A book made of pasta that is applied page by page to the baking tray and becomes lasagne.
Hotel Majestic, Tunis
Where’s my briq?
The Hotel Majestic is a French colonial hotel on the Avenue de Paris in Tunis, past its glory days but a treasure for the nostalgic traveller. It was built in 1914 with Art Nouveau architecture, a white façade, blue shutters, and gently curved corners. The hotel has a terrace overlooking the Jardin Habib Thameur.
I had come up in the world. On the right side of the tram tracks at last. I had been staying at a beautifully tiled hotel in the Arab quarter at first. I turned the garbage bin over the smelly hole in the bathroom floor. Had to pay in advance in cash. Woken up by the muezzin. In the morning I went up to the breakfast room controlled by Omar and had a reasonable breakfast with the TV glowering the CNN news at me. Then Omar sidled over to my table and decided to teach me to count in Arabic. He needed my fingers of course and he had to sit close. Then he told me his name meant “Amour.” Despite the golden rays of the sun streaming through the coloured glass, I felt a chill.
My self-adopted minder, he of the sky blue puffy jacket (it was 18 degrees Celsius in January), Mohammed, insisted that I move to the Majestic in the colonial area of Tunis. This is where I had briq for breakfast. In the Arab quarter I had scouted around for food, as one does, not knowing which local “delicacies” to try. I’d spotted a Pizza Hut (which I don’t go to in real life) and thought it would at least be a known quantity and reasonably clean. Got to the door. Found it was monopolized by Arab men who seemed to live there, so I ordered a take out. I wandered off to the market and bought sackfuls of the best mandarins I’ve ever eaten, and lived off pizza and mandarins for several days, praying I wouldn’t get food poisoning.
The Hotel Majestic had a real restaurant. Controlled by Mohammed II. It had tablecloths and nice old-fashioned meals. A few expats. Maitre de Mohammed was the soul of politesse. No Arabic numbers. His name did not mean Amour. But an opportunity was not to be wasted. He insisted if I was alone in a strange city I could visit him after 9 pm when he stopped work. Un vrai gentilhomme! Nevertheless, I walked up the grand staircase to my room. I couldn’t prevent myself from using the shoe-brushing machine in the hall, which cleaned the dust off infidels’ shoes. A wise precaution.
I had a wonderfully royal blue room above the disco. Miles of space and a big window over the garden and tram tracks. A tiled bathroom, but with boring white tiles. The room was situated above the disco, which wasn’t apparent during the day. I dropped off to sleep, finally, with Arabic trills and innuendos influencing my heartbeat. My consciousness expanded to the rhythm of an ancient universe and I melted into the royal blue bedcover.
The next morning, compensation for the disco music was a breakfast of briq. They tell me it’s the Tunisian tradition that the bride-to-be’s mother makes a briq for the bridegroom. If the bridegroom eats it without spilling any of the egg yolk, he may marry the bride. The best test I’ve ever heard of.
Briq or Brik or Brick (pronounced breek) is a Tunisian version of the borek. Non! you say. Impossible! C’est vrai? It consists of thin warka pastry around a filling that is usually deep-fried. Not warka too! Tres magnifique. The best-known version is the egg brik, a whole egg in a triangular pastry pocket with chopped onion, tuna, harissa (hot chilli sauce) and parsley. Of course you knew that.
Brik pastry is made by slapping a sticky lump of dough onto a hot non-stick surface in overlapping circles to produce the desired size, and cooked for a minute or two.
It’s your choice, but regular fillings include tuna, ground meat, chopped boiled egg, chicken, or anchovies garnished with a fried egg and harissa, capers or cheese. Do with it what you will.
For 4 servings use 4 eggs
4 sheets of malsouka or briq pastry (phyllo). Where did the warka go? That was the best bit.
1 small can of tuna in olive oil
Handful of capers
1 Tbsp. parsley, chopped with intention
Salt and pepper, comme d’habitude
Vegetable oil for frying
1 lemon, sliced
Chop the onion finely, please.
Mash the tuna on a plate with a fork and with gusto!
Cook the onion over medium heat with a little water until tender and translucent.
Turn off the heat and add the parsley in dainty sprinkles.
Place the mixture in a bowl and add the tuna and capers or what you fancy.
Place a circle of the filling in the centre of each sheet of briq.
Fold the 4 edges in to form a square.
Add the whole egg (white and yolk) to the middle of the filling, adding a pinch of salt and pepper, comme d’habitude.
Fold the sheet in half diagonally to form a triangle – could be teaching a geometry class here.
Drop into hot oil, being careful not to pierce the briq or yourself.
Immediately baste the top of the briq with hot oil, using a fork or spoon to stick the two edges of the triangle together.
Carefully remove the pastry from the oil with a spatula and drain on paper towel. Gosh, it’s hot!
Serve hot with lemon wedges. Ta da! Comme ca!
I had disdained cooking (though not eating) throughout my youth, skimming past the kitchen just fast enough not to be pulled inside. Surely there were people to do that. I was more interested in reading books – far more worthwhile. Luckily, from a safe distance I had picked up a hint or two. On my own I lived on boiled eggs but when it came to entertaining I could pull out all the stops and create an omelette.
It was a Sunday evening at the end of summer and already dark. I was expecting the family after their weekend away. They rented the house as diplomatic representatives and I was the glorious not very foreign au pair. An au pair was expected to do a little light housework and look after the children but luckily they were out at school most of the time. Actors who were “resting” did the hard jobs like cleaning out the oven. For three hours of vacuuming, dusting and ironing in the mornings I was paid £3 a week, with room and board (1969). Princely. The museums were free.
The house was on Warwick Avenue by Little Venice, a peaceful canal system in London. It was owned by the governor of a Caribbean island and was a towering white three-storey corner house with basement kitchen, designed by John Nash, in a street of elegant houses. This makes being an au pair worthwhile. Unfortunately there was a fire station nearby (fortunately for the insurer) but we had to endure constant sirens screaming by the house. Come to think of it, it wasn’t very peaceful.
When I heard a knock at the door I was surprised. The family used their keys. I opened the big heavy double doors of this beautiful 18th century townhouse and looked outside. On the front step stood a small, tired East Indian man, nicely dressed, with a suitcase. Was he part of my job description?
“Hello. Are the B______ family in?”
“I’m sorry, no. I’m waiting for them to come back.”
“I’m a friend. I’ve come to stay. Would you mind if I came in and waited for them?”
I was a bit dubious. I was alone in the house filled with precious antiques and paintings and was responsible for their welfare. I was 22 and far too polite to ask for further details. He noticed my hesitation and, with exquisite grace, explained that he was the Indian Minister of Defence. He told me he had just flown in from India and was tired and needed to rest. I let him in and he settled gratefully into a large pale blue comfy chair in the living room. My best manners sprang into action.
“Can I get you a drink? Are you hungry?” I asked. He looked relieved when we decided on an omelette. He didn’t realize that was the only item on the menu. This version required that you separate the whites and yolks, beat them, spoon them together and cook gently, folding the omelette over only at the end. The omelette looks like a soufflé, so it’s quite a party piece but it’s simple to make. I whipped off into the basement kitchen and began my wizardry. I decorated it with alternate slices of tomato and cucumber and thought I was very clever.
The family came home eventually and welcomed their distinguished guest with cries of delight, to my relief. The next day we all played tennis together and I no longer had to cook, just fend off tennis balls.
The omelette might well have originated in the Middle East, so the books say. I say first find your chicken and the egg will follow. They are just as likely to come from the Far East as anywhere else but of course it depends where you are standing.
Carry your eggs on a camel and they are beaten ready for dinner. In desperation, mix the curdling eggs with chopped herbs, fry and then slice them into wedges and hand them round before you get any nasty looks. Carried on camels, donkeys and horses, omelettes became the health dish of the day with each country adapting the recipe to produce frittata, tortilla, and the proper French omelette. The competition was on!
Napoleon was particularly pleased, when travelling through southern France with his army, to discover a master omelettier. They had decided to rest for the night near the town of Bessières and the innkeeper made such a divine omelette that Napoleon ordered the townspeople to gather all the eggs in the village and prepare a huge omelette for his army the next day. The villagers must have loved him. But getting their photos in the paper? It was all worth it. You know how the Guinness Book eggs people on.
You too can become noted for your fancy omelette of whatever size!
Melt a walnut of butter in a frying pan at medium heat to avoid burning. A nasty smell.
Separate the yolks and whites into two bowls, carefully.
Whisk the yolks with a fork while humming a tune to maintain the chi of the kitchen.
Beat the whites until fluffy and stiff then, holding your breath, add the yolks to the whites, folding them in like clouds of dandelion seed heads.
Pour into the frying pan and cook very very gently. Humming is still allowed but not aloud.
Fold the concoction over to serve and decorate the plate with whatever you have in the house, preferably edible. Provide a fork.
When foreign ministers come to stay, you will no longer be at a loss.
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