A taste of Africa

Moroccan food is as exotic and vibrant as its bustling souks. Chris Caldicott gets some culinary tips on a trip to Fes

If you only learn one word of Arabic on a visit to Fes it should be
barek, meaning "look out". It's a word you will hear often and a warning you will ignore at your peril. The medina of the old city, Fes el-Bali, is a honeycomb labyrinth of more than 9,000 winding, undulating lanes and alleyways between bazaars, mosques, medersas (Islamic colleges), souks, caravanserais, hammams, tanneries, bakeries, palaces and riads (old merchants' houses). Fighting their way between the masses of pedestrians that crowd these narrow passages are determined donkeys pulling carts laden with improbable loads. To local Fassis a shout of "
barek" from a donkey driver is the cue for a mass shift to the side. For the tourist, distracted by the sights and detail of the medina, or framing the perfect photograph, these are dangerous moments. The donkeys wear rubber shoes made of old tyres to help them get a grip on the steep gradients, so you don't even hear them coming. Being tuned in for calls of "
barek"

If you only learn one word of Arabic on a visit to Fes it should be barek, meaning "look out". It's a word you will hear often and a warning you will ignore at your peril. The medina of the old city, Fes el-Bali, is a honeycomb labyrinth of more than 9,000 winding, undulating lanes and alleyways between bazaars, mosques, medersas (Islamic colleges), souks, caravanserais, hammams, tanneries, bakeries, palaces and riads (old merchants' houses). Fighting their way between the masses of pedestrians that crowd these narrow passages are determined donkeys pulling carts laden with improbable loads. To local Fassis a shout of " barek" from a donkey driver is the cue for a mass shift to the side. For the tourist, distracted by the sights and detail of the medina, or framing the perfect photograph, these are dangerous moments. The donkeys wear rubber shoes made of old tyres to help them get a grip on the steep gradients, so you don't even hear them coming. Being tuned in for calls of " barek" is your only chance.

Determined donkeys aside, exploring the maze is one of the highlights of a visit to Fes. Fes el-Bali is the oldest of Morocco's Imperial cities with one of the largest medieval Arab medinas in the world, rivalling those of Cairo and Damascus. The original 8th-century Berber settlement on the banks of the river Oued Fes mushroomed into one of the greatest and most sophisticated cities of the Arab world when thousands of Moors fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in Andalucia chose to settle here. They did their best to recreate the splendour of the cities they had abandoned, such as Cordoba and Seville. It's a popular claim that many Fassis still have the door keys to the Andalucian homes of their ancestors.

The city's other great attraction is its cuisine. The cooking of Fes reflects its rich cultural past and is the finest in Morocco. This is the home of the great classic Moroccan dishes; the most opulent couscous, the most subtly spiced tajines, the most complex bastilas and the most decadent sellu. The fertile valleys and hillsides around the city provide the wealth of ingredients needed for these dishes. The perfect couscous requires a compilation of fresh vegetables cut into lengths and assembled like sticks on a bonfire around a mound of steamed graduals of cracked wheat that buries succulent meat. A good tajine demands a symphony of spices, olives, preserved lemons and fruits combined with meat or vegetables to create its distinctive sweet and sour flavours. Bastila is a dish for feasting on delicate layers of filo pastry, blanched almonds, saffron strands, scrambled eggs and finely minced pigeon or chicken. No celebration in Fes would be complete without sellu, a dangerously sweet mixture of preserved butter, honey, fried almonds, toasted sesame seeds, cinnamon, flour and lots of sugar.

I was in Fes for a long weekend in order to learn some of the secrets of its cuisine. By the time I arrived at the Riad Fes on Thursday night it was too late for anything except bed. The riad promised much of both the flavour of old Fes and it's cooking. Vast ornate rooms behind huge carved wooden doors surrounded a stunning covered courtyard of intricate zellij mosaic tile work and antique Arabic furniture. The enticing aromas of the evening meal I had missed still wafted through the air. My room was a more modest affair up on the roof. It may have lacked the grandeur of the high ceilings and antiques below, but it was more private and had fabulous views out over the sleeping city.

The next morning at dawn a distorted chorus of "Allahu akbar" called the faithful to the first of their five daily prayer sessions in the city's many mosques. In its 15th-century heyday when Fes had nearly 800 mosques and no electricity, this must have been a wonderful start to the day. With modern amplification I could see the attraction of the rooms tucked away below in the quiet courtyard. Still, it was the authentic sound of the medina and with just two days to pack in as much as possible I was glad of the early start.

In the riad's pretty outdoor courtyard I was served a breakfast of fruit and baghrirs (semolina and yeast pancakes) covered in lavender honey, while I waited for my guide. I am not normally keen on guides. In Morocco's other great medina city, Marrakech, I had found one useful to discourage the unwanted attention of the faux guides and hard-sell merchants that tend to plague tourists, but otherwise of little value. Fes was a different story. There was no unwanted attention to avoid and I would never have seen as many hidden secrets of the city in one day without one. There is nothing even vaguely resembling a map of Fes el-Bali; lanes disappear beneath buildings to re-emerge in parallel streets, others might lead to a square with a dozen exits or a dead end. Without my guide I would never have found the hidden doorway that led onto a roof terrace that looked over the tanneries. Emerging from the rather surreal half-light and muffled sounds of the covered souq to the bright glare of the sun and the acrid odours of the dyeing pits that fill an immense courtyard like a giant paint box was like looking down on a scene from another century. I had a more intimate glimpse of historic Fes in the abandoned palaces where my guide knew the caretakers well enough to gain us entry to the crumbling halls and courtyard gardens of still-exquisite zellij tile mosaics and arched porticos.

