Teatime

Nous ne sommes pas paresseux. Nous prenons le temps de vivre, ce qui n’est pas le cas des occidentaux. Pour eux, le temps, c’est de l’argent. Pour nous, le temps n’a pas de prix. Un verre de thé suffit à notre bonheur, alors qu’aucun bonheur ne leur suffit. Toute la différence est là, mon garçon..

We are not lazy.  We take time out to live our lives, unlike Westerners. For them time is money. For us, time is priceless. A glass of tea is enough to make us happy, whilst no amount of happiness is enough for them. That makes all the difference, my boy…

Yasmina Khadra —  Ce que le jour doit à la nuit (What the Day Owes to the Night)


Teatime seems to have become a quaint anachronistic habit in Britain. Foreign visitors are probably the only ones carrying out this time-honoured ritual in the many Olde Tea Shoppes scattered around the country. Those frequenting these establishments seem to think we British spend our time eating crustless cucumber sandwiches and enjoying a nice cup of Earl Grey.

In Algeria, by contrast, it remains an important social ritual. I honestly don’t know what this small mid-afternoon meal is called in Algerian Arabic, but my mother-in-law used to call it la casse-croûte (the snack), one of the few expressions she knew in French, and she would look forward to it with the same anticipation as she looked forward to every meal. For her, a lunch (imekli) had to be a “proper” lunch, incorporating some kind of meat and perhaps a side order of chips. Above all, it had to be hot. Not for her a quick sandwich, or a chunk of bread and cheese. As for dinner (imensi) — well, it would not be a real dinner without a bowl of couscous.

So when I had first visited the family villa in Bellevue, I had been surprised to see the table laid again at four o’clock in the afternoon with small plates, cups, baskets of bread, butter and jam.  The old, dented, pewter coffee-pot, together with a jug of hot milk, took pride of place on the table. It had seemed only a couple of minutes since we had demolished a copious lunch and yet here was what looked like another breakfast.

If we were really lucky — and huge efforts were made in those first days to impress me— there would be plates of cakes or thivouline, Algerian sweet fritters.  Perhaps we could find room for a couple of wedges of themsbousht, a kind of dense, sweet omelette made from semolina and eggs? Or be persuaded to partake in some temthount, bread that could be baked in the oven, but also fried in oil? Of course, almost everything was firstly fried, then drenched either in butter and honey, or a sugar syrup (sherbet). Enough to send anybody into a sugar coma.

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Themsbousht

Although the café au lait was probably influenced by the French, and indeed the idea of afternoon tea was originally meant for famished schoolchildren returning from their classes at four o’clock —the French goûter — it had been adopted enthusiastically by Algerians to include anyone around at the time.

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Thivouline

One afternoon, during those first few days in Bellevue, T’s mother had led me ceremoniously down into the gloomy garage space under the house. Coming in from the bright sunlight, it was difficult to see at first, but I could gradually make out amidst the shadows and surrounded by ladders, old buckets and rusty utensils, the figure of The Witch Downstairs crouching over -— no, not a bubbling cauldron (that was to come later) — but a huge gas ring on which was placed an enormous frying pan, or tajine. She was ladling what looked like pancake batter into the hissing oil. Her daughters stood, or rather knelt by her, one armed with a bowl of melted butter and and the other with a jar of honey. It was rather like an assembly line of deliciousness.

Once brushed with butter and drizzled with honey, the resulting sizzling concoction was handed to me on a plate. It smelt divine, fragrant with the scent of orange-blossom water, and resembled a giant crumpet. This was the famous crêpe berbère, or Berber pancake, known as thigherifine in Kabyle, baghrir in Arabic and sometimes affectionally nicknamed mille-trous (thousand holes.)

As fate would have it, I was to eat them many years later, gussied up with a few raspberries and a dredging of icing sugar, in one of London’s most expensive “ethnic” restaurants. They were not a patch on the ones eaten with my fingers in that cobwebby garage space under the family villa.

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Thiversisine

Of course, teatime as a guest in anybody else’s home meant that the ceremonial was ratcheted up a notch. A maïda, or small round table, would be dragged out and huge trays would be ceremoniously brought in, on which reposed stainless steel thermos flasks of hot milk and coffee, and — if you were really posh — an orange-blossom water sprinkler.

One of those traditional curly silver-plated teapots, looking like something straight out of The Arabian Nights and surrounded by its phalanx of gold-rimmed tea glasses, would be on another tray. As a final decorative flourish, the teapot would have a sprig of fresh mint stuck in the spout.

Finally, another huge tray with plates of cakes, a pile of m’semen — flaky pancakes folded into squares like handkerchiefs, hence their nickname mouchoirs, or squares of m’besses, a melt-in-the-mouth semolina cake originating in Oran — would be carried in, with the bearer, usually a teenage daughter, literally staggering under the weight.

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A word to the wise: there is a knack to drinking boiling-hot tea from one of those dinky little glasses. Of course it has no handles, so what to do? You hold it around the rim, above the level of the tea. Despite this, there were always a few painful moments and quick blowing on to scalded fingers.

