Wednesday, 27 June 2012

A Handful of Honey

Choosing a suitable book for a novel/food blog has its challenges. After browsing 
bookshelves and online I have refined my search by using one of three criteria. 
A book has promise if it has a food word in the title, a cover page that depicts food, 
fruit, a culinary scene or activity, or if it is about an exotic location.

 "A Handful Of Honey"

My choice this week met the above checklist. "A Handful of Honey", set in the palm groves of Morocco and Algiers, is Annie Hawes fourth novel. It shone like a prism of light on the dark, mysterious and treacherous continent of Morocco and proved to be a wonderful read.

But, before I go on, first ask yourself, what does a handful of honey mean to you? Is it a sweet luxury that cannot be held and will trickle through your fingers, regardless of how long you try to hold it? Can it be compared to the sands of time and the winds of change? Do you savour it to the last drop or does your liking for honey encourage you to keep a beehive - even if you get stung along the way? You will need to read the entire book - or cheat - and read the last few pages to see what Annie and you, yourself decide.

There are tourists who travel to exotic locations, stay in expensive hotels, close their eyes, lay back and get pampered. Then there are travelers who emerse themselves in adventure and local culture, and with eyes wide open, take the time to reflect on what they hear and see. Annie is such a traveler, and her story about her trek through Morocco and Algiers stunned me with the lyrical description of the these countries; their brutal past, shaky present and unknown future overlaid on a vast canvas of geographical, historical, political, religious, cultural, social and global influences.

What you read will either be your truth or your contention - depending on what you know and believe. You will be shown the beauty and the contradiction that is Islam, understand why it is so and learn lots of trivia along the way. I even went so far as to Google Annie's places of interest, to check facts and put things in to context for myself. It is not a breezy read.

The story starts in Portugal,when Annie, as a wayward English teenager, finds herself in a Portuguese gaol. Eventually she is freed and deported. Her minders escort her to the train station in Madrid, destined for Calais in France and then on to England. Penniless and with no family support, she is befriended by a group of young Muslim males traveling to Europe for work. This is her first contact with the generosity of strangers from North Africa who share their blankets, food and dreams with her. They part with the promise of her meeting up with them in their hometown of Timimoun, an ancient oasis on the fringe of the Sahara desert and the crossroads of trade in Morocco.

Fast forward 20 years, Annie is now in her late thirties and is living in a farmhouse, set in the Ligurnian hills of Italy, when two of her male friends - Gerard and Guy - have a midlife crisis and invite her to go with them on their travels.

What follows is a story of biblical proportions. A history lesson on Spanish and French colonialism, the fragmentation of a crumbling Moroccan empire, internal dissatisfaction with external power and control with the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism to offset it; the harsh yet beautiful environment, traditional methods versus modernization. The Three Peoples of the Book (Bible), Muslims,Jews and Christians (who once lived in harmony) are compared and contrasted as she experiences the Islamic lifestyle and the Sunni's Five Pillars of Wisdom.

"We thank him for his generosity, sharing his food with us. But you should always be generous with others, he says, and God will be generous with you." p176

Annie has the ability to ZOOM OUT and describe great sweeps of history and the glorious tales of ancient cities, the social
harmony of its past due to the co-dependents of its Arabs, Berbers, Haratines, Tamazites, Christians, Jews and black Africans. She describes the camel trains, caravans and nomadic trade routes, danger and the magic of djinns. Then she quickly ZOOMS IN to conversations with Holy Men, fellow travelers, bathing in an hamman (turkish bath), her friends donning a jellaba and she a burkha - and thinking thinking thinking all the time - about social etiquette and the Good Will to want to do the right thing in a country so very different from her own.

"The couscous granules trickle warm between my fingers, the sauce dribbles luxuriously up my wrist. A thousand miles from my last cutlery-free experience in every sense." p100

And of course, she gets it wrong at times but survives what could be terrible consequences. All the while she is describing the haunting call to prayer by the muezzins, the immams who are keepers of the moral code, and the marabouts which are reminders of Holy Men and their good deeds.

Dry desserts, leafy terraces, palm groves and wadis; shifting sand dunes, scorpions under rocks, orange groves and orchards; lowing cattle, sheep and goats, spitting camels and overloaded donkeys; the sharp knives of butchers; mosques, bath houses (hammans), medinas (market places) and the ingenuity for survival all jostle for the reader's attention.

And then there is the food...

Offered to her in honest generosity, and as religious expression in accordance with the teachings of the Koran.  Food plays a central role in fasting and penance (Ramadan) and celebration (Eid al-Fatr).

Women, the world over, are in charge of food as it gives our gender a role and a place within the home.

Throughout Morocco and Algiers, behind closed doors, mud bricks and tent flaps, a female's food preparation supports Islamic ideology
- moral values, wisdom, purity - and by default aids in their subjugation - ritual, repetition and attention to others.

No one denies these are not good qualities. The bad part is the lack of choice.

