Chocolate chip cake with almond-hazelnut toffee topping

chocolate chip cake with almond-hazelnut toffee topping

chocolate chip cake with almond-hazelnut toffee topping

In defense of meandering

The nicest rejection I got for my novel (also, strangely, the most disappointing) said all sorts of kind things about my writing but concluded that the pace was too meandering. Well! I’ve thought about this a lot, since. I understand their objection, of course, but I like meandering! I like books that meander and movies that meander, and I like the act of meandering about in the world. In point of fact, this rejection has made me look back upon my life to realize that I have lived in an entirely meandering fashion. (In fact, too close an examination of my “career” might turn this into a cautionary tale about meandering, rather than a defense of it.) There’s so much I want to do, but I don’t have firm goals and plans of attack, I don’t have schedules and itineraries. I have been most fortunate in finding good traveling companions, and now I’m perfectly happy to meander about with them and see where we all end up.

There are places I’d like to go, things I’d like to achieve, but I feel like I’ll take a strange and winding path and be surprised and delighted when I get there. Of course, with this attitude I may never get there at all. That’s the danger. Or I’ll get there and find myself unprepared; I’ll discover that I haven’t packed all of the equipment that I need, because I always forget something. But then we’ll make do with what we have and what we find, and maybe we’ll come up with a better way of doing things than we ever would have if we’d packed more carefully. That’s the beauty of meandering…you never know where you’ll end up! As long as you keep turning down the most likely paths, as long as you’re happy to turn around if you find yourself somewhere that doesn’t work out, and start out again on a new path.
And probably as I’m meandering to a specific destination, someone else will be headed there with great purpose and focus. But maybe by the time I got close I would have decided to go somewhere else any way, somewhere better for me.
I was very happy to discover that the word “meander” comes from the name of a river in present day Turkey, know to the ancient Greeks as Maiandros, whose “course is so exceedingly winding that everything winding is called meandering.”  And a meander, as a noun, is a bend in a sinuous river. “Meandering” used in a disparaging manner, implies weakness, it implies vagueness and mildness that lead to inefficiency and failure. But surely there’s nothing stronger than a river! We might not always understand the pattern or the plan, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one! A river might not rush in a straightforward and obvious fashion to the sea, but it gets there nonetheless, making a beautiful design as it does so. And in Greek mythology, Meander is actually a river god, a god, son of the god of the sea, no doubt behaving in the strange and inexplicable manner of all gods, but powerful nonetheless.
I like to walk by the river, in an aimless and directionless fashion. I like to go for a meander. I have some of my best ideas this way, and my stories often take shape in my head while I’m adrift in this fashion. I believe that always knowing where you’re going, and always taking the quickest route to get there, and always checking your map or your phone’s map till that’s all you have in your head–all of that can be the death of the imagination, it doesn’t leave space for thoughts to grow and bloom. I think maybe as a society we’ve forgotten how to meander. We’re always so plugged in we’ve forgotten what it’s like to not know: to not be sure where we’re going or how many minutes it takes to get there and what the weather will be like when we do and the exact specific answer to every little question that should arise in our heads. We’ve forgotten what it’s like to wonder, we’re uncomfortable in those little pockets of uncertainty, which is sad, because this is where new ideas thrive and grow. And we have no time to wander,  to let our feet and thoughts fly where they will.
This is a typical Claire cake! Quite easy to put together, especially if you use your food processor, which I did. You don’t even clean the processor between mixing the batter and the topping, because having a bit of batter in helps the topping to stick together. It’s not actually toffee, the topping, but it’s butter, sugar and nuts, baked till brown and crispy.
Here’s Make the Road by Walking, by the Menahan Street Band

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Almond tarragon sauce

Almond tarragon sauce

Yesterday we had a rare day off, all together, and it was the only sunny day in recent memory. So we went for a hike in the woods. It felt good to clear the cobwebs and feel the sun on our heads. At one point, a big golden leaf fell behind me – I could sense it as a sort of glowing shadow. It seemed so slow and quick all at once. It almost made me wish I was someone else. Somebody who could wander around in the woods thinking about things and noticing things – like Basho or Thoreau, instead of just some idiot who forgot to pay the credit card bill (god I hate that!). Of course I was somebody wandering around in the woods, thinking things, and watching my little ones glowing with high finally-out-of-the-house spirits, as well as being the non-bill-paying idiot. And on the way home I had the strangest sensation of time travel. The sun was very bright and warm on my face, so I closed my eyes. I had that peculiar feeling you get in your head when you’re about to get a cold, when it seems like all of your senses are heightened and dulled at the same time. I had such a distinct memory of having this exact experience before – the sun, the onset of a cold, the movement of the car. I could have been any age. I had a flood of memories of myself at different times. With my family growing up. With David when we were younger. With my dog when she was a puppy. I may have fallen asleep for a few moments, because I felt my thoughts taking off, into the air. And then Malcolm said, “Mommy…” and showed me a picture he’d drawn, or told me how much baby bears weigh at birth. Human voices woke me, and I drowned…in the present. Where I forget to pay bills, and can’t keep the house clean, and yell too much at my boys, but I feel so grateful to have them all around me – to have this messy glowing life, which I wouldn’t trade for anything.

This almond tarragon sauce is another version of a tarator sauce. I made it to go with some very pretty dragon’s tongue beans, which I lightly steamed. But I ate it for days afterwards – with every kind of vegetable, with empanadas, on salads. It’s a nice creamy, cream free dressing. Very good with roasted beets!

Here’s Sunshine and Clouds and Everything Proud from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.

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Roasted radish and beet salad

Roasted radish and beet salad

Whenever I hear the word “radish” I think of the Simpsons. Other things that make me think of the Simpsons: oregano, doughnuts, convenience store hot dogs, very long sandwiches, skateboards, saxophones, tramampamolines, clouds in a blue sky, Mitt Romney, and, of course, 3 foot high blue hair. I used to love the Simpsons! I haven’t watched for about a decade, maybe. It all went downhill, for me, when they started having celebrity guests in most episodes. Luke Perry was the beginning of the end. But I’ve watched every episode from before that time about a billion times each, so I’m covered, Simpsons-wise. It’s funny how many situations in life call to mind a scene from the Simpsons. We rented the second season on DVD for the boys. They’ve seen some pretty dark shows – Star Wars, Harry Potter, Coraline – they all have some actually scary moments, and my boys are usually fine with it. But they found the Simpsons very unsettling. Despite the tall blue hair and the absurd humor, the Simpsons are very real. The problems they face each episode are very real human problems. And problems that my boys could relate to, and felt uneasy about – getting in trouble, problems with bullies, realizing that your parents don’t have the answer to every question. I think, despite being cartoons, and very cartoonish, the characters in this odd yellow family are well-rounded and subtle. I like when Lisa is little girlish, I like when she’s Simpsonish. I love Marge’s gentle nature – I need to be more like her!

When we got two big bunches of radishes from the CSA, I was tempted to carve them all into radish rosettes, like Marge’s impressive aliens. Instead, I decided to roast them with beets. Both pink, both root vegetables, but one is sharp and spicy and one is sweet and earthy. I thought they’d be perfect together! I’ve never eaten roasted radishes before, so I tried to keep the salad very simple so I could really taste them. I added almonds and fresh basil. I think it would be good with feta or goat cheese as well – maybe next time. We ate this with some fresh arugula from the farm, and it was very good indeed!

Here’s Mikey Dread with Roots and Culture
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French cake a week – gateau aux amandes

Gateau aux amandes

In which Claire, who doesn’t speak French, bakes her way through the cake section of a French cookbook from 1962.Last week I rambled on and on about how much I like songs about ramblers. Specifically those of Robert Johnson. The truth is I’m fascinated by books and films about drifters and wanderers as well. Perhaps the fascination stems from the fact that I’m such a homebody myself, and I really can’t imagine what it feels like to be completely rootless. I’m so deeply entrenched in a routine, so deeply involved with my family, so fond of my house, and my garden, and my own bed. Sometimes I feel as though I’d like a break from my routine. Sometimes, in spring, I get the urge to leave town – to just go – with no plan and no purpose. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to just take off – no ties, no cares, no possessions or responsibilities. But I never feel that way for long, and I can’t imagine needing to be on the road, being uncomfortable in a room, or in one place for long.

