Yesterday I went for a 4 hour food tour. Do it! Wherever you go, make this a part of your trip. Anthony Bourdain is right…the culture is in the food.
This is a sharing culture. One built on families and neighbourhoods. This land is also very much meat-based…sorry all my veggie friends – you may want to stop here 🙂
There were 7 of us on the tour…from Canada, Australia, Ireland and Switzerland that joined local Marrakecher, Atman for a tour of 4 eateries with some extra stops along the way.
We started in a narrow alley way in the heart of the Medina that no tourist would get to unless by mistake. In this laneway hardly more than a body-width wide, there were 5 small booth restaurants side by side that roast & sell meat. Sheep predominantly. In all its various forms. Behind the counter is a hole in the floor and in the hole is a cavern that is constantly fuelled with wood and filled with sheep. It doesn’t sound that great when I write it…but stick with me! These family-run roasteries serve tanjir (clay pots stuffed with meat and spices that are slow cooked to yummy, juicy, tender perfection) and roasts of sheep. Including the head. But not the brain… I don’t know why or what happens to it, but it seems Iike everything else gets used. It is brought on trays lined with craft paper and served with the local bread and sweet mint tea (Morrocan whiskey). We eat with our fingers and sop the juices up with the bread. Someone other than me eats the eye… But not really, it’s just the meat of the socket. The eye is not eaten, just left behind beside the rows of teeth in the jaw bone. Don’t forget – yesterday was Halloween.
Our next stop was a favourite local fish spot. We had a choice between sardine sandwiches or patties with veggies in the side. Ground sardines mixed with olives, tomatoes and spices stuffed inside a pita-like bread. It was good, but I wouldn’t stand in the cue that sometimes goes around the corner for it.
On our way to the next restaurant, we stopped at the neighbourhood bakery. Not the place that makes its own bread to sell, but the place you take your bread to be baked. Or cookies, turkeys, fish… The small room is lined by shelves and kept by a man that has stood by the opening to the massive oven for the last 40 years. He knows all there is to know about the neighbourhood, because the story is in the bread. The texture of the bread ingredients, the size of the loaves, the clothe it comes wrapped in, the tray it comes on, the number of loaves, if someone doesn’t show up when they are supposed to. Everything about the bread that comes into be baked tells the story. And this man knows…when someone needs help, when company is coming, who is a good match for who, when there’s extra money, when there’s not… It is not a nosy way of life. It is a life built on community. On connection. On knowing what it means to be part of the neighbourhood. And on trust. You don’t mess with people’s bread!
Every neighbourhood in Marrekech has 5 things that keep it together: a bakery, a mosque, a school for children to learn the Koran, a vegetable market and a hammam. Ah… The Hammam :)! It is the community bath house. Women go from 8am-8pm. Men, when the women aren’t there. Like the bakery, there is a man in the bowels of the hammam stoking the fires that keep the water warm, hot, hotter!. The one we visit is a fuelled by a happy, content man, because he knows he is providing an essential service valued by everyone in his community.
I had a hammam today in the small one provided at my Riad. It is decadent to be bathed and pampered by someone else. It is also something I would never, ever do in Canada. But here, because it is so much a part of the culture, for some reason it is ok. And essential. Go to Marrakech, have a hammam. Stay at Le Bel Oranger, have it on site. Please. Do yourself a favour!
Back to the food… From the bowels of the smokey oven that fuels the baths we went to a women’s-only trade square that had the most amazing couscous! It is the only area in the souks that is run by women – including this restaurant that is a second-generation eatery serving the some of the only vegetarian fair to be found… Couscous, along with tanjin is the traditional local fair. And if you can find your way to the Nomad restaurant and ask for the women’s market – order the couscous for the next day and make sure you remember how to get back. It’s worth the wait and effort!
Olives… They are the other traditional fair here. I thought I didn’t like them – but since they are served with every meal, like re-fried beans in Mexico – one develops not only a taste for them, but an appreciation! All olives come from the same tree (who knew!?) – the color depends in the time of harvest and the texture on the type of preservation. If the pit isn’t the same color as the skin, you’ve been duped!
The last stop was for fruit smoothies and cookies. They don’t really believe you here if you say you don’t want dessert. Commonly, it’s orange slices with cinnamon, but the little cookies we had are also a sure way to end a meal.
I was the only one in the group who had never been on a food tour before. I see why it is a necessary part of some peoples’ holiday… It’s not just about the food, it’s about the stories, the people and the culture fuelled by the food.