Sunday 24 January 2010

They only eat five things

Worthing, West Sussex, England

So I'm back now and as always happens, the Morocco experience seems suddenly distant. I set out with the intention of discovering their food, but it all got washed over by the people and the place. Not that I'm complaining!

Back at the start of the Morocco trip we were having breakfast in Tangier. There was a Danish guy and his wife there, and he was moaning about Moroccan cuisine. They only eat five things, he arrogantly pronounced. We immediately racked our brains thinking of what his five would be;

1. Couscous
2. Tagines
3. Kebabs
4. Pastilla
5. Everything else

His argument was clearly flawed. There was no room for Harira (Moroccan soup). And what about the vegetable salads? And the patisserie? The wonderful array of cakes and biscuits? The macaroons that housewives sell in the squares of Marrakech?

Cakes on a market stall in Meknes

Worst of all though, he'd forgotten about the doughnuts. From my first doughnut in Chefchaouen, where they fried them fresh each morning with breakfast, I pursued them in true Homer Simpson style, tongue lolling, stomach rumbling and brain repeating dough-nuts over and over again. They were somehow elusive. Find a guy who sells them, go back the next morning - he's gone.

Doughnut seller in Meknes - the best dirham you'll ever spend

But I can't wholly defend Moroccan cuisine on the strength of its doughnuts. And after a week or so, I began to see where he was coming from. Pretty much everywhere you eat, you sit down, open the menu and see the same things. Your choices are severely restricted. It is extremely rare to find anything unique - a new interpretation of an old favourite or something out of leftfield. The weird guy outside Chefchaouen with his octopus salad, that was the biggest curveball of them all. Thankfully, it was brilliantly executed.

As a single dish it was the finest thing I ate on the trip. The best dining experience was the first course of vegetable salads at Riad Tanja back in Tangier on my second night. The range of flavours and textures was incredible. Each individual taste was carefully balanced and delicately seasoned, and when taken as an ensemble, the whole thing just worked. We ate some good meals aside from this, but rarely was I blown away. And the revelation that pretty much every tagine you eat was cooked in a pressure cooker, though completely understandable was still disappointing in a romantic sense.

Stunning vegetable displays everywhere - this one in a market in Tangier

The couscous is incredible. I've always poured hot water on instant couscous. Literally. The difference between this and the twice or three times steamed semolina these guys eat is too great to even attempt to describe. They're just not the same thing. It's a lot more work and incredibly time consuming, but there's no such thing as a free lunch. You can survive on instant couscous I guess, and it's not as though I'm never going to touch the stuff again, but you can't beat the real thing.

The bread at Casa Hassan in Chefchaouen

The bread was good pretty much everywhere we went. Baked in big public bakeries, extremely fresh, very cheap and sold all over the place. Where ever you are in a Moroccan city, within fifty yards of you, someone is selling bread for a couple of dirhams. The bread in Chefchaouen was the best we had, though I remain convinced they put something in it. I'll never know, but I'll try and work it out for myself.

Good food then, but not brilliant food, really. A couple of days in kitchens - in Fes and Marrakech - were interesting but not life changing. I like the pastilla, but it is very sweet, and you wouldn't want to eat it every day. Some of the tagines are good, but the main thing to take away for me are the salads. I can see a first course of them nestling quietly in the corner of my menu one day, insh'allah.

Not quite just the five things then, but not a whole lot more either. But you know what? Who cares? A simple bowl of harira in Djemaa el-Fna costs you 3 dirhams and you get to spend the evening in one of the craziest places on Earth. That'll do for me.

Thursday 21 January 2010

Appointment in Marrakech

Dar Attajmil, Marrakech, Morocco

I had a good old wander about on my own yesterday before the others arrived from Rabat. I had the guide book and camera for company and set off with a vague plan of hitting a couple of palaces south of Djemaa el-Fna. I walked purposefully but with no real idea of where I was going, until I suddenly emerged through a gate into a large open space, impeccably maintained and in marked contrast to the streets I had been hopelessly attempting to navigate. There were no tourists, just a steady trickle of traffic. I walked back through the narrow streets of the Jewish quarter, up past the Bahia palace and through more souks until I eventually, and inevitably, hit Djemaa el-Fna. Just wandering like that, you get a true sense of how comfortable you are. I wished I could speak even the tiniest amount of Arabic, but most of the time a friendly smile and a salaam lets them know what you think.

I took a break from writing up the blog just now to go for a stroll around before sunset. I left the bag and camera behind. I just wanted to soak up the streets on my own one last time, walk about and feel the present without worrying about recording it for the future. In fact I have taken very few pictures in Marrakech. Perhaps because there are so many tourists, people seem less tolerant of being photographed, and I don't feel too comfortable intruding on their privacy.

I was walking across Djemaa el-Fna, successfully avoiding having monkeys or snakes thrust upon me, when I noticed the sun, hovering majestically just above the lowest point of the Koutoubia mosque. I reached for the camera that I had left in my room. It didn't matter. I take a lot of pictures, but there are some moments that a photograph will never do justice to, and this was one of them. Just a magical sight that lasts for a few bare seconds before it slips into the past for good. I was so glad I came out.

Back in the souks and, in stark contrast, I had what was my first unpleasant experience in Morocco. Some really mangy guy on a bike was riding slowly alongside and started talking to me in Spanish. We were in a busy street, and I just kept walking, ignoring him. He spoke in French, then English. He wasn’t threatening or dangerous, but there was something strange and unnerving about his presence. I thought of the legend of the Appointment in Samarra, when death jostles the man in the market. I stopped and turned and looked at the guy. There was something different about him. I don’t know why, but I asked him if he was Moroccan. He sort of sneered before saying Algerian. I turned and walked away in the opposite direction, quietly smiling to myself, happy beyond compare that the wonderful impression I have of Morocco, its imperious cities and warm, funny and dignified people, survives intact.