Drinking mint tea without sugar is rare, so lumps of sugar were originally hacked from huge loaves of the stuff before being added to the teapot and the resulting concoction boiled up on the stove. Nowadays a simple handful (or two) of sugar lumps is added. My mother-in-law would even sweeten beforehand the milk boiled for our café au lait, until I explained that I did not take sugar in my coffee. She looked at me as if I had suddenly grown two heads.

Mint tea is also served in the evening, after dinner, as a digestif.  This time, however, besides the omnipresent cakes, there are salty snacks, the favourite being roasted, salted peanuts. With one difference. In Algeria, salted peanuts (kowkow) are served preferably hot and with the skin still on.

T. just loved the ritual of rolling the peanuts between his fingers to remove the brittle skin and then popping them into his glass of tea. He would then fish them out with his teaspoon when they floated to the surface. Oh — and the polite way of drinking tea was to slurp it. Yes, you heard me correctly. Slurping the hot tea as noisily as possible was impeccable Algerian etiquette.

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My main problem was that it is considered extremely impolite in Algeria to serve tea or coffee without the accompanying plate of home-made cakes. Normal biscuits were not readily available, unless you count the sickly-sweet ones meant for children. Bought pastries were frowned on. I did not have a freezer full of beautifully decorated cakes like most Algerian wives, ready to be whipped out at the first sighting of a guest on the horizon.

Once again, I had been found wanting.

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New Town

oran s’agite pleure et ruisselle                 oran is restless weeps and flows
d’orangeraies au bleu du ciel                   from the orange groves to the blue of the sky

la lune monte lentement                           the moon slowly rises
les ocres du soir étincellent                      the ochre of the evening sky glows
de feu et de sang                                         with streaks of fire and blood

Anne Chévariat: Le Chemin des Sept Îles 


If there was one place in Oran that I hated visiting, it was M’dina Djida. It was where you could buy anything and everything — well, at least those products that were imported at the time. There was everything ranging from gold bangles to spices, cheap tin kitchenware to huge rolls of flowery dress material. Exactly like the souks in the historic quarters of most large cities in North Africa — Fès and Marrakesh, and the most famous of all — the Casbah in Algiers.

But there was one main difference. Its name is a giveaway, because m’dina djida is Arabic for new town. It is not some ancient relic— the remains of the original town before the settlers had built their grand mansions and elegant apartment blocks. No, it was built after the French invasion and designed specifically to house the indigenous population — out of sight and out of mind of the Europeans.

The French conquest of Oran in 1831 had led to a large majority of its inhabitants fleeing the city, except for the Jewish community, the descendants of former African slaves and the Kouloughli. The latter were the result of liaisons between the Turks (usually the janissaries of the Ottoman Empire) and local women. They were to be easily assimilated into the Algerian population after independence, unlike the Jews and the pied noirs. On reflection, it was probably because the two communities were Muslim, even though there had been Jews in Algeria since the first century CE — before even the Romans.

To stop people returning to their homes, the French military pretended that the buildings impeded the defence of the city and, using this as an excuse, razed them to the ground in 1832. The city was therefore practically emptied of its original inhabitants, but, in 1844, when hostilities had finally ceased, they began to filter back. To prevent this new migration, the colonial authorities then ordered the douars, originally to be found inside the city walls, to be rebuilt outside, on the Oran plain.  Historically, a douar is a nomad camp of tents set in a circle, but has now come to mean a small, rural community.

In the words of General Lamoricière, Division Commander for the province of Oran, “this population is to be contained within a space, of which the borders are sharply defined, where it can be administered  more effectively and monitored more easily.” In other words, a refugee camp.  This new settlement was to be called M’dina Djida or, in common parlance, le village indigène (native village). A forerunner of the infamous Soweto.

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The settlement was further divided into tiny enclaves; one for the hadar, or erstwhile notables of the city, sometimes called the Moorish Quarter, and the Medinat El Abid or Black Quarter, where the families of former slaves lived.

The policy of building a new settlement for the the indigenous population was in complete contrast to what was happening in other Algerian cities, where new neighbourhoods were being constructed for the sole use of Europeans. You could, however, find the same arrangement elsewhere in Algeria. In our tiny village of Bethioua, Fatiha lived in what was called le quartier arabe, built by the French, with its breeze-block walls and tiny, mean windows — stifling in summer and freezing in winter.  About as far from our beautiful home, the Villa Robineau, built by a rich settler family, as you could get.

M’dina Djida was firstly a suburb in the true sense of the word, that is “outside the town,” but was soon incorporated inside the new city limits in 1866 as an integral part of Oran, thus enjoying its new status as a “neighbourhood.” It is also different from traditional souks in that it does not have the organic twisting alleyways of the latter, with their haphazard jumble of buildings added on as an afterthought.

