnership with philanthropist Howard Buffett, eldest son of billionaire Warren Buffett, to turn Virunga into a multimillion-dollar job-creating platform using a combination of luxury tourism, fisheries, agribusiness and energy. But for De Merode and Buffett to win this high-stakes battle, they need others to enlist, starting with the world’s travelers. Call it adventure tourism with a purpose: Visit the Virunga, save a gorilla’s life and maybe a country.
Virunga is “the greatest park on earth and it is something that absolutely has to be protected, no matter what,” says De Merode, a boyish 43-year-old who grew up in Kenya and is a member of the Belgian royal family.
In spite of the damage from fighting and poachers, Virunga remains one of the world’s most biologically rich landscapes: It is home to 706 species of birds as well as 218 mammal species and 109 reptile species. It is the only place on the planet where you can see all three of the great ape species: the mountain gorilla, the lowland gorilla and the chimpanzee. The park is home to a quarter of the world’s population of endangered mountain gorillas.
Virunga was closed in April 2012 after the M23, one of two dozen groups battling for territory in the eastern Congo, seized control of the park headquarters. But in November 2013, the rebels agreed to negotiate a peace agreement, and in the past month the Congolese government has launched a major U.N.-backed offensive against the remaining insurgents. I visited Virunga in January as the park’s staff prepared to welcome tourists back.
Safety is De Merode’s top priority. Our gorilla trek began with a hike through villages and terraced fields of vegetables, accompanied by several park rangers armed with AK-47s and two-way radios. Innocent Mburanumwe, a senior ranger, met us at a station several hours up Mount Mikeno. The 38-year-old Congolese native knows each of the park’s seven “habituated” gorilla families by sight.
Before we set off through the jungle on a narrow path hacked through the undergrowth, Mburanumwe gave us strict instructions on how to behave. If a gorilla charges, don’t run, he said firmly. “Watch me and follow my lead. If the gorilla shows any signs of agitation, such as chest beating, look down submissively. Do not, under any circumstances, try to touch an animal.”
Mburanumwe took the lead, using grunts and other guttural sounds to let the gorillas know we were coming. As we drew close, we were asked to put on white medical masks to protect the animals from human diseases.
Amazingly, he was able to get us within a dozen feet of Humba and his harem, close enough to see the flies on the giant silverback’s black shiny fur and watch two young gorillas thump each other’s chests before skittering off into the jungle. A $400 permit bought an hour with the gorillas, significantly less than a similar experience would cost in Uganda and Rwanda.
De Merode is offering visitors a high-end experience at a bargain price. Congolese are being hired and trained at the Mikeno Lodge, where visitors stay in luxurious thatched-roof huts with stone fireplaces. Rangers are building a high-end tent camp on Mount Mikeno so gorilla trekkers can sleep under the stars.
For adventurers willing to endure a rugged five-hour hike, the park is weatherizing eight wooden cabins perched on a ledge high on Mount Nyiragongo, one of two active volcanos within the park’s boundaries. Their reward will be a night overlooking the world’s largest inland lava lake, lulled to sleep by the roar of the bubbling lava and an occasional whiff of sulfur.
“Every habitat you can imagine except desert and coastline is contained in Virunga,” says De Merode, describing a “best-of-Virunga” tour — yet to be developed — that will encompass all the park’s unique offerings, including a glass-bottomed boat excursion to watch hippos swim in crystal-clear spring-fed pools. “It is exceptional, and it is the window through which a whole economic sector will develop.”
Evelyn Iritani’s trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation in Washington, D.C.
Top photo: Humba, the king of a gorilla family living at Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Credit: Evelyn Iritani
For decades in Mumbai, famously efficient deliverymen called dabba wallahs or dabbawala (one who carries a box) have delivered as many as 200,000 hot meals a day, usually made in home kitchens, to doorsteps and businesses across the city.
The intricacies of this extraordinary colonial-era tradition are revealed in director Ritesh Batra’s new film, “The Lunchbox.”
The practice can be traced to 1890 when Mahadeo Havaji Bacche launched an operation with about 100 men. The system depends on teamwork, organization, color-coding and timing, using “tiffins” as the tin lunchboxes are called.
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The meals are collected by the dabbawalas from homes between 7 and 9 am. The hot food is kept warm by each cook wrapping the tiered lunchbox in a quilted carrier. Dozens of tiffins are slung over the back of a dabbawala, who takes them to the nearest railway station where they are placed on the platform and sorted by color codes that designate the area to which each tiffin is to be delivered.
