Mechoui al Harissa (Harissa Roasted Lamb)
Dedicated to Kath, who REALLY likes Harissa
This Madeleine has so many memories encoded in its DNA, that I really don’t know where to start. It has been a staple of our family celebrations for almost as long as I can remember. So not knowing where to start, I did what every self-respecting independent woman of 30-something does. I called my mum (Editor’s Note: gosh, that ages me!)
It turns out that the first time my mum prepared this, was at the suggestion of my dad’s boss in Burundi (who was from Madagascar. You’ve GOT to keep up). My dad’s boss had a knack for inviting people to big bashes, and at the last moment something would “go wrong”, so everyone would end up going to my parents’ house and my mum would prepare a fantastic feast. Again. For this first bash of the sort, my parents made one major mistake: they ordered the meat a bit too fresh. “Fresh”, as in alive. With soft fur and a liking for eating out of your hand. Needless to say, the lamb – because that’s what it was – did not end up on the roasting spit. It was our pet for the next 2 years, and even moved house with us.
So my mum ordered one of the lamb’s less fortunate and especially less alive colleagues, and thus started our Mechoui tradition. For those of you who have been to French village fetes, or have travelled in North Africa, you will know this dish, and that’s also why we call it a mechoui and use harissa. What the Malagasy term for it is, I have no clue, but I’m sure it tastes the same whatever you call it. A rose by any other name and all that. Of course, I tend to avoid preparing a whole roast lamb in our 2 bedroom flat in central London (landlords are not as accommodating as they used to be…). But a smaller piece of the beast does the trick nicely as well.
So tonight, it’s lamb shoulder al harissa (or any other chilli + garlic + olive oil paste).
You need enough harissa to cover the whole roast, including “crevasses” created by scoring the fat in a criss-cross pattern. This morning I mixed the harissa with some more olive oil, then massaged it into the lamb shoulder (sore or not). I then popped it into a plastic bag and left it in the fridge. Don’t worry, most of the ‘hotness’ will burn off during the roasting.
Bearing in mind that this is usually prepared on an open fire, I think the best result is achieved by slow-roasting the meat. That means roughly 1/2 hour per 1/4 kg, at 160 degrees.First roast it in the oven as it is for 35 minutes. Then add some water, baste the meat as you add it, and return to oven for as long as it needs, basting every 20 mins. Roughly.
I usually prepare couscous to go with this, but I felt adventurous today, so I’m serving it with a cannellini and chick pea mash, seasoned with onion slices cooked in olive oil with cumin and hot paprika.
Since that first mechoui, many others have followed, prepared by us or not. A few of them will remain as Golden Madeleines: seeing the whole butchered lamb hanging in the Mauritanian sun all day while we were busy riding camels and donkeys, then eating it at night with the bedouins. The liver – supreme delicacy – had been prepared in a hole in the sand, charred on the outside and raw on the inside and served to the honoured guests (yippeeh!); the jaws-with-teeth-with-grass-still-in-them were served to my mum and I; and my foolish maternal grand-father needlessly bragged to the bedouins that in Saudi Arabia, he had eaten the eyes as well. The bedouins, being perfect hosts, obliged the eccentric old man and gave him what he was so obviously craving. Fearing for their Michelin star, they offered my dad the other one. An eye for an eye…
Although I must say that the Bedouins make up for the lack of spice (not even salt!) by being the most elegant and generous hosts I have ever met: sitting on the floor, around the whole lamb (often stuffed with couscous), we would first wash our hands in the basin proferred by a slave (yes, that bit I could definitely have done without!), before being handed a pocket knife.
We would then cut off pieces, but in true Bedouin fashion, it is considered rude to cut off a piece for one self, so you would find a particularly nice morsel, cut it off and present it to the person you wished to honour. We have tried it at home, but it does get messy across the dining-room table!
Edit: looking back, and in light of what our crazy world has become, note that in this muslim country, women and men would eat together and socialise in exactly the way we in the non-muslim world are used to. Living for 3 years in Mauritania taught me so much about a religion many people mis-represent and misunderstand, including some people who pretend to do things in the name of Islam
Another memory is many an Easter celebration in Auvergne, where my mum and I would marinate the a whole lamb (it’s best done with the hands, just make sure you don’t have an itch anywhere before you begin the messy massaging!) before my dad would tend to it on the roasting spit, bought for the occasion. One particular Easter stands out, when the weather was anything but spring-like, my fairly new boyfriend Mr J. (and now husband) was there as well and it started snowing, so Dad + Boyfriend grabbed the lamb and ran for dear life, dropping the lamb half way, while my increasingly eccentric grand-father (yep, the same one as before!) was playing the tuba, sitting in a dressing-gown in the living room. Actually, that is a fairly typical family gathering, as far as we’re concerned, so I’m not so sure why it stands out.
Probably because it was snowing at Easter.