Death Speaks by W Somerset Maugham

There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

Chicken Pastilla

Dar Attajmil, Marrakech, Morocco

It’s my last day in Morocco today. It’s been an incredible experience but it hasn’t exactly lived up to its billing as a gastronomic adventure. Linds and I try to remedy this by taking another cooking class at Dar Attajmil, and making Chicken Pastilla. We kick off in the market with Loubna, a lovely girl who is going to translate for us as the cook doesn't speak English. The market is nowhere near as crazy as the one we went to in Fes, so this is a relatively simple task. We get chicken, almonds, cinnamon and lots of vegetables for the Moroccan salads that will form our starter.

There’s not really a lot of hands on stuff involved in these lessons – it’s more like an intimate demo. Pumpkin goes in a pan to boil for an hour before being drained and shredded with sugar and cinnamon. It is great. Toasted sesame seeds and a bit of honey would make it very similar to what we had back in Tangier on the first night. The aubergine is diced and deep fried, and then has the excess oil strained from it before being cooked with grated tomatoes, garlic, parsley, coriander, paprika, cumin and salt.

Green peppers are roasted over the flame, skinned, chopped and added to a similar tomato base, though the tomatoes are skinned and seeded in this one. Meanwhile we boil quartered fennel bulbs before dressing them with lemon juice, oil, parsley and coriander. They have a fairly mild flavour and with the dressing are incredibly delicate and sit nicely alongside the richer tomato salads and the sweet pumpkin.

For the pastille we blanch and skin a shitload of almonds before deep frying them. Meanwhile the chicken (we are using three jointed breasts with the wings and carcass attached) is cooking in a pan with onion, vegetable oil, turmeric, saffron, parsley, coriander, salt and pepper. After fifteen minutes or so a couple of cups of water are added, and forty minutes later a couple of tablespoons of sugar go in. When the chicken is cooked it is removed, and four eggs go in the pan and are kind of semi scrambled along with the other cooking juices. This egg base is then removed and the excess liquid squeezed from it in a sieve.

We stand around shredding the chicken breasts (painstaking – anyone remember the Vietnamese salad from Ballymaloe?) while the almonds are ground with sugar and cinnamon. To assemble the pastillas we use a strange pastry, similar to filo but slightly thicker and oiled to prevent it sticking. A layer of chicken is topped with the egg mix then almonds, and the pastry tucked up to form the parcel, before being turned over and wrapped in one more layer, more neatly this time. Linds and I wrap a few – they might not be prize winning efforts but they do improve. They are fried and decorated with icing sugar and cinnamon.

We also make a Moroccan flat bread using a mix of extremely fine maize and white flour. The dough is fairly firm and is kneaded gently in a flat terracotta bowl with shallow sides. Brought into rolls it is rested then stretched and pressed into a circle with flattened fingers. I do one to try and get the feel for it, though the girls are laughing at my attempt. I immediately text my mum and ask her to refresh my starter so I can start baking as soon as I get home.

We sit down to eat on the terrace at around half two, and tuck in to a delicious meal. These are definitely things I will cook again, if I can decipher my scribbled notes. We didn’t make dessert, but I wish we had. It's basically a brownie I guess, but far more than the sum of its parts. If I can extract even a semblance of a recipe for it before my plane leaves tomorrow, then the trip will not have been in vain.

Marrakech: Wrong again

Dar Attajmil, Marrakech, Morocco

In a funny way I have been secretly dreading arriving in Marrakech. I loved Chefchaouen and Meknes. Small, unassuming, quiet towns with few tourists and friendly locals. I found Fes a bit hectic – in your face, crowded and its people hurried and persistent. So Marrakech? A town that has been on the tourist map for so long, where Easy Jet drop four plane loads of suckers a day? The locals resent tourists in these situations. They see them as a commodity to be sucked dry. Who cares what you think of Morocco or Marrakech if you go home with a carpet or two under your arm and a picture of your missus with a rabid monkey on her shoulder? I couldn’t have been more wrong if I had tried.

I took the train down from Rabat on my own, and found myself an empty first class carriage from which to watch the world float by. I thought of Pen and Al’s story from Greece in the 1970s – on a train with some American guy who, after a period of prolonged silence, remarked as they passed shepherds on the hillsides overlooking the tracks; “My, those guys must get awful bored out there.”

I wasn’t bored for long. At Casablanca the carriage filled up. An English journalist, a Moroccan professor and a little guy that smiled but didn’t speak. I thought of Reggie Perrin and the train to work and smiled to myself. The rest of the trip was fun, a discussion of recent Moroccan history, the reign of Hassan II and the current constitutional state, translated for me from the French. Though my crushing tiredness got the better of me toward the end and I fell asleep in an awkward, crumpled heap. The English girl, Becky, and I arranged to meet up in town and hit the souks later on.

I’m glad I came to Marrakech last of all. I have developed a sense of value over the last couple of weeks. Taking my bags to a petite taxi for the ride into town, I ask how much. Cinquante Dirhams. I laugh and start to turn round. Ok my friend, how much you pay? Confidently then, vingt. A shrug. Vingt-cinq. Done. Still about twice as much as it should be, but that’s half as bad as twice as much again.

My Riad is in a cool spot – central but quiet, and the room is great. I have a quick shower to get rid of the train and head out. People smile. I am alone, and walking with purpose and intent. They’re not trying to sell me things. Weird. Scooters and mopeds hoot and screech everywhere. There are people, lots of people. There are donkey carts, pushbikes, people carrying shit. But there is something else too. Somehow, unbelievably, there is space. The place is busy, but it’s not claustrophobic. And people are asking you if you want to shop with them, but they don’t persist. Why would they bother when another plane load is approaching from around the nearest corner?

