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JEFF KOEHLER

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April 30th, 2009

Windy Afternoon, Maputo

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Along the beach outside Maputo. April 2009 © Jeff Koehler.

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April 28th, 2009

Mercado Municipal, Maputo, Mozambique #3

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Squid in Maputo’s Mercado Municipal. April 2009 © Jeff Koehler.

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April 24th, 2009

Mercado Municipal, Maputo, Mozambique #1

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In Maputo’s Mercado Municipal. April 2009 © Jeff Koehler.

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February 25th, 2009

The train north from Estació de França

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Catching the train north. Estació de França, Barcelona. February 24, 2009 © Jeff Koehler.

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January 19th, 2008

on the road: Algiers (II)

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Daurade (sea bream) for sale in the port of Algiers, December 2007 © Jeff Koehler

It was dark in Algiers by 6 p.m., and even though the days were dazzlingly sunny, the evenings chilled quickly in the Mediterranean dampness.

With unbroken repetition, my dinners all week began with a bowl of chorba or h’rira, thick, nourishing vegetable- and legume-filled soups. (The chorba was often thickened with frik, green wheat). The best that I sampled was at Restaurant Djmenina, a forty year old bastion of traditional Algerian cooking.

The restaurant filled the night I dined there, despite the double al-Queda bombing that killed dozens just a few days before; and everyone, it seemed, was having the h’rira.

Though the ceilings of the hundred year old palace that houses Djmenina are high and ornate, the walls covered with decorative antique tiles, and many of the dishes elaborate, their lentil h’rira is downright homey. Flavored with lamb and laced with plenty of fresh herbs and sharp spices, I couldn’t resist refilling my large terracotta bowl three times from the tureen on the table.

By then I was warmed – though also nearly full.

But after the soup comes a sweet tagine of lamb and prunes, or a thick sea bream (like the ones above in the image), chosen earlier from a tray of the day’s catch and prepared in the oven, or the house specialty “Couscous de l’Emir” with lamb, meatballs, and caramelized onions, or…

But first – always first – is soup. And after a week of winter Algiers nights, I understood why.

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December 18th, 2007

on the road: Algiers (I)

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Loading sheep that will be sacrificed for the Eid al-Adha festival on Wednesday, December 19th (Algiers, December 14, 2007) © Jeff Koehler

This week, as I huddled over my notes and a morning coffee in the smoky Brasserie des Facultés, or sipped afternoon glasses of murky, sweet tea on Café Tontonville’s broad terrace at the end of place Port Saïd, I saw a number of chunky rams with curling horns being hustled along Algiers’ busy boulevards. Young kids ran behind and ahead of them, some flourishing long sticks, all laughing.

Tomorrow is Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, one of the most important days in the Islamic calendar. It commemorates Ibrahim’s (Abraham’s) willingness to sacrifice his son Ismael to Allah, as well as marking the end of the Hajd, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

Everyone in Algiers was buying sheep. On Friday, when the city was mostly closed, I trekked to a large sheep market outside the city. To be worthy of being sacrificed, a sheep needs to be a certain age, weight, and high-level of quality. Those clustered on the red dirt lot looked near perfect – and were selling for a few hundred dollars a piece.

A teenager kid grabbed a sheep by a back leg and pulled it from the flock, dragging it across the lot. With the help of a couple of other kids, he heaved the bleating animal up onto the back of a truck. He pulled another sheep from the flock, and then another, and another. When the truck was packed tight, the gate was shut, and they began filling the bed of a second truck.

Tomorrow the sheep will be slaughtered and four days of celebrations will begin.

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November 29th, 2007

on the road: Umbria

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The day before the harvest, Marfuga olive groves near Trevi, Umbria (October 2007) © Jeff Koehler

At the eve of the olive harvest in October, I was invited by Francesco Gradassi to visit the family’s mill in Umbria and taste a very limited pressing of pre-season olives.

Marfuga Azienda Agraria is a 200-year-old family company that produces some of the best extra-virgin olive oils in Umbria. In the last few years they have won a string of prestigious prizes attesting to this – though such recognition isn’t new: since 1817 it has carried the papal seal.

The unfiltered, grassy-green novello was brought out in an unlabeled bottle. The taste was vivid and particularly spicy, flavorful. But very limited and not on the market.

The pressing from the first olives of the proper harvest would become their celebrated, limited edition (3000 half litre bottles a year) Extra-Virgin Olive Oil “L’affiorante.” It’s a strong and fruity oil, opaque and unfiltered, and made a single variety, Moraiolo. (Their other star is the organic Extra-virgin Olive Oil Umbria.O.P., a blended oil, emerald green and intense.)

After tasting the oils and having a look at the mill, Francesco’s father, Ettore, took me to see some of Marfuga’s groves. In his dusty 4×4 (with a sheathed shotgun on the backseat; he had been pheasant hunting), we climbed above Campello sul Clitunno in the Spoleto Valley towards Trevi, a picturesque medieval village that clings to a hillside. The trees cover a curving slope facing the village.

We strolled among gnarled old trees with silvery leaves and plump purplish olives. Ettore checked the fruit on various trees with a cigarette rakishly dangling from his lips. The following morning a crew of ten would arrive to begin stripping the trees by hand. Down the valley the mill was ready – the olives are pressed within 12 to 24 hours of harvest. The 2008 season was upon us.

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Ettore Gradassi checking olives in the Marfuga groves, near Trevi, Umbria (October 2007) © Jeff Koehler

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October 28th, 2007

on the road: Marseille

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Post-couscous sweets at Pâtisserie d’Aix, Marseille © Jeff Koehler

Marseille is, among other things, a great couscous city. And no wonder: couscous entered the country’s mainstream through this bustling Mediterranean port where around a quarter of the city’s 800,000 people are from the Maghreb, as Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia are collectively called.