The “Dabbawala Special” is a train that arrives between 10 and 11:30 a.m. and takes the tins to the various areas of the city where they are to be delivered. At each destination a dabbawala will then pick up 35 to 40 tiffins. It usually takes about 15 minutes for each carrier to locate all of his tiffins and arrange them on his wooden crate, which he then hauls either by hand or behind a bicycle and delivers at around noon. The dabbawala will then be responsible for returning the tiffins at the end of the day.
An intricate system
A single tiffin can change hands three or four times before it is finally delivered to its eater. Once lunch hour is over, the whole process reverses, returning the tiffins to the railway platforms, then to the dabbawala and finally to the suburban homes by 6 p.m.
The original dabbawalas are believed to have been descendants of soldiers of the legendary Maharashtrian warrior-king Shivaji who arrived in Mumbai from places like Junnar and Maashi. Now many are former farmers who couldn’t earn enough from the land or in their communities and hope that relatives in Mumbai already working as dabbawalas will find a vacancy for them. Each new dabbawala’s minimum requirement for work is some capital, two bicycles, a wooden crate for the tiffins, and at least one white cotton kurta-pyjama.
In 1970 the organization was restructured, and the dabbawalas were divided into sub-groups of 15 to 25, each supervised by four mukadams, which are the experienced old-timers who are familiar with the colors and codings of the lunchboxes. Growth in each of the sub-groups depends on what the market will support. New customers are acquired through referrals. But if a lunchbox is misplaced, stolen or lost, an investigation is initiated immediately and customers are allowed to deduct any costs from the responsible dabbawala. A 1998 study of the operation showed there was only one error in 6 million transactions.
A misplaced lunchbox
And this is where “The Lunchbox” begins. It is the story of a widowed office worker, Mr. Fernandes, who is nearing retirement, and a young neglected housewife, Ilya, who thinks her husband might be having an affair. After some advice from an unseen Auntie, Ilya decides that she can win her husband back by improving on the daily noon meal she cooks for him and has delivered by a dabbawala. We are witness over time to the most delicious concoctions: meals such a chicken xacuti, fish puttu, vegetable biryani, aadi perukku and an array of naans and chutneys that Ilya lovingly prepares.
On the first day of her husband’s new and improved lunch, the dabbawala misplaces her tiffin and instead, delivers it to Mr. Fernandes. When he opens his lunchbox to this new delightful meal he is astounded and confused. His enjoyment of that first meal is wonderful to watch.
As these wonderful lunches continue, the mistaken delivery is not reported by either Mr. Fernandes or Ilya. It is the kind of good luck that both of them appreciate. Good food can change a heart. Day by day the lunches continue to improve, and the two begin a simple exchange of letters.
I won’t tell you what happens, but just that the movie is full of delightful moments that made me whip out all of my Indian cookbooks. The serendipitous meeting of two people that occurs because of a mistaken delivery by a dabbawala in a city the size of Mumbai bringing about the end of loneliness is one in 6 million. Don’t miss “The LunchBox.” It will satisfy all your senses.
Top photo: Irrfan Khan as Saajan Fernandes in “The Lunchbox.” Credit: Michael Simmonds, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Much is written about the delights of fresh figs, but unless you have the good fortune to live in or visit a country or region with a Mediterranean climate, you probably have to take the authors’ word that they’re delicious. Fresh, ripe figs are delicate, and they neither travel nor store well. Most of us, though, are able to buy dried figs.
In fact, their ubiquity and their unimaginative preparation both commercially and — frequently — in our kitchens, has greatly reduced the dried fig’s culinary status over the years. This is a shame because by early spring, months of winter food have left us in dire need of assistance to bring our sluggish digestive systems back on track. Mineral-rich, fiber-dense dried figs are there to help us.
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Myth and legend of dried figs
The fig tree (ficus carica), a native of Asia Minor, was greatly appreciated throughout the ancient world. Along with the grapevine, the olive tree and wheat, it provided the staple diet of the Mediterranean peoples for centuries.
In Greek myth and legend, the fig is imbued with wondrous life-supporting properties. Miracle stories abound of travelers in remote areas surviving on a handful of figs or of Alexander the Great’s army fighting a lengthy and successful military campaign sustained by a fig-and-water diet.
So much for legend, but there’s no denying that there is a certain magic about the wild fig of the Greek countryside. Usually quite small and often seedless, the fully ripe flesh is soft and richly flavored, and the fruit yields a superb nectar syrup. Marvelous in appearance, taste and texture, it’s no wonder the fig became the fruit of myth, esteemed as food for the gods.