It is, instead, shaped like a polygon, with straight streets drawn up by colonial city planners, and encircled by busy main roads. It does, however, incorporate the mausoleums of two local holy men or marabouts; Sidi Bilal and Sidi Kada Ben Mokhtar. Processions to honour these two marabouts are held on a regular basis, accompanied by the clacking of krakeb — a kind of castanets— played by itinerant groups of gnaouas, the descendants of the original black slaves.

The central square, called la Place Tahtaha, with a war memorial at its centre, divides M’dina Djida in half. The south-western part is for women. There you can find dresses, cosmetics, household goods and the Sidi Okba covered food market. In the north-east corner of the market can be found men’s clothing and shoes. Each narrow side street is devoted to the sale of a particular article, with streets devoted entirely to the buying and selling of gold, streets full of spice merchants and others lined with tiny shops selling diaphanous lengths of multicoloured dress material, sewn with sequins and edged with pearl beading.

When we had gone there for the first time, to buy some pots and pans for our first marital home, I had found the experience quite overwhelming.  Rickety tables were set up on each side of the main thoroughfares, laden with plastic sandals, fruit and vegetables and electronic goods that had most certainly fallen off the back of a lorry. The edges of the pavement were lined with large, dirty, plastic bowls filled with different varieties of olives, further impeding our progress. Women wearing the traditional haïk clasped to their faces with one henna’ed hand, were bending from the waist, examining the goods on display on the cracked paving stones and haggling over the price in their shrill voices. The noise was indescribable.

We were jostled from all sides as people pushed their way through the crowd with scant regard for others, and the air was thick with cigarette smoke and the smell of unwashed bodies. Clouds of black flies crawled over the sticky pots of honey and syrupy pastries. The sun beating down on our uncovered heads, we had to pick our way carefully along the uneven pavements, slick with discarded fruit, blood from the sheep carcasses hanging from hooks in the open-fronted butchers’ shops and the soapy water thrown by the stallholders to clean the stretch of street in front of their displays.

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My agoraphobia, always crouching at the back of my head like a beast, waiting to attack at the slightest provocation, gave a silent snarl and unsheathed its claws. I felt as though I couldn’t breathe, but was afraid to tell T., as I wanted, above all else, to prove to him that I could survive in Algeria. He was disgruntled anyway, because as soon as the shopkeepers saw me by his side — so obviously European in spite of my dark hair — they would double, or sometimes triple the price.

So we came to an arrangement. He would leave me in the car, with the window rolled down to let in a cool breeze and the never-boring spectacle of the citizens of Oran to watch, while he would venture into the seething heart of M’dina Djida, sometimes accompanied by his brother, and haggle to his heart’s content, without the encumbrance of a European wife. That way both of us were happy.

 

Food, Glorious Food

T. was sitting across the table from me, his dark eyes trained on my face, a slight crease between his eyebrows betraying his uncertainty.  I could detect a certain guarded wariness there. How was I going to react?  “Eh bien,” he said finally with a resigned shrug of the shoulders, “Voilà du couscous.”

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T at table

It was January, 1966 and we had only been together for a couple of months when we were invited to Sunday lunch by another of the Algerian students. D. had promised to prepare couscous, the Algerian national dish, for us. I had heard of couscous before, but had no idea what to expect.

D. was older than the other students, a former boxer already in his thirties and divorced, with two children back in Algeria. So much older, in fact, that T and his friends later became convinced that D. was, in reality, a secret service agent sent to Britain by the Algerian government to spy on the other students.  It sounded completely paranoid to me at the time – all rather cloak-and-dagger – although, with hindsight, they were probably right.

So, on that freezing winter Sunday, we had turned up at D’s digs, two dingy rooms shared with another student, to be ceremoniously seated around a small table covered with newspaper and then served couscous out of a biscuit tin. I looked at the mess in front of me. With a kind of gloopy vegetable stew and lumps of unidentifiable meat ladled on top, it looked like something that had been pre-digested.

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Couscous

I hesitantly picked up my spoon – was that how you ate couscous? There was no fork in sight – dug around a bit, then transferred the contents of the spoon to my mouth. It was like eating lukewarm wallpaper paste. T. was watching me anxiously. “Mmm..” I mumbled, trying to swallow, “It’s delicious.” T’s face cleared and there was suddenly a palpable air of relief in the room. I had passed the test – the first of many.

It was lucky that I didn’t let that first taste of couscous put me off it for life. Later on, of course, I enjoyed real couscous, prepared for us by my mother-in-law.  I also found out that couscous is called taam, literally meaning ‘food’ in Algerian Arabic, or seksu, meaning ‘well-rolled,’ in Kabyle. It is essentially a Berber dish and can be found all over North Africa and even in Sicily. Berbers were preparing couscous as early as 238 to 149 BC, as primitive couscous pots have been found in tombs dating back to the reign of the Berber King Massinissa.

