Friday 3 June 2022

Morocco Revisited

Morocco is mesmerising, the closest country where the culture is intriguingly different. So tempting for those craving a change after almost two years of isolation - barely 3 1/2 hours by plane and 1-hour time change…

Where to go? Castleblanca, Rabat, Fez, Essaouira, Tangiers…The latter though charming is still pretty nippy at this time of the year, so how about Marrakech with its date palms and cactus, souks and bazaars and the incomparable Jemaa el-Fnaa square in the heart of the medina, a magnet for both Moroccans and visitors flocking to be fed, watered and entertained. Drink freshly squeezed juices (no alcohol) and watch hypnotic musicians like swirling dervishes, swirling jugglers, snake charmers… Have a pic taken with a monkey on your shoulder or with colourful tea sellers who make more money from having photos taken than by selling tea. Donkeys weave in and out through the narrow lanes of the medina with carts full of oranges.
There are henna artists, soothsayers, a frenzy of merchants selling their wares from sparklers and balloons to little bowls of snails in broth and a selection of false teeth should you need them... At night, local cooks and chefs set up long tables on the side of the square selling steaming bowls of harira with fresh dates, grilled fish, tagines, every conceivable type of offal. A wonderfully convivial experience and the food overall is above average.
But my absolute favourite is mechoi, the meltingly tender milk-fed lamb, cooked slowly for hours in underground clay ovens until the succulent meat is virtually falling off the bones. You’ll find it from noon to about 4pm along Mechoi Alley – a little lane on the east side of the square. Look out for Haj Mustapha, he was the last Hassan’s (Kings) private chef who now owns Chez Lamine and several stalls selling not just mechoi but also goat’s heads, and tangia, a lamb stew in a clay pot, traditionally cooked in the ashes of the fire that heats the water for the hammans. I even tasted karaein – cow’s hooves with chickpeas. Been there, done that – don’t need to do it again…

The medieval city of Marrakech with its ten kilometres of ochre coloured adobe, ramparts and seven awe-inspiring ornamental gates has many landmarks. The minarat of the Koutoubia Mosque dominates the city. Like most mosques in Morocco, it’s closed to non-muslims but is still a mightily impressive building.

Marrakech was the destination for merchants, camel traders and caravans who had crossed the desert and the snow-capped Atlas mountains with their wares. It’s steeped in history…and if you only eat in one restaurant, it has to be Al Fassia, the women’s restaurant in Gueliz and how about Al Baraka, a petrol station on Rue de Fez, about 15 minutes outside Marrakech – inexpensive but delicious food.
The highlight of my trip was a morning food tour with Plan-It Morocco. And even though I’ve been to Marrakech many times, I discovered many new places with Bilal, my deeply knowledgeable guide. We started at the Kasbah, originally a posh neighbourhood close to the royal palace, now a commercial area with lots of little shops, bakeries and stalls. First stop - a little stall selling sfeng, the famous deep-fried breakfast doughnuts eaten plain or sometimes with an egg in the centre and a sprinkling of crunchy sea salt and cumin. Actually these doughnuts are served all day but are sprinkled with sugar in the afternoon. We wandered through the narrow alleys and watched women making a variety of different breads. Every neighbourhood has an underground wood-fired oven which doubles up as a community bakery. Women bake traditional round flat breads in their homes, lay them on a cloth covered board to rise. It’s bought through the streets to be baked in the oven when the baker has finished cooking his daily loaves. In Morocco, there are more than seven types of Moroccan bread – all delicious. 
Stalls were piled high with beautiful fresh vegetables and fruit, I watched a beautiful old lady in a patterned black and white kaftan removing the fibres from long cardoon stalks. First with a knife and then a coarse nylon brush. I bought a bag back to Tarabel Riad and asked the cook to prepare them for my dinner in a delicious tagine of cardoons and potatoes.

In the Jewish quarter, we sat at a little tin table to have another traditional Moroccan breakfast - Bissara, a thick bean soup sprinkled with cumin and chilli pepper, drizzled with olive oil. It comes with a basket of bread for dipping.

I could write several blogposts on the bread alone.

On past the once famous Sugar Market to watch the warka makers working at the speed of knots, dabbing the dough onto hot saucepan lids over boiling water to make the paper-thin sheets of warka used for chicken and pigeon pastilla and a myriad of other pastries.

Next stop, Belkabir, the most famous pastry shop in the medina with 40 or more sticky sugar laden pastries from horns de gazelle to briwat (triangle shaped pastries filled with marzipan, deep-fried and dipped in honey).
We continued to meander through the souks, with its stalls piled high with everything from Moroccan slippers, fake bags and ‘designer’ clothes, metal work, hand carved wooden spoons and boards, brassy trinkets, hand blown glass…and finally into a little secret corner called Talaa, to Chez Rashid, a favourite haunt of the locals. I loved their sardine ‘meat balls’ with cumin and coriander – so delicious with chopped raw onion or with tomato sauce.

We continued to walk through the souk – then back to the beautiful Tarabel Riad where Kahil picked oranges from the trees in the inner courtyard to make some freshly squeezed orange juice to quench my thirst…Sure where would you get it but in lovely Morocco.