Mechoui, Algerian style...  Prepared in the heart of the beautiful Sonoma Wine Country...!

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When I grew up in Algeria, the country was governed by the French.  My parents had been born there before me and were both fluent in Arabic.  My father’s position, who made his career as a civil servant, was that of “administrator of civilian services”.  From 1950 to 1953, he was assigned to the Aflou district.  That territory was one of the largest in the country, approximately 10,000 square miles, but had a small population, due to its location 350 miles south of Algiers, in the Djebel Amour mountain range, only about 50 miles from the northern edge of the Sahara.

This might conjure visions of sand dunes and camels, but nothing could be further from the truth.  At an elevation of 4,500 feet, there were four true seasons, occasional snow in the winter, violent thunderstorms in the summer, fruit trees and meadows, and lush mountain oases.  As one drew closer to the desert, of course, the vegetation became sparse and the terrain flat, somewhat similar to what can be found in Nevada.

Besides the occasional gazelles, jackrabbits and chukar, that was where nomads lived.  There were a few sheepherding tribes who roamed the region, in search of pasture.  Some tribes owned flocks of up to 30,000 sheep and were quite wealthy, even though they lived in tents made of camel hair..  Invariably, they had a much smaller flocks (maybe two dozen or so) of young lambs fed exclusively with “chihh”, a variety of herb similar to wild thyme, which gave their meat an incomparable fragrance.

This was mechoui country…

One of my father’s assignments consisted of regular visits to his constituents, including the nomads. They lived in the middle of nowhere, miles away from the nearest dirt road, so it was quite an adventure to locate the the tribes, and a guide was always needed.  Even though I was only about 8 years old, my dad would sometimes take me along, much to my delight.  We drove for hours in surplus WWII Jeeps, bouncing around in the brush, eating lots of dust and sometimes getting stuck in rat burrows, until we found the nomads.

Not having too many visitors for obvious reasons, and because of my father’s official status, our arrival was quite an event for the tribes, which always culminated in a regal feast.

It should be noted that a traditional mechoui is never the main dish, but an appetizer.  Well, some appetizer…!  Unlike the 45-lb lambs which I prepare once a year for my friends and family, we were served very young animals of 15 lbs or so.  And because they were butchered immediately before cooking, it only took two or three hours to bring them to the table.

The meals took place inside of the tents, and guests sat on plush cushions around low tables.  Thick carpets covered the ground, and it was quite comfortable.

We always started with a ritual washing of hands with soap and water, then the mechoui was brought on a large (4’ or more in diameter) round platter made of copper or brass and ornately decorated.  Normally, there would be one lamb for every six to eight persons.  The host would detach some ribbons of crispy, crunchy  skin and hand them over to the guests, then we would dig inside and hand-pick small chunks of filet, or some ribs.  No utensils of any sort were used, and none were needed since the meat was cooked through and literally fell off the bone.  Mechoui is never, never served rare or even pink.  Basically, that was it for the appetizer course, and the mostly intact lamb was whisked away to be served to the rest of the tribesmen.  

After that, we were treated to a parade of “tagines” of lamb or chicken, some of them quite sweet named “tagine a’h’lou”, and couscous with raisins (“t’a’am”), until we could not eat another mouthful…During the meal, we drank mostly water.  Then came a variety of desserts, some of them pastries oozing with strong wild honey, and the occasional chocolate cake, which seemed quite out of place, but was considered a great delicacy by our hosts.

At the end of the meal, there was another round of hand washing, and sticky-sweet mint tea was served, although coffee was also provided, strong and dark and laced with black pepper.  It sounds odd, but it was delicious.

Anyone who has seen “Lawrence of Arabia” can have an approximate idea of our encounters with the nomads.

Once a year, my father organized a festival of sorts for the population of Aflou (approximately 1,500 locals and 40 or 50 French people) and one of the highlights was a gigantic feast where all were invited.  

Just as if it was yesterday, I remember the mouth-watering smell of 50 or 60 lambs being roasted, the sounds of the “raïta” (a sort of clarinet) and the “derbouka” (hand drum) played by some of the local bands, and the “you-yous” of ululating women.

Then the war of independence came, and it was the end of an era...  

Today, as I prepare a mechoui for my friends, its smell conjures memories of the happiest period of my childhood, and the faint echoes of times past still waft in the far corners of my mind.