A Cooks Garden

iDSC_0561Everything comes full circle and at the start of 2016, after many years of living and working abroad as a chef, I found myself back living in Ireland next door to where I had been raised. DSC_0565Growing up here, most people had a little back yard plot and my family was no exception. My grandmother lived up the street and that was where my first experiences in tending a garden began. And everywhere I have lived since, I have tried to maintain a garden. IMG_20160217_082815 I remember the gentleman who owned this house and garden. He was quite prolific and meticulous. Had he been here now to see its current state, he would have been very upset to see the neglect. As you can see, its a jungle and over the years people had used the space as a dumping ground for domestic waste. Beer cans, broken bottles, rusty nails, plastic bags, plastic containers, carpeting, bones leftover from someones many dinners, bottle caps and the list goes on. IMG_20160217_082740 I decided to clean it all up and try to restore the garden to its former glory. It was an enormous undertaking and one that would eventually take me over two months of work.IMG_20160308_171422 It certainly seemed daunting and it was difficult to figure out where to begin because it was so overgrown with small trees, shrubs, brambles, ivy and weeds.DSC_0624 During the process of clearing out the space, I accumulated all of this debris and garden waste. There was more than just one of these piles and it all had to go. IMG_20160316_181621These steps were excavated. I had forgotten about them but here they were, unwalked on for decades. The garden path, so to speak.IMG_20160313_164009 I wanted a blank canvas for myself before I could even think of planting anything. Thus far, the only tools I had available to me were an axe, a saw, a pair of secateurs and gardening gloves. At this point, I was very encouraged. I knew that after years of neglect, I had the next best thing to virgin soil. But nothing is that easy.IMG_20160417_164932 As above, so below. Once the work above the ground was completed, the next task was to begin digging to see what the soil actually looked like. Be careful what you wish for, in this case, because I noticed all of these roots. It is a weed that spreads underground and if left unchecked can take over a garden. Which it did. It sends up a shoot that grows by binding itself around another plant and basically chokes it. They are very prolific and can grow fast. I declared war on it. IMG_20160321_183220I dug up kilometers of this chokeweed by hand using a shovel only. No chemical sprays were used as I believe in the principles of organic gardening. One thing that I noticed as I was digging the garden was that there were no earthworms. That would have to be rectified and I placed that idea on my priority list as well as a composting bin.IMG_20160723_190742 The organic gardening principles and philosophy that I adhere are simple. In addition to to composting and allowing earthworms perform their magic, I also use a four year crop rotation plan, heirloom or antique seeds, save seeds, companion plant, and employ a basic approach to bio-dynamic and lunar gardening aspects. The goals are to have a simple kitchen garden to supplement my cooking ideas, a garden that is sustainable and one that welcomes pollinators.  IMG_20160608_163455 The four year crop rotation plan includes legumes, alliums, roots and brassicas with room to plant a little extra for self satisfaction as well as the herbs I enjoy using in the kitchen. For the year round cool weather climate that is experienced in Ireland, there is plenty of scope to grow. And eat. Eat like a peasant.IMG_20160716_171806.jpg

 

 

 

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Feast of the Seven Fishes

 

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The Feast of the Seven Fishes or Festa dei Sette Pesce is traditionally associated with southern Italy and celebrated on Christmas Eve. Also known as La Vigilia della Natale, it is a day in the calendar where abstinance of certain foods allowed the participant to prepare for the birth of Jesus. I encountered it a few years ago whilst working in Boston’s Italian neighbourhood, the North End. As a cook, I was fascinated by the various details involved in such a menu. I kicked off mine with Donegal oysters from the north-west coast of Ireland. I prefer mine plain.

 

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Grilled Sardines on fennel confit with grilled focaccia. The abstinance of meat, meat products and dairy on Christmas Eve is a general theme throughout southern Europe.

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Sauteed monfish with green olives, garlic, capers, tomato and herbs.

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A warm salad with garlicky shrimps, carrots and radicchio.

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This is one version of many of Caldereirada, the Portuguese fisherman’s stew. I used squid in my rendition.

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Lightly cured, oven baked mackerel with thyme, scallion and Aleppo pepper, dressed with pomegranate-balsamic vinaigrette.

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Roasted cod with onions, olives and lemon. Eat like

 

 

Raw State

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I decided to leave Portugal behind me late in 2015 and in December, I returned to Ireland to my hometown. After relocating, I found myself living in a house with a garden that had been neglected for many years. Once upon a time it had been a thriving garden. I had a connection for this particular “terra” and early in February (Spring, according to the ancient Irish calendar), I felt that this garden space needed a little bit of attention.

