Sunday, 28 October 2007


At the moment in France, attention seems to be focused on the Sarkozy divorce and the probability of further transport strikes. But I assume that in due course the perennial triptych of identity, immigration and integration will once again reclaim its familiar place in debate and discourse.As a newcomer here, and one largely unable to access the local media, this is a discussion that I can only follow in the most general terms. But insofar as I understand it, it is one not wholly dissimilar to that which has also been taking place over the last number of years across the Channel.

I thought about these questions last Sunday when I visited my local market. It was loud as usual, the odd bit of Arabic intermingling with North African-accented French from the outdoor vegetable vendors. Late middle-aged matrons, trailed by their shopping trolleys, proceeded down the centre aisle at a business-like pace. Older men in fez-like caps stood on the corners, smoking and chatting. The bobos­ (bourgeouis bohemians) who had already finished their shopping were gathering outside the Baron Rouge for a glass of wine.

It’s tempting to draw certain conclusions from this superficially harmonious intermingling, to use the example of the Algerian pastry shop next door to the cheesemonger as evidence that a multicultural France is alive and well, at least in my little corner of Paris. And even if the French, far more secure in their indigenous culinary traditions than their English counterparts, have been slower to fully embrace the food of their immigrant—and former colonial—populations, it nonetheless seemed right—at least to me—that I had a lunch that day of quiche, followed by a dinner of harira, the hearty Moroccan soup. Idealistic? Oversimplistic? No doubt. But perhaps for the French, the road to real integration may start with the stomach.

Traditionally eaten to break the daily fast during Ramadan, harira hovers between soup and stew. The inclusion of lamb or chicken, while not required in what is already a thick and protein-rich potage, would act as a sign of status. Although the basic formula remains the same, harira recipes vary in the type of legumes used (dried chickpeas would be typical), the quantity of vegetables and the finishing starch—any short pasta, rice, or even bulgur. Flat bread may be the most obvious accompaniment, but I chose to go the boulangerie for a baguette.

The method and seasoning for this version are adapted from Moro: The Cookbook and Casa Moro. I did, however, opt to brown the meat first in order to avoid any greasiness. If you choose to make the recipe without the meat, either use well-flavoured stock and/or begin by sautéing the vegetables in some olive oil or butter.

Overall time: 2 hours
Active time: 30-40 minutes
Special equipment: a large pot
Serves 4

350-400 grams neck of lamb, cut in pieces, or scrags of another cheap stewing cut
2 litres cold water
3 branches celery
2 carrots
1 large onion
3 cloves garlic
a good pinch of saffron
2 small cinnamon sticks
1/2 heaping teaspoon turmeric
1 scant teaspoon ginger
½ heaping teaspoon allspice
1 small bunch each coriander and parsley
half a dozen grates of nutmeg
1 cup small green lentils
1 can chickpeas, drained
½ can whole or crushed tomatoes, drained
cornstarch or flour to thicken (optional)
2 handfuls vermicelli or cappellini
To serve:
remaining herbs, lemon and, if some heat is desired, harissa

Brown the lamb well over a medium-high heat. When this is done, drain off any excess fat and cover the meat with the cold water. Turn the heat well down. While the pot returns to the boil and the stock develops—this will take at least 20 minutes—chop the vegetables and herbs. Allow the liquid to boil for a few minutes, skimming any scum, then add all the vegetables, 2/3rds of the herbs and the spices. Season well with salt and pepper and turn the heat back down to a simmer. Allow this mixture to cook for 30 minutes or so, then add the legumes and tomato. (If you use whole canned tomatoes, crush them in your hands while adding to the pot.) Cook for a further half-hour. During this time, you can thicken the mixture either with a few teaspoons of cornstarch or the same quantity of flour made into a paste with paste. If using flour, stir very thoroughly to avoid lumps. Just before you want to eat, bring the mixture back to a boil and add the noodles. Once the noodles are cooked through, spoon into bowls. Herbs, lemon and harissa can all be added at the table.

No comments: