Restaurant review: Moor than a mere dream

Lamb tagine with dates, almonds and apricots. Picture by Jonathan Gawthorpe
Lamb tagine with dates, almonds and apricots. Picture by Jonathan Gawthorpe
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Todmoorish has brought a welcome flavour of North Africa to Calderdale, says Amanda Wragg.

Fifteen years ago when I first moved to live near Todmorden I went to the agricultural show in the park. There were all the usual attractions: ferret racing, Best Dog in Show, a bit of a gymkhana and a field full of beautiful sheep, all fluffed up, dragging pink-cheeked farmer’s daughters round the ring. But what I noticed most was the crowd. All ages, gay couples holding hands, tattooed, leather-clad bikers, hippies and Asian families all enjoying the day. This is the place for me, I thought. Everyone getting along, having fun.

Even more than its prettier sister, Hebden Bridge, Tod’s a melting pot, a place where everyone seems to fit in. Wander round the brilliant food market on a Saturday and you’ll clock an incredibly diverse bunch of folk, just going about their business. Food is the one thing that unites people from the four corners of the world. I know it’s simplistic but I can’t help thinking that if we all played nicely together and sat down round a table heaving with good grub there’d be less conflict.

Khaled Belkaied was drawn to Tod too, perhaps for the same reasons as me. He’d grown tired of his proper job in Manchester which required a suit and wanted to get back to his first love. Back home in Tunisia he’d learnt to cook at his mother’s elbow and for years harboured the idea of opening his own place and re-creating simple, traditional North African cuisine. Well, dreams come true and there he is, just by the market, in a little terraced house next to the travel agents.

It’s all got up in souk chic and on a sultry summer night, if you avert your eyes from the electrolysis clinic opposite you can think yourself into a Medina. There’s a full rainbow of colour; pots, rugs, glass, and in the room up the wonky stone stairs a corner of fabulous floor cushions for lounging. The only thing missing is a shisha.

If you’ve watched any of Yotam Ottolenghi’s telly programmes you’ll be familiar with some aspects of Tunisian food; he’s brought North African cuisine to our consciousness, and the books he’s co-written with Sami Tamimi are much splattered (i.e. used) in this house. You might think that sourcing the spices might be an issue in Calderdale, but no. Alex Pogson’s Mediterranean stall in Tod market is like a mini-souk.

It’s as hot as Marrakech so it’s fitting that tonight the menu is a Moroccan feast, with a choice of four starters and mains. But first, a wonderfully fragrant carrot and cumin dip and a dish of hair-raising harissa, made Khaled’s mum’s way (dry your chillies in hot sunshine on the flat roof, wait til they’re husks, pound them to a powder, add oil and bottle. Serve and closely watch your customer’s face.)

Meatballs (kefta) made of finely ground beef are delightfully juicy and amped up with cumin and coriander. The tomato sauce they’re sitting in has just the right amount of heat. Harissa and chickpea soup (lablabi) is a riot of colour and wildly garlicky. It reminds me of the Andalucian equivalent (generally served cold) and has terrific impact – in a good way. There’s also a split pea and hummus dip with za’atar and olive oil, which comes to the next table and looks great.

Tunisian tagine is actually a quiche-like dish but the Moroccan one on offer tonight is more recognisable; lamb is cooked for about seven hours with apricots, raisins and chickpeas, fresh ginger and cumin, and arrives in the traditional clay pot. The cone comes off and the aroma is giddying. Flaked almonds finish it off and with a big bowl of steaming couscous specked with coriander it sends tremors down to my toes. The killer ingredient is another staple from Khaled’s mum, her own ras el hanout made with about 20 spices which he secretes in his suitcase when he visits Hammamet.

Preserved lemons, an Ottolenghi favourite, pack a punch in the chicken tagine which is almost as impressive as the lamb but doesn’t quite have the depth of flavour.

The lunch menu is every bit as appealing as dinner, with various salads including Merguez, the classic spicy sausage, falafel with hummus and tahini sauce and kaftagi, a wonderfully rustic dish of sautéed vegetables topped with a fried egg. (Try this one at home. It makes a superb Sunday brunch). Khaled’s Moroccan burger is so popular that the local butcher sells them. That’s crossing continents for you.

At the end of the meal a dish of super-sweet pastries, filled with nuts and drenched with honey arrives along with a cube of sugar-dusted Turkish Delight and some dates. Mint tea too, and a tiny cup of murky Ahwa Arbi, Turkish coffee with cardamom into which is shaken a few drops of orange blossom. It’s strong enough to stand your spoon up in and makes your heart beat that little bit faster.

Khaled’s grandfather was the President of Tunisia’s personal chef so there are some genes at play here. He plans to extend the menu and gradually offer ever more traditional dishes once people have grown a taste for the cuisine. I can’t wait. This kind of honest, rustic food, shot through with vivid aromatics, heat and colour is my very favourite. Rock the Kasbah!

• Todmoorish, 3 Brook Street, Todmorden, OL14 5AJ. 07712 636623, 
£20 per person for the Moroccan Feast. BYOB.