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It was a daunting task. It was unclear how to proceed because of the state of the space was so far gone. When I started blogging the initial premise of thewayofthecook was the theme of from seed to table. I thought that I could use this space to continue that theme. But there was a lot of hard, grunt work ahead of me. All the gardens that I have worked in were always ready to plant. Not so, in this case. So I began to clear it. Inch by inch, square foot by square foot. 

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It took me six weeks to get this far and this is just above the ground. The space measures about 1,100 square feet but I am only going to use about 800. And everything had to go, rocks, bottles, domestic refuse and that was only above the ground. 

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And this is how the kitchen garden looks three months later. May 1st is tomorrow. The list of flowers to attract pollinators includes bluebells, aquilegia, honeysuckle, lavendar, roses, sunflowers, foxgloves, borage and morning glorys. The list of herbs and leaves includes parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, chives, tarragon, bay, wild fennel, arugala, mesclun and red oak leaf lettuce. The list of fruits includes cherry tomatoes, gooseberries, strawberries and rhubarb. There is also peas, fava beans, cabbage, brussels sprouts, potatoes, scallions, shallots and red onions. Later I hope to put in beans, swiss chard, beets, turnips, radishes and celery root. If space permits. All has been done with organic and bio-dynamic methods. I hope to return to blogging with the seed to table theme. Eat like a peasant.

The Salt Cod and the Olive Press

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Throughout the sweltering summer months, olives are slowly ripening in the fields around Tavira.. Also, during these months, it is time to harvest our local Tavira sea salt. Later in the year, it will be used in the preservation of foods.

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Autumn is the season for olive picking and growers begin to arrive at the local olive press to extract the oil from their olives. Though the varietal composition of our local olives groves is unique, the most popular olive grown locally is the “Manzanilha Algarvia”.

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My local press usually runs 24 hours a day at this time of year. Manzanilha Algarvia is a dual purpose variety used for table olives, green or black, and olive oil. Its current status is at risk of disappearing as the majority of the trees are old and receive little care.

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The olives are weighed, de-stemmed, washed and sent to the crusher.

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It not as romantic as one might imagine. The process is highly mechanised. This mash is spun rapidly. Centrifugal force separates the oil from the pulp as well as any water content.

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And out pours this seasons extra virgin olive oil, ready to be purchased and brought home to be used as soon as possible.

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The extraction process is very transparent. I was able to walk around and shoot photographs without getting yelled at. I paid 20 Euros for this container.

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The day is also a social occasion with the local olive growers discussing the seasons events from the weather to the quality of the crop, whose olives are of better quality or what varietals of olive were grown. If you play your cards right, someone might ask you to taste their homemade Medronho or moonshine.

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Bacalhau a Lagareiro is a traditional Portuguese dish from the Beira region of northern Portugal. However, the dish is popular on restaurant menus in the Algarve. Bacalhau is salted cod. “Lagar” translates as olive press and a “lagareiro” is the operator of the olive press. This dish is attributed to that particular owner or employee. In it’s most basic form, it is a simple dish of potatoes, onions and salt cod. Instead of using the more traditional accompaniment of smashed “Batatas a Moura”, I had leftover boiled potatoes that I sliced thinly to line the bottom of an earthernware casserole dish. Next, I spread sauteed onions and garlic, flavoured with bay and thyme, over those potatoes. I added a handful of olive oil marinated olives to further honour the olive mill worker. Throughout, I used my freshly pressed olive oil liberally. I moistened the dish with some white wine. Lastly, I shingled lemon slices over the salt cod to protect the onions from the heat of the high oven. I added a little salt to those lemon slices to help ‘bleed’ some juice of the lemon onto the fish as it cooked.

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It can be a substantial dish, befitting it’s roots of feeding hungry olive mill workers. The olives and garlic become roasted, robust flavours for a robust fish. I did not eat the lemon slices. They were discarded as they had performed their function in protecting the melt in your mouth onions from being charred. The parsley, perhaps my most favourite herb, was used to brighten up the plate. Eat like a peasant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chestnuts in an Algarve Autumn

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Portuguese proverb………”It is Saint Martins Day, we’ll eat chestnuts and we’ll taste the wine”.

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Before the potato was introduced into Europe, the chestnut was a major source of carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals in the local diet. However its position  was supplanted, it still plays a role in the seasonal Mediterranean diet that resonates today. Chefs will still incorporate these food items onto their menus via soups, pastas, purees, roasts, braises and desserts. Fine dining cooking still needs the influence of the peasants classical cooking of necessity. If you did not eat the chestnut throughout the winter months, you might starve.