After a few hours of ambling about the seemingly endless souks (think endless, then subtract more ends), punctuated by a few purchases and some pretty advanced hardcore bargaining, we decide to get dinner. We head to the ville nouvelle and the Grand Cafe de la Poste. It gets a good write up and is a bit of a star magnet apparently. It certainly looks grand inside. Its prices are grand. And it has far too many waiters, none of whom are quite ever where you want them when you want them. We will have the assorted antipasti. The omens are not good. There are four of them, and we have to choose three. I would suggest that there should either be three or four, and we should get all of them. I can’t help thinking we left the wrong one out. Aubergines are way too salty. Peppers are okay, sardines are great but you wouldn’t have had to break the black pepper budget for the evening to improve them noticeably. Mains come and go unmemorably. I can’t help noticing that Casablanca, Morocco’s premium lager, is pretty gassy, so I graduate to the G and Ts, which has the knock on effect of eradicating much of the next morning.

My new friend Becky had a fear of snakes, so we had to avoid Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakech’s huge central plaza where the charmers hang out. I hadn’t really noticed them the night before, but during my late breakfast on the riad terrace I can hear the oboes rising up above the rooftops. Djemaa el-Fna is an extraordinary place. It is architecturally devoid of any real beauty, though the Koutoubia mosque lords it over a distant corner. It is extraordinary for the crazy scenes that unfold within its boundaries. Stalls selling oranges and dates, snake charmers, monkey carriers, dentists (!), Mauritanian healers, guys selling Berber potions, little bands of drummers and musicians. At sunset the food stalls open up. Out come the benches and people gather round to eat bowls of soup or snails or feast on the kebabs, couscous and tagines. Crowds gather in circles as actors put on small plays recounting traditional stories (featuring transvestite belly dancers apparently). The whole thing is bustling, enchanting, mesmerising and yet totally unintimidating, so long as you’re not frightened of snakes or mopeds, that is.

Koutoubia Mosque across Djemaa el-Fna at sunset

Rabat: An apology

Dar Attajmil, Marrakech, Morocco

I'm sorry. Rabat is nothing like Canberra. Sure the ville nouvelle has wide sweeping avenues and feels “planned” in the same way. That’s because it was. Planned that is. It’s the ville

Canberra doesn’t have a medina. Not one that dates from 17th century at least. Rabat’s medina may be more recent than the others I’ve visited in Morocco, but that makes it more tourist friendly as well. It retains plenty of the intrigue of the others, but is smaller and laid out on a grid, so is hard to get lost in. That detracts slightly from its character, but makes it a good place to start. And with the lack of tourists comes a far more laissez faire approach to shopping, which is most welcome. I’m not convinced it helps you bargain though; nothing will dampen your appetite for a haggle more than really liking the guy.

Another thing Rabat has that Canberra doesn’t is Chellah. The Romans settled above the river just south of town in AD40 on an old Phoenician site before abandoning it in favour of Sale on the opposite bank. Some sultan built on the site in the 14th century, surrounding it with fortified walls that stand proud today. They now guard the ruins of the Roman city and what remains of the Islamic one – the walls and minaret of the mosque being the most intact.

The Islamic remains at Chellah. One of the toughest levels on Goldeneye...

What makes Chellah special is what it conveys of the relationship between man and nature. There are the remnants of great civilisations just about preserved amidst rambling vegetation. Elsewhere gardens are neatly cultivated and paths run between them for the handfuls of tourists who make the pilgrimage here. Best of all though are the storks. Their nests adorn the highest treetops, walls and the minaret. By virtue of their height, number and sheer majesty, they give the impression of maintaining nature’s vigil over this wondrous site where great men, long before them, came and went.

Storks lord it over the eerie site of Chellah

The sense of mankind’s ailing greatness is stronger still at the site of the Hassan Tower. In the 12th century sultan Yacoub al-Mansour began work on what would have been the second largest mosque in the world. When he died in 1199, work stopped on the site with the tower standing at 44m, 16m short of its intended height. An earthquake in 1755 brought the mosque to the ground, and only an eerie field of pillars remains, with the giant folly of the great unfinished tower casting a long shadow over the site.

The unfinished Hassan Tower and what remains of the great temple

It’s a strangely quiet and peaceful place in which to escape the insane rush hour and overwhelming traffic fumes that seem the lot of every capital city in the world. Except Canberra, perhaps.

Monday 18 January 2010

Rabat - Twinned with Canberra

Hotel Balima, Rabat, Morocco

It’s getting late now and I am tired. I am beginning to get that feeling that would wash over me at Ballymaloe, when I’d secretly wish to God I could just go to bed and not bother with the blog. This is my last night in Rabat though, and tomorrow I head to Marrakech ahead of the others. I have to utilise Lindsay’s laptop and bring myself up to date.

Rabat. We were discussing Rabat in detail when evaluating our options for this trip. We read the Lonely Planet description – seat of government, wide open boulevards, large public spaces. Sounds a bit like Canberra, I remarked, to my Australian companions. Well it’s not that similar to Canberra in fairness, but I can detect a tiny whimper of truth resonating in that statement.

Above: Parliament House, Canberra
Below: Parliament Chamber of Representatives, Rabat

Off the train, walking to the hotel, the first thing I notice is pollution. Not very Australian. The roads
are wide. Canberra. But it actually looks and feels more like France. We are staying at the Hotel Balima, right opposite parliament. The “Grand dame of Rabat hotels.” More like the Great-Grand dame if you ask me. I am all in favour of decaying imperial splendour, but it is hard to envisage Ernest Hemingway knocking back martinis in the bar of this place. Unless he was on the lookout for some really sketchy looking dames de la nuit that is.

