Moroccan food is widely considered to be one of the world’s finest cuisines. It’s combination of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and African ingredients and spices blend in dishes handed down from wealthy royal kitchens and humble Berber homes resulting in a culinary tradition which is extraordinarily sophisticated and refined. This rich food heritage has been brought together definitively for western cooks in “The Food of Morocco” by Paula Wolfert, an American cook and cookbook writer whose name is synonymous with the food of the region.
Paula produced her first book on Moroccan food, the groundbreaking “Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco”, in 1973 after having lived there for some time. Her passion for the people and food of Morocco has been a constant in her life and her reputation as an expert on this and Mediterranean food in general – with nine cookbooks under her belt – easily qualifies her for legendary status. She has been repeatedly recognised for her work, winning some of the most prestigious cookbook awards in the world including The James Beard Foundation Award, The Julia Child Award, the M.F.K. Fisher Award and the Tastemaker Award. The previously mentioned “Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco” was inducted into the James Beard Foundation Cookbook Hall of Fame in 2008 and “The Food of Morocco” was a winner in the 2012 James Beard Foundation awards. Whew.
My absolute favourite cuisines are Moroccan, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean, so in light of that and all the above, it will come as no surprise to learn that she is one of my heroes. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy of her new book and now keep it, not on a book shelf, but in the family room where I can (and do) refer to it often. Paula may well be the official queen of Moroccan cooking but she is most certainly not aloof and I was grateful to find her enthusiastically generous about sharing her time and knowledge when I asked her about the possibility of an interview. She tells me she’s not so young any more, but her passion and energy seem in no way diminished by the passing of time and I am thrilled to bits to be able to share just a little of that in this interview.
I understand that you had almost no cooking skills as a young woman. How did you get from there to being described as “one of the leading lights in contemporary gastronomy”?
I grew up in Brooklyn with no particular idea of what I wanted to be. I left college after two years, which prompted my worried family to send me off for a three-day vocational test to evaluate my skills and suggest a reasonable course for my future.
‘They said at the end that I should be a sculptress because my brain-eye-hand connection was extraordinary. So I went out, bought clay, did a self-nude, and sent it to my mother.
That was the beginning and end of my career in sculpture. I found my path, though, shortly after I married Michael Wolfert in 1957. I took some cooking courses at the New York branch of the Cordon Bleu in New York with Dione Lucas. I still cite her as one of the major influences on her culinary life. Following that I spent some time working with James Beard and then I began a 15 year culinary odyssey when I moved with my husband to Morocco , then to France, and back to Morocco.
You first went to Morocco in your early 20’s and published “Couscous and other good food from Morocco” in 1973 – what made you decide to revisit Moroccan cuisine for this book?
It’s forty years later and I’ve learned so much more in that time. I have traveled so much more and have developed a much deeper understanding of the regional cuisines and the varied influences upon them. I have also come to a much deeper understanding of the history, geography and complexity of the foods – the way the flavours balance. American poet and academic Wendell Berry said that “eating is an agricultural act” meaning that how we eat is informed by so much more than just the end product. I wanted to share my much broader understanding of how the lives of regional Moroccans has impacted on the cuisine as a whole.
There is a great emphasis on authenticity in your work and almost no modern Moroccan recipes in “The Food of Morocco”. Could you share your reasons for this?
Authenticity is always my guide, but I try not to let it become my straightjacket. I can select a particular version of a dish to make in an American (or Australian) kitchen, but it will still be authentic. Like everywhere else in the world, Moroccan food is changing and becoming lighter – a lot of the dishes in this book are lighter than they might have been many years ago.
Is there a particular regional Moroccan cuisine or dish that you prefer over the others?
During the time I lived in Morocco I lived in the north, but visited every part of the country – when I first lived there, when I visited later and when I spent time there most recently. The royal cuisine that came out of the four great cities of Marrakech, Fez, Rabat and Meknes was the kind of food I addressed in the first book, but the Berber food is the original cuisine and the food I felt I really had to share. Of course, I can cook Moroccan food for myself any time, but my personal favourite and the food I really miss is the street food. The experience of sipping snail soup in the streets of Marrakech or a roadside snack of the fresh fried sardine sandwiches of Tangier is something I cannot replicate in my kitchen at home. I love all Moroccan food, but obviously cannot recreate the authentic street food experience.
For the novice Moroccan food fan in Australia, what would you suggest are the most necessary spices and implements.
There’s no secret, just good ingredients and the ingredients used in Moroccan cuisine are fairly simple – preserved lemons, good olives and the ten most frequently used spices – cinnamon, cumin, saffron, turmeric, ginger, black and white pepper, cayenne, sweet paprika, aniseed and sesame seeds. It’s important to shop carefully and buy good quality ingredients – preferably from farmers markets where possible. The methods – slow cooking, steaming, browning last – not first – all make the food what it is.
And a tagine – the earthenware of a proper tagine imparts a flavour to Moroccan food that is just not possible with a metallic pan. Sadly, the pace of modern living in Morocco now means that many women are using pressure cookers and simply using their tagines to serve the food!
I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed my chat with Paula – she is full of life and joy and I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to meet her. For those of you who are Moroccan food addicts, I suggest you check out her fabulous Facebook group, Moroccan Cooking, the perfect place to learn all you can about this wonderful cuisine.
“The Food of Morocco” is published in Australia by Bloomsbury Publishing, who have kindly offered my readers the chance to win their own copy of this beautiful and important work on one of the world’s great cuisines. I have ONE copy of this book, valued at $65 to give away, but unfortunately the competition is limited to my Australian readers. For your chance to win this, simply tell us all what your favourite Moroccan dish is and head over to Bloomsbury’s Facebook page here and “Like” them. You can earn extra chances to win by “Liking” Lambs Ears and Honey on Facebook and Tweeting about this post. I will draw this competition on Monday 8 April and all the terms and conditions are below, as is the entry link – good luck my lovelies!
TERMS AND CONDITIONS
1. This competition is open to Australian residents only and will be drawn on Monday 8 April.
2. Log in to enter, using the entry form below, and click on each task to view the instructions.
3. The first two tasks are mandatory and must be completed to enter the competition. Subsequent tasks are optional, but will gain you more entries, thus more opportunity to be a winner.
4. Make sure you record your entry to be counted.
5. I have ONE copy of The Food of Morocco to give away.
6. The lucky winner will be drawn at random.
7. The winner will be notified by email and their name will be posted here. They must reply within 48 hours or the competition will be redrawn.