These wild figs are the ancestors of the variety of figs we have now — purple-black Missions, amber-green Calimyrnas, green Kadotas, brown Izmirs (or Turkish Smyrnas), golden-hued Adriatics. We call the fig a fruit, but it is really an inverted flower, requiring the services of an insect to penetrate its outer skin and pollinate it. A mass of tiny flowers bloom inside the fig and the plentiful seeds are the real fruits.
This unique botanical arrangement and the fig’s sheer beauty have, no doubt, given rise to its traditional aura of mystery and secretiveness, while its role in the biblical story of Adam and Eve hiding their nakedness with fig leaves led to its connotations with lovemaking and to its symbolic importance in literature and art.
Those ancient doctors (sometimes) knew what they were talking about
Whereas the luscious sumptuousness of fresh figs inspires cooks, poets and artists, the ability of dried figs to counter a number of ailments was of great interest to the doctors of antiquity. It’s now known that figs contain enzymes, including ficins, that promote good stomach health and digestion; an antibiotic that kills bacteria; and calcium and vitamin K for strong bones and blood. They are highly fibrous too, making them an effective laxative. So the ancients weren’t far off the mark when they proclaimed figs to be a cure for blotchy skin, heart and liver problems, and constipation.
Fig trees can yield huge harvests and figs ripen quickly. A Cretan neighbor kept a careful eye on her fig trees, waiting for the moment the figs became just-ripe but not bursting, ensuring they would remain intact in storage and hadn’t yet become a feast for insects. She spread the figs on straw-covered bamboo frames, left them to dry for several days in the hot wind, then threaded the dried figs onto long, thin grass strings. She would stop after six or so to add a bay leaf, before continuing to thread the figs to create a large “necklace,” which she would hang over the rafters in her storeroom alongside her courtyard.
In the ancient world, bay leaves, like rosemary, were a highly valued natural disinfectant. Many of today’s traditional dishes that partner bay leaves with a perishable ingredient such as fish can be traced back to a pre-refrigeration time when bay leaves were used, often with olive oil, to preserve the food (and deter insects) until it could be cooked or eaten. The anti-bacterial oil in their leaves that protects the fish (or fig) from insects and deterioration also flavors the food, and this combination of tastes enters the culinary repertoire.
Sometimes it can be difficult to find organic dried figs, but it’s worth the effort because commercially grown figs are often sprayed with chemicals and soaked in preservatives before drying. For a spring tonic, dried figs alone are an energy-boosting snack and a sweetly healthy addition to cakes, ice cream and cookies.
But it’s easy to turn these strange and beautiful flower-fruits into appetizing, nutrient-packed delicacies too. Roll quartered plump, dried figs in cracked pepper for a meze with cured meats, olives, salted almonds and radishes. Marinate whole figs in a light red-wine syrup and serve with aged sheep cheese or almond cookies.
Figs in Red Wine Syrup
For a quick lunch or dessert later, make more of these figs than you need and refrigerate for up to two days. They partner with smoked and salted meats as well as cheese or — perfumed with a sprinkling of orange flower water — try them with sweetened cream, strained yogurt or rice pudding. If you prefer, soak the figs in strong, freshly brewed tea instead of wine.
12 plump dried figs such as Calimyrnas
4 bay leaves
1½ cups red wine
Muscovado or other sugar, as required
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Bay leaves for garnish or a few drops of orange flower water or fresh orange juice, to taste
1. Rinse the figs, trim the stems and combine them with the bay leaves and wine in a nonreactive bowl. Cover and set aside for 4 hours or overnight.
2. Transfer the mixture to a heavy saucepan and slowly bring to a boil. Simmer 10 minutes, then transfer the figs with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain.
3. Measure the cooking liquid, return it to the saucepan and add half as much sugar as measured liquid. Raise the heat and boil 10 minutes or until the syrup lightly coats the back of a metal spoon.
4. Add the lemon juice to the syrup, pour over the figs, cover the bowl and set aside for 2 to 6 hours or refrigerate for up to two days.
5. Serve garnished with bay leaves for savory dishes or sprinkled with orange flower water or fresh orange juice for sweet dishes.
Top photo: Dried Mission figs. Credit: Wynne Everett
Ripe dates are pretty lush as they are, but leave it to medieval Middle Eastern cooks to take that quality practically beyond imagining. They made a sweet called tamr mu’assal (honeyed dates) or tamr mulawwaz (almond-stuffed dates) by poaching dates in honey with saffron and perfume, perhaps stuffing them with almonds first.
It’s easy to make, except for the task of removing the pits if you’re stuffing the dates, but you can sometimes find dates that are already pitted or even ready-stuffed with almonds. And you do have to obtain these perfumes: saffron, rosewater and musk. But the effect on diners is worth it, sweet, plush and staggeringly aromatic. And when I say sweet, I mean you’re in danger of sugar shock.
