Morocco, what to say? A country of more contradictions than I can remember experiencing before. The narcosis of spices emerging from the souks mingling with putrefying water in the primitive drains. Colours, diverse and miraculous against the brick reds and mud brown of buildings, deserts and mountains. Outgoing, open and energetic people sometimes out for a buck, sometimes desperate to charm you, to share the story of the place. Islam in all of its complexities and variations, subtle and over-bearing. Fast, sweating streets forming a maize around cool, tranquil, garden-filled riads. Dried out riverbeds that swell to muddy torrents in moments. Fruit laden trees under which wizened peasant crones still glean sustenance.
The food more than anything for me is the great leveler here. The ingredients are democratic and available, more or less, to all. The cooking traditions still inherited, handed from mother to daughter. And here without fail, the Moroccan food in restaurants will be less good than home-cooking.
In fact, the ingredients most in use are the same as most Mediterranean cuisine with the addition of some Berber and Arab specialities, such as the savoury pastillas and sweet pastries (though even they have their antecedence in the Paris boulevards). What is startlingly different are the techniques, administration of spices, absence of many herbs, cooking styles and of course the ubiquitous (and in this country at least, much wronged) couscous. Peppers, tomatoes, onions, aubergines, courgettes all appear but prepared in different and careful ways. Carrots, pumpkin, quinces, sweet turnip, dates and olives make star appearances. And most surprising, merging with the spices, the fragrance of honey, preserved lemons, sugar, fruits and orange and rose waters mixing with the meat, fish and vegetables and cooked in that universal vessel, the tagine.
That terracotta pyramid is, of course, also the name of the dish cooked in it – think casserole. And what myriad combinations are served up like this. Though few, it is true, will have actually been cooked in the tagine, which in restaurants is simply used to lend a look of authenticity. Paula Wolfert, who has written one of the best and simplest books on Moroccan cuisine, states early on that you will only really experience the real thing by seeing a woman cooking at home. So in that spirit I booked into meet Ghizlane the cook who works with Lucrezia Mutti at Dar Attajmil in the heart of the Marrakech medina. Her adorable translator, bubbly and informative Loubna, having established what I wanted to cook, translated and took me to the market where we purchased the ingredients we needed.
I asked for pigeon because I know it’s a popular food here but something I rarely cook at home. We also went for aubergine, sweet pumpkin, zucchini and what they call perversely ‘Moroccan’ salad – peppers and tomatoes. Mopped up with a semolina bread. What impresses me is the process everything goes through. So aubergines are partially skinned to avoid bitterness, as tomatoes and zucchini are pipped. Once the aubergine is fried golden brown it is pounded in a seive to ensure it isn’t too oily. The pigeon is rubbed with lemon to break down the fat and the pumpkin laced with sugar, cinnamon and rose water. Semolina bread made on the spot, kneaded and raised with live yeast and cooked in the frying pan, served warm and ready to soak up the powerful flavours. Then there is the chermoula, finely chopped parsley and coriander, with garlic, oil and lemon – almost the only fresh herbs used in Moroccan cooking apart from the mint for tea. Herbs like rosemary, oregano and thyme are reserved for bringing soothing odours to a room or for a healing poultice.
It was probably the best meal we had. Gentle salads, each distinctive and intense, and the pigeon and lemon tagine, delicate and aromatic. And finally the couscous cooked entirely unlike they ways we are taught. Steamed three times over the tagine, the light flavours of the dish permeate these tiny grains, adding a floral musk.
Over the High Atlas, down in palm grove of Skoura, once a major oasis for the commercial caravans coming out of Africa, at Les Jardins de Skoura, owned and lovingly run by Caroline Lecomte, her chef Hafid produced some wonderful food. A spicy Berber omelette, this time actually cooked in a tagine, Harira a peppery soup full of meat and vegetables, Kefta (lamb meatballs) and egg tagine, beef with prunes, chicken with olives and preserved lemon. Served up in beautiful Berber tents or under the almond trees, this was truly a heaven sent refuge.
Fish too takes a starring role but over at the coast from Agadir up to Tangier. We headed for Essaouira where it was hard to keep away from the barbecue seafood huts by the harbour opposite Place Orson Welles. The great actor and director filmed some of his over-vaunting Othello here. But for the cognoscenti, if you can handle the bustle of the spice and fish market in the souks here, you can buy your fish and take it to the kitchen next door where they’ll cook it for you on the spot. Street food is a speciality in Djemaa El Fna, the main square in Marrakech, where at night the snake charmers and monkey men disappear to make way for the countless barbecue stalls selling any food you like. I did come a gastric cropper here and I am not really sure that it’s catering to every pocket and the quality is patchy. And apart from the frighteningly authentic sheep heads, tongues lolling, and the boys selling spiced tea with menthol, mostly these are all things you can buy in restaurants. But without the theatre and camaraderie.
There is so much more to say, and I’m rushing rather ineloquently through what have been some of my most thought-provoking culinary lessons. But I’m confident that over the coming months these influences will surface at my table, and I will certainly be writing more recipes based on these experiences.
The final word though, for now, has to lie with the spices. They are the currency of Moroccan cuisine. Some are home grown, some herald from far off African plains, others from India and even China. The Magreb has always been a melting pot – for people, their customs, livelihoods and tastes. With the sophistication of irrigated oases against the aridity of the terrain, that translates into spice.
But most remarkable is the lavish almost profligate way that spices are used in the cooking here. Not like India or Asia, entirely different. Cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, saffron, ginger and pepper are the mainstays supplemented with the mace shells of nutmeg, fenugreek, nigella and caraway. But the habit of spices is fascinating. The spice master’s unique secret recipes for Ras el Hanout, the versatile combination that serves every occasion from illness to salads. No idle sprinklings but spoonfuls of spices in every dish, liberally doled out. So much so that one’s skin tingles with them. I have my very good friend Rachid Bouftih to thank for painstakingly taking me through all of the spices, explaining their properties and uses and introducing me to the old ladies who by them for use that minute. They will often come for something in the morning and then again later in the day. A far cry from buying tiny jars of pale, tasteless spices we keep for years in the cupboard. You must seek him out in the Essaouira spice market.