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But there is still nothing like being able to purchase freshly roasted chestnuts from a street vendor. Their sweet, smoky aroma is irrestible during November in the Algarve. Braziers burn and it is quite the social moment as customers wait their turn to receive their chestnuts wrapped up in a conically wrapped piece of magazine paper.

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Chestnuts are synonymous with the Feast of Saint Martin in Portugal, as well as demarcating that fine, thin line line between Autumn and Winter. In southern Portugal, it is imperative to have the Winter seasons crop of wheat already planted and the pig slaughtered in order to make and preserve the chorizo curing during the cool Winter months. It is also a season of festivity because, right around now, one can taste the new seasons wine offerings. In Algarve, the preference is for aqua-pe or “foot wine”. Essentially, this is an alcohol made from pouring water over the dregs left over from the wine making process, much like an Italian grappa.

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Classically speaking, kitchenwise, more morthern climates associate goose with the Feast of Saint Martin. Though in Portugal, one might be more inclined to see duck, which is what I used for my dish.

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My continued celebration of the chestnut is borrowed from the classic Tuscan dish named “Castagnaccio” (made with chestnut flour). Basically, it is a chestnut dessert pancake comprised of chestnut flour, pine nuts, raisins, olive oil and rosemary. I love the use of herbs for dessert cooking. For my own personal interpretation of Mediterranean cooking, fresh herbs are a must and are used throughout the meal.

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The finished baked item is usually accompanied by a dessert wine. In Italy, where much of my cooking experience comes from, this is VinSanto or Holy Wine. But hey……. hmmmm, this goes great with Port also. Eat and drink like a peasant.

Gangsters, Hackers, Misfits, Pirates and Kitchens

As I mused recently after listening to the song by Three 6 Mafia from the movie Hustle n Flow, I was unable to prevent myself from plagiarising the words to become “it’s hard out here for a chef”

Most of the better, talented cooks that I’ve worked with were able to perform and work under the gun, as it were. They were people who could think outside the box, apply the principles of System D or left (of centre) mid-field generals. Healthy, deviant minds are an asset to a kitchen. And, as always, their mis-en-place was pristine.

It was these guys, crafty in their craft, that made me wonder about chefs and their environment. More importantly, what could I take away from it.

It seemed to me that the criminal underworld had something to share. My thoughts centered on certain characteristics…….hustle, hack, copy/improve, and provoke. If it was for the greater glory of the restaurant, kitchen or menu, then I was all for it.

I thought of Mexican/Latin american narco-trafficantes and the detailed planning that went into their creative prison escapes. That led to a meditation of imposed barriers, whether it was a prison wall or a national boundary. And, just how is it that these criminal organisations manage to stay in business. Most restaurants that I have worked for are no longer in business. What does a chef require for business longevity besides creative thinking, long term planning and perseverance. The lesson for me was how do I respond to change. It seems that lots of restaurants fail because they are unable to adapt to changing market forces.

The micro detail for me was that criminal organisations have improvisation built into their daily behaviour. Kitchens can learn from this. As an independent chef, I could see that I held an advantage over chain or corporate restaurants because at my scale, innovation is not a set process.

Small kitchens are usually cash strapped so in order to build up your from scratch kitchen up from scratch, this exercise in innovation and creativity is borne out of neccessity.

The notions of questioning authority, acting outside the status quo of the normal system and the ability to see other cleverer ways of doing things are all fine with me. There are also lots of examples in the corporate world…….Blockbuster Video fell through the gaps and went out of business. Napster established itself by operating in grey areas to re-invent a business. In the nether world, Somali pirates brokes the rules to find solutions to their business problems, as did pirates in other times. When I was hired for a job as executive chef and told to run the kitchen like the US Marines, I knew in my heart of hearts that I could not work in that environment, especially since it seemed that my experience felt like I had been working on pirate vessels. I refused the job politely. And that restaurant is no longer with us.

For a small kitchen to survive, the recognised established order of the classical kitchen model needs to be streamlined. The dish-washer is press-ganged into prepping. your cold station needs to be more than a Garder-Manger. The line cook needs to be an Entremettier, Poissonier and Rotisserie. Your Sous Chef has to be more than a Saucier or Tournant. And you, as Chef, need to be more than all that …..and then some.

Tavira Phoenicia

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The Phoenicians landed in Baal Saphon (Tavira) from today’s Lebanon approximately 3,000 years ago as traders. And though they are credited with creating an alphabet, they did not keep very good records. Really, it is their archaeological footprint that supplies evidence and speculation. For me, it was the Phoenician fire-pits in Tavira that got me wondering. There is no smoke without fire. The fire-pits were associated with their feasting and religious ceremonies. I was curious to see if there was any echo reverberating from that time in today’s Tavira.