The weirdest thing is that it feels like I have arrived in a different country. Maybe it’s just because we are in the Ville Nouvelle and not in the medina like we have been elsewhere? Maybe because it is the capital? Maybe it’s because it
does feel French? Or maybe it is the sensation of staying in a hotel room that is unnervingly reminiscent of Alan Partidge’s in the Linton Travel Tavern.

You have a few more food options here, namely French ones. Last night we dined in Le Grand Comptier, which gets a good write up in the book. It looks the part, and has about ten members of staff for every customer, which always seems pretty French to me. But my medium rare cote de boeuf was overcooked and my béarnaise was cold, so Michel Roux would not be amused. Worse than that though, the army of waiting staff had that irritating habit of loitering around the table looking for things to do – shuffling condiments and remove unemptied wine glasses. The beef was good though, and since it didn’t come in a tagine, with couscous or wrapped in filo pastry, I was fairly happy. But
crème brulee guys – I wanna be able to shatter it with a spoon.

What have the Romans ever done for us?

Hotel Balima, Rabat, Morocco

Up bright and early on Sunday we check out of the Riad Meknes and pile all our possessions in the back of a Grande Taxi for a whistlestop tour of the Roman ruins at Volubilis. It is a scorching hot day and I’m grateful to be able to ditch the jeans and extra layers for once. The Romans were here in the fourth century BC and bailed around 280 AD when the locals got a little bit too tasty for them. They were a long way from home I guess. We deliberated over coming here – seen one Roman ruin, you’ve seen them all, right?

Glad we made the effort, and armed with our official guide, another Abdul, though mercifully (for him and for us) this one is not on crutches. Though why he’s wearing that jumper in this heat is anyone’s guess. He gives us a great tour, and we bake in the sun, take pictures and oblige him when he begs us to imagine the scene a couple of millennia ago when the Romans were cavorting around, drunk out if their minds and eating so much they made themselves vomit.

Abdul demonstrates the Roman bathing technique

We’re back in Meknes in time to board the 14:21 for Rabat. Some wanker tries to charge me 80 dirhams for three kebabs. How much each? I ask him. Er, 26. No mate – I threaten the walk out and he settles for 60. Which would kind of fall in line with the 20 dirhams some American dude told me he’d just paid for his. It must be something to do with railway stations, or your proximity to them. The train itself is nice. I guess that must be the French influence - funny how it is only ex-British colonies where you see people hanging out of the windows and fighting for space on the roof. I wonder how far the Romans would have got if they'd thought of trains?

Two hours later, we are in Rabat.

Aren't you going to haggle?

Hotel Balima, Rabat, Morocco

This not having my laptop lark is pissing me off a bit, as I am having to write everything a couple of days in arrears. But here goes anyway.

We postponed a trip to the Roman ruins at Volubilis on Saturday due to an inclement stomach, opting instead to loiter around Meknes. We headed through the back streets and, just off the main square, found ourselves in a great covered market. Spices, soaps, oils, olives, pastries and sweets.

I am wandering about taking the odd snap, when I slightly shake at a cage full of baby tortoises (I have an inane dislike of them). I turn to look down a new aisle of market. The butchers’ aisle. First sight that greets me is an upside down cow’s head, tongue out. Intrigued, I can't help but wander down the aisle. Sheep’s heads hang from stalls; stomachs, intestines and various unidentifiable entrails are nonchalantly displayed on the counters. I’ve got a pretty strong stomach when it comes to these things, but getting to the end of that walk, that was hard. I turn and go back in case I missed anything good, this time plucking up the courage to ask the guys if I can take photos. (I’ll post them when I get home). Al is using his increasingly (in)competent French to schmooze one of the butchers, telling him that he is a cattle farmer in Australia, and even taking the opportunity to shitcan the English.

Heads you win

In another aisle I get a look at the much fabled chicken plucking machine. It’s rather more medieval than I imagined, and for some reason I expected the chickens to still be alive whilst being subjected to this operation, and obviously they were not. The guy operating it politely declined a photograph, and given that he was wielding a freshly plucked chicken at the time, I obliged.

I can't say I was too sorry to breathe fresh air again. On their own, the smells are bearable, but as an ensemble they stack up into a pretty vile stench. Not exactly appetising anyway. Immediately outside we are confronted with the Meknes equivalent of an outdoor pound shop that extends indefinitely. This is a bit of a shock actually. In my ignorance I had assumed that most of the markets and souqs would be peddling complete tat, but actually most of the stuff on sale is of a very high standard. Except for on these few streets, where most of the stuff looks fresh off the boat from China. We venture off the main drag into the alleyways and rediscover the quality stalls tucked neatly away.

In stark contrast to Fes,
no-one is trying to sell you anything. We look into one store and the guy, a Berber, gives Pen and Al the best soft sell I have ever seen. He starts with a long and interesting discussion of Moroccan history and Berber culture. Pen admires a Hand of Fatima and he explains the difference between that particular one and an antique one, which he happens to have kicking around. Before long they are upstairs in the carpet zone, while I slink off in search of doughnuts. To their credit, they emerge empty handed, but completely charmed.

I am in search of some handmade wooden spoons. We eventually stumble upon a place, but it is hard to work out who even owns it. There is no rush to drag you in here, just a couple of dudes hanging around looking disinterested. Eventually the owner appears, on crutches. I pick a few out and we engage in the obligatory haggle. Before long we are off to see his brother’s metal work shop a few blocks away. Old Abdul is not so quick on the crutches, so this takes a while. I admire some of the
Damaskini, which is thread silver hammered onto scratched metal and polished. We begin haggling over yet another bloody Hand of Fatima (how many hands did that woman have? They can’t all be genuine).