Somehow the idea of a wild wanderer takes on more strange significance for me when the rambler in question is a woman. One of my favorite films on the subject, by one of my favorite filmmakers, is Agnes Varda’s Sans toit ni loi. It’s a bleak but beautiful film that tells the story of Mona, a vagabond who travels through French wine country in the icy, lonely off-season. She’s a complicated, thorny character, and we learn about her through her encounters with others – some who are cruel and some who are kind. Some feed her and give her a warm place to stay, some reject her and the way she’s chosen to live, some abuse her. It unfolds slowly and beautifully at a quiet, deliberate pace, punctuated by moments of human interaction – brief pockets of time in which Mona finds food, and warmth, and conversation.

Gateau aux amandes

One of the ways in which people show Mona kindness is by feeding her, or preparing meals with her, but I doubt they make anything like this gateau aux amandes! In complete contrast to last week’s French cake, which was very mild and plain, this one is quite rich and sweet. It’s a no-bake cake, consisting of a layer of ladyfinger cookies surrounding a center of ground almonds, sugar and creme fraiche. It’s very delicious, but not for the faint of heart. I decided to try to make my own ladyfinger cookies, based on the knowledge that the batter is very similar to the gateau de savoie recipe, and based on some notes scribbled in my cookbook that I assumed were a secret recipe for biscuits cuiller. It’s quite amusing, really, how much of a fail this was! I can laugh about it now! The cookies are supposed to be piped onto a tray. I don’t have a pastry bag, so I used a spoon to make the finger shape. After two minutes, I looked in the oven and saw that everything had grown together into one big lake of batter. Ha ha ha!! How we laughed! So I decided to run with that idea, and I baked some on a small jelly roll pan. Then I cut out pieces the size of a lady finger cookie. Not the prettiest thing ever, but very very tasty! The recipe says to serve the cake with vanilla cream, but I think it’s sweet enough as it is. It’s nice cut into thin slices, served with fresh fruit, or a tart-fruit compote.

Here’s Claude Francois with Reveries. I love this crazy video! I want to be one of his soave back-up dancers.
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Lacy crispy nutty chocolatey malt cookies and malted chocolate chip ice cream

Lacy chocolate-nut-malt cookie

I bought some malted milk powder on a whim the other week, and for a few days I put it in everything I made. I’ve always liked malted milk. I’m fond of mild, distinctive flavors. We have a small brewery in our town, and some days the air is full of malt and hops, which I find lovely! And, of course, the words “malted milk” made me think of Robert Johnson! King of the Delta Blues. Such a fascinating figure, as everybody knows. I can’t get my mind around his story, somehow. It’s so shadowy and full of myth, so full of beautiful, odd details that make him the legend that he is. He sold his soul to the devil; he learned to play guitar on dark nights in graveyards, aided by ghosts; he played facing the wall, away from the other musicians; he died young, in mysterious circumstances; he used a different name everywhere he travelled. It’s the real, human details of his life that kill me, somehow – if they’re true, and that we’ll never know. His mother was born into slavery. He was sent from home to home, as a child, and given a different name each time. His sixteen-year-old wife died in childbirth. And he travelled – he went from town to town, staying with a different, frequently older, woman everywhere he went. They must have cared for him, and taken care of him, in so many different ways. I’m fascinated by the idea of a rambler – of a person who can’t stay in one place for too long, who needs to be rootless and wandering. I just can’t imagine a life like that, which is what makes songs on the subject so appealing.

And Robert Johnson’s voice touches a nerve. It’s so plaintive, and somehow both human and haunting all at once. He uses it so beautifully – it’s wild but controlled. But it’s his lyrics which really throw me for a loop. Dark, mysterious, elemental, sexual, violent, cryptic, and oddly touching, all at once. I always feel like I know what they’re all about, but I have no idea what he’s saying. And, as with all great poetry, it’s that feeling of the words slipping in my brain that makes me want to hear more.

One of my favorites is Phonograph Blues, which starts

Beatrice, she got a phonograph, and it won’t say a lonesome word
Beatrice, she got a phonograph, but it won’t say a lonesome word
What evil have I done, what evil has the poor girl heard

And then, of course, there’s Malted Milk.

