The Food of Morocco by Paula Wolfert
Published by Bloomsbury
September 2012 – Price £35.00
When Paula Wolfert states unashamedly that her book is full of ‘previously uncollected’ recipes rather than brand new ones, you know you’re in the hands of an expert. The Food of Morocco is the result of Paula’s fifty years of research and, rather than featuring showy twists and fancy trills on historic recipes or startling combinations of traditional ingredients, it’s a glorious and exhaustive compendium of centuries-old Moroccan cooking. To give you an idea of its heft, it was delivered to me, not in a padded envelope, but in a large cardboard box.
I doubt I’ll ever get through all her recipes – in fact, I fully intend to avoid some of them. Spiced Brain Salad with Preserved Lemons or Liver and Olive Salad, sound terrifying. I will however, be trying the ingenious recipe for warqa pastry, which comes with pen and ink drawings to explain the method.
As a long-time fan of the writing of Paul Bowles, I can’t wait to make the recipe for Chicken Tagine with Prunes and Almonds in the Style of the Rif Mountains. Wolfert heard about the dish from members of the ‘Tangier literary set’. The Moroccan writer Mohammed Mrabet had cooked it for them, but despite all their attempts to describe it to her, Wolfert couldn’t get the recipe right. ‘Finally Paul Bowles, who had discovered and translated Mrabet, recalled the measurements for me from memory’. A recipe whose labyrinthine path took it from Tangier, via Mrabet, translated by the great Paul Bowles, is as appealing to me as anything I’ve ever cooked in my life.
As the owner of three slightly unpredictable quince trees, I’m delighted to find a book with so many quince recipes. Chicken with Caramelised Quinces and Toasted Walnuts sounds and looks exquisite, as does Lamb Tagine with Quinces from Marrakech. Wolfert’s stunning collection also includes an Avocado and Date Milk Shake, which is worth trying for its oddity alone. I intend to cook from this book for years.
The Food of Morocco radiates integrity, scholarship and expertise. It shimmers with Wolfert’s passion for her subject. It’s so detailed that it should really be turned into a PhD thesis, but it also has a huge sense of romance and fun. When reading a book for the first time, I always look at the acknowledgements page. Authors often reveal their true characters when they thank – or don’t thank – those that have helped them. Any writer who pays a special tribute to ‘the snail wranglers of Sonoma and Napa’ – a group of Wolfert’s friends who attempted to collect enough snails for her to make Marrakech Snail Soup – is ok by me. The soup may have been disastrous, but the experience was a triumph – in other words, it demonstrates the perfect attitude to life. Just because something doesn’t work, doesn’t mean that it wasn’t worth doing.