Spice, Sand and Stars*
Fire roasted figs, goat labneh^ with rose water, spiced almond brittleWritten by Kieran Creevy | Photography by Claire Burge
Try to mentally recreate the taste of your last memorable meal. Tricky, isn’t it? Now try to remember the smell of the same dish. Are you salivating yet? It’s been almost twenty years since I first worked in the Atlas mountains, but I can still vividly recall the smell of a leg of lamb marinated with cumin, fennel, pepper, and cinnamon slowly grilling over an open fire.
Some of the other smells that are forever linked to my travels in Morocco are cedar wood, diesel, cumin, mint, Fairy soap (it was the only soap available in the village market), rose water, musk, and donkey manure (not a great association I will admit!).
A mental souvenir from that first trip is of sharing an old battered Mercedes Grande Taxi with six other passengers and a twenty kilo hessian sack of fresh mint leaves for five hours of bumpy mountain roads. By the roads end you could have dunked us in a giant pot of water like tea bags and we’d have created a passable Atay B’nanna (Mint Tea)
One of the most memorable and yet simple dishes I had during that first six month stint in Morocco, was a spicy, smoky, sweet, nutty mix, blended together, served with cardamom coffee. I think we were only supposed to have a spoon or two of this mix, but it was so moreish that I ate an espresso cup serving. Twenty minutes later I was buzzing like a kid who’s had a litre of coke with a giant bag of skittles.
That dish is the inspiration for the spiced almond brittle and the starting point for this dessert. The other elements came together fairly easily. I tend to associate specific ingredients with countries and dried fruits like dates and figs will always remind me of the Atlas mountains and the image of fruit drying on the roofs of village houses. Dried figs have a great flavour but I prefer to use them in savoury stews and Tajines, whereas fresh figs have such a short season and smell so much of late summer so they had to be a part of this dessert.
Ingredients (serves 4)
4 large or 8 small ripe figs
500ml goat or sheep labneh
1 tsp each of cumin seeds, green cardamom seeds (removed from the pods) and fennel seeds
1 mug white sugar
I mug whole almonds
1 tsp rose water
1 tbsp water
Advance prep at home: For the spiced nut brittle
Toast the almonds on a hot dry pan for 5 minutes, shaking frequently to prevent burning.
Transfer to a pestle and mortar or into a clean dry tea towel and bash to break into chunks, large and small. Place in a bowl until needed. Toast the whole spices on the same dry pan for 2-3 minutes until fragrant, making sure not to let them burn. Transfer to a pestle and mortar and grind together into a powder.
Mix the ground spices with the sugar and pour into the hot pan. Add the tbsp of water and reduce the heat to medium. When the sugar starts to dissolve, shake/swirl the pan gently to move the sugar around. If necessary, take the pan off the heat temporarily to stop the sugar burning. Let the sugar dissolve completely.
N.B. Never stir with a spoon as the caramel will have a grainy texture
N.B 2 Don’t let the sugar bubble, as this means it’s becoming burnt which will give the brittle a bitter flavour
Once liquid, pour onto a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper. Tilt the paper to spread the caramel into a thin layer. Scatter the crushed almonds onto the caramel while still hot.
Leave to cool (10-15 minutes) andbreak into shards/chunks (as you like). Store in a tupperware box or biscuit tin lined with greaseproof paper. The brittle will keep for up to a month in a airtight container
Mix the tsp of rose water with the labneh in a bowl. Don’t be tempted to use more than 1 tsp as it has a very strong flavour!
For the fire roasted figs use a well controlled open fire, charcoal barbecue or if using an oven set to 160c. Wrap the figs in tinfoil and cook on embers/in the oven for 3-4 minutes max.
Remove from the tinfoil and cut open from the stem in a star shape
Drizzle the labneh into the centre, pour any liquid in the tinfoil over this and top with the brittle.
Cinnamon poached figs
1 cup sugar
2 sticks cinnamon
Dissolve the sugar in water, add the cinnamon sticks bring to the boil and reduce to a simmer. Add the figs and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove to a bowl and then bring the poaching liquid back to a boil and reduce until the syrup has the consistency of honey.
Serve as above with the syrup poured over the labneh.
Fresh fig breakfast
Cut into quarters, spread over crusty fresh bread, and drizzle with labneh and honey.
^Labneh/Laban/strained yoghurt is popular in the Levant, Middle East and Egypt. It’s very easy to make at home and works equally well in savoury and sweet dishes. It has a consistency similar to fresh mascarpone. If you can’t find it in local Middle Eastern/North African stores then either substitute with Greek Yoghurt, Mascarpone, Ricotta or follow the simple process below.
Tip 500ml of sheep or goat yoghurt into a colander lined with muslin.
Place over a bowl and leave in your fridge overnight or if possible for twenty four hours.
Discard the whey (liquid in the bowl). For an ‘in the field version’ I’ve used a clean buff suspended in a one litre Nalgene bottle with duct tape.
Cover the lid with more duct tape to keep out flies, and store either in your tent porch (in cold temps) or in a stream to keep cool (make sure not to completely submerge in the stream as water could leach into the bottle)
*The title owes more than a passing nod to Antoine de St Exupery’s amazing autobiographical novel Wind Sand and Stars.
In addition to fifteen years work as an international mountain leader and trekking guide on five continents, Kieran has nearly two decades experience of catering for some of the most demanding customers – fellow instructors who want nutritious food with a bit flair, lots of it, now and don’t care that it’s minus 10c and snowing!Twitter @kierancreevy
Claire has been described as part chaos, part rocket fuel. When she is isn’t racing down mountains on her bicycle, you will find her behind a lens and licking the wooden spoon.Twitter @claireburge