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You’ll probably have to shop on the Internet to find musk, though. It is highly unlikely that you’ll find natural musk, because the traditional sources of musk — the musk deer and the civet cat — are endangered species. No matter, artificial musk will be plenty aromatic enough. In fact, musk is so strong that when you flavor the dates with it, do not think of putting it in by the drop because one drop is far too much and will make the dates inedible. You’ll use your fingertip to infuse less than a drop in this recipe.
Supple dates and slivered almonds
Dates are consumed at several degrees of ripeness, each of which has its own name in Arabic. Tamr is the variety we’re most familiar with. Tamr dates are sweet and dry, perhaps a little gaunt or even shriveled. If you are fortunate you may find dates at the rutab stage, which are soft, moist and very, very sweet.
They tend not to stay this way because they dry out. Medieval Arab cookbooks often give recipes for plumping up tamr dates with moisture so that they can pass for rutab. If you do have soft-ripe dates (the Medjool variety is sometimes sold this way), don’t bother to remove the pits and stuff them with almonds because they’re too soft. Just poach them in the flavored honey.
Once upon a time you could easily find blanched almonds in markets, but these days the almond choices are often limited to whole, slivered and sliced. You can blanch whole almonds yourself but it’s a little tiresome. You bring water to the boil, take it from the fire and let the almonds sit in it until the peels loosen, then transfer them to cold water and strip the skins off by hand. Sliced almonds are not quite suitable for this dish, but slivered almonds are just fine, in my book. In fact, it’s easier to get two or three slivers into a date than one blanched almond.
These dates are so sweet and rich that two or three are enough of a serving for many diners. You might want to make sure that diners have a glass of water at hand, particularly if you’re using rutab dates, because these can be really, really sweet.
Makes about 30 dates, serves 8 to 10 people
7 or 8 ounces of dates
About 30 blanched almonds or 1½ to 2 ounces slivered almonds
1 pound honey, about 1⅔ cups
¾ to 1 teaspoon rosewater
5 to 8 threads saffron
½ cup sugar, preferably finely granulated in a food processor
1. Remove the pits from the dates. A small skewer or something similar should do the trick. Stuff dates with the almonds.
2. Thin the honey with rosewater. Crush the saffron and stir it into the honey. Put the dates in a small saucepan, cover with the honey and simmer over lowest heat for about 1 hour. The dates should become plumper and the honey should thicken but not boil.
3. Remove a spoonful of the honey and allow it to cool on the spoon. Unscrew the lid of the musk vial, cover mouth of the vial with your fingertip, shake it, then remove your fingertip and close the vial again. Dip your fingertip in the spoon of cooled honey and stir a little of it into the saucepan. If you want it more aromatic, stir in more.
Allow the dates to cool in the honey.
4. Whenever it is convenient, set a rack over a plate, remove the dates from the honey and transfer them to the rack to drain.
5. When the dates have drained, put them on a plate. Mix the sugar with the spices and toss the dates with this mixture to cover. Transfer them to a serving plate or storage bowl. Keep the honey in a closed container and use it like ordinary honey.
Top photo: Perfumed dates. Credit: Charles Perry
When skies turn dark and temperatures plunge, out come the short lists of dishes to warm body and soul. To those lists should be added an easy-to-make hot, savory, deliciously satisfying Moroccan-style chicken tagine.
Making a tagine sounds exotic, but at its heart, the dish is a one-pot braise, a technique as basic to an American kitchen as beef stew.
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Traveling with half a dozen food writers on a hosted trip to Morocco, at the trekking hotel, Kasbah du Toubkal, we were given a cooking demonstration by Hajjah Rkia ben Houari (“Hajjah” is an honorific given to a woman who has completed a pilgrimage to Mecca) and her assistant Fatima. In her kitchen with a view of the High Atlas Mountains, she showed us how to make classic Moroccan dishes: chicken tagine, preserved lemons and lamb couscous. She started the lesson by reminding us that having quality, fresh ingredients is essential.
The chickens, lamb, fresh vegetables and herbs came from the nearby open-air market in the Berber village of Asni. The spices were from vendors, much like the ones we saw in the Marrakesh and Fez souks with their finely ground spices organized in mounds next to bushels filled to overflowing with olives, dates, dried fruit, dried beans and herbs.
Home cooking in the High Atlas Mountains
In the pantry between Hajjah Rkia’s kitchen and the laundry room, sitting on short stools around a low table, we felt a bit like nursery school kids on a field trip. With our knees bumping against the table, we were her prep chefs. She assigned tasks — peeling onions, garlic, carrots and potatoes — and the translator explained how we would cook the dish according to our host’s Berber traditions.
At the end of the cooking demonstration, Hajjah Rkia’s son made Moroccan-style mint tea, which meant the teapot was held high in the air as a hot stream of black tea flavored with fresh mint was poured into small glass cups. He explained the long stream aerated the tea and gave it added flavor qualities. Without the benefit of a test kitchen, we couldn’t validate that opinion, but we loved the spectacle and the tea was delicious.
Just before we sat down for dinner, Fatima cooked flat bread on an outdoor clay stove fueled by wood and charcoal. Charred on the outside, the bread was chewy on the inside. To stimulate our appetites, Fatima’s handmade bread arrived at the table warm from the fire with a plate of fresh feta cheese and a bowl of spicy Moroccan olives. Then the table was set with large platters of the dishes made during the cooking demonstration. What a feast.
Translating Moroccan classics in an American kitchen
Back in my own kitchen, facing an inclement day when friends were coming over for dinner, I remembered that wonderful meal at Hajjah Rkia’s. The chicken tagine appealed to me as the perfect way to beat back the cold. I adapted the recipe to my own palate and the realities of a Southern California kitchen.
In Morocco the pot used to prepare a tagine is a shallow pan with a distinctive conical top. Lacking a tagine, I find the qualities of the dish can be approximated using a covered pot that has a vented lid to promote the thickening of the sauce through evaporation. I use an inexpensive Chinese clay pot, which works well.
Before using a clay or ceramic pot, always check the manufacturer’s instructions. Some pots should be soaked in cold water before using. For some pots, a diffuser must be placed between the pot and the heat source to prevent cracking.
Chicken With Preserved Lemons, Cracked Olives and Golden Raisins
Preserved lemons give the dish a bright, citrus finish. Easy to make at home, preserved lemons will keep refrigerated for months. The lemons can be used after one week, although the longer they have been preserved, the more they will have their distinctive “perfume” flavor.
As a side dish, Moroccan pickled vegetables provide a tangy complement to the savory tagine. The pickles are fun to make and, like the lemons, will keep refrigerated for months.
This recipe calls for cracked olives, which are olives that have been “cracked” sometimes by hand, sometimes by machine to create a deep cut in one side of the olive reaching to the pit. That allows the brine to reach deep into the olive. In cracked olives, the pits are mostly separated from the “meat” because of the cracking. The advantage of cracked olives in a braised dish is the sauce soaks deeply into the olives and the saltiness of the olive passes into the sauce so the effect is different from using regular olives.
1 whole chicken, 3 to 4 pounds, washed
¼ cup kosher salt
¼ cup golden raisins
1 tablespoon ground black pepper, divided
3 tablespoons lemon juice
4 garlic cloves, peeled
⅓ bunch fresh cilantro, stems and leaves
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium red or yellow onion, peeled, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon of powdered saffron (optional)
⅛ teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)
2 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)
1 preserved lemon, rinsed, white pith removed, finely chopped
1 cup cracked green olives
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
⅛ teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)
1. Place the whole chicken in a large container, cover with water. Add the kosher salt. Refrigerate overnight.
2. Place the golden raisins, ¼ teaspoon of the black pepper and lemon juice into a covered container. Allow the raisins to absorb the juice for at least one hour or overnight.
3. Before cooking, rinse the chicken and pat dry. Using a sharp knife, remove the breast meat, legs, thighs and wings from the carcass. Cut apart the wings at the joints. Debone the thighs and legs, taking off the skin.
4. Place the carcass, skin and wing tips into a large pot, cover with water and simmer 60 minutes. Strain the bones. Reserve the stock. The meat on the bones can be picked off and used in a salad or a soup. Refrigerate the chicken stock. When cooled, remove the fat and discard.
5. Finely chop the garlic and cilantro.
6. Cut each chicken breast into four, equal sized pieces. Cut the deboned thighs into four and the legs into two pieces.
7. Over a medium flame, heat the olive oil in a tagine or pot. Add the onions, ground ginger, saffron (optional), garlic and cilantro. For additional heat, dust with cayenne powder (optional). Stir well and cook for two to three minutes.
8. Sauté the wings, thighs and legs in the seasoned oil until lightly browned. Do not add the chicken breasts, which require less cooking time.
9. Finely chop the raisins, which have now absorbed the pepper-flavored lemon juice.
10. Add raisins, remaining black pepper-lemon juice and chicken stock. Stir well to create the sauce. Cover and gently simmer 30 to 40 minutes or until the chicken meat is tender.
