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The flavours of the Maghreb
“The English do not live on roast beef and pudding alone, nor the Dutch on roasted meats, potatoes and cheese, the Germans on sauerkraut, the Spanish on chick peas and chocolate and the Italians on macaroni”. Thus wrote Alexandre Dumas, confirming the main clichés of common sayings in food. He probably did not have the chance to sample Moroccan cuisine, able to conquer the palates without falling into summary definitions.
It is an Arab and Hispanic-Muslim cuisine based on an older Berber diet with sub-Saharan influence from west Africa and some reminders of French colonialism. The result is a popular cuisine that is easy to create: close to the spirit of nouvelle cuisine in terms of the cooks’ attitude as they work with products bought personally from the market. By vocation it is light and spontaneous in proposing eclectic recipes such as fusion cuisine. Our route through Moroccan taste will proceed by stages: from the open world of the Mediterranean to the inland, middle eastern flavours and then onto the Berber essences of the desert.
Step 1: Tangiers – Cous cous
No African city successfully attracted western artists as Tangiers, where Matisse, Delacroix, Tenessee Williams and Paul Bowles all lived. Rashid, our guide, takes us to the large souk dominated by the multicoloured majolica minaret of the Sidi Bou Abid mosque. In its shade, we enjoy the dish prepared on festival days: bastila, a term deriving from the Spanish pastille, transforming the ‘p’ to a ‘b’, as is often the case in Arabic. It is a pigeon-filled pastry dish: extreme cuisine for some tourists who lack the courage to try it.
As we observe the market stalls, we realise that Moroccan cuisine has a lot in common with that of the Mediterranean, starting with the great use of vegetables, proposed here exuberantly: aubergines and cloves of garlic, slim and browned, release a more intense odour than those used in Europe. As do lemons, that remind us of a Mediterranean now lost to the other shore, whilst the dates recall the nomadic nature of the Berber populations, lovers of dried fruits. After lunch we head for Hotel el Muniria (110/130 Dr per room) that retains all the nostalgic atmosphere that attracted Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and above all William Burroughs, who wrote his Naked Lunch here in room no. 9, in the 1950s. In the surrounding streets, we dine on cous cous: the traditional Friday meal that left Maghreb to conquer the world, Flying free over borders.
Step 2: Marrakech – The thousand and one nights
We take a train from Tangiers to Rabat on the Atlantic, where we then take a bus for Essaouira. In the restaurant La Découverte we come into contact with the solid cuisine of the female association A.F.B.K. (afbk.essaouiraguide.com), founded to improve living conditions for women in Essaouira. We then head onto Marrakech on a full stomach, but when the bus stops for a break, we follow the other passengers into the service station, and join them in buying a slice of Moroccan bread, sweetened by bran and sesame. We reach Marrakech in the late afternoon, and immediately head into the streets of the medina, invaded by eastern flavours of cinnamon, aniseed, sesame, coriander, saffron, mint and other spices we fail to recognise and that whet our appetites. We dine enchanted at a stall in Place Djemaa El Fna, populated by jugglers, story-tellers, those selling water and snake charmers. We had been advised against this type of experience, due to possible food contaminations, but simply could not resist the aroma of sharmoola: sardines marinated with parsley, ginger, onion, lemon and salt.
The next day we take cookery lessons in the laboratory La Maison Arabe (www.lamaisonarabe.com): 1600 dirhams per person buys a half-day session. We try to create a tajine, the basic Moroccan fare prepared in a terracotta pan with a conical lid. Inside, fish, meats, vegetables and spices are cooked in the heat of the oven or over hot cinders, in a process that eliminates the fat. We end up with a lamb stew, playing on the exotic combination of the sweetness of the dates and the savoury meat.
Step 3: Zagora – Tea in the desert
From the moment we read Robert Carrier’s recipe book ‘Taste of Morocco’ prior to leaving, we have felt the call of the immense desert spaces: the Berber heart of Moroccan cuisine. From urbanised Marrakech, 350 km separate us from Zagora, at the edge of the Sahara, the oasis that was once a point of departure for caravans heading for the legendary Timbuktu. We reach it in a hire car (www.medloc-maroc.com). We buy bottles of mineral water and a scarf to protect us against the sand, and then contact a local guide willing to accompany us into the desert on a camel. The journey is tiring, the saddle inexorably works backwards, leading to shudders and cramps at each step. After 7 km and two and a half hour’s walk, we reach a bivouac set between immobile sand dunes, where a well-earned mint tea awaits us, to relax our tired stomachs.
The tent fills quickly with the strong, wild flavour of Argan oil taken from a shrub that can live up to 200 years, despite the region’s arid climate. Its leaves, popular with camels and goats, are used by the Berbers for cosmetics. We taste it with amlou, a pasted almond and honey pâté that supposedly features aphrodisiac properties, appreciating it even more on a delicious goat’s cheese. We are ashamed of the packet of Imodium we keep well hidden in our rucksacks.
Difficulty rating: 1 2 3 4 5
Documents and currency: The stamp that goes on your passport upon arrival is valid for 90 days. For further information, see the tourism ministry website (www.tourism.gov.ma). www.visitmorocco.com is the Moroccan Tourism Office portal. The national currency is the dirham.
Duration: Fifteen days suffice, considering travel: 300 km from Tangiers to Rabat, 320 from Rabat to Marrakech and 350 from Marrakech to Zagora.
When to go: To avoid high temperatures, it is best to visit inland Morocco from October to April. In the desert around Zagora, heat differences between night and day, are always extreme.
How to get here: The Marrakech Menara airport lies 6 km from the city centre: 20 minutes by taxi. Royal Air Maroc is Morocco’s national airline. For those reaching Tangiers from Spain, the best option is to take a ferry from Algeciras, thereby avoiding the disorganised port of Tarifa. The trip through the fascinating Gibraltar straits lasts 1 hr and 30 mins. on board the Balearia (3 departures a day), the Trasmediterranea (4) and the FRS (5).
Photographs and videos: No problem with photographing the inhabitants of Morocco, including the veiled women: as always, just ask permission first. In the desert, you will need to protect your camera from dust. Best to use a semi-rigid case, such as the Tenba options (www.tenba.com), available with two types of closure: a more practical version for when you need to work quickly, and a zip version that seals all your accessories safely within. Lens changing is the riskiest phase – best done in a closed place.
Books, films and volunteer work: Abdel Kechiche’s Cous cous (2007) tells a bitterly ironic tale of the events of an Arab-French family from the outskirts of Marseille, who discover an opportunity for social revenge in the typical Maghreb dish. Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Sheltering sky (1990), taken from a novel by Paul Bowles, is the story of an extreme journey made by an American couple who lose themselves in the desert’s hostility from Tangiers. Read Taste of Morocco by chef and writer Robert Carrier, and The Naked Lunch by William Burroughs, written and set in a surreal Tangiers. Listen to the songs by Nass el Ghiwane, defined by Martin Scorses as Africa’s Rolling Stones. The association Volunteer Abroad (www.volunteerabroad.com) organises volunteer projects in Morocco, mainly aimed at doctors and teachers.