I keep drinkin’ malted milk, try’n to drive my blues away
I keep drinkin’ malted milk, try’n to drive my blues away
Baby, you just as welcome to my lovin’, as the flowers is in May

Malted milk, malted milk, keep rushin’ to my head
Malted milk, malted milk, keep rushin’ to my head
And I have a funny, funny feelin’, and I’m talkin’ all out my head

Baby, fix me one more drink, and hug your daddy one more time
Baby, fix me one more drink, and hug your daddy one more time
Keep on stirrin’ my malted milk mama, until I change my mind

My door knob keeps on turnin’, it must be spooks around my bed
My door knob keeps on turnin’, must be spooks around my bed
I have a warm, old feelin’, and the hair risin’ on my head

Malt chocolate chip ice cream

Which brings us back to malt powder. These cookies have almonds, hazelnuts, spices, chocolate chips and malt powder. They are very very crispy. The day I made them was extremely humid, and within an hour they melted. I’ve never seen anything like it! I put them in a warm oven for about 10 minutes, and they came out as crispy as can be. Both the ice cream and the cookies have chocolate chips that I processed for a minute or two, so they’re a little crumbly. Some chips stay whole, some turn to dust, and I like the contrasting textures.

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Summery almond sauce with lime, mint, basil, and tamari

Summery almond sauce

I’ve decided to write an opera. Follow along, gentle reader, as we set the scene for our drama. It’s the tale of two brothers. It all begins on a balmy summer evening. The older brother discovers a magical island in the middle of the river. It’s an enchanted island that only the dogs know about. But the boy is partly wild water dog himself, and they let him swim. The boy sings a happy song, in which he promises to bring his little brother the very next day, as soon as he’s done with summer rec camp. But the next day dawns, and the little brother is tired and contrary. (Perhaps because he kept his mother up half the night claiming to be scared of Tintin. As if Tintin had ever scared anybody!) Little brother won’t go to the river! And this is the dramatic heart of the opera – it gets louder and louder! The orchestra rages! The brothers threaten to hurt themselves and each other. They slam doors! THey run up and down stairs! They cry and they wail! They threaten not to invite each other to their birthday parties EVER AGAIN!! In one touching aside, the mother (a comic character – a buffoon, if you will…) foolishly promises the younger son all sorts of things she can’t really give him if he’ll just walk down to the goddamn river and sit on the bank for half an hour. But he’s deaf to her promises. HE WILL NOT GO! And then, inexplicably, for no apparent reason, he decides to go after all. The dogs of the island welcome him as one of their own. The brothers swim, they have fun, they sing a reprise of the older brother’s happy song, but as a duet this time. The mother stands with her feet in the cool water, feeling like an idiot because she always forgets sunscreen, and they all go home when the little brother has to pee. EXEUNT OMNES!!

The opera will last about five hours, and in the interval we’ll serve this sauce in chilled champagne glasses. I liked this sauce quite a bit! It’s one in a long line of creamy nut-based sauces I’ve made, I’m a nut-sauce fan!! I like this one because it seems like a concentration of a lot of flavors I’ve been using lately. I’ve been putting lime in everything. I’ve been putting basil in everything. The boys have been eating tamari like it’s going out of style. And every once in a while David and I will treat ourselves to dark-and-stormy-mojitos. That’s ginger beer, rum, lime, ice and fresh mint leaves. Oh yum. So this has a lot of those flavors in it. And they’re all really nice together. I’ve eaten it with roasted vegetables (it’s nice with earthy beets and potatoes!) I’ve eaten it on green salads. And I made a nice, fresh and juicy salad of cucumbers, carrots and basil, that I coated with this. Very refreshing!

Cucumber carrot salad

Here’s Marvin Gaye with What’s Happening, Brother?