11. Add chicken breast pieces, cracked green olives and finely chopped preserved lemon peel.
12. Cover and simmer 20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt or ground pepper. Serve hot with steamed rice as a side dish.
- Do not debone the breast, thigh and legs. Traditionally, the chicken is quartered and the wings are kept whole.
- Along with the onions, add other vegetables of your choice such as leeks, peeled potatoes, carrots, cauliflower and turnips, cut into bite-sized pieces.
- For added sweetness, dissolve 1 tablespoon honey in the chicken stock.
- Before adding the vegetables, lightly drizzle them with olive oil and roast for 15 minutes in a 350 degree F oven on a parchment-paper-lined baking tray.
- Serve with steamed spinach instead of rice.
- Serve with boiled or mashed potatoes instead of rice.
Top photo: The distinctive Moroccan ceramic tagine. Credit: David Latt
My heart goes out to anyone living in the northern United States and Canada this winter, as the 2014 North American cold snap refuses to release its vise-like grip. But I have to admit to a slightly sneaky delight that these same terrifyingly low temperatures may be helping ensure this year’s harvest of one of Quebec’s finest products: ice cider.
Apples and cider have been part of Canada’s history since the first French explorers arrived in the 16th century. Many of the settlers came from Normandy and Brittany, regions of France with rich apple-growing and cider-making traditions of their own. It’s tempting to suppose that cultivars of the fruit from back home were among the products stowed in the holds of their sailing ships. Some of the resulting apples certainly ended up as rough ciders meant for home consumption.
When Quebec first framed its alcohol laws in the 1920s, cider somehow got left off the list, with the result that it could continue to be made only on a domestic scale and not for resale. Only in the 1970s was this corrected, and cider was once again produced commercially.
C’était pas fameux! [It was pretty horrible],” grimaces Benoit Bilodeau, an artisan cider producer on the Ile d’Orleans, a small island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River and just a short ferry ride from Quebec City. Badly made from unripe fruit, full of chemicals and high in alcohol, these early ciders carried the guarantee of a sore head the next morning. “It was an uphill job recovering from that image,” Bilodeau acknowledges.
Ice cider depends on long, cold winter
Nowadays, several different types of cider are produced in La Belle Province (as Quebec is known locally), both still and sparkling and with varying degrees of alcohol content and residual sweetness. But the most prized drop, introduced in the early 1990s, is ice cider, a deep golden elixir with a tight balance of sweetness and acidity and intensely concentrated fruit.
More ice cider information:
Cidrerie Verger Bilodeau, 2200 Chemin Royal, St-Pierre, Ile d’Orleans, Quebec, Canada, www.cidreriebilodeau.qc.ca
You can find ice cider available for purchase online at www.wine-searcher.com
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If you know a little about Eiswein, the naturally sweet wine made from late-harvested, frozen grapes that was originally pioneered in Germany, you’ll have a handle on how ice cider is arrived at. In the same way that grapes destined for ice wine are left hanging on the vine till the temperature drops well below zero, so also are perfectly ripe apples with high sugar content left to freeze on the tree (or picked and stored in wooden crates), awaiting just the correct conditions of intense, prolonged cold. It’s not something that happens every year, hence my furtive rejoicing at this year’s extreme temperatures.
In this process, known as cryoextraction, the still-frozen fruit is pressed to extract a super-concentrated juice, which then ferments gently for several months in stainless steel vats in a cool cellar or outhouse.
Ice cider is generally a blend of juice from several different apple varieties, each chosen for their distinctive qualities — aroma, sweetness and high juice content. Bilodeau grows more than a dozen varieties of apple from which he selects three for his ice cider, which he has christened Nectar de Glace. McIntosh (Canada’s favorite indigenous sweet-sour dessert apple, discovered in Ontario in 1811), Cortland (“wonderfully sweet and juicy”) and Spartan (“great aroma”) all flavor his ice cider.
Yields for this highly concentrated product are a fraction of those for regular cider: From 20 kilograms of apples, Bilodeau gets about 12 liters of ordinary cider, compared with a mere 3 liters of the precious cidre de glace, or ice cider. This fact, together with the inherently risky nature of the exercise — a sudden rise in temperatures, say, or hungry birds in search of sweet apples — as well as the skill required to make such nectar, is reflected in its elevated price: A 375-milliter bottle will set you back about $20 Canadian.
