Thursday, 21 February 2013

edible marrakech

djemma al-fna at night
i did not know what to expect of marrakech but my first and lasting memory of it will be as the city of contrasts. it is a city that necessitates new understandings of how to move and how to deal with people. the centre of the medina (old town) is djemma al-fna. the square is the hub from which the city extends outwards into a maze of alleys. some of these end abruptly whilst others twist into a labyrinthine like maze leading to the souks. one competes with the tide of humanity, motorcycles, horse carriages, donkey carts and the monkey and snake charmers. the women here ride as precariously as the men. i am amazed at the ease with which the people especially women and children navigate. there is no concern even when a motorcycle is within a hairs breath. there is only a dogged determination to get to where they are going. walking is precarious, an activity that engages alertness and the faculties of sound, sight and reflex. and here is the contrast for in all this noise and chaos one can step into a sanctuary like the ben youssef madrassa or jardin majorelle or even in the privacy of a riad and have no sense of the chaos outside.

madrassa ben youssef
jardin majorelle
the best of what we ate on this trip was from nondescript little stalls on the street and in djemma al-fna. an outstanding fresh orange and grapefruit juice from stall fourteen is worth mentioning because it was the essence of the citrus fruits in liquid form. one afternoon o had a layered fried flatbread stuffed with onions that had been softened  and spiced with cumin for tea. it is called msemen and is reminiscent of murtabak in singapore and square shaped stuffed parathas in pakistan. we drank copious amounts of mint tea. moroccan mint tea is strong and brewed with dried and fresh mint and enough sugar to sweeten even the most bitter of mouths. it is poured from a height to oxygenate the brew.

stall fourteen
msemen in the making
dinner in djemma el-fna was taken at stall thirty-two. the spare metal benches that rimmed the stall proved to be a challenge for those with ample behinds but that did not deter them from eating. every movement was a balancing act of juggling food, bottles of coke or glasses of tea that threaten to spill. thin paper torn into neat rectangles is a proxy for tissue. o had khobz that had been slit into a pocket and packed to bursting with merguez sausage. these had been seared on the grill and glistened with fat. o followed a local diner by sprinkling cumin-salt and pouring some tomato sauce into his pocket. i had a bowl of harira, a thick soup which contains noodles and chickpeas and is made with a meat broth. a plate of mixed grill brought forth flat patties of gently seasoned beef, brochettes of chicken, a lone skewer of charred vegetables and more sausage. to end the meal there was mint tea.

mint tea
mixed grill
the remains of the moroccon salad, faux tissue and khobz
on our first evening in marrakech o and i split a fried sweet that looked much like a gelabi but had a soft texture. the man who ran the stall was unable to tell us what it was but it is most likely that it was chebakia, a flower shaped cookie that is fried and then soaked in honey and finished with sesame seeds. the dough itself is spiced with anise, cloves and cinnamon and is quite nutty.

o discovered a juice stall near our riad that was swarmed by people. his patient persistence and two fingers held up to indicate two juices bought us a cocktail of fresh fruit in liquid form. in the background four blenders were hard at work reducing whole fruits to thick shakes. avocado, strawberry, papaya and banana were poured into glass mugs in layers. the locals had theirs with pound cake or chocolate cake.

breakfast at our riad featured local morrocan breads most of which were variations on pancakes. i loved the baghrir (a type of berber pancake) that had a crumpet like surface, the crevices of which took well to honey. melted butter would have been welcome except that these are served cold.

a day trip the atlas mountains was less successful. we were advised not to take lunch at a roadside cafes and were dispatched to a restaurant with overpriced and mediocre tagines. i wished then that i had eaten more of the amlou that we had been offered at an argan oil cooperative. amlou is a nut butter made from toasted almonds, argan oil and honey. we scooped it up with harcha, a local flatbread made from fine ground semolina flour.

salad moroccon at chez oscar
beef brochettes at chez oscar
there is a humble little restaurant off djemma al-fna called chez oscar where we had two meals both of which were good. i loved their moroccan salad which was a salsa like concoction of diced tomato flesh tossed with red onion and thyme.

on our last night in marrakech we dined at al fassia. it is run exclusively by women and has received much acclaim. it has been featured in the likes of the new york times, food and wine and conde nast traveller magazine. it was recommended to us by ottolenghi. the space is decorated in neutral tones and a splash of maroon. the female staff glides through the restaurant. service is friendly and unobtrusive, a welcome relief from the  djemma al-fna. o and i relax over a bottle of moroccan red wine. it is medium bodied and tastes like delicately spiced berries. he has the signature entrée of pigeon bastilla - a disc of filo stuffed with minced pigeon and nuts finished with a dusting of powdered sugar. i have the moroccan salads. they are an empire of small glazed plates with floral, sweet, savoury and muted chilli accents. the most memorable are an earthy beetroot dice that is savoury, a mess of grated carrot softened in orange juice and perfumed with orange blossom water, a wedge of carrot gently steamed and anointed with cumin and parsley  and a jam-like tomato with nuts and orange blossom water.

al fassia was also the only place where i had an outstanding tagine. the ones we had eaten elsewhere were bland and missed the character of sweet and savoury which i had imagined a tagine should be. the one i had featured a quarter chicken crowned with the puree like flesh of caramelised pumpkin. the base of the dish was a bed of soft and browned onions. o had the couscous royale. at the conclusion of dinner his sweet tooth demanded dessert despite being very full and so came an assortment of moroccan pastries with mint tea. the common thread in the assortment were nuts and the fragrance of floral waters. o’s favourite was a delicate macaron with orange blossom. i loved the uber nutty and sandy textured biscuit with toasted sesame seed. a crescent of marzipan encased in a thin sheet of pastry was lovely too as was a samosa like sweet stuffed with chopped nuts and finished with syrup was a sturdier version of baklava.

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