During the middle of the day it was no longer the sun alone that persecuted from above–the entire sky was like a metal dome grown white with heat. The merciless light pushed down from all directions; the sun was the whole sky.
– Peter Bowles, The Sheltering Sky
Thousand-year-old mosques, strolls through a medieval medina, and camelback treks across the Sahara can all be found on many a traveler’s list of desires when in the North African state of Tunisia. These rather romantic travel thoughts also bring up that song, “Midnight at the Oasis/Send your camel to bed/Shadows paintin’ our faces/Traces of romance in our heads/Let’s slip off to a sand dune…” Oh I think you get the idea.
According to the “The Momo Cookbook-A Gastronomic Journey through North Africa written by Chef Mourad Mazouz of London whose little gem of a cookbook provides glimpses into the land of the Maghreb, the region of northwest Africa comprising the coastlands and the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. The collection of recipes bridges the region’s history to the creation of a distinctive cuisine which, over the centuries, has been influenced by Jewish, Arabic, Italian and Spanish culture.
Folklorists have an expression in this region which states that, Tunisians get hungry when they see the color red, the color of appetite and passion. It’s also the color of harissa, a fire-red chili blend made from crushed dried red peppers, garlic, salt and caraway seeds that is central to Tunisian cuisine. Known for its heat and its association with red (passion), another folk tale shares that a man can judge his wife’s love by the amount of spice in his food—if it’s bland then romance is dead.
Given the area’s Mediterranean climate fruit is is often often found on the table at the end of a meal. The quality and range of fruit is said to be outstanding, bursting with flavor. Tunisia ice cream, or sabayon made with egg yolks and often served with fresh fruits that have been peeled and artfully arranged as if an artist’s palette, on a large tray with ice. Here you’ll find watermelon, cherries, grapes, apricots,and strawberries. Fruit juice drinks made from oranges,or ruby-red pomegranate whose pressed seeds are often mixed with a sugary rose-flavored water as a remedy for the traveler’s tummy and other fruit are available from street vendors and in cafes. Seasonal fruits include the wild peaches of early summer its interior carrying a deep red color and a jacket of thick beige fuzz and is similarly and called pêche de vignes of the Lyonnais region; small, bite-sized pears and mishmish, very delicate apricots. Or the Barbary Fig (known here in the States as Cactus Fruit or Prickly Pear) first introduced by the Spanish in the 16th century available October through December.
Turkish baklava has been integrated into the baking culture here. Layers of whisper thin pastry interspersed with ground pine nuts, almonds, hazelnuts and pistachios, bathed in golden butter, baked and dipped in a honey syrup in all it’s many shapes, sizes and delights. Sweets in this country are, to an American palate said to be sticky and overly sweet. Pastries are delicate and scented with the fragrance of orange blossom water. Many are filled with dates, nuts and dressed in honey. Zlabiya, is a snake-like pastry with a crispy dark brown shell simply dressed with honey; gazelle horns are delicate, flaky horn shaped pastries with almond paste and sugar. In Kairouan search out the street carts selling the local specialty called makroudh, deep fried semolina pastries stuffed with dates and covered in honey syrup. And for breakfast brik à l’oeuf a thin pastry wrapped around tuna and an egg, fried and served with harissa or if you prefer a sweeter version filled with almond or sesame paste and covered in honey.
Mint tea is the classic and predominant tea choice. The au pignon or the a l’almande, offers up a cup of brew with pine nuts or almonds floating in the cup, this lends a welcoming buttery taste. In cafes you will also see locals drinking Ahwa arbi (Turkish coffee) fragrant with orange blossom or rose water and other espresso-based pick-me ups. There’s also an aromatic spirit called Boukha made from distilled figs is served straight up at room temperature or chilled and mixed with Coca-Cola. (that’ll certainly keep you going!)
However in through this traveler’s window, I see myself in Sidi Bou Said winding and weaning my way through the steep, narrow alleys, lined with whitewashed, blue-shuttered houses to the restaurant at the top, only to sit under the open sky with the brilliant sunlight warming my face as I linger over a few samsa, sipping mint tea, the smell of jasmine dancing in the air.
Crisp Almond & Sesame Pastries
About 2 Dozen
2/3 cup sugar
1 1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tsp orange-flower water
1 1/2 cups blanched almonds, lightly toasted and ground
1 1/2 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 oz filo pastry
olive oil, for brushing
lightly toasted sesame seeds for sprinkling
Place the water and 1/2 cup sugar into a saucepan and gently heat, stirring until dissolved. Add lemon juice and bring to boil. The consistency will be syrupy. Remove from the heat and add the orange-flower water. Allow to cool.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a mixing bowl, stir together the ground almonds, orange zest, cinnamon and remaining sugar. Mix together until well blended.
Brush one sheet of filo with olive oil, keep the other sheets covered with a damp cloth. Cut the oiled sheet into 3 lengthwise strips. Place a small spoonful of filling at the bottom of each strip.
Fold the sides over the filling then roll the pastry up along the length. Brush inside the end of the pastry with oil and seal it to the roll. Brush with oil and put on a baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining pastry and filling. Bake the pastries for 15-20 minutes until crisp and golden.
Lower the pastries a few at a time into the warm syrup, leave for about 3 minutes so the syrup infuses the pastries. Remove on to a plate and sprinkle generously with sesame seeds. Let come to room temperature before serving.