One of the scenes burned on my memory is of my mother-in-law trying to teach me how to roll couscous. Couscous is basically semolina rolled by hand in a large, shallow bowl, with water and salt gradually added  and the result passed through a series of sieves. It ends up looking like tiny balls, about the size of quinoa grains. Unfortunately, rolling couscous involves sitting on the floor, with one leg folded in front of you and the other stretched out at the side of the enormous tharbuth, or couscous bowl. My legs were much too long to fold and I ended up with one leg on each side of the tharbuth, my unorthodox approach reducing my mother-in-law to tears of laughter.

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Even better than couscous with sauce, was themakfoult – Kabyle couscous prepared with steamed seasonal vegetables and a drizzle of olive oil. Later on, when I became aware of the dietary values of certain foods, I realised that themakfoult was, in fact, one of the most perfectly-balanced meals you could ever hope to eat.

Another dish to which I was introduced at university was douara, or tripe. TRIPE? I hear you cry. Yes, tripe. I was no stranger to tripe, having been brought up in the north of England, where we ate cold pre-boiled tripe with vinegar. It was easy to eat tripe when you knew how. You just opened your mouth and let the stuff slither down your throat without actually tasting it. I didn’t even know you could cook tripe.

One of the other Algerian students, B., had prepared douara for us one evening. Married to a Belgian girl, B. was from Laghouat, a city situated on the northern edge of the Sahara, about four hundred kilometres south of Algiers. You must be thinking that we were extremely lucky to have all these friends cook meals for us.  T. wanted to introduce me to Algerian food, but, as he couldn’t cook and didn’t want to learn, could only do so through the culinary efforts of his friends. When homesickness hit hard and they had had their fill of the tasteless English food on offer, they would cook up a nostalgic feast at home.

Anyway, les tripes à l’algérienne (it sounded so much better in French) were a resounding success. Spiced with caraway, paprika, cinnamon and a hint of chilli, with chick peas and garlic added and coriander and flat-leaved parsley scattered on top, they were mouth-watering. It was lucky that I only learnt afterwards that not only was there tripe in there, but bits of sheep’s heart, liver and lungs.

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Douara

I’m joking because, although most people shun offal nowadays, I had actually been brought up on it. My mother would buy slices of cooked cow’s heart in Blackpool’s Abingdon Street Market as a Saturday teatime treat and liver was often on the school dinner menu. Mum would even eat boiled pig’s trotters, but that was a step too far for me.

Once in Algeria, I became familiar with other Algerian dishes. In fact, one of my wedding presents had been an Algerian cook book, full of recipes to be attempted. Although some of them were fairly easy, being tagines, or stews, with ingredients ranging from prunes to preserved lemons, others required hours of preparation and cooking.

Dishes like bourek, mostly eaten during Ramadan, similar to spring rolls, with a meat, cheese, or egg filling wrapped in sheets of filo pastry (diouls in Algeria), seemed easy enough, but filo pastry was not available commercially – in fact, most ingredients weren’t. They had to be prepared at home. The ingredients had to be mixed together and the tissue-thin sheets of pastry cooked painstakingly one by one, a bit like pancakes. Home-made really meant home-made.

I had neither the time nor the energy, nor indeed the skill, to make more complicated Algerian dishes. Luckily, the major part of Algerian cuisine is very similar to that of many Mediterranean countries, based on fresh seasonal vegetables, fruit, seafood and olive oil. The quintessential Mediterranean diet. Were it not for their incorrigible habit of adding sugar to everything and eating enough sugary, syrupy pastries to send them all  into a diabetic coma, Algerians would have one of the healthiest diets in the world.

One thing I found rather strange about restaurants in Algeria was that they never served Algerian food. All the French classics were there; steak and chips, coq au vin, seafood dishes, steak au poivre and so on, but not a tagine to be seen. During the eighties, one hardy soul opened a restaurant in Oran serving authentic Algerian dishes. The tables were traditional round ones, and the meals were served in painted earthenware pottery, accompanied by flatbread and khobz eddar, literally “home-made bread” – a kind of fluffy semolina bread with a soft, dark golden crust.

Unfortunately, as the tourist industry was, and still is, almost non-existent in Algeria, the restaurant closed its doors after a couple of years. The reason, I found out later, was that Algerians do not go out to restaurants to eat their own traditional dishes. They eat them at home.

 

 

 

Three Men in a Flat

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University of Sheffield in the sixties

“Well, what do you think of that, eh, Wendy? I did a good job there, didn’t I?” S, one of T’s flatmates, was standing in the doorway of the living-room, brandishing a kettle and glowing with pride. I  had been sitting on the sofa, reading a book, when he burst in. The work for my English Literature course  at university consisted mainly of reading, reading and more reading, relieved by a little light essay writing. What do you do when your tutor tells you that you have to read and analyse ALL of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, memorise lengthy soliloquies and commit to heart every tiny detail about his sources, his publishing history and his private life? And that was only one subject amongst many.

When, once in a blue moon, T. and I both had a lecture-free afternoon at the same time, we were to be found in his room in the flat he shared with two other Algerian students. He had had first choice of the two bedrooms, as he had been the one to find the flat and sign the contract with the landlady. So he had plumped for the larger of the two, the one with the bay window looking out on to the tree-lined road with its steep incline and the tall dark houses looming over both pavements like rows of prim dowagers at a debutantes’ ball.

