DINNER IN THE MEDINA
Heather Farish gleans some local kitchen skills at a Moroccan cooking class
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
Twists and turns: Fes medina, main picture; traditional tagine