Café Mauresque

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.

Opinion: 8/10

Café Mauresque
8 Butchery Lane
Canterbury
Kent
CT1 2JR


Tel: (01227) 464300
Website: http://www.cafemauresque.com
Twitter @CafeMauresque

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La Trappiste

my personal torment would be being water boarded by a ruddy-faced Bavarian wearing nothing but lederhosen, stockings and his Wehrmacht epaulettes

Just occasionally in life you encounter places that capture the imagination like nowhere else. For good or for ill, there will be these isolated little moments in time that leave an indelible mark on the imagination, an ineradicable footprint on the sands of memory for all time. Oh sure, there will be all those irresistible stirrings brought on by the usual reveries: The Sounds Of Radio Four Coming From The Kitchen Of An Avuncular Great Aunt Living In Devon; That Kiss In The Park By The River On That Summer Afternoon; Vomiting Down Your Shirt In A Packed Bar…

Truth be told, it’s probably not in anyone’s interests to try and turn their lives into a Proust novel. But there are two occasions I can think of in my life where I have tried to retrace my steps somewhere but have simply been unable to do so, second or any subsequent time round.

Both places are restaurants. First was a little trattoria in the side streets up in Paris’s 18ème arrondissement. It was my first time in La Ville-Lumière. 1995, a Sixth Form French trip. It was lunch time, we lost our teachers for the afternoon, found this little place and ordered pizzas and beer and smoked Marlboro Reds. After scraping our money together we hadn’t quite enough to pay but the owner wasn’t the slightest bit concerned. We stayed for hours. And I have never managed to find this place since  – I don’t know if it still exists even. I realise this must say something about me as a seventeen year old, the fact that one of my enduring adolescent memories is enjoying an ad hoc yet rather civilised (surprising, considering the company) extended lunch in Paris.

The second and more recent occasion was a place in the centre of Munich and for the life of me I cannot remember what it was called. All I know is that it was a stone’s throw from the Marienplatz. I’ve tried putting every conceivable combination of words into Google – ‘German restaurants Munich city centre’, ‘local restaurants in Munich’, ‘Bavarian offal fetish dungeon hell hole’ – but all to no avail. The place does not seem to exist on Street View either. And I so desperately wanted to find this place again, really just to see if it actually exists and I haven’t just invented the whole thing.

Since I have no details of the place: name, location, anything at all to point to it actually existing outside of my own mind I can’t therefore review it, as was my intention. It would be like writing a review of The Krusty Krab. So instead I shall adopt a persona – let’s say this character’s name is S Truffle – and write a narrative piece in the first person perspective about the experience of visiting a restaurant in Munich.

***“In the evening I went looking for a restaurant. This is often a problem in Germany”. The words of Bill Bryson in actual fact. And as I was to find out, never truer words spoken. Finding somewhere to go for dinner was such a monumental trial each and every time I began to wonder whether I, S Truffle, was merely a character in somebody else’s mind – a chimera existing solely for somebody else’s amusement. Perhaps their plans for me would be my eternal languishment in a tartarus of Bavarian cuisine right here in Munich. Was being held fast, buried to my neck and slowly drowning in a quicksand of weisswurst and pickled lung stew my nightmare or somebody else’s? Never mind being burnt to death with a lighter or being spoon-fed bits of my own body until there was nothing left, my own personal torment would be being water boarded by a ruddy-faced Bavarian wearing nothing but lederhosen, stockings and his Wehrmacht epaulettes.

Suddenly I was no longer alone. I had a companion. We chose a restaurant. I say ‘chose’, it was more like finding you’ve been entered for Shirley Jackson’s lottery. As we pushed open the door, parted the heavy draught-excluding curtain, I think I actually exclaimed aloud, “Oh Jesus Christ”.

The only free seats were at a large communal table. I thought we had mistakenly stumbled into a private party. Pine-panelled walls, mounted animal heads, various Tyrolean curios and memorabilia all gave the room an ominous mien. Was this in actual fact some clandestine Austro-Bavarian masonic lodge meeting? Everyone in the room was middle-aged, well-to-do and ruddy. They definitely all harboured extreme right-wing views. Maybe they were cannibals? It crossed my mind. The woman seated directly opposite was particularly intent on staring me out. Surreptitious whispering heavy with glottals and menace came from all corners. I’m sure everybody was now licking their lips. We were not welcome here. At all.