I would stretch out on his white candlewick bedspread, and try to make sense of Spenser’s The Faerie Queen or Langland’s Piers Plowman. Sometimes, for a change, I would struggle  through L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, with its barely comprehensible eighteenth-century French text. T. would be seated at his table in front of the window, working on one of his equally incomprehensible maths or thermodynamics calculations.
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It must be said that T.’s help with my French coursework was invaluable. His French was flawless, as the schools he had attended in colonial Algeria had been exactly the same as those on mainland France. So I had happily entrusted him with my thèmes and versions (translations from and to French) and my French lecturer had been duly dazzled by my prowess and flair for the language.

The only hiccup had been once when T, in a particularly poetical turn of phrase, had translated “an empty stretch of sky” by  “un bout de ciel encore vierge,” substituting “virgin” for “empty.” I had been rebuked by the lecturer in a terse scrawl across my paper: “Tout de même, non!” ( For heaven’s sake – no!)

Any previous girlfriends had not had the run of the flat before I had arrived on the scene.  So the three flatmates had established a system, based on shared responsibilities and running, it must be said, like a well-oiled machine. T., used to budgeting, had done all the shopping for his mother and siblings in Algeria, and so was well able to spot a keen bargain. He was put in charge of the food shop.

H, slightly older than the other two, had had some military experience and knew how to cook. It was thanks to him I had had my first taste of Algerian food, as one memorable meal he had prepared was a kind of chicken tagine in a sauce with garlic, tomatoes, paprika and chick peas. Chick peas? I had never heard of them before. Not only that, he had stirred a raw egg into it a few minutes before dishing it up. I can remember us all sitting around the teak dining-table with the extension leaves pulled out, laughing, joking and happily dipping our torn-off chunks of Vienna bread, purchased from the local Polish grocer, into the communal serving platter.

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On a trip to London, Easter, 1966. Left to right: Me, a friend G., my sister and T.

So the final task – cleaning – had fallen, by default, to S. He had stepped up manfully to the task. Hence his pride in the brightly polished kettle. By then he and H. had acquired girlfriends who also seemed to be there for the long haul, one being Helen, the classmate from Blackpool with whom I had gone up to Sheffield. Of course, the three-man domestic team was made redundant once we three girls moved in.

Well, we didn’t exactly move in, as the university administration kept a beady eye on students’ living arrangements, especially those of female students. We had to stay in registered and approved digs or in halls during the first year. Never mind that some of the approved digs were grim – one girl in my year even finding bedbugs in her mattress – those were the rules.

We did spend, however, most of our time in the flat, only leaving reluctantly late in the evening. If we had stayed away overnight from our digs, the landladies were duty bound to report us to the university authorities. Not that we would have been thrown off our courses or anything, but we would have been at the receiving end of a severe reprimand.

We learned how to live together – three couples in one small flat – doing our best not to tread on each other’s toes. We learned not to filch anybody else’s food from the kitchen cupboard and, above all, not to even think about knocking when a bedroom door was firmly closed.

We learned how to cook – Helen and I buying the first of Len Deighton’s cook books, called Où est le Garlic? – to introduce us to the mysteries of “continental” cuisine.  She has since told me that we had read somewhere that the only way to test whether spaghetti was cooked was to throw it at a wall. If it stuck, it was cooked. I have absolutely no recollection of this at all, but the kitchen wall must have been festooned with strands of dried spaghetti.

T. often arrived late from his judo training sessions when all the University refectories were closed for the night. Before he had met me, he would pick up a steak, a tin of baked beans and a tin of tomato soup on his way home. His culinary skills extended as far as frying a steak and opening a couple of tins for his supper.

The first evening he had invited me around to the flat after one of his training sessions, he had bought two steaks for us to share. At the end of the meal, he turned to look at me and raised one dark eyebrow. Entranced, my heart fluttering, I gazed  into his eyes, expecting some sort of romantic declaration. Instead he said, “Well, I cooked for you this time. It was the first and last time. From now on,  you’ll be cooking for me.”

 

The Fridge Raiders

Bon! QUI a mangé mon Boursin? “(All right! WHO has eaten my Boursin cheese?) I stood in front of the open door of the fridge, hands on hips and  eyes narrowed, turning around to look at the guilty trio of my daughter, son and nephew, who stood there  hanging their heads, a  guilty smirk on their faces. T. had a LOOK, but then so did I – inherited from my mother. It used to have the children quaking in their boots when they were small, but not any more.

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The cheese in question was regularly brought back, amongst other treats, by T. when he went on business trips. He would always transit by Paris on the way back to Algeria, picking up a few goodies on the way – cheese, chocolate and so on. They were all the more precious because the only cheese available in Algeria at that time was goats’ cheese (when the wind was blowing in the right direction) and the chocolate was, well – let’s just say its only resemblance to real chocolate was that it came in blocks and was brown. I didn’t mind sharing out the bars of chocolate, but I have always loved cheese and really missed it. So the cheese was mine, and mine alone.