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Peach and chocolate crisp with almond topping

Peach, chocolate and almond crisp

In our first house together, we had a peach tree in the back yard. The peaches never ripened. They would fall to the ground, hard little stones, and rot into oddly beautiful, decadent green velvet balls. Steenbeck was a wild little puppy, then, and she’d play with the rotten fruit, throwing it around the yard and chasing it. I always wondered if the moldering green peach fuzz gave her strange dreams. I had such an odd dream this morning. I know it’s boring to read about other peoples’ dreams, so I’ll keep it quick. Like all the best dreams, it was a dizzying mix of anxiety and joy. It was dark, and we were in a strange town, on an empty lot. I was worried about Steenbeck, alone in one of the low houses that ran in rows off the lot, so I went to find her. Somebody told me she’d been taken somewhere safe, with people that would look after her till I could be with her. I turned back to see my family, playing at the edge of the lot. Then waves started crashing towards them. Gentle at first, and then higher and higher, as high as the buildings. They knocked the telephone poles down into the houses. I waited till the wave subsided, and started across the lot, and then a larger wave came. I wasn’t scared. The water was clear and golden green-grey. I felt that I could breathe, even in the water. And then I heard the waves singing. They each had their own bell-like tone. I was lifted higher than the buildings, but I didn’t worry. And then I woke up.

I love peaches! So plump and juicy and summery. The boys like them, too, and they like to choose them at the store. They’ll pick hard, unripe peaches, and then take little nibbles of them. You’ll say, “they’re not ripe yet, you have to wait.” An hour later, “Mom, are the peaches ripe yet?” “NO!” And then by the time they’re actually ripe, the boys have forgotten all about them. I had a few large, beautiful peaches, in danger of turning green and squishy, so I decided to make them into a crisp. This was so simple, and turned out so tasty, that I’m very pleased with it. You cut the fresh peaches, without even peeling them. Spread them onto a pie plate. Sprinkle some bittersweet chocolate chips over. Peaches and chocolate is not an oft-used combination, but they’re very good together! You divide two eggs (you’ll use both parts!) The yolks become a very simple custard, with rum and vanilla, and the whites are whipped stiff, and mixed with almonds to make a sort of amaretti-type of topping. It’s humid as hell here (I imagine hell would be very humid!) So the crisp didn’t stay crisp for long, but the almonds kept it nice and crunchy. You could put this in a pate sucree crust, and make a pie, but I liked the simplicity of it baked as it is.

Here’s Elmore James with Rollin and Tumblin. I love this song so much! I can hear the first chords from several rooms away, and it’s still thrilling. And if you don’t want his peaches, don’t shake his tree!
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Coconut, almond, & cherry cake

Coconut, almond & cherry cake

When I was twenty I went to school in England. I was supposed to be there three years, but after a year I was completely miserable and I came back home. Maybe I should have stuck it out, but it didn’t feel like an option. Three years is such a long time, when you’re twenty. Besides, I wouldn’t have met David and had my boys. It’s hard to regret former decisions, once you have children!! Anyway, I’d never been very patriotic, but a strange shift occurred, and I started to be very defensive about America, and very nostalgic for it. Not the way it actually was at the time, though, but for some myth of simplicity and pioneer spirit. I devoured the Little House on the Prairie books, though I hadn’t really liked them when I was little. Laura’s dad made a big blanket pancake, to keep all the little pancakes warm! I loved that! During a holiday, we stayed at the mennonite center in London. I found a cookbook – The Mennonite Community Cookbook. I can’t tell you how comforting I found this odd little book. It was compiled by Mary Emma Showalter in 1950, but many of the recipes are much older than that, I think. They’re contributed by women from all over the country…Mrs. D.D. Driver, from Heston Kan contributed the Salmon Roll with Egg Sauce recipe. The Pansy Cake was the work of Mrs. Henry Brown, of North Lima, Ohio. The Chicken Relish Mold was provided by Mrs. Lillian Wought of Cullom, Ill. The back of the book contains extensive lists of helpful information. When wrapping a package for mailing, dip cord in water to moisten. The cord will shrink as it dries, and will make a tighter package. Save the empty adhesive tape spool to wind your tape measure on. This will save trying moments caused by a jumbled sewing basket. Boiled rice water makes an excellent starch for dainty collars, cuffs and baby dresses. It’s like the hagakure for housewives! I liked to read these women’s names, and locations, and recipes, and think about them having lives and passions just like mine. I can’t quite explain why this book appealed to me so much, but it did, I read it like a story book, and I bought it, and I still consult it from time-to-time, for baking basics.

