From one corner of the rooftop, bright lights emanated from a corridor no doubt leading to the kitchen. A whole host of people kept emerging from this hole with all manner of plates and bowls. First some ceremonial tea was handed round, very ornate glasses were filled with frothy mint tea from ornate pots. Following the required three glasses, we were invited down onto the carpets, in two groups and in the centre a large dish of dates was placed. Another servant emerged with a silver salver, with an in built stand on which sat a kettle. He offered it to each person in turn. It was essential that we washed only our right hand, as this was the hand we had to eat with. The small bar of blue soap in the dish was difficult to handle as you lathered with one hand, but I managed to deftly spread it around my palm and then was rinsed off by the man with the kettle. A towel was handed round to dry the hand.
We picked up each date and dipped it in a large white bowl of creamy source in the centre, a sort of mild yoghurt. The dates themselves were enormous, thick and juicy. I’ve never tasted better. But they do not come from Mauritania. This country is one of the most desertified in the world. Only along the banks of the Senegal River in the south, along the border with Senegal itself, is there enough of a combination of water and soil to sustain any kind of arable farming. There may be a few oases that carry date palms, but not enough to sell commercially. Mauritania depends mainly on fish, the hardiest of grazing animals and imports to feed itself.
The dates were so succulent I would have been quite happy to have devoured the whole dish. But eventually these were whisked away and another massive porcelain dish was laid in front of us. Inside were huge chunks of grey meat covered in a thick gravy. With a touch of the old colonial past, French bread was passed around, and we dipped this in the gravy and soaked up the sauces, we pulled at the bits of meat, which was mutton, and tasted. Again, despite the cuisine being of the simplest of ingredients, it was wonderfully tasty and pleasing. I fair got my fill during this course. All the time we were waited on by Ould Babah’s servants; a range of fruit drinks were served up, the sorrel in particular refreshing.
The chat was quiet, all of us slightly in awe at our surroundings and the different style of hospitality, and, like I occasionally do, I sat back a little from the conversation and observed, an began to think how amazing the way my work put me in such situations. Three days before I had been struggling home on my bike through the rush hour traffic of Chatham, the cold grey mist depressing me as I battled with the other commuters to head back to my centrally heated terrace. Now I was sampling dates and mutton surrounded by men in long flowing blue robes in this driest of dry countries and I looked up at the stars……… Aaah, the stars. While we ate and talked, a million glittering lights looked down on us from the dark sky. We were high enough up that the street lights of Nouakchott caused little disturbance in the clear air.
The mutton was removed and the main course arrived; a series of smaller plates than before, couscous, some vegetables, more meats in sauces, none of it particularly spicy or herbed, mainly just cooked in their own juices. All delicious. Occasionally, in my attempts to pull a bit of meat off, my left hand would automatically help out the right, but I withdrew it in time before anyone noticed. I also saw how a few of the other guests were prone to the same mistake. And I noticed how Mohammed Lemine adroitly pulled at meat, twisted little chunks of food off, scratched away at a surface all with the one hand. I suppose, like anything else, it just took a bit of practice. I still found if I tried to pull a hunk of meat of a carcass, half the animals bones came with it.