Unfortunately, my children didn’t understand the relationship between cheese and me. So they would stealthily unwrap the Boursin cheese, shave a couple of millimetres off the top or the sides, pat it back into shape, then carefully re-fold the foil wrapper around it. I couldn’t understand why my block of cheese seemed to get smaller each day, without me touching it. Then I had finally twigged.

I know that most parents with teenagers in the house have the same problem – food disappearing from the fridge, but for us, it was even more annoying because we could not just go down to the supermarket to replace the food items. We would have to wait until the next trip abroad.

It was the same with the bottles of fizzy drink. There was no such thing as Coca Cola or Orangina or 7Up, just the Algerian versions of them. Not very fizzy to start with, even if the apocryphal story of caustic soda crystals being added to create the required bubbles had been true, they seemed to lose even more of their fizz after a day or so. I didn’t realise that my children were taking surreptitious swigs of them and adding tap water to fill the bottle up to the previous level.

I should have realised that fridge-raiding was carried out by my family to a professional level. But the one who surpassed them all  was my mother-in-law. She had a Ph.D in the subject. My first intimation of her skills had been during our first year of marriage when she was staying with us in our flat in Oran. We were expecting guests for dinner, and hoping to make a gratin, I had bought some fromage rouge (Edam cheese)  – cheese being still available at that time. Opening the fridge later to take out the cheese in order to prepare the gratin, I discovered that it had vanished, leaving behind only a few dried-up pieces of red rind languishing sadly on the shelf.

The year after, when I had just given birth to our daughter, and was the slightly unwilling host for a posse of family members, brought back from Algiers by T. to “help” me, I had bought some of the famous Algerian apricot jam, La Coupe,  to liven up a substantial afternoon tea (or rather café au lait),  that I intended to prepare for T.’s maternal uncle, Khali B., and his wife, who were coming to congratulate us on our new baby.

I had sent T’s youngest brother to the shops to buy it the same morning, but when I came to setting the table for the goûter, the jam tin that I took from the fridge was empty. How many slices of bread would it have required to use up one kilo of jam? No, I later found that T’s younger sister, his brother and their cousin had scoffed it all  in the space of one morning, ladling it out of the tin and into their mouths with large spoons.

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During  the years that followed, I became used to things vanishing from the fridge. My own daughter, as soon as she could walk, would open the fridge door on her own, make a beeline for the large halves of watermelon cooling there and stick her little hands in the middle of each half to scoop out the succulent heart – the best bit. We would find the grooves made by her tiny fingers in the red, juicy fruit. My  father, on one of his visits to Algeria, had the simple, but brilliant, idea of fitting a wooden frame over the fridge door and thus blocking it. The ensuing roars of frustration issuing from the kitchen had to be heard to be believed.

None of them, however,  could hold a candle to my mother-in-law.  She was the Usain Bolt of fridge-raiding. Everyone else was an amateur in comparison. Even when she contracted diabetes in later life, she would snaffle any fruit or sweet treat in the fridge – her particular weakness being grapes, even though they are rich in fructose.

I had once subjected my children and nephew to the third degree at the dinner table over the disappearance of a honeydew melon from the fridge. They all protested their innocence with vehemence, even when I produced the ultimate evidence – the rinds tossed carelessly into the kitchen bin. All of their eyes converged on their grandmother, who was looking innocently around, pretending she didn’t know what on earth we were talking about.

I once caught her in the act, however. It was Christmas and I had prepared two bowls of trifle. One had alcohol in it – I would throw in any alcohol we had to hand, rum, brandy, coffee liqueur  – anything. The other was alcohol-free for my mother-in-law, the children and any other visitor who adhered strictly to the Muslim ban on alcohol. We had enjoyed our trifles on Christmas Day and the left-overs had been put in the fridge.

Walking into the kitchen the next morning, I found my mother-in-law in front of the open fridge with a large serving spoon in her hand, cream around her mouth and a guilty expression on her face. Hoping to distract me, she gave me an ingratiating smile, saying in a wheedling tone of voice, “ELHA wagui! Elha atas, atas!”  (This is GOOD! Really, really good!)

What she hadn’t realised was that, as our son was particularly partial to trifle for breakfast, he had polished off the remaining teetotallers’ trifle, leaving  only the alcohol-soaked version -the one she was finding particularly delicious. I stared at her in shock, not because she had been raiding the fridge and I had caught her red-handed, but that she had just consumed goodness knows how many millilitres of alcohol.

I didn’t know what to do, so didn’t say a word, just giving her a sickly smile in response. That night in bed, I told T., thinking he would be shocked to the core and demand that his mother be told so that she could pray for forgiveness for straying off the path of righteousness. Instead, he just chuckled and said that it didn’t matter anyway. The fact that she had not known that she was consuming alcohol meant that she had not committed any sin.

I was relieved to have not been the instrument by which my poor mother-in-law began her descent of the slippery slope towards dipsomania. It was, however, slightly worrying that she had much preferred the alcoholic version. Elha atas, atas, indeed.

