Tuesday, March 27, 2007

SAINT-REMY, France — It was a Friday, and I was in France’s Provence, in the quaint walled town of Saint-Remy, once the end of a trade route that started in the distant East and Yemen and wound through such places as Cairo and Marseilles. Because Provence was a center of learning and home to many Jews — Nostradamus was born here — the Babylonian Talmud and other Jewish wisdom was passed along this trade route. Yet the only obvious reminder of this past greatness is the town’s 14th-century Jewish cemetery with two bright blue Jewish stars emblazoned on the mostly closed doors.

That night, a friend took me to a meeting of the Association Culturelle des Alpilles des Juifs, an organization created to spread Jewish tradition within the community, which today doesn’t even have a synagogue. The Jews in Saint-Remy must go to Avignon or Carpentras to pray.

When a young Tunisian Jew, Ilyo Lussato, founded the association to spread Jewish tradition, he was surprised at how many Jews there were in Saint-Remy. Within two years, the number of families who joined increased from three to 60, and it continues to grow. I had the privilege of eating Shabbat dinner with them, tasting a Jewish meal from Algeria.

Dinner was hosted by Algerian-born Hubert and Jocelyne Akoun in their charming stucco home on the outskirts of town. Their house also offers lovely bed-and-breakfast accommodations (go to www.lacigaleetlafourmi.fr). It was clear that Jocelyne enjoys every aspect of cooking, from creating it to feeding others, putting up food and giving parties.

Two freezers are stocked with carefully marked dishes of couscous, tomato sauce and roasted peppers. Her summer canning kitchen, built by her husband outside near the swimming pool, holds all the preserves and tomato sauces she makes when peppers, tomatoes and peaches are perfectly ripe. To get the best deal for her canning projects, she goes to the local farmers markets at the end of the day.

Our dinner, served on the salmon marble sideboard of her kitchen, started with brik, a typical North African turnover — this one filled with tuna, hard-cooked egg and cilantro. I had never tasted any as good as Jocelyne’s.

The food kept coming. There was couscous; cooked tomato salad served in little pastry cups; meatballs, one served in a tomato sauce, another with a sweet raisin-and-onion sauce; eggplant salad; and almond brik turnovers dipped in honey for dessert.

“This is typical Pieds Noirs food,” Hubert said, referring to the French nationals living in Algeria who were distinguished by their black boots. “We were in North Africa before the Arabs,” he said. “Some Jews arrived there when the first temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and have lived there ever since.” Others were Berbers who had converted. Still others arrived during the Spanish Inquisition.

Jocelyne described a few Algerian Jewish dishes she remembered from her childhood. One was a spring soup eaten at Passover, filled with fresh fava beans and other vegetables, such as peas and scallions. As we were leaving, Jocelyne handed us jars of preserves to take home. When we thanked the Akouns for their hospitality, Jocelyne stopped for a moment and said, “I believe that we are the last generation that will cook like this.” I hope not.

Algerian haroset

I am fascinated by haroset. This one shows the wandering of the Jews throughout North Africa. It is made with figs, dates and nuts and rolled into little balls the way it was done in Spain hundreds of years ago.

French Jews do not use the sweet wine that we have in the United States, so their haroset includes a dry red wine, which can be made a little sweeter with the addition of sugar, if desired. This recipe was adapted from one by Jocelyne Akoud.

8 ounces dried figs

8 ounces dried dates, pitted

4 tablespoons red wine, sweet or dry

½ teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Sugar to taste, if using dry red wine

1 cup walnuts

Place figs and dates in a food processor with red wine, cinnamon and nutmeg. Process until chopped. (If using dry red wine, sprinkle in a little sugar to taste.) Add walnuts and pulse enough to bind. Roll into little balls about the size of pecans, or serve haroset mounded into a bowl. Makes about 32 balls or 4 cups haroset.

Algerian julienne of vegetable soup for Passover

Because I have so many vegetarians at my own Seder, I have made this soup both ways, as vegetarian and as beef soup. It is refreshing and colorful, with the fresh green fava beans swimming in the broth. A sign of spring throughout the Mediterranean region, the green fava beans are used by Moroccan and Algerian Jews as a Passover food. This recipe was adapted from one Mrs. Akoud serves at Passover.

1 pound shoulder of beef, optional

1 pound marrow bones, optional

1 bay leaf

2 cloves

5 peppercorns



1 onion

3 leeks

3 carrots

1 stalk celery

4 large potatoes (about 1½ pounds), peeled

2 turnips (1 pound), peeled

½ small head cabbage (8 ounces)

Vegetable oil

½ tablespoon turmeric, or to taste

Pinch of saffron

1 pound fava beans, peeled, fresh or frozen

4 tablespoons chopped parsley for garnish

If using meat, place beef, bones, bay leaf, cloves and peppercorns in 8 cups water in a large soup pot. Bring to a boil and add a teaspoon of salt, or to taste. Skim off any scum that accumulates, lower to a simmer and cook, covered, for 1 hour.

Remove bones, pour liquid through a sieve and return liquid to pot. (Discard bones but eat the marrow!) Cut meat into tiny cubes.

Dice onion, leeks, carrots, celery, potatoes and turnips. Shred cabbage. Saute onion in a little oil. Then add vegetables to broth or, if making vegetarian version of this soup, to 8 cups water in a large soup pot, stirring after each addition. Season with turmeric and saffron to taste. Bring soup to a boil, cover and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until potatoes are cooked. Add fava beans and cook for 5 minutes more. Sprinkle with parsley. Makes about 10 servings.

Algerian cooked tomato, pepper and eggplant salad

This recipe was adapted from one by Mrs. Akoud.

1 eggplant (about 1 pound)

2 pounds red bell peppers

2 pounds fresh tomatoes or a 28-ounce can San Marzano tomatoes

Boiling water

6 tablespoons olive oil

6 cloves garlic, chopped

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Juice of 1 lemon

4 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Greens for serving, optional

Pierce eggplant and place along with bell peppers in preheated 450-degree oven. Roast for about 20 minutes, or until soft.

Cool slightly and remove pulp from eggplant and peel peppers, seed and slice. Peel fresh tomatoes by plunging them into boiling water for a minute or two to loosen the skin. Remove, peel and dice.

Heat oil in heavy frying pan and add garlic. Cook a minute or so to soften but not brown. Then add eggplant, bell pepper and tomato, cooking very slowly for about 2 hours.

Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cool and squeeze lemon juice over all. Serve sprinkled with chopped cilantro on a bed of greens, if desired. Makes about 8 servings.

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