Saturday, 12 June 2010
Restaurant - Numidie
Location - Crystal Palace
By Boeing : 951 miles
By Boris Bike : 9.7 miles
Fantastically vibrant and colourful television commercials paint pictures of a distant paradise and ‘bewitch’ the senses; tourism is the bread and butter of many a national economy . But like a 1950’s public service announcement Albania’s advert would be brief, black and white and bemuse. So it was with a great sense of expectation that I travelled south across the Mediterranean to my next port of call, Algeria.
Of all the continents Africa is perhaps the most bewitching. The recent world cup, the first ever to be hosted on African soil, finally allowed a continent with more than its fair share of despots and despondency to showcase its rich culture and newfound confidence to an expectant world. The dazzling delirium of the opening ceremony showed that this is not a continent wanting for passion or personality. But to compare Algiers, that northern outpost of fading colonial splendour, with Soweto is like twinning Syracuse with Stockholm. Africa, I soon saw, was anything but homogenous. Contrast, contradiction and calamity were as much its bywords as colour and carnival.
My visit to Algeria saw me leave Kilburn for one of London’s most famous landmarks. Well that is to say the site of one its foremost former landmarks. Crystal Palace was once the fulcrum of South London socialites. Now it is a scruffy suburb that sits bashfully in the shadow of the 220 metre faux Eiffel tower and its manicured gardens. In truth since the great fire of 1936 destroyed its crystal citadel the district has struggled to retain its glean and glamour. Apparently Sebastian Coe once ran marginally faster than Steve Cram here, but that is one of the few times it has made the papers. It is now a venue for hire not a site to inspire. As I walked from the station up Anerly Hill I recalled my last visit, some twenty years ago, when in one of the vast regency gardens, at a football swop shop, I struck up an exchange with a musty misanthrope and swapped a sticker of west ham’s reserve goalkeeper for the Swindon Town squad.
Algeria is a country that though geographically in Africa has, during its troubled and eventful history, been drawn into the compass of the Islamic Middle East. And like many of its continental neighbours only in the earliest and latest chapters in its history has it been master of its own fate. In between a succession of pirates, plunderers, princes and potentates have forced subjugation and left their mark in the culture and cuisine. It was no surprise then that Numidie, a small, unassuming bistro set amidst a parade of gaudy bars and neon-fronted noodle houses, has a provincial French air. Its low-lit ambiance, rustic furniture and elegant mirrors were in keeping with the understated charm that was the legacy of 130 years of French occupation. Moving the other way in this cultural exchange between victor and vassal, Algerian footballer Zinedine Zidane became one of the most celebrated and enigmatic French superstars of recent times.
The bitter civil war that followed independence in 1992 saw 160,000 die and in a recent study Algiers, despite its Gallic glamour, had the lowest quality of life of 132 capital cities. With the French removed Algeria once more sought to define itself and its relationships with its African neighbours and Arab allies.
‘Numidie’ is the name for an ancient Berber kingdom. Along with neighbouring Morocco, Algeria is the ancestral home of the indigenous peoples of North Africa. They were dispersed and marginalised by the arabization of the region in the 11th century but their culture has survived and is now flourishing once more. This can be seen in the cuisine, which is distinct from middle-eastern traditions. Its dishes and delicacies are drawn from the varied landscape of the country that includes Mediterranean ports, fertile plains, the Atlas mountains and southern deserts.
My starter, a traditional fish soup was very much a Mediterranean dish with a rich tomato and herb base while the Merguez, the national speciality, was a hearty, spicy sausage eaten for centuries in the mountain regions. The Berber staples are couscous and chickpea. These feature in most dishes, not least in the most popular main course, a rich stew called a tajine. Algerian food is less spicy than its Moroccan counterpart and my chicken tajine was delicate and salty. The flavours were subtle, balanced and without the fiery heat and intense spice found in neighbouring Morocco and Tunisia.
Olives and grapes are a major harvest, although since the French left the wine has become, according to my blushing waitress, ‘variable’. Nevertheless in season Algerians enjoy bountiful fruits and serve these for desert. Algeria ,afterall, has been suggested site for the Garden of Eden. My pudding was truly delicious and the highlight of the meal, a pear poached in red wine, aniseed and spices. Like the rest of the meal it was simple, fresh and mouth-watering. It was, to my mind, far more indulgent than the richest chocolate concoction an American diner could dream up. Algerian cuisine combines regional flavours and styles with French gastronomic traditions to pleasing effect.
I leave Algeria wiser and well fed. I look forward to returning to Africa soon to see what is familiar and what is different and learn a little more about a land whose mystery is its mirror to the world.