Chick Pea Coffee

“What’s the matter with you? Have you forgotten how to make coffee?” T. gave me a LOOK from beneath lowered brows as he pushed away his cup with a grimace of distaste. He stood up, picked up his keys and went off to work without another word. I sat there at the kitchen table, nursing my injured feelings. To me, his criticisms were completely unjustified, but, try as I might, I just could NOT manage to produce a decent cup of coffee anymore.

I was using the same tried and tested techniques I had always used, but the resulting coffee was still as weak as dishwater, tasting vaguely of it as well, and was the colour of tea made with a teabag that had already been used several times. Making it stronger seemed to be impossible, although I was adding more and more ground coffee every time. Another thing – there was no instant coffee available in Algeria, so we didn’t even have that alternative.

When we had first married, we had used one of the Italian coffee makers that were to be found in every “homeware” shop all over Algeria. Don’t, whatever you do, get too excited by the word homeware. In Algeria, it meant aluminium bowls of varying diameters, pans made out of the same tissue-thin metal that would bend out of shape when exposed to heat, garishly-decorated dinner services for two dozen people or more and minuscule coffee sets, which, as my mother would say, were neither use nor ornament.

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I hated these coffee-pots, however, as they had a tendency to boil over, extinguishing the flame of the gas burner and constituting a real danger. The boiling-hot coffee inside would often slop over the side as well, scalding me badly on several occasions. I also disliked the metallic flavour they imparted to the coffee.

In desperation, I had asked one of my colleagues to bring back one of the very first electric filter coffee pots from France for me. The resulting coffee had less of a metallic taste, but was still undrinkable. What had happened to the wonderful Algerian coffee of the past? Although not grown in Algeria, coffee was blended and roasted there. Small spice shops, owned by independent traders and situated along the rue des Aurès in Oran, would grind it on the premises and the exquisite aroma of freshly-ground coffee would fill the kitchen for days afterwards.

The coffee-maker had lasted a few months, until the glass pot had been found mysteriously broken. It had been carefully put back into its holder but sure enough – there was a large crack down one side, rendering it unusable. How? Suspicion fell on my mother-in-law, as she had insisted, a few hours before, on a parting guest partaking of one last cup of coffee and had dragged him into the kitchen to pour it for him and stand over him like a hawk until he had swallowed every last drop. But whoever the culprit was, the damage was done.

We went down to Oran city centre without much hope of finding a replacement, but wonder of wonders – we found a shop selling Rowenta filter coffee makers. They were made of bright orange plastic as well, which blended in perfectly with my very seventies decor. Unfortunately, the new coffee-maker had only lasted a few weeks as well because as soon as some water was spilt on the hotplate, there had been a horrible smell of burning plastic and shorted electrical circuits.

When T. took it apart, he found that none of the electrical contacts had been insulated. This was typical of the poor quality of goods imported into Algeria. Rowenta, a reputable German manufacturer, had obviously thought that it was not worth the trouble of ensuring that goods exported to Algeria met safety standards. What difference to the world would the unfortunate death by electrocution of a few Algerians make?

T., by this time, had had enough of this new-fangled technology. Why not brew coffee in the good old fashioned way, just as his Mum used to do? So, one day, during one of my mother’s visits, he decided to show me the PROPER way to make coffee, involving a small pan, a sieve, sustained boiling and careful filtering of the precious liquid, and Mum and me watching in breathless admiration (or so he thought).  When the coffee was finally ready, he took one sip and the look on his face said it all. It was still the same disgusting brew as before.

Later, we were to find out what was really going on. It was nothing to do with our coffee-making skills. I was complaining about the situation one day to my sister-in-law and she looked at me in surprise. “But, Wendy, didn’t you realise? Half of the coffee beans are not coffee beans at all! They are roasted chick peas!” I rushed to the kitchen, poured out a handful of coffee beans, and sure enough, there were quite a few  beans that were roughly spherical in shape instead of the ovoid shape of the authentic coffee bean.

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This was later confirmed by T’s brother-in-law who worked at the state-owned company importing grains of all kinds. He told us not only did they import the lowest possible grade of coffee beans, but that chick peas were deliberately sourced to be of the same size. The coffee beans and the chick peas were then roasted together.  Later, we discovered that ground coffee was regularly mixed with barley flour, white flour with chalk and worst of all – poivre rouge (paprika) was cut with brick dust, of all things.

What had happened was that import licences had been taken away from  independent traders and only state-owned companies were allowed to import goods. So, of course, with customer satisfaction the least of their worries, they went for the cheapest option. We were lucky in that we went to Europe on a regular basis, so, in the years that followed, we always made sure that we brought home a few packets of real ground coffee in our suitcases.

It seemed the richer Algeria was growing, the less money was left over for its citizens to eat decently. Any old rubbish was good enough for them. They were not in any position to complain, anyway.