Now, Al has a rule about haggling; you basically always end up exactly in the middle of your two prices. Here there is a difference though. I would like this thing, but not
that much – not 450 dirhams anyway. I offer 150 and he laughs. But a lot of bullshit and the old walk away later and it’s mine for 200. Probably still over the odds, but I’m happy. Until I start thinking about all the other purchases that I really did want and almost certainly got taken to the cleaners over. Oh well. Abdul pays me the ultimate compliment though, and tells me I haggle like a Berber. Flattery. Gets me every time.

Fifty? For this? You joking my friend, catastrophic price. This hand made from finest...

Before we know it, Abdul is now our official guide for a tour of the oldest part of the medina. He is actually a lovely guy, so I don’t mind this at all, but he is pretty slow on those crutches. Once I get used to taking small steps, it’s quite a refreshing change to be on a half-paced tour, especially when everyone is on Moroccan time anyway. We take in loads of things we’d never have seen without him, and my initial impressions of Meknes are reinforced over and over again. Special people, special place.

Abdul's Tours: Best give them a miss if you're in a hurry...

Sunday 17 January 2010

Meknes: God's City

Meknes to Rabat, Morocco

Morocco has always been a bit of a tagine of tribes and cultures. When the Romans arrived in the fourth century BC, they named the locals Berbers, or barbarians. Berbers are immensely proud of their heritage and traditions and consider themselves to be the real Moroccans. Chefchaouen, high up in the Rif mountains, is Berber country. Fes, further south, has Andalucian and Arabic influences. West of Fes lies Meknes, one of the four Imperial Cities, much overlooked by tourists. The Berbers settled here in the tenth century.

You know that felling you get when you arrive somewhere for the first time? I love Meknes.

The decision to leave Fes early was taken in the morning. By the time we had our shit together and had negotiated a Grande Taxi to take us to Meknes (a hopeless endeavour – four bag laden tourists under the glare of a harsh, beating sun, standing in the middle of a unionised taxi rank don’t have a great deal of leverage when it comes to negotiation) it was getting on. We wander through narrow streets in pursuit of our Riad, whilst some irritating guy attempts to inveigle his way into our affections by showing us the way. We ignore him repeatedly but he is apparently upset when we eventually tell him to get stuffed at the door. Despite his attentions, everyone else looks and seems friendly. There is a sense of calm and a slowness of movement badly lacking in Fes. These people are on Morocco time. Insha’Allah: if God wills. Why waste time and energy rushing when He is on your side.

We check into a beautiful Riad. No-one here speaks English so I can try out my GCSE French. The locals speak a Moroccan dialect that doesn’t always correspond with Lindsay’s traditional version, so Al, with his sufficient (sometimes ponderous, always somehow hilarious) French, is our chief spokesperson. Linds and I have another twin room and for the second city in a row I lose the game of backgammon to determine beds. It is getting late in the afternoon before we finally make it out to explore.

After winding our way around the narrow streets that surround our hotel (some of the doorways are just giant holes smashed through the walls) we are in the town proper. The medina itself is quite tricky to demarcate, but a bustling street, complete with traffic, seems to form one border. The guys sit thoughtfully sipping their mint teas in pavement cafes, while the women stroll about, somehow more liberated and relaxed than elsewhere. And far, far more beautiful.

Pen, Al and Lindsay loiter in the medina

We head for Place el-Hedim, the apparent epicentre of Meknes life. We are in luck. It is around half five and, with the sun heading back from whence it came, the square is alive with people. From above it would constitute quite a sight; giant fortified walls run down one side, cafes line the other and in between, rings of people surround performers, salesmen and entertainers. There are very few tourists. The first guy we go to see, well, we can’t work out what the hell is going on. My best guess is that he is some sort of magician turning dates into pigeons, but that seems pretty unlikely. Next up we watch a guy doing acrobatics who has drawn a big crowd. He spots us and singles us out for some ‘American’ jokes.

The acrobat takes the crowd's applause

Next up is a ring of guys with fishing rods. What initially looks like some bizarre ritual turns out to be a fairground contest to land a small ring on the top of a kia-ora bottle. We have a go, without success. The overwhelming sense is of a place and people at peace with the world. We feel welcome and are never hassled; more a novelty than an opportunity. We decamp to la ville nouvelle where I battled with the French keyboard on my last couple of posts and sank a couple of beers in the Hotel de Nice. And it was.

Fessing Up

Meknes - Rabat train, Morocco

Chefchaouen may have been a hard act to follow but I had high hopes for Fes, despite my initial hesitation. Most of the guide books recommend hiring a local guide to navigate you around the unfeasible labyrinth that is the medina. We decide that it can’t be that hard and set off with the Lonely Planet’s brave but ultimately inadequate map as our guide.

The medina of Fes el-Bali is the largest urban area in the world from which motorised traffic is prohibited. As a prototype for the world’s major cities to replicate, it comes up pretty short. Overworked donkeys and ramshackle carts replace the car, ferrying fruit and veg, rugs, cement, hides, you name it, all around town. They contribute to the general sense of disarray that engages you wherever you go in the medina.

A donkey transports a load of umbrellas across town

Some areas are different from others. The giant ‘Blue Gate’ or Bab Bou Jeloud greets most visitors to the city. Immediately beyond its welcoming arch lurk a persistent band of mercenaries who are more than willing to point you in the right direction. The right direction for them at least. This is to be expected in Morocco. In Chefchaouen it is done with humour and good grace. In Fes it felt a little more intrusive and parasitic. The closer one ventures to Place as-Seffarine, the more intensified it becomes.