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As recipients of wine-making knowledge from the East, the Phoenicians were instrumental in distributing wine, wine grapes and wine making technology throughout the Mediterranean region. Today, Tavira wines have been recognised as been good enough earn the DOC appelation.

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Amphoras were used to transport wine. They were sealed with olive oil to prevent or reduce spoilage. This was fine until they were spilled in rough seas. Later in history, they were used to capture  cephalopods or octopus from our local waters.

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Nowadays, the original earthenware amphorae are more difficult to locate. They break easy on rocks at the bottom of the sea and are expensive to replace. Local fishing vessels use these black plastic replicas to attract the octopus, who like to hide out in dark cavernous places.

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The Buzio’s or purple spiny murex are still to be found at the local markets or better “marisqueiras”. Though extensive middens of shellfish are located along the Algarve coastline from older times, today they have become expensive. This type of shellfish was prized by the Phoenicians for the purple ink that it secreted which was used as a dye by their priest class. The dye was used to color their clothing so as to distinguish their elevated place in Phoenician society. This priesthood supervised the Phoenician cult of the dead, hence the fire-pits associated with these ceremonies. Bodies were buried with offerings of food and drink. One of the Phoenician gods was named Baal Saphon, Tavira’s earliest urban name, and was their God of the Sea.

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Fuzeta is a fishing village located close to Tavira. It is the octopus capital of the Algarve. One of the items that the Phoenicians capitalised on as they made inroads into Iberia was the use of cork to cap their amphorae. The largest production of cork in the world is in southern Portugal. Odds are that every time you open a bottle of wine, you will have to deal with a little cork stopper. Another Phoenician vibration……

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Octopus, or “polvo”, is a common sight at the Tavira fish market. There are many recipes available in books and magazines for this species of animal. I chose to blanch the tentacles and then boil it. After, I let it sit overnight in a simple olive oil based marinade. This marinade consisted of thyme, piri-piri, garlic and thyme, items that are to the forefront of the Portuguese pantry.

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My latter day version of the Phoenician fire-pit was an outdoor grill, ubiquitous to cooking all over the Algarve. Wrapped in smoke, the grilled octopus paid homage to another time in our collective culinary history. Eat like a peasant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tavira Mediterranica

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Throughout the Mediterranean basin, with all it’s different lands and cultures, the common denominator of the cuisine is based on the traditional staples of wheat, olives and grapes. Technically, Portugal does not border the Mediterranean. It’s climate can best be described as Atlantic Maritime. However, like the Portuguese language, there is always an exception to the rule. The southern Portuguese regions of Alentejo and the Algarve are, by definition, Mediterranean. This is on account of the climate. And climate, throughout the Mediterranean, influences the local cooking style. As does soil conditions and composition, water and location.

Whole wheat sour dough bread.

Wheat is synonomous with the concept of Mediterranean cooking. Without it, there are no regional breads, or any of the regional pastas, tabbouleh, cous-cous, bulghur and so on. The region of Alentejo is Portugal’s bread-basket and the largest producing region of wheat in Portugal. Indeed, it was what attracted the Roman’s to this this place. Wheat was neccessary for “empire building” in order to feed an expanding population. The Romans also brought their improved technology for milling the grain. Needless to say, I recommend whole wheat and encourage you to include more of it in your diet.

Wheatberry salad with golden beets and mustard greens.

In Tavira, I am fortunate to be able to purchase locally grown wheat from a farm in Santa Luzia, a village two miles away. Santa Luzia, or Saint Lucy is the patron saint of eye problems and her feast is celebrated on December 13. “Luz” in Portuguese means light and she is associated with the Winter solstice when the days begin to get longer and brighter. Wheat is also associated with her feast day.

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Certainly, without olives, there can be no extra virgin olive oil and, by default, no such thing as the concept of Mediterranean cooking. It is the primary cooking medium. Olives grow abundantly around Tavira and during the late Autumn, local farmers bring their harvest to the local cooperative to have their olives crushed so as to have it for the coming year.

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As a believer in local and sustainable food systems, Tavira’s local agriculture and markets play a key role in my outlook and food philosophy. Most, if not all, food items that I purchase are sourced locally. I have a special place in my heart for Quinta Shanti, a local organic farm located 5 miles away in Conceicao. I received their extra virgin olive oil pressed from their own Manzanilha olives. Unfiltered, you can see the difference what a year makes. Due to gravity and time, the oil will self clarify as all the little olive particles held in suspension will gradually fall the bottom of the jar. I use it every day for all my cooking needs and also as a table condiment to complete dishes. I also use extra virgin olive oil as a medicinal by taking two tablespoons each morning. Do that for a month and tell me how you feel.

