The date: Sunday, December 19th 1999.
The time: Around 10pm.
The place: Casablanca, Morocco.
My sister and I are arriving after a long day of travel from Singapore for her and a short but crazy day travelling from Paris for me. We’re tired. We’re booked on Explore’s Imperial Cities and Deserts trip over the “millennium holidays” at Amanda’s insistence. A few months earlier, our conversation had gone something like this:
A: I want to go to Morocco at Christmas and have found the perfect trip so we’re not two single girls wandering around Morocco on our own.
M: How much is it?
A: (says price – I can’t remember now but for a poor English teacher in Paris, it seemed a lot)
M: Oh that’s a bit much.
A: I’ll pay half.
Sisterly love at its best!
I had never been on a “group trip” before then, though Amanda had. She insisted that it would not be full of losers (I guess in my mind I had thought of a bunch of people following a tour guide carrying an umbrella saying “This way please..”) and I chose to believe her. In any case, even if we didn’t like anyone else on the trip, we would have each other, right?
Have to say that evening in Casablanca (btw, it’s NOT the romantic town you are picturing, it’s actually a quite run of the mill Moroccan city), things did not bode well. As we alighted from the bus (actually, not the mini bus we were expecting – a gigantic 42 seater (for just 20 of us) in bright banana yellow. Way to go to stand out as the tourists…), the first thing we hear is a loutish (what I thought was) American voice (male) calling down to us “Bon-JOOR ladies.”. Me and Amanda (and I know that’s grammatically incorrect, but that’s what we say in my house just to bug my dad, the grammar police) look at each other and roll our eyes and go “LOSER!” to each other in the way only sisters can.
The next morning at breakfast, the same voice was to be heard loudly claiming the only pot of coffee at the table and we were again not impressed. Fortunately, since I speak fluent French, I made my way into the kitchen and found another, triumphantly passing the owner of the voice brandishing my pot of coffee.
And that, my friends was my first introduction to Neil. Fortunately for him, I was able to excuse his initial bad behaviour to discover he is actually an extremely fun travel companion.
Not the most auspicious of meetings, true, but things did get much better from then on (duh – obviously!). Neil, Amanda and I made fast friends with another Australian on the trip, Tami who arrived with a 4L bottle of Bailey’s in her luggage (back in the days when you could carry that much) and sat at the back of the bus with us and kept us entertained with her constant stream of one-liners. She even shared some of her Baileys!
Here we all are, bonding over a delicious meal that included the bonus Dalek-type heater who joined us at the table.
(btw, these pictures are scanned from non-digital ones, hence the quality. It was 1999, people and digital cameras were few and far between).
We made fast friends as we all (except Amanda who lived in Singapore) purchased the traditional Moroccan djellaba which Neil and I still wear every Hallowe’en as we sit on our porch and hand out candy:
We also enjoyed some wonderful meals together:
And in a very memorable New Year’s Day adventure, we headed out in a calèche (horse and carriage) to the drive through McDonalds for our first meal of the new millennium (as you do..) where we were delighted to see the “McRamadan” menu (yes, it was called that) on offer, though not for us:
And the next 10 years, as they say, is history. Eight months after that trip, I found myself in Toronto teaching French as a Second Language in what was the most giant leap of faith I have ever taken (and probably inducing many sleepless nights for mum and dad). Fortunately, it paid off!
Right then, so what’s all this got to do with Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24?
Well, as many of you know, we are in Paris this Christmas in a nod to my “Hey, I moved to Toronto from Paris to be with you mister, let’s make sure we go back to visit it often” mentality.
It’s true, I miss Paris. Sorry but I can’t pretend otherwise. I wouldn’t however, have my life any other way – I have a wonderful job, great friends, a house that sometime in the next thousand years we might be able to call our own, a beautiful cat and, of course Mr “Bon-JOOR ladies” himself, Neil. Life is good.
When the call for 24, 24, 24 proposals came out, I got to thinking about the date and it rang a bell. December 19…. I looked back in the calendar and voilà – it was going to be the 10th anniversary of our first meeting. What could we possibly to to commerate this historic moment? Well, my first thought was to fly down to Casablanca from Paris but a) well, that would have cost a pretty penny and b) after a trans-Atlantic flight I was pretty sure we wouldn’t really feel like heading back to the airport as soon as we arrived in Paris. So it was going to have to be Moroccan food in Paris.
I got onto the lovely Mathilde to check that my memory was serving me correctly and that some of the best Moroccan food in Paris was to be found at Le 404, literally a hop, skip and a jump from the apartment we were going to be renting. A quick email to Véronique, of French Cooking for Dummies and our reservations were made. Gotta love the blogosphere for making friends who will help you out! Thanks ladies!
I planned to surprise Neil with a meal at “Le 404”, arguable the best Moroccan restaurant in Paris. The New York Times describes it as “true desert decadence”, while Cityvox says it’s “a charming little dive”. A wonderful representation of multi-faceted Morocco, then! In my nearly 6 years’ living in Paris, I never made it there, so what better reason than the 10th anniversary of our meeting?
Le 404 only has two seatings per night – 8pm and 10pm. Since I knew we would be jetlagged and exhausted from the leadup the the trip, I opted for the 8pm seating. The restaurant is fairly small and intimate but not in an intimidating way. Everyone sits pretty close to each other but somehow it doesn’t seem that way, and it’s not even that noisy. The décor is sublime!
We started with some spicy olives and some sweet beets.
Neil ordered some Algerian wine…
This was spectacular. Cheesey with a touch of mint and light flaky pastry. A gooey mouthful of deliciousness.
Some rustic bread appeared with our main courses:
This was such a great dish. The preserved lemons (teeny tiny little things) really made this a standout. As in Morocco, the meat was all on the bone but had obviously been braising so long that the meat simply fell off the bone. Heavenly!
We also ordered tajine d’agneau, petits pois et artichauts:
We were dubious (well, Neil was) about the peas but this really worked too. The lamb was very tender and didn’t overpower the vegetables – fragrant and hearty without being too heavy.
Next up, tajine d’agneau, pruneaux et raisins secs:
This was Morocco on a plate – the almonds, raisins and prunes are so typical of the dishes we ate when we were there (though the random hard boiled egg was a bit of an intruder). Again, the lamb was tender and moist, obviously having been braised for a good amount of time. Braising is such a great technique that we so often forget about in the kitchen.
At this point, we were pleasantly full but not at all feeling like we had over eaten. I chose to have small bites of each dish separately to savour each one’s particular flavours.
So it was the perfect amount. But you know how at the end of a great meal, you just need a little mouthful of sweetness? (No? Well clearly you don’t hang around me or my mum!). Unlike in Morocco, we did not have endless supplies of Kinder Surprises (I think I had one every day I was there!). We didn’t want a huge dessert, even to share, so we opted for pâtisseries marocaines:
These were the perfect end to the meal. Almond-honey-sesame flavours provided just the thing to round off a near-perfect meal.
With a mint tea, of course!
So there you have it. 10 years after our first meeting, we shared a wonderful meal reminiscent (though so much more refined) of the wonderful food we discovered in Morocco. Thanks to Foodbuzz and Visa Signature for the opportunity to celebrate a special date in a most appropriate way. A wonderful start to our vacation 🙂
PS: Neil’s French has definitely improved since then…