The most entertaining experience, however, came when I asked for help finding a Moroccan kitchen knife in preparation for my cookery lessons the following day. We set off down a quiet alleyway that led eventually to a dead end and an old wooden door. The guide knocked on the door. It was slowly opened by an old woman who let us in with a look that suggested she had played her role in this trick before. We climbed some stairs that came out on to a flat roof, on the far side another doorway led down into a carpet shop and out on to another street in a completely different part of the medina. In the knife grinders' souk, men in cavernous workshops powered huge wheels of stone with their feet as sparks flew from their metal blades. Disappointingly most of the knives were French but I did manage to find a suitably rustic one with a bone handle.

The reputation of Fes's traditional cuisine is not made in its restaurants, so a day spent cooking and eating with a family was a great privilege. The day began with a shopping list. My host, Abdelfettah Saffar, who introduced himself simply as Fettah, and I were dispatched by the women of his house to the souk in search of the ingredients. We found them in a part of the medina I hadn't even been close to the previous day. There were no tourist shops selling carpets or leather slippers just hundreds of stalls heaving with fresh produce. There were slabs of fish and meat including rows of sheep's heads and piles of ominous-looking offal. More appetising were the mounds of vegetables and herbs, sacks of spices, baskets of olives, nuts and dates, buckets of chickpeas and cartloads of oranges. Fettah haggled his way through the list until all that was left was fresh baked bread. This came out of an ancient wood-fired oven in the local bakery so hot we had to wait for it to cool before carrying it home. In Morocco, cooking is still seen very much as women's work. The shopping done, Fettah retreated to his workshop where as a skilled craftsman he painstakingly produces complex plasterwork designs based on the elaborate traditional style of Islamic art. His skills have been useful in the restoration of his splendid home. Like so many of the grand houses of the medina it is a haven of peace and spacious tranquillity down an unpromising, claustrophobic alleyway.

The kitchen became a hive of activity as the women of Fettah's extended family busied themselves unpacking the shopping. Then the chopping began. I tried to join in, but as several dishes were being cooked simultaneously I soon abandoned my new knife and began to take copious notes.

When everything was under control and comfortably simmering away we retired to the courtyard to drink mint tea until it was time to eat. Which took up most of the rest of the day. We started with a dozen delicious salads all served at once, then came crispy deep fried filo parcels of spicy fish. The couscous was a steaming aromatic mountain of food that with each excavation delivered new treats. Then a strawberry tart was followed by plates of impossible-to-eat sweetmeats. The women also taught me how to make a Fes tajine of artichokes using their own version of the spice mixture ras-el-hanut which translates as "shopkeeper's choice", a complex mixture of 13 fresh ground spices including the dried buds of roses. On the walk back to my riad, Fettah took me to a local souk to buy a tajine, some rose buds and a wonderful heavy-duty brass pestle and mortar so I would be able to cook the dish at home.

It was hard to find an appetite for the dinner served at the Riad Fes that evening. As it was my last meal and a chance to try the famous bastila I made an effort. However, I needed to walk some of it off before going to bed. When I asked the gateman to let me out he was concerned that I intended venturing into the medina unguided. I confidently assured him I knew Fes well enough by then to find my way back. "So you won't mind walking the cooks home," he suggested. "They are scared to walk alone in the medina at night." I nobly offered my protection. By the time the last of the three women had disappeared into her home I found myself completely alone in the quiet alleyways of shadows.. Without the crowds of the bazaars and the calls of " barek", the medina felt uncomfortably eerie. When I finally entered the familiar passage that led to Riad Fes I could hear my own sigh of relief.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE By Sophie Lam

The writer stayed as a guest of Abercrombie and Kent (0845 070 0612; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk) at the Riad Fes. It offers three nights in a terrace room from £695, including breakfast. The price includes flights with Royal Air Maroc, transfers, a day's guided sightseeing and a cookery class.

GETTING THERE

To reach Fes you will have to change at Casablanca, either on to a connecting plane or a train. British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) flies direct once a day from London Heathrow, as does Royal Air Maroc (020-7439 4361; www.royalairmaroc.com). Iberia (0845 850 9000; www.iberia.com) flies via Madrid and Air France (0845 359 1000, www.airfrance.co.uk) via Paris and Marseilles, both from Heathrow. The connecting flight to Fes takes around 45 minutes. Alternatively you can take the train ( www.oncf.org.ma; French only) from Casablanca Mohammed V Airport to Fes - there are departures roughly every two hours and the journey takes five hours.

STAYING THERE

The Riad Fes (00 212 5574 1012; www.riadfes.com) had doubles from MD1700 (£105) per night, including breakfast.

EATING THERE

Many of the traditional restaurants in the Medina are open for lunch only. For traditional food try a large hotels such as Al Fassia (00 212 5563 4331; www.palais-jamai.co.ma) in the Hotel Palais Jamai or Dar Tajine (00 212 55 634 167; www.maisondhotes.co.ma) at the Dar El Ghalia.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Moroccan National Tourist Office (020-7437 0073; www.visitmorocco.com)

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