A gastronomic journey at once humble and regal
It is said that in order for a nation to develop a great cuisine, it must have four prerequisites: a rich land from which to draw upon an abundant range of ingredients; a variety of foreign cultural influences; a great civilization; and lastly, a refined palace with royal kitchens to inspire the nation’s cooks. Morocco has it all, and is home to some of the most tantalizing food imaginable. From robust roasts to rich aromatic stews, spiced or sweetened salads to savoury pastries and fragrant mounds of couscous, there is such a wide variety to choose from. One great example of the country’s cuisine is bastilla, an exquisite blend of shredded pigeon and spiced onion sauce with saffron and herbs encased in a flaky, filo-like pastry, topped with cinnamon and sugar – an intricate dish that epitomises everything that is grand and extravagant in Moroccan cooking.
One of the most interesting ways to absorb the delights and diversity of the country’s cuisine is to visit the souks (markets) and where better than Fés, often regarded as Morocco’s culinary capital. To wander through the myriad of laneways that make up the medina of Fés el Bali (old Fés) sampling the food on offer, is to take a gastronomic journey through Morocco itself.
Early morning is a wonderful time to be out and about and I set off to get thoroughly lost. Sunlight streams in slanted rays through the woven bamboo shades covering the narrow alleyways, catching the steam rising from the many cookers. Street vendors are preparing for the day’s trade and already the air is awash with all manner of exotic- aromas, the hustle and bustle as stalls are set up and neighbours greet one another.
Great crusty rounds of warm khboz (bread) are on display at the feet of an old man crouching behind his produce. Munching on this doughy aniseed-flavoured bread is perfect for strolling the medina. In most Moroccan homes bread is prepared every morning, kneaded in unglazed red clay pans and sent to the community bakery on the heads of children on their way to school.
Close to the city gate of Bab Bou Jaloud one stallholder is already busy at trade cooking and selling one the most common forms of Moroccan breakfasts, miklee. With deft handwork he pinches small balls of dough and presses them into a paper-thin squares covered with oil. Folded, then folded again he slips them onto a skillet sizzling with oil where they materialise into flaky pancakes and are served to eagerly waiting customers with butter and honey.
In a fruit and vegetable souk, produce of every kind lines the street. There are juicy oranges, lemons and grapefruits from the sun-drenched groves of Agadir, golden melons, vine-ripened tomatoes, clementines, crisp celery and plump mounds of grapes, preserved fruits and nuts. Entire shops are jam-packed with nothing but olives – of every flavour, size, quality and colour or bunch of fresh mint displayed in baskets and hanging from ceilings.