Feasting in Fez
All the colour, tastes, sights and sounds of Morocco are condensed and intensified in Fez.
In the lead up to this weekend’s Formula E round in Morocco’s bustling Marrakesh, we take a detour to another famous Moroccan city, to go feasting in Fez.
28 February, 2020
Although now famous as a destination round in the cutting-edge Formula E championship, Morocco’s offerings to the world go back centuries and offer up a rich heritage of history, culture and food.
It is said that in order for a nation to develop a great cuisine, it must have four prerequisites. A rich land from which to draw an abundant range of ingredients. A variety of foreign cultural influences. A great civilisation and lastly, a refined palace with royal kitchens to inspire the nation’s cooks. Morocco has it all and is home to some of the most tantalising food imaginable.
From robust roasts to rich aromatic stews, spiced or sweetened salads to savoury pastries, fragrant mounds of couscous to bastilla, an exquisite blend of shredded pigeon, a spiced onion sauce with saffron and herbs encased in a flaky, filo-like pastry topped with cinnamon and sugar - an intricate dish that epitomises everything that is grand and extravagant in Moroccan cooking. One of the most interesting ways to absorb the delights and diversity of the country’s cuisine is to visit the souks (markets) and where better than Fés, often regarded as Morocco’s culinary capital. To wander through the myriad of laneways that make up the medina of Fés el Bali (old Fés) sampling the food on offer, is to take a gastronomic journey through Morocco itself.
Early morning is a wonderful time to be out and about, as the sunlight streams through the woven bamboo shade coverings, catching the steam rising from the many cookers – the air awash with all manner of exotic aromas.
From robust roasts to rich aromatic stews, spiced or sweetened salads to savoury pastries – Fez has it all
The medina's 9400 lanes and streets are crammed with shops, restaurants, mosques, rug stores and even tanneries
Great crusty rounds of warm khobz (traditional Moroccan bread) are on display at the feet of an old man crouching behind his produce. This doughy aniseed-flavoured bread is the perfect accompaniment for exploring the medina. In most Moroccan homes bread is prepared every morning, kneaded in unglazed red clay pans and sent to the community bakery on the heads of children on their way to school.
Close to the city gate of Bab Bou Jaloud one stall holder is already busy cooking and selling one of the most common forms of Moroccan breakfasts, square-shaped pancakes called msemen, cooked in sizzling oil and eaten with butter and honey.
Produce of every kind lines the street – juicy oranges, lemons and grapefruits from the sun-drenched groves of Agadir. Golden melons, vine-ripened tomatoes, clementines, crisp celery and plump mounds of grapes, preserved fruits and nuts. Entire shops are jam-packed with nothing but olives – of every flavour, size, quality and colour or bunches of fresh mint displayed in baskets and hanging from ceilings.
The medina's 9400 lanes and streets seethe with a tide of endlessly streaming humanity, crammed with shops, restaurants, mosques, rug stores and even tanneries. Then there are the spice souks, the smell, colour and variety of the spices absolutely striking. There are the bright reds of paprika and cayenne peppers alongside rich yellow turmeric, soft-hued ginger, dusty sticks of cinnamon all contrasting in texture with seeds of cumin, sesame, aniseed, caraway, coriander and many more. All are heaped in tubs waiting to be measured into twisted envelopes of paper. These are some of the spices that form the soul of Moroccan cooking, transforming simple dishes to exotic heights.
This Moroccan love of spices is a tradition handed down for thousands of years from their ancestors, who brought them in caravans across North Africa from Arabia and beyond. In one dusty spice shop, jars of ras-el-hanout (which translates as ‘shopkeepers choice’) line the top shelf, consisting of anything up to a hundred different spices. No two mixtures are the same and only the maker knows the quantity of the various ingredients.
Any local cook will tell you that the best Moroccan cuisine is eaten at home, lovingly prepared by the lady of the house and we are fortunate enough to be invited into the home of our host Taleb, to experience the true Morrocan cuisine and hospitality.
Mint tea is traditionally served before and after a meal, and today is no exception – with a tall silver teapot packed with fresh mint leaves, tea and sugar, poured into small decorative glasses.
Taleb’s wife, Nahmiah and his two daughters serve the first course of lunch – a sumptuous salad of oranges, cantaloupes, carrots, Dijon mustard and balsamic vinegar. The unlikely marriage of these ingredients is simply delightful. When there’s a guest in a Moroccan home, the women may not always eat with the family, but allowances are made when visitors arrive and Nahmiah joins us for lunch.
This Moroccan love of spices is a tradition handed down for thousands of years from their ancestors, who brought them in caravans across North Africa from Arabia and beyond
The basic premise behind Moroccan hospitality is that no guest shall ever go home hungry
Next comes the tajine (or tagine), one of Morocco’s most famous dishes. The name refers to the conical-lidded pot in which it is prepared, as well as the intricately spiced stew of meat and vegetables, sometimes with dried fruits and nuts, cooked very slowly over a charcoal fire. Common spices used in tajines include ginger, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon and saffron and typical tajine combinations include lamb with raisins and almonds, beef with prunes and apples, and lamb with dates. Today it’s a Moroccan classic – chicken tajine with green olives and preserved lemons – a simple yet delicious dish that is accompanied by thick wedges of crusty Moroccan flat bread, perfect for soaking up the sauce.
The arrival of a large platter topped with a mountainous mound of steaming couscous replete with roast pumpkin, raisins, and almonds topped with fresh coriander is almost too much to consider. What many people do not realise is that couscous is not traditionally considered a main course, rather it is the dish served at the end of the meal to achieve total satiation.
The basic premise behind Moroccan hospitality is that no guest shall go home hungry and there is no chance of that happening after this sumptuous feast. More minted tea is the perfect way to complete the dining experience and reflect on the rich palette of flavours that make up Moroccan cuisine. An exciting cuisine that has endured for hundreds of year – for good reason.
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