During Ramadan, Essaouira's streets empty at sunset as quickly as a lift contaminated by a bad fart. And an hour later they are pulsing with freshly energised life. People who were once at the end of their tether become charming and friendly. Given that I get grumpy after an hour of not eating, I’d make a terrible Muslim. I’d land up sneaking off for an illicit bacon sandwich.
On our first night Ramadan really caught us out. Along with all the other tourists we found ourselves milling around between 7 and 8 trying to find a drink, or better still eat. But nowhere was open. My stomach growled. Cowie got tense. She knows better than anyone else what happens when I’m hungry and there is no immediate prospect of food.
Then we almost tripped over a restaurant called Laayoune which I had read about in a guide book. Before Cowie even knew it we were seated and ordering. The restaurant then filled up quicker than a waiting list for a half price starter home. And as we looked around we could see all the people we’d been in food purgatory with.
I chose a lamb and prune tagine with almonds and Cowie had chicken with preserved lemon and onions.
My lamb tagine was smoldering hot and startlingly aromatic. The couple on the next table could barely contain themselves as they waffled in French about “le bouquet”. The prunes were plumy and sweet, giving the sauce a syrupy consistency that I always fail to achieve when I try to cook a tagine. The meat yielded and flaked, yet was still moist. The sesame seeds and almonds leant the dish a texture that dragged it away from being mush to something more refined. I had to keep both Cowie and the French couple next door at bay whilst I mopped up the remnants of my sauce.
Cowie’s chicken tagine with preserved lemon, onions and sultanas was equally delicious. The meat wasn’t as interesting as the lamb, but what it lacked in substance it made up for in flavour. The sharpness of the preserved lemon balanced coyly with the sweetness of the sultanas and onions to create a dish that was a bit of a mess to look at, but wonderful to eat.
From my experience with tagines, both cooking them and eating them, the best are the simplest. I am guilty of trying to introduce too many flavours when I cook them, when all you need are a few components that are carefully balanced. Lemon + chicken + onions works brilliantly. As does lamb + prunes + almonds. But lamb + preserved lemon + prunes + almonds + sultanas + onions is far less than the sum of its parts. And whatever you do, don’t chose “Tagine Royale” or “Cous Cous Royale”, because what you’ll get is a medley of Moroccan cooking’s greatest hits all on one plate.
We had a lot of tagines in Essaouria and Laayoune is the place that set the mid price benchmark. Don’t expect to feel terribly special or find anything unusual on the menu. But, choose from their range of simple tagines and you’ll be rewarded with a meal that you’ll want to memorise and replicate when you get home.
This is part of a mini-series of posts about Essaouira.