Al gets suckered by a guy offering to direct us to a place with panoramic views from which to use the cameras that dangle conspicuously around our necks. A few twists and turns later, a couple of doorways and a lot of stairs and we do indeed command a spectacular view of the city. From the roof of his carpet shop. Al points out that he doesn’t want a carpet, and that if this guy can sell him one then he’s some salesman. Mohammed senses this and settles for a 20 dirham tip before moving on to his next target.

The view from the roof of Mohammed's carpet shop

As you walk around you find yourself moving from one district to another. The putrid smell of the tanneries heralds their domain. The constant banging of hammers signals the metalworking area. Elsewhere street hawkers try and flog you shoes, belts, bags, carpets, fabrics, kaftans, tissues, oranges, metalwork, door knockers, plates, tagines, lanterns. Most are polite and choose not to pursue you. The bumsters trying to get you in their restaurants are the worst, and short of a sharp fuck off can be tricky to lose.

Shoes anyone?

We climb up through a nice little street market, stopping for a kebab in what would come close in a search for the world’s smallest restaurant. Once we have succeeded, through a combination of Al’s Franglais and Linds’s traditional Arabic, to persuade the apprentice grillman to stick our koftas back on the grill to cook them properly, we eat up and head on our way. Further up the hill we wander through more local streets. Small shops of craftsmen turning lathes and inlaying metal, donkeys carrying bags of cement for the night’s work. It feels more like the Fes I had hoped for.

The kid at the back's sheep impression was good enough to earn 5 dirhams for him and his mates

It’s not all bad though, and most of the people still display the warm Moroccan hospitality. We take a worn turn somewhere and are studying the map. A young guy wanders up and asks in French if he can help. He points us in the right direction, smiles and offers us all a date from his bag. A ma’ salaama and we are on our way. At the top of the hill the view beats Mohammed’s carpet shop hands down and we ponder it for a while as the sun sets and we wonder how the hell we are going to find our way back.

In the evening Linds and I overrule Al and we seek out a restaurant well off the beaten track, lured by the promise of swordfish with pomegranate. We’re on the right tracks when we are faced with two tournez a gauches, either of which could be the one we need. We ask someone. He asks someone else. He tells us to follow him. We do. He takes the second turning. We follow him on a zigzag path of lefts and rights through narrow doorways and passages for a good half mile. He asks us to wait. He goes into a door. His son comes out. His son is five years old. We follow him. It must make quite a sight, this tiny little kid swaggering his way around town obediently followed by us four. We tip him a few dirhams at the door. We knock. Er, pardon messieurs, mais, le chef, ee az left. Bollocks. We trudge back what must be the right way and within a hundred yards we arrive back at the two left turns.

An unofficial guide to the medina of Fes

Eventually we settle down to eat at Medina Cafe, a tiny little joint just beyond Bab Bou Jeloud. The kitchen looks like it belongs in a tower block bedsit and we are the only people in. The waiter/chef/owner is wearing his coat and appears to have resolved to speak as infrequently as possible for 2010. He smiles occasionally, enough to let us know we are welcome, and turns out some pretty neat food. I have a tagine of chicken with preserved lemons and olives. It comes with a sweet onion jam like sauce. To be honest, after all that walking, I’d probably eat anything, but this is moist and succulent and it doesn’t touch the sides.

Fes is meant to be the new Marrakech, and this apparently amuses the Fassis. As the Lonely Planet points out, this is “an old and supremely self-confident city that has nothing to prove to anyone.” But you know what, it does. It is a beautiful place, for sure. But it is decaying too, and it can’t afford to be complacent as it tries to reinforce and preserve what has made it great. But the real selling point of Morocco is its people, and in Fes, they’re just not quite as welcoming as elsewhere, no matter how stunning the view from their carpet shop rooves.

Saturday 16 January 2010


I tried qgqin tonight but it is bloody i,possible to type on this thing:

Friday 15 January 2010

Travelling Light

Cafe Cyber de Paris, Ville Nouvelle, Meknes, Morocco

We left Fes at lunchtime for Meknes, the least famous of Morocco's Imperial Cities. I would love to tell you all about it, but I am travelling sans laptop and have been typing up my notes from the last few days in an internet cafe in the new town. This would be tolerable, were it not for the French keyboard. If I type , instead of m, ? instead of M, q instead of a or z instead of w once more I am going to break down and cry. Not only that but whereas we were listening to Dr Dre 2001, we have since graduated to Fastlove by that perennial cottager George ?ichqel, which ,ust surely be ,y cue to leqve.

I%ll be bqck; Soon;

Under Pressure

Riad Laaroussa, Fes, Morocco

We had planned to take a cooking class in Fes with some guy called Lahcen, but it turns out he is sunning himself on Bondi beach. We find an alternative though, in the form of Samira and Fatima, the cooks at Riad Laaroussa, slap bang in the middle of the medina. Riad Laaroussa is basically what Dar Iman wishes it was and probably could be were it not so hopelessly managed.

Our day begins by heading to the market with Samira. We have asked to make a few salads to start, followed by lamb tagine with caramelised quince, which we had eaten at Riad Tanja in Tangier. We pick up a leg of lamb which is tiny, only three months old. The butcher uses a band saw to cut it up. Being with Samira as she shops is great, as we get to photograph and talk to the stall holders in a way we wouldn't be able to without her.

Beautiful oranges abound

Loads of stalls like this selling dates

Beet-root anyone?

Plenty of butchers too. This guy is slicing some traditional sausage. It was ok. Just ok.

Er, anyone for some organs?

We also stick our noses in at a baker. All over town they sell these round flat breads. The wholemeal version has an unbelievable flavour. They don't add any sugar, or so these guys say. Just the basics, as bread should be, but seldom is. In Britain anyway.

