The Magic of the Maghreb: Part One – Ancient Times
The Maghreb has been in the news a few times in the past couple of years and Egypt, for the second time, protested until they got what they wanted. May the Egyptian nation have better luck this time and may things go from strength to strength – just make sure you choose with your heads at the next election. This is a fascinating part of the world with history that’s equally fascinating so, if you’re planning to visit, prepare to be blown over by the incredibly good food. I love it.
In Arabic, the word Maghreb means land of sunset; it stretches over 4,200 kilometres and consists of Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco – actually Egypt doesn’t, strictly speaking, form part of it. When the Phoenicians arrived here around the first millennium BC to build trading posts all along the coastline, they found people living there – they were the Berbers (who called themselves Imazighen, meaning free men). As most of us know, the Phoenicians were adventurers and merchants who weren’t particularly interested in either land or people – they were hell bent on making money, little else.
The Carthiginians, though, were related to Phoenicians (long story) and they liked a little power so, eventually, they ruled the Phoenician trading settlements and in the end, the whole of the Maghrebian coastline. Carthage, of Hannibal fame, was founded around the 9th century BC near modern day Tunis by people from southern Lebanon which was then known as Tyre; they married into the Berbers and traded with the people of Western Africa, travelling there across the Sahara by caravan. It’s common cause the Carthage was a quite a commercial powerhouse, only becoming interested in agriculture towards the end of its existence when young Hannibal went to pick a fight with the Romans in Rome, crossing the Pyrenees in 218 BC with 40,000 men and heaven knows how many elephants; that was the beginning of the end. The 200 year scrap between the two powers ended in favour of the Romans when the Romans crossed the Mediterranean and put an end to the nonsense. Carthage resisted for three years but then in 146 BC, she was destroyed – they say the fires raged for five days after her surrender.
At first, Rome was only interested in the coastline with the exception of Tunisia but, in time, they wanted more. The Romans always wanted more. Scipio Africanus began the Fossa Regia but in time, limes were added and then the region was divided into four provinces with security provided by Augustus’s third legion which was made up of Romans and Berbers. By the middle of the second century AD, only Africans ensured order on behalf of Rome. The Romans planted wheat, olive oil, wine and wood; they mined marble and reared mules and everything was exported to Rome. At that time there were massive farming estates throughout the area. In time towns were built around these estates (complete with markets, forums & temples). There was no water but this didn’t bother the Romans – they simply imported it. They built aqueducts across the massive plains and mountains and so the cities were built. Roman genius never ceases to amaze me. Today it all lie in ruins, not for lack of rain but because man has become sloppy and lazy. Of course it didn’t help that the Vandals, the Moors and the Ottoman Turks stupidly destroyed everything either. It took the Vandals a mere 100 years to bring everything to a standstill and all but destroy everything the Romans ever built. And the achieved what?
The Vandals, under King Gaiseric entered the Maghreb (after the Visigoths chased them out of Spain) and made war on everyone they saw; they sent marauding expeditions into the Roman and Berber territories and pillaged and stole everything they saw, going as far as Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia until then the Byzantines got annoyed and finally threw them out of the Maghreb in 533 AD. The Vandal royals and nobles were hauled to Constantinople for punishment and the rest were eventually absorbed into the Berbers. The Byzantines made a concerted effort to control the Berber tribes but it took them a century to do so; finally peace reigned and life returned to normal, prosperity following. And then the Arabs came bringing death, mayhem and Islam with them. Religion has a way of bringing bloodshed with it – all religions.
Bear in mind that this part of Africa is not Arab; it is, in fact, Berber and the Berbers are a composite race who originate from the eastern Libou (whose prehistoric ancestors came from the south of Spain); interestingly, the Berbers claim that Goliath of the Bible is their ancestor and it’s all very fascinating but that’s a story for another day and since this is not an anthropological discussion, I’ll leave it at that. The Berbers loved their freedom and their democratic way of life and resisted the Turks, the Spaniards and the French vehemently and, not less so, the Arabs. Whilst the Arabs were able to control some towns and cantonments, the countryside was Berber territory.
During the 800 years of Arab rule, four important dynasties (Kharijites, Isrisids, Amoravids, Almohads) succeeded one another here and they didn’t rest on their laurels; they built cities (Fez was built by the Isrisids), mosques, monastries and spent a fortune agricultural and hydraulic works (built on top of the Roman foundations). By the eleventh century they were mega rich and eventually moved to Spain to enjoy their money. The nomads had become rich men and military exploits became a thing of the past. Then came the collapse because the Empire had become to big and the intrigue too deadly.
It is on this history, that the food of the region is based.
To start, there are the essential spice mixes and most mixes contain some of this Arabic seven spice (bokharat) so here’s a recipe; incidentally, it’s very popular in Egyptian cooking.
- 2 tbsp ground black pepper
- 2 tbsp paprika
- 2 tbsp cumin, first roasted and then ground
- 1 tbsp coriander, first roasted and then ground
- 1 tbsp cloves, lightly roasted & then finely ground
- 1 tsp ground nutmeg – do be careful with nutmeg as too much of it can destroy your spice mix
- 1 tsp cinnamon, simply finely ground
- 1/2 tsp ground cardamom – you need to roast this very lightly and then grind it yourself; the ready ground cardamom is horrible.
- Combine all the ingredients well and then keep in a sealed container; like all ground spices it will probably last about six months.
One of the most essential spices in Libyan cooking is a spice called Bzaar; there are many different recipes for this because it varies from town to town; this is the one that I’ve been using over the years:
- 2 tbsp turmeric
- 2 tbsp ground caraway
- 3 tsp ground coriander
- 1 tsp of the Bokharat (the recipe above)
- ½ tsp fennel, ground
- 1 tsp cumin, ground
- Mix everything well and keep in a sealed container for about six months.
This is a Libyan recipe and is as simple as it is delicious; the Libyan coastline is teeming with fish – as is most of the coastline along the region we know as the Maghreb. The most popular fish seems to be mullet, shad, sea bream and my absolute favourite here, the mackerel so here’s a recipe using, you guessed, mackerel.
- 6 Mackerel, get your fishmonger to clean it properly and ask him to remove the backbone
- 10 tiny onions
- 2 green peppers, seeded and cut into cubes – I always roast them first just to remove the skin but not to cook them because I don’t like the taste otherwise but if you want authentic, don’t do that.
- Extra virgin olive – around 2 good tablespoons
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
- A little ground paprika, also to taste
- Freshly made harissa – not too much because you’ll destroy the taste of the fish.
- Slice each fish into five pieces and set aside; now, in a large dish, mix all the rest of the ingredients and then pop in the fish slices, turning them well so that they’re well covered in the marinade; allow them to marinate at room temperature for around an hour – if it’s sweltering hot, put it in a cool room.
- Thread them onto skewers and grill them over the coals for about 5 – 10 minutes, turning them often and basting with the marinade.
- Serve with fresh bread and tomato salad.