 

 

Bread

Algerians love bread. No, I’ll rephrase that. They are obsessed with it. You might think I am exaggerating, but it is in fact a bit of an understatement. I never fully realised the extent of this passion until I actually set foot in Algeria.

During  our university days, T. used to embarrass me on a regular basis  by requesting bread with every meal we ate in restaurants (except curry, of course) and, it being sixties Britain,  would be rewarded for his pains by a disbelieving look from the waiter and a plate on which two wafer-thin pieces of  sliced white bread reposed. Sometimes, to add insult to injury, at least from T’s point of view, the kitchen staff  would add a scraping of butter or, more usually, of margarine.

Looking at the plate with suspicion, T. would raise his eyebrows, shrug his shoulders, mutter something under his breath along the lines of “You English don’t know how to eat,” before resignedly rolling up the thin slices and swallowing them in one gulp. Luckily for us, we had found a Polish grocery on Whitham Road, a stone’s throw from T’s flat,  that sold what were called “Vienna” loaves. They, at least,  had a discernible crust and the inside could be chewed.

T, although he loved Britain, had serious problems with the whole panoply of English food — except for the puddings. Every lunchtime in the Upper Refectory, he would help himself to whatever steamed pudding was available that day, smothered in lashings of custard. I would sit opposite him, primly eating my lemon yoghurt and casting covetous glances at all that marmalade, jam, chocolate or currant-filled lusciousness being shovelled into his mouth. Sometimes he would take pity on me and offer me a spoonful – just one, mind you.

Anyway, to get back to the subject of bread. My introduction to Algerian bread had been during my first meal eaten there, after I had just arrived in Oran for my first visit to the family in December, 1968. T. was living temporarily in the Hôtel Martinez in the city centre while more permanent housing was being sorted out for him.

That first evening we decided to eat dinner in the hotel restaurant. The meal was absolutely mouthwatering and  accompanied by a basket filled to the brim with chunks of the most delicious bread. It resembled the French baguette, but its texture was  more consistent and the crust crunchier than its French counterpart. T. waved his hand airily in the direction of the basket, saying to me, with a hint of smugness in his voice, “Voici le pain algérien!” (THIS is Algerian bread!) In other words, “THIS is REAL bread!”

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Of course, it wasn’t traditional Algerian bread. It was the Algerian version of French bread.  I learned later that the bread  I had eaten with my meal that evening was called pain ordinaire. It was usually eaten at lunch or at dinner and was ideal for dipping in sauces. No table etiquette here demanding that you tilt the soup bowl away from you in order to scoop up the final spoonful of soup, or frowning on the use of a piece of bread to wipe up the last delicious smears of chorba or ragoût. 

My daughter, for years, would eat her lunch or dinner with a chunk of bread in one hand and her fork or spoon in the other. One bite of bread, one of soup or chicken. No Algerian meal, except couscous, is complete without its basket of bread. Couscous with bread, anathema to purists, is more a European habit than an Algerian one. As is eating it with a fork.

For breakfast, or for the sacrosanct goûter, a different kind of bread, pain blanc – white bread – with its softer, glazed crust and fluffy white crumb would be served. My mother-in-law would call the goûter la “casse-crotte” (croûte) meaning  literally the breaking of the crust. The equivalent of the British teatime, it was originally intended as a snack children would eat on their return from school, but  was enjoyed every day around four o’clock in the afternoon by Algerian children and adults alike  to prevent them dying of inanition before the evening couscous.

Although I had seen T. dunk a chunk of bread or a croissant in his coffee, I had never before seen him slap butter on his piece of baguette, slather it with jam and THEN dunk it in his café au lait.  My mouth must have dropped open in shock as my gaze travelled from T. eating his soggy bread with evident enjoyment to the glistening pools of melted butter and the lumps of apricot jam floating around on the surface of his coffee. Obviously, he had reverted to old habits once back on home turf.

So, given the visceral attachment Algerians have to their bread, you can imagine the shock and dismay when, during the years of shortages, bread became harder and harder to find. Bakeries would bake batches only at certain times of the day and long queues would form outside the shops. I became used to seeing men hauling great sacks of thirty or forty baguettes home.

There must have been a lot of wastage, but bread is never thrown away in Algeria. I don’t know whether it is a religious constraint  or a social one, but you could always find rock-hard pieces of baguette placed with great care on every outside windowsill. Better to leave it to the birds rather than throw it away with the rubbish. Such is the Algerian reverence for bread, that if a piece falls to the floor, it is picked up and kissed before being put back on the table.

Traditional Algerian bread deserves a post of its own. Usually made from semolina, not flour, it ranges from aghroum, Kabyle flatbread, to matloue, a kind of soft, spongy bread often called tajine bread, ideal for soaking up tajine juices. Khobz eddar,  literally “home” bread, is soft and delicious with its glazed brown crust, often sprinkled with nigella seeds. Aghroum is sometimes stuffed with onions and peppers, to make a complete snack.

My mouth is watering as I am sitting here typing.  Against all the odds, it seems that I have become as much a fan of bread as the next Algerian.

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