I had chosen a chicken for my tajine. She blinked back defiantly from within her cage. You can’t say that Fez’s people don’t know the provenance of their food.
“No, those bigger speckled birds are for special occasions: family feasts, the end of Ramadan,” Fatima, our chef-cum-tutor-cum-guide, corrected after I had mentally chosen my chicken. I have always had expensive tastes and this was just a Wednesday evening meal.
“Just an ordinary chicken for us,” Fatima said, gesturing at a wall of chicken cages.
“We marinated your chicken in lemon juice and salt overnight,” Fatima continued. Suddenly, marinated had become a euphemism for “killed”. First World sensibilities had been spared death-squawk reality.
Fatima sensed my unease, “My mother would never buy packaged chicken. How does she know when the chicken was killed?”
This was souk shopping, as it had been for some eight centuries, amongst over 9,500 narrow ochre alleys: beyond mapping, beyond GPS, beyond navigation. A maze where you follow your nose to the bakeries, past the medieval stench of the tanneries and through the fish souk.
“Fish was a treat when I was a girl,” Fatima reminisced. “Fez is so far from the sea. Did you know that the word fish is never used in the Quran?”
We didn’t. But we knew we were on a quest for lunch. Just shopping for today, as Fez folk – eking out scarce Dirham – had for centuries. Before fridges, daily shopping was essential in a city that bakes in a sub-Saharan oven.
Khili’i, the art of pickling and preserving, still thrives. A suitably olive-skinned man, framed portrait-like by countless trays, scooped up dozens of olives for our tagines.
Weak autumn sunlight was only just beginning to flicker through a sun-bleached canopy of palm fronds as we meandered towards the stalls of the breakfast souk. For us, breakfast was a hot bowl of thick besssara, split pea soup with garlic and olive oil: like a warm, welcoming Frenchman’s hug. Apt really, as Morocco was a French Protectorate until 1956.
Inevitably food is political, sometimes signalling assimilation, sometimes resistance. Moroccans love brioche but, discarding their French origins, renamed them krachel. Food is subservience too. Old men look disapprovingly at women shopping, believing they should be back in the kitchen while children run the errands.
Back to shopping. Feeling and weighing aubergines, lemons, onions and tomatoes in our hands. Shopping is a vibrant, tactile experience in Fez. Without being asked, the trader throws a bunch of coriander and parsley, into our basket. For Moroccan chefs these “sister herbs” are almost mandatory.
Time for yet another break, a tea-break. For half-a-century Atay Bnaanaa, a flamboyant character with an extravagant cerise headdress, has been creating the Bollinger of Fez’s mint tea. It’s like drinking the Chelsea Flower Show: leaves of absinthe, geranium, verbena, sage and mint. Eight tea-drinkers somehow cram into an ancient-blue-tiled tea-shop where Atay’s family have filled the tall silver samovar for generations.
A muezzin’s call to prayer, reminded us that time was passing, so we headed for the spice souk. Once Fez, sat on the Sahara’s shoulder, was on one of the world’s great trade routes, caravans of laden camels bringing spices from afar. Looking like an alchemist with brass scales, mortar and pestle, a spice merchant supplied us with cumin, ginger and turmeric.
Then we stop for a final treat, Chebbakia sweets. Delicate plaited coils of saffron pastry that are deep fried, dipped in honey and sprinkled with sesame seeds. A popular boost of energy at the breaking of fasts. Arabs often have a sweet tooth, developed, perhaps, from the custom of squeezing date juice over a baby’s gums.
At the Fez Cooking School, on the roof of the Palais Amani, we begin to chop, grate and slice like contestants on Moroccan Masterchef. The aroma of smoked aubergine drifts across the roof-garden, through terracotta pots of olive trees, bougainvillea, vines, roses and away towards the Middle Atlas Mountains. Is there a more beautiful place to cook than this?
At last we take our seats in the Eden Restaurant, a garden at the heart of a restored 17th century palace, once home to over 50 members of the Lalhou family, it was considered shameful for a son to leave the family home even when he took a wife. The Lalhous made their fortune trading with Manchester: perhaps cotton, possibly sugar. Shaded by leafy lemon, orange and pomegranate trees, with fountains and cooling pools – for desert-thirsty Berbers this garden would have been their vision of paradise.
As we are the chefs there is no need to look at the menu. Instead we admire the architecture of the Palais Amani. Restoration in the 1920s, after an earthquake, added an Art Deco edge to a courtyard surrounded by hefty cedar wood tall doors, elegant pillars and hand-carved local zellije flooring tiles.
Slowly cooked in a wide-based earthen-ware pot, coloured like a warm terracotta shade from the henna souk, the tagine is a national comfort food. Every evening, patiently cooked in millions of homes, tagines express Moroccans’ ability to coax colour, nutrition and taste from an arid land. Slowly stewing, steam rises, condenses in the conical neck, then rains down succulence. Like bones in a soup, the chicken leg infuses flavour, over and over again. Tender flesh falls away from bones steam-cleaned white.
Four olives, almost grape-red, almost grape-glossy, rest on the tagine: only included in my dish for their photogenic qualities. I’ve never got the hang of olives, to me they taste of the astringent, parched scrub-land from whence they came.
Coriander brings a gentle heat, like Fez’s setting autumn sun. Morocco, hot enough already, avoids tongue-searing chilli. My heaped spoon of cumin had brought a deep spicy taste of the Orient, a timeless Old Testament scent, to my tagine.
Zaalouk, a sensuous salad of smoked aubergine and finely chopped tomatoes, topped with garlic, accompanies our tagine. “My twenty-something son’s favourite seduction dish,” says Jemima Mann-Baha. She’s a visionary who married Abdel, acquired three sister-in-laws called Fatima, restored the run-down Palais and opened the Fez Cooking School.
The aroma of my shirt, gives a clue to dessert. Fatima, had flicked orange blossom water at me “for good luck” as I had created my pud.
The dish we created can only be described as Fez Mess, the local gooey take on Eton Mess. Three thin flatbreads fried to papadum brittle, lavishly layered with whipped cream, perfumed with orange blossom water: leftovers transformed into a Sultan’s indulgent confection. Its whiteness echoing the alabaster carvings of a neighbouring Quranic school.
At the Fez Cooking School there’s no such thing as a culture-free lunch. Food is culture, food is history, food is life. Shopping, cooking, eating: it is a journey into Fez’s heart and soul.
Interested in learning how to cook in Fez: you need to go to Fez Cooking School. All the (rather good) photographs by Jemima Baha Mann for the Fez Cooking School.