The Association des Cidriculteurs Artisans du Québec has framed strict standards for this premium product, which prides itself on its quality and authenticity. These include minimum sugar levels in the juice as well as in the finished product and no added sugar or alcohol or synthetic colorings. Most important, the apples must be frozen naturally outdoors — not in an industrial freezer — and at temperatures between 8 degrees below zero and 15 degrees below zero Celsius. No juice concentrates may be used, all apples must be grown on the property and every stage of the process must be executed in-house. The finished ice cider must have a minimum alcohol level of 7 percent and a maximum of 13% and be tasted and judged by a professional tasting panel.
If you are currently shivering your way through one of the coldest winters in living memory, console yourself with the thought of Bilodeau up on a ladder in his snowy orchard, plucking burnished red apples from bare branches at 15 degrees below zero, and all for the sake of those tiny bottles of golden nectar.
Top photo: Benoit Bilodeau’s line of ciders includes ice cider (third from left). Credit: Sue Style
We’ve all heard the warnings that travelers should avoid street food. But doing so means missing the real food culture — the simple, fresh delicacies prepared for locals. With a little common sense, it’s easy to leave your fear of the unknown (or of getting sick) behind and reap one of the greatest rewards of travel.
Moroccan culture buzzes in the ancient medina of Fez al-Bali, the world’s largest car-free area, where Gail Leonard, a British ex-pat, offers street food tasting tours through her company, Plan-It Fez.
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For more than three hours, she introduces travelers to the likes of snail soup and cow’s tongue while donkeys trundle along the medina’s narrow, medieval streets, adding their own steady rhythm to the tintinnabulation of men banging copper pots into shape, playing children and the conversational din of the souks, or markets.
Tourists who avoid the food on these cobbled, labyrinthine streets are not only forgoing a culinary experience, but also something intangible, Leonard said. “Vendors are thrilled that you want to taste what they’ve produced. Anyone that doesn’t want to do that misses out on many levels of experience that aren’t just about taste buds.”
Dinner in Morocco is served around 9 or 10 p.m., so street carts are essential to tide Moroccans over between meals. Street food also suits economy-minded travelers. “We were just out of money, so we bought some sandwiches from a cart,” said Bostonian Paige Stockman, 24, gesturing with a thick piece of fresh khubz (bread) stuffed with smoky, slightly charred chicken skewers from a vendor in the Achabine area — prime territory for Leonard’s food tours.
Street food made by lovely hands
Some Moroccans do avoid street food, but not for the reasons you might imagine. Faical Lebbar, owner of Barcelona Café in Fez, abhors the idea of eating standing up. “My father taught me, you eat, you need to sit.” Comparing his restaurant to street food, he added, “The food is the same. It just costs more.”
The higher price may buy the closed doors of a restaurant kitchen, but not necessarily a more skilled chef. And there’s pleasure in connecting directly with the person making your food.
“When food is made by lovely hands, it doesn’t matter whether you got it in the street or in a restaurant — its value is determined by something deeper than price,” said Amine Mansouri, 25, a local who has lived all his life surrounded by the daily rhythms of the Fez medina. The hand that takes your 5 dirhams reaches through time and tradition, inviting you to taste the food that sustains a culture.
What if you can’t afford a tour but want to sample the world of street food? Leonard offers a few recommendations:
1. Look for the busiest carts because they have the most turnover.
2. Be confident. Don’t hesitate to leave and go to another vendor if the food doesn’t look fresh.
3. Make sure the food is piping hot — learn the word for “hot” in the local language so you can ask for a longer cooking time.
4. Ask for a taste to see if you like the food. Vendors will just be excited you’re trying it.
5. Don’t be afraid to say “no thanks.” If you feel awkward, learn some “get out” phrases in the local language, such as, “I’ll come back later.”
6. Eat with your hands, or use bread. You can even bring your own cutlery and cup. Always carry a bottle of hand sanitizer.
If you do run into digestive trouble, Leonard advises cumin. “That’s what Moroccans will do for an upset stomach,” she said. “It has anti-parasitical properties. Just take a spoonful, knock it back with water, and your stomach’s sorted.”
When in Fez, widely considered to be Morocco’s culinary capital, head to the Achabine and try these Leonard-tested delicacies: tehal, camel spleen stuffed with camel meat, olives and preserved lemons (baked like a gigantic sausage, then sliced and fried); makkouda, spicy potato cakes mashed with cumin and other spices and then delicately fried; and cow’s tongue steamed to a brisket-like tenderness.
A must-have is ghoulal, or snail soup. An infusion of more than 15 spices gives the broth a kick that complements its almost earthy, mushroomy flavor. Just look for the beaconing clouds of steam. You’ll soon find ghoulal in a huge silvery pot, boiling away atop a wooden cart manned in the medina by the soup-maker himself.