These flat breads are everywhere and are awesome

Back at Laaroussa we head for the kitchen. Fatima has got the staff lunch underway - a pressure cooker is on the stove, containing cardoon. I can't say I've ever come across this stuff before, but it is the stalk of the globe artichoke, a bit like celery. It is everywhere in the markets out here. Joining it in the pressure cooker is a cup or two of water, olive oil, saffron, ginger, preserved lemons and salt. Some lamb from the market goes in, and later potatoes, for the last ten minutes or so. Meanwhile finely chopped caramelised onions are cooked with tomatoes, garlic, green peppers, saffron, black pepperolive oil and parsley to make a sauce for the long grain rice they will eat with the lamb and vegetable stew. All the girls who work in the Riad slowly fill up the kitchen and they sit around laughing and chatting before Samira sits down with them and they all eat together.

The ladies of Riad Laaroussa

On the stove, chopped tomatoes are reducing with garlic, cumin, paprika, chilli, salt, vegetable and olive oil and plenty of coriander. We have cooked aubergines directly on the flame to give them that wonderfully deep smoky flavour and they are cooking through in their own heat in a plastic bag. These two elements are eventually combined to form one of our starters, and it is incredible. The rich spiciness of the tomato goes toe to toe with the smokiness of the aubergine, neither of them quite coming out on top, with a delicate but deeply flavoursome balance ensuing.

The lamb tagine meanwhile, is cooking away. In a pressure cooker. Now I always though that pressure cookers were an invention of the 1970s used for nuking vegetables on a Sunday morning. I also thought that a tagine was the name of a cooking pot with a pointy lid, in which tagines were cooked. I was wrong. Tagines are cooked in pressure cookers and served in tagines. Well, these ones are anyway. We learn something new every day.

The lamb is in there with onions, garlic, ginger, saffron and salt. After two hours in there the lamb comes out and we add sugar and cinnamon. In another pressure cooker our quince is cooking. When it is halfway there a load of sugar goes in and it is kind of poached in syrup basically. It will be rolled in toasted sesame seeds and served on top of the tagine.

Dessert is milk pastilla. I help Fatima lake the filling; milk, couple of egg yolks, sugar and cornflour. A lot of cornflour. Luckily there is enough sugar to overpower the flouriness, but I will never be able to exorcise from my mind the spectre of all that cornflour when I finally get to eat this in a few hours time. We take turns to fry the little round of filo that will eventually constitite the dish.

The whole experience is great. Samira is an incredible woman who works hard in the kitchen all day then goes home to feed a family of five. Through her cooking and the demonstrations she is opening up a brave new world and enjoying every minute of it. She keeps a blog now and posts her recipes in both French and English.

I may have to beg my mother's forgiveness and dust off the pressure cooker when I return, briefly, to England at the end of this trip. The flight home is booked and I have one week left in Morocco.

Ali Baba and the Fawlty Towers

Dar Iman, Fes, Morocco

Dar Iman lies snuggled up a narrow laneway just off Talaa Kebira in the heart of Fes el Bali. A discreet door leads you off the street and into a traditional Moroccan Riad carefully restored to its prime. An oasis of tranquility and calm anidst the frantic beating heart of the medina? No. It is Fawlty Towers, alive and well, right here in the middle of the oldest living Islamic city on the planet.

Lovely Riad, shame about the guy running it

Basil is a jumped up little prick called Isham. In his early twenties, he strolls about in his Armani threads sporting a ridiculous pair of sunglasses day and night. He looks like a sort of cross between Rick Astley and Gok Wan. His favourite pastimes, besides talking on the mobile phone that is permanently glued to his ear, are arguing with guests as though they were his bitches, moving people between rooms and generally lying every time he opens his mouth.

Manuel is a guy called Aziz. Very likeable, he has a wonderfully welcoming smile and demeanour that betray a hopelessness of faculty that would be hard to replicate, should anyone be sufficiently deranged as to try. In a farcical scene he offers us back our laundry. It is sodden. We later complain to Basil, who retorts that it's not his fault that it's been raining. Shortly after we are called upon to identify our clothes from a heap containing all the guests in the Riad. Mine and Lindsay's pile of grits has been infiltrated by a pair of black satin panties adorned with sequins, of which we both deny ownership. On reflection, they're probably Isham's.

Throughout this scene Aziz is helpfully grinning from ear to ear and inadvertently doing a perfect impression of Richard Prior in See No Evil, Hear No Evil. He keeps this pose up throughout mine and Lindsay's row with Isham, which severely tests the limits of my temper. If my hands hadn't been trapped inside the misaligned pockets of my djellabah, I may have even shaken a fist in despair.

Tuesday 12 January 2010

First impressions

Dar Iman, Fes, Morocco

Leaving Tangier the other day, I reflected on how I would have to get used to leaving places knowing I would never be going back. In an unseen twist of fate, the chances are I will be going back, since you can't really get to Chefchaouen without doing so, and that is one place to which I will definitely return. Probably not for a while though, so for now the focus moves to the next destination, and that is Fes.

We are travelling by bus again, through the Rif mountains. The scenery is staggeringly beautiful. The roads are in fairly good nick, though we slow down intermittently for ancient trucks and herds of sheep etc. A stop en route at Ouezzane is pretty funny - a crazy car park full of market stalls and beggars - bustling, hectic and transient. I pay a dirham for a piss and give ten more to a little girl who is begging by pulling silly faces at me. I take my seat on the bus when the other beggars have been cleared off.

I stick the ipod in and let Johhny Cash entertain me for a while. All along the route the land is cultivaated, and those that toil it stand and stare as the traffic passes. Looking at their little homes, simple and isolated - so far removed from the lives we lead, I wonder how long I would survive. Pen reckons she couldn't do it without the internet or a library. She has a point. What would you think about all day, let alone do?