Women's role in food preparation is mirrored in all major religions, nationalities and cultures. However, for those of you who wish to actively reject the role of cooking as women's work, remember you are also discarding the nurturing, kitchen camaraderie, the manipulation of, and power over a resource, creativity, imagination, economy, memory, tradition and skill that goes in to the culinary art.

"Now I follow up with several tasty chickpea and onion Aunt Rashida...washing it all down with swigs of Hussain's mother's cold sweet lemon-mint tea...Dessert next: a pile of crunchy doughnuts filled with dates and covered in sesame seeds...made by cousin Aisha". pp16-21

As a European woman traveling with two males, neither of them her husband or keeper, Annie is challenged by Islamic social etiquette and the boundaries of acceptable and appropriate behaviour expected of a woman.

Annie becomes an "honorary man" in strict Muslim households, which essentially puts her in no-man's land. She finds herself at a disadvantage in male company and is rejected by females of the household. However, in female households where men are absent due to work, or in households of different tribes no such restrictions exist.

Annie's "binoculars" light up her subjects. Like a prism, she sees rainbows of humanity that refract and polarize around one another; around the consequences of post-colonialism (that both undermined and exploited Morocco's resources); and in the rise of Islamic Fundamentalists and their demands to restore traditions of power control that have been lost.

This corrective attempt, to turn back time, has its opponents from within. Not only from women but also from the various tribes who no longer suffer serfdom at the hands of tribal elders. Particularly when poor young men, who work overseas, sample democracy and capitalism and return with their savings to buy their own resources. All of which upset the traditional order destined by birth right, race and controlled by brutish tribal elders each with their own vested interests.

Interestingly, the burkha - seen as a symbol of male tutelage against womanhood by the West - is seen by the woman who wear them as their first steps to freedom. If they wear the burkha they can be out and about without a male chaperone. Their fathers allow them to study overseas as long as they promise to remain covered. Ironically, by taking this choice away from these women, one wonders if the West will ultimately restricts their access to the wider world? Ironically, Annie found that donning the burkha at points throughout her travels, protected her from the harshness of the climate and gave her welcomed anonymity within a culture where the weaknesses of the men could cost you your life.

As the story starts in Portugal, I begin with Portuguese Custard Tarts, followed by a Moroccan Lamb Stew. The ingredients and 
amounts do not have to be exact. Remember, the women who have made 
these dishes over the centuries have judge by hand and eye, the amounts they need to cook, on rudimentary wood ovens and camp fires.

Portuguese Custard tarts

 Ingredients for rough puff pastry. Makes 12.

 2 cups of plain flour with approximately 
3/4 cup of water to make a dough.
20gms softened lard or shortening
20gms softened butter 

Roll the dough out to a rough rectangle measuring 30cm x 24cm. Spread the dough, using your fingers, with 20gms of softened lard
or shortening and roll up in to a log. Roll the dough out again to the same size and spread it with 20gms of softened butter. Roll the silky dough in to a log. Divide the log in to 12 pieces to fit 1/3 cup capacity muffin pan. Refrigerate while you make the custard.

Ingredients for custard

1 cup of caster sugar  
1/4 cup of water 
 2 cups of warm milk
1 Tablespoon custard powder
2 Tablespoons of cornflour
1 teaspoon of vanilla 
4 egg yolks


Dissolve water and sugar in a saucepan. Turn off the heat. Add cornflour and custard powder to the warm milk and mix well. Add to the sugar water. Add 4 lightly beaten egg yolks to the milk sugar mix. Turn on the heat and stir constantly until bubbling and thickened.remove from the heat and spoon in to the tarts. Bake 220 degrees for 30 minutes. The pastry should be lightly browned and crispy and the custard slightly browned on top. Enjoy.

Moroccan Lamb and Chickpea Stew 
with couscous. Serves 6

750gm of diced lamb
1 red onion diced
3 ripe tomatoes (or large can)
1 cup each of chopped parsley and coriander
14 dates
1 teaspoon (or to taste) of ground cumin
1 cup pine nuts
1 can of chickpeas
2 cups of couscous
1 Tablespoon of balsamic vinegar
1 lemon
1 cup of Greek yogurt


Fry the diced lamb in a little olive oil and set aside.
Fry diced onion and cumin in the same pan. Add the tomatoes, chickpeas, pine nuts, balsamic vinegar, dates and lamb. Simmer
for until all ingredients are soft and fragrant. Add some stock
or water to the pan as it should not be allowed to become dry.

Prepare couscous per the instructions on the packet. 
I added extra butter and cumin for extra flavour. 
Ladle the stew over the couscous, decorate with herbs 
and serve with a large bowl of Greek yogurt. 
A squeeze of lemon heightens the flavours. 
If you want a vegetarian dish leave out the meat.

©2011 My Novel Idea by Ann Etcell-Ly/All Rights Reserved
 A Handful of Honey by Annie Hawes 2008. ISBN 978-0-330-45722-4

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