This cake reminds me of one that could be in the oddly dark little pictures in the book. It’s a simple, flavorful tea cake. I like almond and coconut together, and I like the texture that they give to a plain cake. After making the gateau basque, I wanted to experiment with a layer of cherry preserves baked right into the cake. It sorta sunk to the bottom. Not quite what I had in mind! Good, though – it reminded me of a fruit-filled danish, somehow. You could just as easily bake this cake, and then slice it in half when the cake cooled, and spread jam on then.

Here’s The Carter Family with Single Girl, Married Girl. A remarkable, subersive song that gives me the same feeling as my Mennonite cookbook. What were these women’s lives like?

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Avocado, olive & basil salad

Avacado & olive salad

[I apologize for posting a couple of times today. We’re going away for the weekend, and I don’t want to fall too far behind!]

My boys have a book called Mixed-up Animals. Each page has a picture of an animal and is broken into three sections. You can turn a part of the page to line up another animal with the first. In this way, you can make a creature with platypus feet, an armadillo body, and a caribou head. A platadillibou. They’ve also always loved the game exquisite corpse, in which each person draws part of a creature without seeing what the others have drawn. Isaac still gets very excited when the paper is unfolded to reveal a mis-matched monster! This salad reminds me a little of that. It’s part tapenade (olives & capers) part guacamole (avocado & tomato), part pesto (nuts & basil), and part caprese (mozzarella, tomato, basil). I had a just-ripe avocado, and a small bowl of nicoise olives. These got the rusty little wheels turning in my brain, and the rest just sort of fell into place!! So you end up with guacenade. Or tapamole. Whatever you call it, it’s delicious! We had it with some crusty bread, but you could make it into crostini, or serve it with big chips. Or just throw it onto a pile of mixed lettuces and call it a mixed salad!

She’s Strange – she’s got two double heads, two left legs, and her nose looks like the knees of a nanny goat, but Screamin Jay Hawkins loves her!!
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Moroccan pastilla – vegetarian style

Moroccan pastilla

“I made warka!” I cried, as I skipped around town. “Hello, man putting air into your tires! I made warka! Hello, woman trying to parallel park her enormous SUV on the wrong side of the street! I made warka! Hello, young mother hurrying by with your child and shielding her eyes from the madwoman singing about warka! I made warka!” And then all of the inhabitants of the picturesque little town joined me in a synchronized dance and a stirring rendition of the warka song. Okay, none of that really happened. But I was so excited about making warka that I felt like telling total strangers on the street.

Warka is a paper-thin dough, somewhat like phyllo but even thinner. It’s one of those things you don’t imagine anybody can actually make in real life. But it can be done! It’s not difficult, and it’s actually kinda fun. Here’s how it all began. I’ve been dreaming of making a vegetarian version of a moroccan pastilla for months. The combination of sweet & savory sounded so intriguing to me. The idea of eating pigeon did not! Well, the other day we had a street festival in town. As festivities were winding down and people were packing up, my two young children began playing with the children of the woman running a stall across the street. I started talking to their mom. She’s from Morocco. Being a crazy person, I (almost) immediately said, “Do you know how to make pastilla?” Of course she did! I told her I was vegetarian, and she advised me on the vegetables to use, and how to prepare them, and how to arrange all the layers. She suggested phyllo dough. But can’t I make my own? I asked. Ah yes, she said, and she told me how.

She suggested equal parts flour and water. I ended up using a bit more water, and added a bit of lemon juice and oil. I’d seen this post on making warka, and I tried to incorporate some of the methods contained therein with the advice of my new friend. I used a non-stick griddle. I put it right on the burners, though. The first one came out a little messy, but I got better as I went along. It doesn’t matter if they turn out super flaky, because after you pile enough of them on top of each other, they make a more cohesive whole.


The pastilla itself was very delicious, but there was a bit of a disconnect between my expectations of when you eat cinnamon sugar almonds, and when you eat garlic, turnips and shallots. The more I ate, the more I got used to it, and the better it tasted!

I’ve just been reading about Gnawa music. Fascinating!! Here’s Gnawa de Marrakech with Lalla Mimouna. I think it’s so beautiful!
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