As we get closer, the Middle Atlas mountains appear on the horizon. Behind the menacing clouds in the distance, the sun begins to not so much set as slink from view and before long we are off the bus and haggling with the first taxi driver we see. He takes offence at the suggestion that he might be lying about how far away the medina is, before we realise he is absolutely right.

Pretty much every Moroccan town or city is divided into a medina and a ville nouvelle. The medina of Fes el Bali has been around for some 1200 years and is the largest of its kind in the world. We arrived fairly late, chilled in the Riad for a while and had a local dinner in a street cafe with only one discernible table. We are staying just off Talaa Kebira, the first section of which is a food market. Giant ox tongues loll from hooks, camel meat is a popular choice, with huge cuts of the stuff hanging from the butchers' stalls. Chickens are weighed on old scales whilst still clucking, and intricate arrangements of spices, fruit, vegetables and olives add so much for the benefit of the senses.

Take one large camel...

Just imagine it with bacon across its back

Jamie Oliver's tongue

It's not as cold here as in Chefchaouen, but there is still rain about and the wind is whistling down the narrow streets. At first glance, Fes is an incredible place, but something tells me that I won't quite fall in love with it. Maybe it's the guys strutting round the place looking cool, or the fact that there are loads more tourists. Or maybe it's just that sense that you get the minute you arrive somewhere that tells you instinctively the kind of place it is: the kind you come back to, or the kind you don't.

Sunday 10 January 2010

Chefchaouen: The Empire strikes back

Dar Meziana, Chefchaouen, Morocco

Friday night was my first in Chefchaouen. Linds and I opted for the cheaper Hotel Barcelona over the Dar Meziana where Pen and Al were staying. I've never been to Barcelona, but I hear it's lovely. The Catalonian tourist board might want to have a word with the guys behind Hotel Barcelona though, they're not doing them any favours. I plumped for a double en-suite room. Big mistake. The dampness from the bathroom pervades the entire place, and a relentless icy draught torments you as you clutch multiple blankets around your shivering body, praying for morning. Morning, when it finally came, brought with it an obvious decision: pack up all your shit as quickly as you can, check into Dar Meziana and have a shower there without dying of hypothermia before you have a chance to dry. Half an hour later, showered, dry and warm, I reflect upon a decision right up there with the greatest of my life.

Unfortunately it has been raining pretty doggedly for the last couple of days. Chefchaouen is just about warm enough in the daytime but after five or so it becomes bitterly cold, hence the djellabahs. I bought one yesterday. Not for tourist reasons, but out of necessity. I am now traipsing around the streets looking like a shifty jedi who's let himself go a bit. It actually makes you walk differently - slower, more economical and ever so slightly comedic.

I bought the one in the middle for a knock down 220 dirhams

The cold can't hide the beauty of the town though - it is stunning in its intricacy and delicate contrasts. Look up at the mountains from the Plaza Uta El Hammam, the little square in the centre of the medina, and you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Chamonix staring up at Mont Blanc hidden by the clouds. The bright colours against the blue washed houses, narrow lanes and steep staircases. The crisp, cold air of the evening and the huddled djellabah clad locals playing cards and dominoes. There is an eerie, spooky sense about the place, as though you are trespassing on a film set, or have been transported into some mythical land.

Man with mattress navigates the medina

With a room at Dar Meziana comes breakfast and a meal at Casa Hassan. The food is simple and good - traditional fare, starters of salads and soups and mains of tagines, kebabs and pastilla. I had a kebab on the first night, but yesterday lunchtime plumped for the pastilla. For a truly authentic Moroccan pastilla, the filling should be pigeon, but more often than not they make do with chicken. It is a round filo pastry pie stuffed with meat, egg, almonds, onions and spices, including cinnamon, giving it a wonderfully complex sweet and savoury taste.

Dinner at Casa Hassan

We spent the afternoon wandering about the medina, playing backgammon and drinking tea. In the evening Lindsay displayed his arabic haggling skills and bagged us a cab out of town to the Auberge Dardara restaurant, lauded in the Lonely Planet as the best kitchen in the area. I was hoping to tackle the goat with sweet figs mentioned in the guide book, but the owner (who looked more German than Tangerine) reeled off a short list of the dishes available, and it sadly was not among them. Instead I consoled myself with the cheese salad and beef kebab.

He didn't really speak any English, so the menu was deciphered through a combination of Arabic and French. I shouldn't have been too surprised then when my salade de fromage turned out to be heavily laden with octopus. It was
exquisite. The kebab was good, with incredibly fresh and well seasoned vegetables grown on the premises. The guys plumped for rabbit tagine. They must feed them bloody big carrots, these were the fattest lupins I have ever seen. Nothing too fancy about this place, other than excellent ingredients, simply and brilliantly cooked. Up there with the meze at Riad Tajine the other night, but the cheese and octopus salad is top of the ladder for now.

I had a proper night's sleep that felt a little overdue, and woke refreshed and warm this morning. I am slowly recovering from the exertions of Ballymaloe and have started having normal dreams again that don't involve orders of work and choux pastry. The planned power cut was cancelled on account of the incessant rain. A double edged sword: a hot shower but several hours spent by the fire while the beautiful wonderland that is Chefchaouen sits undisturbed beyond the door.

Chefchaouen from the old Mosque

Plenty of time was spent debating our next moves. The original plan was a trip round the imperial cities of the north, ending in Marrakech for me and Casablanca for the others. We were going to take in cooking lessons in Fes, but it turns out that the guy who gives them is in Bondi for the winter! Somewhere along the line a seductive hotelieress brainwashed Al into convincing us that a trek south of the Atlas mountains, skirting along the edge of the Sahara, would be more interesting. Having resolved to spend another day in Chaouen to chill out, we spent most of the afternoon assessing the feasability of this option, before the barometer swung slightly back to the colder north. At least it's not snowing I guess.