I love cumin. It is easily my favourite spice. In fact, it is so good it is mentioned in the Bible – twice
So Easter has passed by once again, except nobody actually noticed as a result of it still being winter (at the time of writing). Not that it is ever much to get worked up about here in the UK. We do try, though. We endeavour to shove a bit of crass, Christmassy commercialism Easter’s way but it never really enters into the spirit. Try and lend it a bit of festive cheer but Easter just doesn’t want to know. Usually at Easter time you can be energised by the rising sap of spring: lambs, chicks, daffodils, blossom, all that; nature once again becoming green and fecund; the hazy burr of lazy summer days on their way once more. Much, genuinely, to feel good about. But this year it already feels as though nights are drawing in for the winter. It might as well be November. And as Easter slopes away so too does any hope that Persephone might fling any fruitfulness our way.
If you happen to be from Seville then none of this will be of immediately pressing concern. Sevillanos go to town for the duration of La Semana Santa – Holy Week. Seriously go to town. The pasos, (processions) of Seville’s Holy Week are the most pre-eminent event in the country’s religious calendar. Seville is Spain’s Vatican City, its Canterbury.
Religion – Spain’s Roman Catholicism: dark, brooding, muscular, yet always highly extravagant – hangs thick in the air in Seville, and nowhere more so than in Santa Cruz the city’s old medieval centre. The old town, or El Laberinto (‘the labyrinth’) as locals know it is exactly that: a warren of narrow streets and alleyways. It is like a hothouse. Temperatures soar from, well, Easter onwards and so the shade afforded by the many cool patios and plazas is a celestial blessing.
Seemingly every street, every public thoroughfare is named after some Saint. Even routine street furniture is suffused with the deathless whisper of The Resurrection, The Passion, The Virgin: The Phone Box of Christ The Holy Saviour, or The Pissoir of Our Most Blessed Redeemer. Pious wall murals are always demanding your attention.
It all rather makes the Camino del Santiago in the country’s cool, Atlantic north look like a village fête. Whereas back home you might organise a raffle for fixing the roof at the vicarage, here during Semana Santa you’ve got the Hermandades y Cofradías de Penitencia. These are the ‘Brotherhoods’, the masked penitents dressed in the Klu Klux Klan garb of head-to-toe robe and pointy mask processing through the streets. But it is really all a bit sinister, a bit Da Vinci Code. The whole thing has more than a whiff of The Inquisition and murky associations with Franco-era atrocities about it than I am entirely comfortable with. These Brotherhoods are said to undertake ‘Self-Regulated Religious Activities’, which, I would imagine, include manacling heretics to racks and removing their tongues.
But I do love the city and Santa Cruz in particular. It feels charmingly shabby. Its plazas of bright whites and sunlit gold are blithely carefree. It is characteristically unhurried in that way that Southern Europeans have made their own. And the scent of orange trees really does hang in the air. (There’s a great Irish Pub as well, but that’s another story).
Yet far from being a Catholic stronghold, Seville was of course a Muslim city and was part of Moorish Spain for several centuries until the reconquista of Ferndinand III. These influences continue to exist everywhere for all to see. You only have to look at the cathedral’s bell tower La Giralda to know that for all intents and purposes it is a minaret. The city is as much Muslim as it is Christian.
These morisco influences are nowhere more prevalent than in the very catholic – that’s ‘small c’ catholic, the true meaning of the word – cuisine and flavours that were developed after North African, Berber and Arab foodstuffs and cooking methods were brought to Iberia: cumin, saffron, almonds, lemons, dried fruits. Things we think of today as Spanish staples exist only as a result of the trade routes south and east. Paella and olive oil? It was the Moors who introduced rice and the cultivation of olive trees to Spain.
But we are not in Seville we are in Canterbury. Home of the Anglican Church this time and home to Café Mauresuqe, a Moorish themed Andalusian-tapas-Moroccan-tagine-kind-of restaurant and tapas bar. What’s more, it is in the heart of the city’s old medieval centre, with, as it happens, a pretty decent Irish Pub almost next door…
Café Mauresque is immediately a visually arresting and atmospheric place to be. From the morisco style ceramic tiling to the horseshoe arch motifs and even the lighting, it is not a million miles away from a Tangiers souk or a Córdoba back street. Without qualification, Café Mauresque is the loveliest looking restaurant in the city.
You will find a decent selection of Andalusian-Morrocan tapas dishes, cous cous, stews and many more Europeanised main course dishes such as Pork Belly in Fino Sherry and the perhaps unconvincing-sounding Steak with Manchego Butter. Moorish style Spanish tapas is certainly still infrequent enough for it to pique interest, which is in no small part aided and abetted by consistently dexterous cooking.
Fried potatoes with harissa yoghurt were hot and crisp. Hummus came with its characteristic garnishes: a generous slug of fruity olive oil and a spike of paprika. It was creamy, woody and avoided tasting like chewed cardboard, as it so often can. Brochettes of squid and chorizo, then lamb a la plancha were both decent and hearty; the former in particular. Plenty of smoky flavours here as well.
For me the highlight of the tapas dishes were the Kefta, or Moroccan lamb meatballs. They were both plump and rich with cumin and served with sweet-sharp tomato sauce. I love cumin. It is easily my favourite spice. In fact, it is so good it is mentioned in the Bible – twice. Not only does it remain an integral aspect of the Moroccan kitchen but also the dining table where it is used as a plate-side condiment. It is such a warm, convivial aroma and always just pungent enough. Lamb, tomato, cumin in combination just does it for me.
More lamb: a tagine with dates and ginger and served in its namesake conical pot was excellent. Softly yielding, fatty meat slid with minimal effort from its shank bone tether. It was as filling and as reassuring as only a good pot of stew can be. Of all the meats lamb turns warm, sweet notes to its best advantage.
Dessert was Sticky Date Cake and was sticky, date-y, and erm, cake-y accompanied with Spanish helado and washed down with sweet mint tea.
Canterbury is a kind of spiritual home for me. It is a place of childhood memories as well as being an adolescent stamping ground. Many halcyon days (and nights) were spent there as a student and then later on working in the city’s best bookshop. And it was during that time that Café Mauresque opened and became an instant hit.
Over a decade later it remains Canterbury’s best and most stylish restaurant. Moorish and moreish in equal measure.
8 Butchery Lane
Tel: (01227) 464300