Tagine genie: Mark Hix conjures up a Moroccan feast

Date:17-05-2013 07:58:05 read:2

Tagine genie: Mark Hix conjures up a Moroccan feast

In preparation for a Moroccan dinner in an ancient riad, the chef Mark Hix joined George Bennel, his long-time supplier of Mediterranean goodies, for a trawl through the Marrakesh souk.

Mark Hix's tagine, flavoured with aromatic fennel seeds Photo: Nassima Rothacker
< >
  • Recipe

    Fish, fennel and pea tagine

  • Recipe

    Broad bean and artichoke salad

  • Recipe


  • Recipe

    Whipped beets with goat's curd and walnuts

  • Recipe

    Minty Black cow

In the dark twists of the Marrakesh souk the chef Mark Hix is hunting for lamb’s hearts. 'They buy one animal at a time, break it down and put the offal in the fridge,’ he says, eyes sweeping a row of stalls. Six or so stalls later he has enough hearts to make one dish for tonight’s Moroccan-inspired feast for 12. A one-stop shop this is not.

Hix will be preparing the meal with George Bennell, the founder of Belazu, a British company that supplies Mediterranean products to everyone from Michelin-star chefs to supermarkets. The two men have known each other since Bennell was an ex-chef hawking high-class olives and olive oil and Hix was the executive chef of the Caprice group of restaurants. Twenty years on, Hix has his own string of restaurants, and Bennell’s company, which he started with his schoolfriend Adam Wells in a council house in east London, has a turnover of more than £23 million and employs 105 people. Hix is cooking tonight with Belazu products alongside fresh food from the Marrakesh market.

Belazu’s origins lie, indirectly, in Morocco and the north African side of the Mediterranean diet. Bennell, 44, first started selling olives in 1992, driving van-loads from his mother’s village in Provence to London. But these were not French olives: after a devastating freeze in the winter of 1956 destroyed most olive groves, farmers turned to grapevines and other crops, so most olives in France come from Morocco. Before long Bennell was buying directly from north Africa, and exploring the region’s food. The company’s exquisite two-tone Lilliput capers from west Morocco, launched in 1993, have fans among chefs such as Jeremy Lee. Rose harissa, a fragrantly fiery sauce, came eight years later, and became a favourite with Nigella Lawson. And then there are olives of every sort, preserved lemons and argan oil, made from nuts that are still commonly cracked by hand with rocks.

Souk scourer: Mark Hix tracks down ingredients in Marrakesh (Pic: Nassima Rothacker )

In the market, Hix has found some chicken offal in the poultry section, where buyers feel the breasts of live chickens before they are killed and plucked on the spot. He and Bennell sample raw prawns, fresh that morning from Essaouira on the Atlantic coast, and ask the sellers to pod fresh peas while they wander off to find big blue-and-white serving plates to take back with them to England.

Hix and Bennell escape the heat of the streets for tonight’s venue, a 17th-century riad centred on a courtyard filled with plants and a cooling fountain. 'You have to go to someone’s house to eat well in Morocco,’ Bennell says. 'In restaurants they can get away with cutting corners and making the food a little tamer. But there’s no comparison to home food.’ Women rule the Moroccan kitchen, using skills passed down the generations. But now Hix commandeers the space while the women look on, intrigued that he is using fresh ginger in his fish tagine instead of the usual powdered kind.

Tagines, named after their conical-topped cooking pots, are at the heart of Moroccan main courses and a favourite for both Bennell and Hix for home entertaining. In Oxfordshire, where he lives with his wife, Nicky, and their four children, Bennell cooks outside in the garden using a traditional Moroccan earthenware brazier. 'It distributes the heat better than a stove and you can just let it simmer away,’ he explains. 'You get the charcoal, smoke and spices, and the glow of the coals in the dark.’ Hix admits that, like many cooks in Morocco, he often makes a tagine more conveniently in a larger pot, and transfers the food to the authentic vessel for serving.

Formal Moroccan meals often start with the magic number of seven salads. Hix does his classic dish of whipped beetroot with goat’s curd and toasted walnuts, then others inspired by his souk shopping trip: raw artichokes with broad beans, parsley and mint; a tomato, coriander and chilli salad; and thin stalks of wild asparagus from the Ourika valley at the foot of the Atlas mountains. A splash of pickled lemon brine is used in a Moroccan-style ceviche made with the raw prawns and green chilli, spring onion and lime juice.

For the main course, Hix chops one of Bennell’s pickled lemons to put in a monkfish tagine; he stuffs the lamb’s hearts with merguez sausagemeat and braises them in a cumin and ginger-scented sauce; spreads Belazu’s new coriander and cumin paste over some slashed sea bream, ready for grilling on the barbecue, and uses a proto­type of the company’s tomato and piri piri sauce to top a dish of Koshari, Egyptian street food made with pulses, rice and pasta. The chicken livers and hearts go on barley couscous.

Bennell makes flatbreads for the barbecue. He spends about two months each year travelling, often breaking bread with his suppliers. This is the Mediterranean way of doing business, especially in Morocco. 'They are very proud and hospitable,’ he says. 'They like to offer food. Even if I’m with contacts I don’t know well, you drink five cups of extremely sweet mint tea and eat lots of cakes before you can even start talking about olives.’

Last year Bennell set up the Belazu Foundation, which sponsors five rural schools in places such as the Atlas mountains. It was, he says, a chance to give something back after being treated to meals at the homes of suppliers, eating meat they would treat themselves to only once in a while, and learning more about the country. Chefs who work with Belazu, such as Rowley Leigh and, of course, Hix, are hosting a series of Monday supper clubs to raise money for the foundation.

Tonight, the guests gather and are greeted with a Minty Black Cow, a cocktail dreamt up by Hix – 'I brought with me a bottle of my friend Jason Barber’s Black Cow vodka, made from whey, and made this cocktail based on mint tea,’ he explains. Then the table is spread with food. The feast ends with an ice cream made from sheep’s milk yogurt and amlou, a delectable paste of argan oil, almonds and honey. Obligatory glasses of mint tea and more cocktails are served, and then the guests disappear into the dusty narrow alleys of the medina, where only a few hours later the sky over Marrakesh will fill with calls to morning prayer.

    Ever For Health Copy Rights 2013