Markets & Cooking in Fez, Morocco
Even before we reach our riad, a silent journey from Meknes with a surly but kind driver, I decide that I like Fes.
Leaving Riad Norma, in the steep enclave of Ziat, we huff and puff at a hurried pace to our cooking class at Clock Café. Past the Bab Boujeloud or blue tiled gate, the sight of the market within the medina is arresting. The cobbled narrow streets with vendors hawking breakfast breads, vegetables, barrels of pungent olives and live chickens – colours, smells, the essential rawness of market life, tugs at our attention. But we are late, and cannot linger. Close to the clypsydra, Morocco’s only water clock, an ancient device that tells time, within a slim alley is Clock Café. Built in a restored 250-year-old house, this is a haven for locals and foreigners – a café and a center for cultural exchange.
The question however, is what doesn’t happen at the Clock Café? American exchange students and scholars, many can’t be older than 18 are sitting at a table practicing Arabic, a couple leans in over a slice of cheese cake that the café has become famous for, near the counter there’s a stack of fliers advertising the yoga classes, henna tattoo artist, drumming and the belly dancing sessions. Later, we pass a small cinema and overhear someone order a camel burger – another essential must-eat here.
Then there’s our group. An athletic American couple who run a window cleaning company, a spunky Malaysian researcher living in the UK, travelling alone (her boyfriend “just doesn’t enjoy travelling” she tells us), and us. Before we can ascend the stairs to the cooking class, we need ingredients. Conveniently for us, everything can be found a few steps away.
Our young instructors, locals Mohamed Averroes, who is our translator and chef Mohamed “Simo” En, who learned the trade from his mother and dreams of working in the States, take us on an excursion through the stalls to their favourite suppliers (both have since moved to Clock Café in Marrakech).
The chicken vendor, unsmiling, dangles a fat chicken by the legs. Mohamed and Simo inspect it and approve.
It’s slaughtered in front of us and the Americans stare wide-eyed; we continue shopping while it’s cleaned.
Donkeys and mules laden with pails of milk and baskets of goods are led slowly through the streets, some whip-thin, others broader; we stop in our tracks at the sight of the doe-eyed, reluctant beasts. In the gentle lilt of Moroccan Arabic the donkey minders shoo us out the way.
We sample a market breakfast of large flat breads, such as harcha the semolina pan-fried bread made with butter and milk with a spicy relish, olives and later dates. Having skipped breakfast, we tuck in with gusto. Men and women in plain djebella are buying their breakfasts here too. I watch them keenly, taking in the easy conversations they are having with vendors, the patient haggling, the packages wrapped up and new customers moving in to the front.
It’s a rhythm of the everyday here in Fes – food is bought fresh from a market, as it always has been. The customers know the vendors by name; some take items on credit, others hand out coins from small purses or handkerchiefs tied at the corner with a knot. This entire scene, one I will return to a few times to take my time browsing and picking spices like ras-el-hanout, preserved lemons and the famous Fes blue ceramic vessels, reminds me of shopping with my grandmother. Except we were haggling at her local market in Durban, South Africa and I was still a little girl, circa the early ‘80s. The word travel writers love to use here is “authentic”.
It’s clear our little troupe wants to linger at the market indefinitely, but there is a large menu of food to prepare. Mohamed and Sim usher us back to the class. Upstairs at Clock Café, we wash our hands vigorously and don the school’s dark blue cooking uniform. For the next few hours we are occupied in the kitchen sharing the task of chopping, braising, mixing, kneading and stirring.
We elect from the menu options to make: zalouk – the smoky spiced roasted aubergine dip, harira soup – a hearty soup popularly found all over Morocco, and the delicate pastilla or b’stilla.
This is what the café says about the classic pastry dish:
“Bastilla is made of fine layers of almost transparent pastry called “warqa” and is stuffed with pigeon and almonds. Although there are many famous forms of bastilla like seafood and ground meat based bastillas, the most traditional and probably the oldest one is prepared by [sic] pigeons, but the latter is often replaced by chicken or other kinds of meat.”
Pastilla is unique in that it is both savory and enhanced with sweet, in the form of icing sugar, honey and orange blossom water. Despite my initial reservation, I discover it is a particularly scrumptious combination and demonstrates a complexity and sophistication in Moroccan cooking.
For dessert we make a cookie with a cake-like texture known as ghriba, a honey macaroon of sorts. We take our pastries and dessert cookies to a feran or communal bakery (there is one located on almost every street) and wait while they brown in the wood fire ovens, the temperatures searing-hot.
The bakery charges under a dollar for a tray, and the baker-man is constantly inserting and removing trays with a large metal shovel – we spot breads, pastries, pies, and cookies. The aroma reminds us that it’s just past lunchtime. My tummy grumbles. The medina cats are also drawn to this fragrant hub of activity and they mewl at me in sympathy.
The man tending the fire knows which bread belongs to which family just by the shape of it. There are very few families who mark their breads or trays. It’s hard not to be amazed.
By this stage, the anticipation of the meal we’ve prepared over the past few hours gnaws at us. We remove our aprons, order cool drinks and are served the bountiful meal we prepared, on the roof top garden.
We end with glasses of syrupy-sweet mint tea, as one must in Morocco.
Essentials: Clock Café: http://cafeclock.com/
Riad Norma: http://www.riadnorma.com/