The best couscous might be served around the family table after Friday prayers at the mosque, but Marseille does have a number of excellent couscous joints – La Kahena, on the edge of Vieux Port and popular with pied noirs, and Le Fémina, which serves barley couscous, stand out. My favorite, though, is (the famously cheap) Sur Le Pouce, a hurried, noisy place with worn marble tables set close together and a boisterous clientele. Little has changed since I first ate there almost a decade ago. It was a blustery winter evening, clammy and damp. I had just arrived on the train from Barcelona and a friend met me at the station. We walked downhill through the mostly African Belsunce neighborhood to Sur Le Pouche for dinner. Inside was warm and smoky and packed with mostly North African men, many younger, many alone, wolfing down heaped bowls of inexpensive couscous. I had been in Morocco not long before and was craving good, authentic couscous. Here it was: double steamed and waiting to be devoured.

We go a couple of times a year to Marseille and try to eat at least once at Sur Le Pouce. The menu is largely meat dominated (there is a version of their lamb couscous with meatballs in my new cookbook), though on Fridays they prepare couscous au mérou (grouper). My girls love the big bowls of the fluffy grains, ladling on plenty of flavorful broth. This time my six year old kept pace in amount (and speed) as any local in the joint.

From there we stroll downhill to Vieux Port and Pâtisserie d’Aix for some Tunisian délices and another scaldingly hot glass of mint tea. The owners are cousins of Sur Le Pouce’s and offer, simply, the finest sticky sweet zlabia, makrouth, m’karek, beignets tunisiens, and the like.

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August 22nd, 2007

on the road: Canet d’Adri

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Kilo loaves of pa de pagès cool in a Canet d’Adria, Spain, bakery © Jeff Koehler

Canet d’Adri is a tiny village inland from the Costa Brava where one of Eva’s sisters lives. It’s a village with “four houses” as they say in Catalan. But there is a wonderful fourteenth-century church and a bakery with a massive wood-burning oven. The only ritual – obligation! – of the day for us when we stay is walking to buy bread. And one of day’s few decisions is which bread to buy: a massive round kilo loaf of pa de pagès that has been left to cool in the massive wooden cabinet drawers (their edges dusted with years of flour)? A half-kilo loaf? One of the skinny long, baguette-like loafs?

Today, like most days, it’s a kilo pa de pagès. At lunch and dinner there is pa amb tomàquet, the slices of bread, thick as a thumb and as big as a plate, rubbed with ripe garden tomatoes and slathered with plenty of olive oil. Whenever I do this in Canet I am always chided by my brother-in-law Xicu for never using enough tomato or oil. What is this? Maybe that’s how they do it in Barcelona, but not here, he says grinding another half-tomato across his slice and then pouring olive oil over it until the bread is almost spongy. Like this. Now taste it. See?

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August 15th, 2007

on the road: Istanbul

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Istanbul viewed from a ferry crossing the Bosphorus © Jeff Koehler

On Sunday I took the ferry across the Bosphorus from the European side of Istanbul to Karaköy on the Asian side where the strait opens wide-mouthed into the Sea of Marmara. The ride is short (just twenty minutes) and scenic and perfect to enjoy a simit (bread ring) covered in sesame-seeds and a tulip-shaped glass of çay (black tea) – two simple pleasures that always evoke my first trips to Istanbul a dozen years ago.

In Karaköy, I spent some hours browsing the small streets behind the Mustafa Iskele Mosque that are crowded with fishmongers, spice shops (to buy sumac, gum mastic, and black cumin seeds), yoghurt and cheese shops, greengrocers, bakeries (including my favorite, Eser Ekmet, across from the Armenian church), and dozens of bookshops.

I’d come, though, to eat lunch at Yanyali, perhaps the city’s best lokanta (a basic restaurant where the days dishes are laid out to chose from). In 1919, at the very end of the Ottoman empire, a man called Fehmi Sönmezler approached one of the palace chefs to open a restaurant. Eighty-eight years later the same traditional dishes are being prepared with the same exacting standards of quality and freshness. The extensive, rotating menu shows off the breath and wealth of traditional Turkish cuisine.

But I was at Yanyali (and, indeed, Istanbul) specifically for the rice dishes – domlas (rice-stuffed vegetables), pilavs, and a handful of milky rice-based desserts.

The founder’s grandson, the friendly, thirty-something Ergin Sönmezler, greeted me as I entered (we had met the previous day), and led me through a meal that included a dozen different dishes – all but one with rice.

There were various dolmas (cold ones stuffed with rice, pine nuts, and currants, warm ones with rice and meat), and a couple of pilavs. The iç pilav was superb, the rice studded with pieces of lamb liver, tiny currants, and pine nuts, and delicately seasoned with black pepper, allspice, and a pinch of cinnamon. The grains were individual and fluffy and glistened with oil and butter. Perfect.

What’s the trick? I asked. There is no trick, Ergin said. It’s technique. Pilav was an exam dish for Ottoman palace chefs. It’s how you can tell a good restaurant – if the pilav is good, the restaurant is good.

Two desserts at Yanyali – firin sütlaç, a creamy baked rice pudding, and zerde, a celebratory saffron-colored (milk-less) rice pudding that is always served at weddings and boys’ circumcision ceremonies – meant no room for a beloved simit on the ferry back. But a glass of tea? Always.

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Eser Ekmet bakery, in Kadiköy, Istanbul © Jeff Koehler

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All text and images are ©Jeff Koehler 2007-2009 and cannot be used without his written permission.