Just thinking about Morocco makes my nostrils flare. Maybe that sounds a bit odd, but the mere mention of the word sends my senses in to a frenzy. If I close my eyes I can smell orange blossom and rose, cumin and mint. I can taste almonds, dates and lamb. I can see dishes in saffron yellow, henna orange and cinnamon brown, all presented in brightly coloured ceramics.
I’ve headed to Morocco. For 11 days. To taste my way around a country I’ve long wanted to visit. My knowledge of Moroccan food is fairly average, but I do know it’s not all tajine and cous cous. It’s a cuisine that has been influenced over the centuries by the indigenous, mainly Muslim Berber population. But the Spanish, French, Middle eastern, Mediterranean and African have also helped shaped the food and flavours today.
I’m interested to see how dishes vary in different areas – Chefchaouen in the far north, the Berber villages of the Atlas Mountains, big cities of Marrakech and Fez, the southern coast in Essaouira and the Sahara desert. But wherever I go, one thing remains constant – in Morocco, the pleasure of eating food is equal to the pleasure of sharing it. So we’re going to good friends.
If Moroccan cooking had a mantra, it would be ‘Fresh is Best’, so season and geography will come in to play with what I’ll be eating. The market will be the source of all inspiration, with most of the fresh food likely to be locally grown or homemade. Most ingredients are cultivated the old-fashioned way, without chemical fertilisers, pesticides or GMO’s. Then harvested by hand when ripe and brought directly to the medina’s and souks. Knowing that, has me so excited. Seasonal cooking and eating is something Elizabeth David made famous, and the way we should always approach food.
The most widely used vegetables in Moroccan cooking are onion, tomato and root vegetables like potato, carrot, sweet potato and turnips.
And I’m in luck, because right now figs, pomegranates, grapes, peaches, pears, melons and plums are the fruits in season.
For all the wonderful sights and smells of the spice souqs. There are only a few main seasoning and spices that are a must in any Moroccan kitchen; olive oil, Argan oil, salt, pepper, ground ginger and ground cumin, fresh parsley and coriander. There are plenty of other spices that feature like cinnamon, turmeric, sweet paprika, ras el hanout etc. but these are usually for specific dishes.
What surprised me the most, is just how simple Moroccan cuisine is – using fresh produce, simple seasoning and basic cooking techniques.
I know I’ll want to say something about almost everything that passes my lips in Morocco. But I’ll start with breakfast, because it’s the first meal of the day and one that offered plenty of variety.
The French influence is most present here in all the croissants, pain au chocolat and other pastries on offer. Oh, and nearly everything comes with, or is, some kind of baked good. So be prepared for some serious carb-loading!
Waking up in Morocco, my first breakfast in Rabat is light – just some fresh dates and a pot of homemade runny yoghurt with a little bit of orange flower water. Beautiful. (note to self for leftover bottle of orange blossom water in cupboard at home)
At Riad Zamane in Fez, I have a ‘baghrir’. A Moroccan pancake that’s a cross between a pancake and a crumpet – flat and toasted on one side, and airy sponge on the other. Eaten cold with butter and jam. Not sure I’ll be rushing back for another one – maybe it needed to be toasted with enough butter and honey dripping through to the other side.
And that square toasted thing is ‘rghaif’- a flat flaky pastry, like a squashed croissant or thick piece of roti. I’m was hoping there might have been some ‘ta halout’, date syrup, to have with it. But alas.
One day, I eat two breakfasts…
Bread is everywhere in Morocco. At every table, for every meal, bread is served.
Most communities have a communal bakery where you can take your own dough and bake it in the giant oven, for a small fee. You can see the smoke and smell the fire for miles. People sit around inside the big stone room surrounding the oven, chatting (oh how the Moroccans love to chat, about anything, all the time) while they wait for their bread to bake or leave it for the baker. What a brilliant idea. It gets confusing with all the loaves, so be sure yours has some kind of signature on it.
I’m particularly interested in the large round flat bread made from semolina called ‘harsha’ that’s the size of a family pizza, in Fez. People are eating wedges of it with cream cheese and honey. Early one morning, this is my take-away breakfast, on the way to the beautiful blue city of Chefchaouen. It’s a buttery, gritty fried bread – like a slightly thicker South American arepas. I love it and I’d like to find a recipe.
I ask my driver, Jawad, if he would also like one, but he tells me he’ll wait and have a traditional breakfast when we get to Chefchaouen. Traditional Moroccan breakfast? That’s what I want… and thought I was having. But apparently I’m eating a city Moroccan breakfast – you can’t get traditional Moroccan breakfasts in the big cities anymore, only the mountains, where we are headed. I tell him I’ll eat my city sandwich now and also a traditional breakfast with him (in about 3 hours). He laughs “Two breakfasts?”. But he doesn’t know me well enough yet. “Inshallah” he says – if God wishes.
We stop just outside the new city of Chefchaouen, at what could be considered a truck stop. This is a place where people – well, men – come to drink mint tea and coffee on plastic tables and chairs that all face the road. Watching the passing traffic. I am the only woman in there and I’m sure Jawad thinks I’m mad.
Traditional Moroccan breakfast is a fried egg served in olive oil with a wedge of cream cheese and a couple of olives. Then ‘jiben’ – a little softer and more sour goats milk cheese – that’s eaten on its own. Followed by sweet mint tea.
The Moroccan way of eating is with your hands. No cutlery, just bread. Break the egg yolk with some bread, mix it around a little then add some zataar (cumin, sesame seeds and salt). Totally delicious.
After my second breakfast in Chefchaouen, I get talking to Jawad – somehow our broken English, French and Arabic works. And I ask him where I can find ‘bessara’.
Bessara is a white bean or fava bean soup served with olive oil, cumin and chilli. Usually eaten at breakfast, especially during Ramadan, because it’s supposed to be like concrete in your stomach – so filling that you won’t be hungry until dinner time. This is another dish he tells me I won’t find in the big cities. It’s more of a traditional and peasant style of food that’s only common in the northern parts of Morocco – which is where we’re headed today! He promises to take me for the best bessara, but not for my third breakfast… for late lunch
This is the man that makes the best bessara, or so I’m told. He’s got three pots of the stuff bubbling away, a stack of bread and some olive oil and cumin to garnish. There is a version of this soup that can come with cow’s head and eyes, but today it’s strictly vegetarian.
Again, more bread. Oh dear. But a spoon thankfully. I add extra chilli to mine. It’s boiling hot. Very simple flavours with a similar texture to split pea soup. Hearty and definitely filling. But I’ll let you know if it kept me going until dinner.
After a night under a billion desert stars at Erg Chigaga. The boys are in the kitchen (this is unusual), cooking up some fried goodness for breakfast to have along with our fruit, boiled egg, bread and cream cheese. I’m not sure of the name of it, in Arabic it sounded something like ‘memsa’. But essentially it was a fried pastry, like a churros. They were full of air, perfect for filling with a big dollop of fresh fig jam in.