The best tagine I’ve had was in Marrakesh, in a little local worker’s café/restaurant down a side street of Jamaa el Fna square. This was far from a touristy spot, all battered formica tables, flimsy plastic chairs and buzzing flourescent strip lights, but its bustle and popularity with hungry locals drew us in. They had about 20 tagines lined up on the front counter (in plain, cracked terracotta pots), steaming away on charcoal stands. The accumulated smell was incredible. Choosing was easy, there was no menu.
Under the lid were a pair of stringy chicken legs, some potato, carrot, onion, lemon, sour olives and something like turnip. All of these had been doused with a spice mix. At the bottom was a small amount of cooking liquor, which the moist couscous accompaniment soaked up perfectly. A humble, unspectacular dish, certainly, but a damn good one. The chicken was falling-about-soft, but not dried out at all, the vegetables were enriched by the chicken’s juices and the whole thing was infused by that intangible complexity of north African spices. Unfussy slow cooking at its finest.
I’ve had tagines since, posher examples in much ‘nicer’ establishments (both in London and Marrakesh), but I’ve never had one that came close to that humble chicken delight. Nor have I had much joy in making them, until now. Recipes have always led me down that overly fruited and nutted variety of tagine you find on British menus. All ‘premium’ ingredients, but no actual character. So I went on instinct, and here’s where it took me…
lamb shoulder (as much as you need!) cut into medium sized pieces and mixed with five cloves of garlic and the same amount of ginger, pounded with some oil, s&p, turmeric, paprika and dried rosemary. Marinade for as long as you can afford.
Soak some saffron in off-boiling water (you only want about quarter of a cup full), and cut up a couple of shallots, carrots and celery stalks into largish pieces of similar size. Slice a medium green chilli lengthways. Arrange the meat and vegetables in a tagine pot or smallish casserole, pour over the saffron and sprinkle with plenty more salt, pepper and ras el hanout spice mix.
Cook at around 115 degrees for two hours. Then add three of four medium potatoes, cut lengthways into wedges and seasoned with more spices, and cook for another hour, or until the potatoes and lamb are cooked. Try and arrange the potatoes so that they sit on top of the meat and veg and steam/bake instead of soaking up the cooking juices.
You can serve this with couscous if you like, but we just had it with the potatoes. Sprinkle lots of chopped parsley or coriander over to finish.
While cooking this dish, one wine kept coming to mind as the perfect match: a warm and spicy Minervois from South West France. We tried one from Le Rouge de Azerolle, a deep, complex red packed with sun-baked fruit and Chrismas spice flavours, all aided by decent tannins. It worked well with the lamb tagine, but not nearly as well as I’d hoped. The wine is just too flavourful to pair with an equally complex dish, and as both demand your palate’s full attention, this leads to all sorts of confusion.
Instead, what really stole the show was this cracking Beaujolais-Villages from Domaine de la Plaigne, an absolutely gorgeous example of what can be done with the Gamay grape in the right Beaujolais vigneron’s hands. The wine’s vibrant cherry and blackberry fruit, coupled with its lovely floral notes and earthy acidity, did everything the tagine needed: cutting through the fat, highlighting the spices and complementing the complex flavours really well, but in a humble, ‘supporting actor’ role. Wonderful stuff!