Just make sure to ask for it extra hot — “skhoun bzef!”
This story was produced in association with Round Earth Media, which is mentoring the next generation of global correspondents while producing untold stories for top tier media around the world.
Top photo: With more than 9,000 small, cobbled streets, the Fez medina is a labyrinth. As dusk falls, shoppers grab a few last-minute items near Bab Bou Jeloud, or the Blue Gate. Credit: Serenity Bolt
Lent, which begins Ash Wednesday (March 5 this year), was the start in Britain of a short period of carnival preceding the 40 days of the pre-Easter fast — abstention from good things including meat, eggs and butter.
As with carnival traditions everywhere, the festival traditionally was marked by egg games — some versions of which are still to be found as municipal events, particularly in the north of England — and involved competitive rituals and the license to behave badly by young people who had not yet acquired families of their own. Medieval market towns, ever on the lookout for trade, took the opportunity to throw rowdy entertainments such as greasing the pig, egg rolling, cockfighting, dancing on the village green, pancake feasts and general indulgence in as much socially unsuitable behavior as the community was prepared to tolerate. Sometimes the festival took the form of pelting rival gangs with raw eggs and flour bags, and there is mention in Victorian accounts of license granted to choirboys to chuck eggs at senior members of the clergy.
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Similar traditions still exist in the lands of the Mediterranean, where Shrove Tuesday’s specialties were — and sometimes still are — prepared by children and young people, those who do not normally cook, so the recipes had to be simple, and the ingredients, just to add to the general anarchy, had to be begged, borrowed or stolen.
As recently as the 1970s, my own four young children took part in just such a Shrove Tuesday ritual in Languedoc in southern France, disappearing with classmates for the whole day and well into the evening. Afterward they were very mysterious about what they had been up to, and it was not until several years later that they told me they had all gone around the village pinching supplies from unattended larders. Then they sneaked off to an isolated barn and cooked up a gigantic omelet in a huge iron pan. After the omelet had been torn up and eaten (no plates, knives or forks permitted), the event developed into wild, unruly games. And that was as much as they were prepared to explain.
Shrove Tuesday Omelet
This is really a fat egg pancake cooked up with bacon and fortified with potato and onion, though these can be omitted if unobtainable from the larder.
Serves 4 to 6
About 4 ounces slab bacon, diced
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 large mild onion, finely sliced
2 to 3 cooked potatoes (about 1 pound), diced
8 large eggs
Salt and pepper to taste
1. In a roomy frying pan or skillet, fry the bacon gently till the fat runs.
2. Add the butter and onion and fry until soft and golden but not browned.
3. Add the diced potato and let it feel the heat.
4. Fork the eggs together to blend. When the potatoes are ready, pour the eggs over and around them.
5. Stir over a gentle heat till most of the egg is set, then stop stirring and let the omelet brown a little on the base.
6. Serve in its pan, without turning it out.
Languedoc and Provence, France, like omelets cooked in the Spanish way, as a fat, juicy egg cake set in olive oil rather than the soft, rolled butter-cooked omelet of northern France. Only the leaves of chard are used — the stalks are too juicy and would make the omelets gray and damp as they cool to the right temperature for eating.
Serves 4 to 6
1 pound Swiss chard leaves (save the stalks to cook like asparagus)
4 ounces strong cheese (such as Cantal, Gruyère, Emmental, cheddar)
Salt and pepper to taste
Generous handful of chervil or flat-leaf parsley, amounting to 3 to 4 heaped tablespoons when chopped
4 to 5 tablespoons olive oil
1. Wash and dry the chard leaves and slice finely.
2. Grate the cheese and beat it into the eggs in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper.
3. Chop the herbs and then mix them in with the eggs.
4. Warm 3 tablespoons of the oil in a roomy frying pan or skillet. Stir in the chard leaves and turn them quickly in the oil till they wilt. (Don’t allow the greens to burn or they will taste bitter.)
5. Tip the contents of the pan into the eggs and stir all together.
6. Add the last tablespoon of oil to the pan. When it is quite hot but not burning, pour in the egg-chard mixture. Cover the pan and cook over a gentle heat until the eggs are set — 15 to 20 minutes should do the trick.
7. Turn the now-firm pancake out, reversing it as you do so the cooked side is uppermost, onto a plate. Slide it gently back into the hot pan (add a trickle more oil if necessary) and finish cooking uncovered on the other side — allow another 5 to 8 minutes. Notice that the cooking is very gentle, which is the style of an omelet in Languedoc and Provence, where culinary habits are closer to those of Catalonia, Spain.
Top illustration: A woman feeding hens. Credit: Elisabeth Luard