I head down into the dark underworld of the souks, through alleys so narrow that the only way the shopkeepers can get their stock in, is on a donkey’s back. The medina’s 9400 lanes and streets see the with a human tide of endlessly streaming humanity, crammed with shops, restaurants, mosques, rug stores and even tanneries. Somewhere near the Attarine quarter I stumble upon a spice souk.
The smell, colour and range of the spices are striking. There’s the bright reds of paprika and cayenne peppers alongside the rich yellow turmeric, soft-hued ginger, dusty sticks of cinnamon all contrasting in texture with seeds of cumin, sesame, aniseed, caraway, coriander and many more. All are heaped in tubs waiting to be measured into twisted envelopes of paper. These are some of the spices that form the soul of Moroccan cooking, transforming simple dishes to exotic heights.
This Moroccan love of spices is a tradition handed down for thousands of years from their ancestors, who brought them in caravans across North Africa from Arabia and beyond. They brought with them the sophisticated knowledge of their uses as perfumes and medicines, as an enhancement of food and as currency for trade.
In one dusty spice shop jars of ras-el-hanut (which translates as ‘shopkeepers choice’) line the top shelf. Consisting of anything up to a hundred different spices, no two mixtures are the same and only the maker knows the quantity of the various ingredients. When I ask the shopkeeper what the contents of his mixture are, he throws his hands up dramatically and exclaims, “This is the finest ras-el-hanut in all of Fés, and the ingredients are secret.”
A seductive aroma wafting from a nearby food stall reminds me that I have a lunch date. Moroccan hospitality is famous and an invitation to dine with a family is never to be turned down. Any local cook will tell you that the best Moroccan cuisine is eaten at home, lovingly prepared by the lady of the house.
“Welcome my friend, come, my home is your home!” says my host Taleb drawing me into his home. I follow him down a labyrinth of passageways and up a flight of stairs and into a spacious salon. The walls are decked out with intricate woodwork, colourful zellij tiles and graceful archways. Berber carpets and rugs cover the floor.