A menu nevertheless arrived. As feared it was a veritable biopsy table of internal organs and bits of digestive system. I was able to pick out the schweinehaxe which I somehow knew was a regional speciality of pork knuckle. My companion settled for liver dumplings, whatever the hell they were. If I hadn’t navigated as judiciously as I did the task of rendering what German I have into English I know for a fact that plates of quivering udder and boiled colon would have been placed in front of us. For some irrepressible reason I had the compulsion to order, in English, in a comedic ‘Allo ‘Allo German accent though was begged not to. Our food arrived. Needless to say every mouthful was terrifyingly, nerve-shreddingly horrific. I heard myself scream. I woke with a start. Around me was a sea of leering, ruddy faces. I was held fast in quicksand up to my neck. A faceless man wearing only stockings and Wehrmacht epaulettes advanced upon me with a tray of quivering udders and assorted boiled colons. I began to scream before waking with a start.***

But If I could finds this place to review it would score a perfect ten. Ten for the memories and minus ten for everything else.

chips were of the school dinner variety – pale, flabby, fat and greasy

And so to Canterbury’s titular La Trappiste and the most unwelcoming, uncongenial establishment encountered since S Truffle went on holiday to Munich by mistake. It is a Franco-Belgian themed brasserie and bar in the old city centre, practically under the shadows of the cathedral’s splendid western façade. I still love Canterbury. It manages to be a surprisingly young city thanks to it being home to two universities and countless overseas students.

La Trappiste occupies an impressive and roomy space at the intersection of four streets. It really could not have asked for a better head start in the battle for the hearts and minds of the city’s inhabitants. It can be approached from all angles. If you are going to or from the cathedral you will probably walk past it. An attractive bar provides the centre piece. There is even an on-site bakery whose wares are displayed in the window. It is a damn wonder the space wasn’t made into a Prêt or a Starbucks. It is also a damn shame as well…

On our first visit one summer evening we didn’t even get to try the food. Being shown to an outside table was the last we saw of anybody. After decanting us to our seats and sloping back inside, the waiter then resumed his duties of busily standing by the bar. We didn’t even get menus. I should of course point out that the place was actually empty inside. Plenty of staff though. So industrious was their bar-propping that their elbows must have worn deep furrows into the counter. What the hell was their problem? After a Best-of-British, hand-wringing fifteen minutes of apologetically telling each other “don’t worry they’ll be along in a minute,” I thought about going in to say “look, I’ll cook our meal. Do you mind if I pour myself a Leffe?”

I did go in to ask what was going on. The shift manager’s response was to spit: “right, so are you gonna leave then now, or what?” in the same tone a chap might employ for requesting another chap’s presence outside for fisticuffs.

And that was that.

I just knew I had to go back again. This time for lunch, labouring under the misapprehension that things couldn’t possibly be any worse. Once more I was shown to a table but this time hidden behind a pillar and to get to it I had to squeeze between it and the next table, depositing my scrotum – accidentally, I hasten to add – into their food whenever I passed by. The table was so tiny it would have been more comfortable eating off my lap.

I kept things as simple as possible by ordering Steak Frites and a beer, a Grimbergen Bruin. It was tart, brown and fizzy and pretty damn good, and sadly the only thing to scale the lofty heights of above average. The steak, a sirloin, was requested medium-rare but arrived torched to oblivion and devoid of any kind of discernible characteristic that may have identified it as sirloin steak. All essence and flavour must have been surgically removed before it left the the kitchen, thus leaving it with less taste than the guests at a Jeffrey Archer dinner party.

Chips were of the school dinner variety – pale, flabby, fat and greasy – and bore not the slightest resemblance to any French or indeed Belgian Fries I’ve come across in my lifetime. In fairness though an accompanying Béarnaise sauce was decent.

La Trappiste is utterly half-arsed and breathtakingly arrogant to boot. I cannot decide whether management don’t know how to run a café restaurant or simply don’t care. It cannot be stressed enough just how much this place has everything going for it. Even the affected interior rough-and-readiness really does look like that of a continental café. And by god, Belgium really does know how to produce stuff people love to eat: fries, mussels, chocolate, waffles and seemingly innumerable varieties of really amazing beer. But sadly not here. Canterbury: so close to Belgium yet so far.

Opinion: 2/10

La Trappiste
1-2 Sun Street
Canterbury
Kent
Tel: (01227) 479111
Website: http://www.latrappiste.com