The restaurant was overly bright but very beautiful: white-and-gold decorations like exotic eyes suspended from the ceiling, an open kitchen full of unruffled chefs behind a pass covered in intricate white fretwork, amuse-bouches served on little inlaid enamel boxes while the cutlery waited its turn on a carved block of bronze. All those Moorish touches were no coincidence.
In 2016, Noor was the brand-new venture of ex-El Bulli and Mugaritz chef Paco Morales, who’d returned home to a rather unappetising part of Córdoba in southern Spain to try a crazy idea: a restaurant using no foods that post-dated Columbus. This was ‘local and artisanal’ taken back in time: if the Arabs who ruled Spain for nearly 800 years (and whose final expulsion, like Columbus’s legendary journey, occurred in 1492) didn’t have it on their tables, Morales didn’t want it on his.
The food was incredible; Morales was after a Michelin star, which he has since won. Aubergine fritters coated in cane honey, black whiting with couscous and bitter orange, roast pigeon and duck foie gras on desert sand. It was a 10-course menu and everything was novel, fascinating, delicious. But what I remember are the carrots. These carrots were tiny and slender, accessorised with cumin and fresh walnut. They were cooked just enough to tame their crunch, served dramatically on black, and they were absolutely in keeping with Noor’s weird theme: the lovely Spanish word for carrot is zanahoria, probably from two Arabic words meaning “yellow skin”. But they were also a dish in their own right, between the hen’s egg yolk with smoked sheep’s butter and that lovely, artfully arranged whiting: not a side order or an afterthought. I love vegetables and always have, but it had never occurred to me to give them star billing in a serious, non-vegetarian meal. I bit down on one of these orange slivers and thought, why on Earth not?
We hear so much, now, about eating less meat. My experience occurred before plant-based eating had gained its current momentum, but the attitude I, with my Australian parents, grew up with — that a vegetarian dinner simply meant a salad before your steak — was already passé.
Still, when I spend more than £100 on a fancy dinner, I expect the most memorable element to be the animal. This approach has its roots in history: our ancestors would have killed a beast to make a banquet. In Andalusia, where the poor used ham bones to flavour dishes of beans so everyone got a little more nourishment, meat was always important. It gave life – and later, when the Christians were back in charge, it could take life away. The Spanish Inquisition obliged Muslims and Jews to convert and prove their conversion with liberal use of pork or ham, the pig being an abomination in both religions.
The carrot, a prosaic if pretty adornment of every Western dinner-plate, surely lacks such a fascinating past — or so I thought. But carrots were grown in the royal gardens of Babylon, in the 8th century BC, not for their tediously crunchy roots but for their fragrance. (Carrot as a perfume — who knew?) They reached Europe via north Africa thanks to those Moorish Muslims, which means that the humble carrot, like the magnificent Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba I’d visited just before my dinner, is a relic of the Arabic presence in Spain.
All of which was a lesson. In delight, because those were the best carrots I’ve ever tasted. And in restraint, as I left that lengthy meal pleasantly sated rather than disgustingly stuffed. But also, in the dangers of lazy thinking, even — or especially — at the dinner table. Curiosity is just another form of hunger, after all, so let us expand our minds along with our waistlines and emulate the Moorish pleasure seeker rather than the Spanish Inquisitor.