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Much has already been written about Portuguese wines and there are many delicious wines from the Algarve that go under the radar screens. Fuzeta is a fishing village located 10 miles from Tavira. It is the octopus capital of the Algarve. This red wine is not D.O.C. rated because of the inclusion of Cabernet-Sauvignon into the blend. Portuguese D.O.C. wines must, by law, use local varietals that have been traditionally used within a defined region.

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Terras da Luz or Lands of the Light is from the parish of Luz da Tavira, located halfway between the towns of Tavira and Fuzeta. Luz da Tavira is also the archaelogical site of Balsa and considered one the more important Roman settlements in the Algarve. At that time, the Romans named the region Lusitania. Luso was the son of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. Eat, and drink, like a peasant.

 

Al-Garve Arabesque

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The history of Tavira’s Arab influence is reflected in the town’s heraldic crest. There is the image of the crescent moon which is a symbol of Islam. The dhow fishing vessel, with it’s lateen sails, was a prototype of the caravel, without which the Portuguese empire would probably not have existed. The bridge spanning the river facilitated the movement of people, commodities and ideas. The Arabs brought their sciences, architecture, agriculture and their spices.

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From Arabic, Baharat translates as spices. A baharat, in culinary terms, is a blend of spices. In my kitchen, I use baharat as a seasoning for fish, vegetables, soups and stews as well as a table condiment. There are many recipes for baharat. Typical spices used in the blend include allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, nutmeg and dried red chiles or paprika. It is not spicy hot but more aromatically sweet and smoky and adds zest to the dishes I like to prepare.

 

 

 

 

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Breads are an important feature of meals in Portugal. This is “pao estendida” or extended bread, in the literal translation. Basically, the dough is stretched. I have used my whole wheat bread starter to give these pita breads some backbone

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The “couvert” is the opening act in the sequence of an Al-Garve meal. Usually, it is a simple presentation of bread, cheese and olives. But I think it has tremendous scope for presenting different flavours and textures. I like to equate this course to an Italian antipasto plate or eastern Mediterranean mezze plate.

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The next best thing to not having a wood-fired oven is grilling outside over an open flame. After grilling the bread, I poured local extra virgin olive oil over it and sprinkled it with Za’atar. Za’atar translates as thyme and thyme is one of the more important herbs in the Al-Garve kitchen. Za’atar is a another spice blend that I like to use to season fish and breads. Za’atar is a combination of thyme, sumac, roasted sesame seeds and coarse sea salt.

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Dried beans are an essential item in any Al-Garve kitchen for soups, stews and side dishes. I used my baharat spice blend to flavour this combination of chick peas and courgettes, finishing it with a spoonful of yoghurt, lemon zest and fresh coriander. The accompaniment of za’atar rubbed grilled bread makes for an exotic presentation of beans on toast.

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The story of Tavira and tuna is a rich history. Up until recently, local “pescadores” or fishermen used the traditional Almadraba technique of netting the migrating tuna, al-tun in Arabic. Nets were anchored over a distance of kilometres in the sea and the tuna were steered or corralled into a central zone where the nets were tightened and raised thus allowing the fishermen to kill the giant fish. This style of fishing was brought to Tavira by Phoenicians who arrived about 1,000 bce from today’s Lebabon. Tuna is sold as very thin steaks in the local market. I don’t like that because it is too easy to overcook cook the tuna steaks. Usually, I ask the vendor to slice me a one and a half inch thick slice. I like my grilled tuna on the rare side. I used my za’atar spices as a dry rub on the tuna. I served the tuna over a salad of arugula (jaje’er in arabic), basil and purslane. I spiced up a simple lemon vinaigrette with piri-piri and ate like a peasant.

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Al-Qahwa is Arabic for coffee and when I’m not roasting my own coffee beans for a “bica” or espresso, I like to experiment with espesso blends. This is my interpretation for a Portuguese inspired coffee blend. Brazil was a part of the Portuguese empire, as was the island of Timor in south east Asia. Yemen completes the Arab connection. I use Arabica coffee beans over Robusta coffee beans. They make for a better coffee with less caffeine. They are used throughout the specialty coffee industry whereas Robusta coffee beans are what you find in your local supermarket. Don’t go there. Instead, eat like a peasant.