DIN­NER IN THE ME­D­INA

Heather Far­ish gleans some lo­cal kitchen skills at a Moroc­can cook­ing class

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - News -

E walk through the down­ward-slop­ing and poorly lit al­leys of the an­cient me­d­ina in Fes, pass­ing groups of djellaba­clad women in a rain­bow of colours, and ar­rive at our guest­house Dar El Hana, where Aus­tralian owner Josephine Kwan has promised a meal will await us.

Here on the rooftop ter­race, with views across the me­d­ina and its minarets, all aglow cour­tesy of Ra­madan, we settle in for a Moroc­can feast. First comes harira, the tra­di­tional tomato-based soup used to break the Ra­madan fast (not that vis­i­tors are ex­pected to go with­out food). Course two is a plat­ter of eight veg­etable sal­ads, in­clud­ing cubed beet­root and diced tomato. Our main course is a lamb and prune tagine served in the tra­di­tional con­i­cal clay pot in which it is cooked over a char­coal bra­zier. A bas­ket of bread ac­com­pa­nies the food, which is fol­lowed by fresh fruit and choco­late.

This rooftop din­ner is an in­trigu­ing sam­ple of the culi­nary de­lights to come. Kwan ar­rived in Fes from Melbourne via Lon­don on a visit three years ago and is still here.

She bought the dar in a di­lap­i­dated state and spent her first year ren­o­vat­ing it, us­ing tra­di­tional tech­niques and with the aid of an Ira­nian ar­chi­tect. Wrought-iron balustrades on the sec­ond-floor bal­conies are aligned with a huge, brass mosque lamp mea­sur­ing more than 1m across, which hangs be­low the open­ing to the sky above. At our feet is the cen­tral court­yard, the cen­tre of the dar for guests. On a ta­ble here, break­fasts and din­ners are served and Kwan dis­penses ad­vice.

With only three rooms, ser­vice per­son­alised and in­cludes lo­cal trips.

My friends and I have en­rolled for one of the classes Kwan or­gan­ises. It is given by chef Lah­cen Be­qqi, who runs a school in the neigh­bour­hood. He ar­rives at Dar El Hana promptly at 9.30am the fol­low­ing day to take us shop­ping at the mu­nic­i­pal mar­ket, be­fore pre­par­ing our finds in the kitchens of Riad Tafi­lalet nearby.

At the mar­ket in Fes’s New Town, Satur­day is ded­i­cated to fish. On other

is days, par­tic­i­pants have to brave the crowds, ne­go­ti­ate the nar­row al­leys and avoid the don­keys, while lis­ten­ing for be­lak,be­lak — watch out, watch out — in the labyrinth that is the me­d­ina.

Our class mem­bers are to de­cide on a menu in con­sul­ta­tion with Be­qqi. Af­ter much dis­cus­sion, we settle on harira, fol­lowed by stuffed cala­mari and lamb tagine with apri­cots and al­monds, and ka­teef, a dessert of sweet cheese and raisin-filled crepes.

Other op­tions he of­fers in­clude tra­di­tional Moroc­can dishes such as cous­cous with lamb and seven veg­eta­bles, pastilla (b’stilla), za­alouk salad — cooked egg­plant, tomato, zuc­chini and spices — and a range of tagines.

Here at the mar­ket nu­mer­ous small stalls and shops of­fer all the fresh in­gre­di­ents we need for our meal — deepred cap­sicum, fresh co­rian­der and thin­stalked cel­ery — and spices for the harira and tagine: ginger, turmeric, chilli, black pep­per and cumin, each mix blended by the spice seller and wrapped in a scrap of pa­per. We need apri­cots, al­monds and raisins from the dried fruit ven­dor, lamb from the butcher and squid from the seafood ven­dor.

Be­qqi guides us around the stalls and is a mine of in­for­ma­tion. We spot figs for sale and he ad­vises on roast­ing them whole, sprin­kled with a lit­tle honey and thyme, then serv­ing them split in two. A Ber­ber from a re­mote val­ley in the High At­las Moun­tains, Be­qqi first gained an in­ter­est in cook­ing from his mother, who runs a lo­cal cous­cous fes­ti­val, he tells us. ‘‘ Did you know cous­cous can be made from bar­ley, brown or white wheat, or corn?’’ he asks.

When Be­qqi fin­ished school, he worked in var­i­ous restau­rants in Azrou and Fes be­fore set­ting up his own cook­ing classes, even ap­pear­ing on Rick Stein’s television pro­gram Mediter­ranean Es­capes . Be­qqi cooks tra­di­tional Moroc­can dishes but also uses age-old tech­niques with fresh in­gre­di­ents to pro­duce his own style of cui­sine.

Ar­riv­ing later in the af­ter­noon at the kitchens at Riad Tafi­lalet, the tra­di­tional home turned riad where our cook­ing class is to be held, I spot six large gas burn­ers and mod­ern stain­less steel benches.

We don white chefs’ jack­ets and for the next four hours slice onions and dice gar­lic, flour and brown meat, dice toma­toes and stir the harira un­der Be­qqi’s ex­pert tute­lage.

To ac­com­pany our dessert crepes we make a thin white sauce sub­tly flavoured with orange and rose wa­ters, im­por­tant in­gre­di­ents in Moroc­can cook­ing.

We gar­ner use­ful cook­ing hints such as re­mov­ing the green cen­tral shoot from gar­lic cloves to avoid over­pow­er­ing the del­i­cate flavours of the spices, and are ad­vised not to add the minced tomato to the harira un­til the chick peas are cooked or the soft­ened peas will re­main raw.

We take a short­cut, cook­ing our tagine in a pres­sure cooker to save the two hours it would have taken in its clay pot. Mar­i­nat­ing the meat the pre­vi­ous night in olive oil, lemon juice and spices re­duces the tagine cook­ing time to about 45 min­utes, a more tra­di­tional al­ter­na­tive.

We add the al­mond-stuffed apri­cots to the cooked tagine, a fi­nal dec­o­ra­tive touch. Pre­sen­ta­tion is ev­ery­thing.

Spicy smells stir our ap­petites and the time to eat has ar­rived. Din­ner is served up­stairs in the riad’s court­yard, at a lam­plit ta­ble with a foun­tain tin­kling softly. The de­li­cious food tastes even bet­ter for be­ing the prod­uct of our hard work; we eat and eat un­til we can fit no more. With Ber­ber drums and singing as a back­ground, we savour the plea­sures of the Moroc­can ta­ble into the evening in the me­d­ina, where life goes on as it has for cen­turies. www.darel­hana.com www.fes­cook­ing.com

Main pic­ture: Heather Far­ish

Twists and turns: Fes me­d­ina, main pic­ture; tra­di­tional tagine

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