Tuesday, May 23, 2017

the grand socco market

I love markets— the smell of spices, the colourful displays of fruit, vegetables, and fish— and of course, the often humorous and musical shouts and calls of vendors. The best part of visiting a local market is the discovery of something new, something unique to a place. For instance, the goat cheese artfully wrapped in palm fronds that I was told is typical of the Rif region:

We were so charmed by the above gentleman that we bought a jar of flowery, creamy honey as our souvenir of Tangier. It didn't take long for that jar to empty itself!

from a rooftop in tangier

I kept looking for Spain on the horizon, but found only a thick layer of fog beneath the blue...

a feast unlike any other

There was one thing I was hellbent on experiencing in Tangier, and that was a meal at the Restaurant Populaire Le Saveur du Poisson, which was featured in an episode of Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown on Tangier. We arrived a bit early for lunch, only to discover a few people already waiting for the little restaurant to open.

Once inside we were greeted by gregarious chap who placed down a series of clay dishes that contained a spicy harissa, toasted nuts, and herbed olives. We were also given a bowl of fish soup ladled from a large clay amphora, and a basket of assorted breads and baghrir— a spongy pancake that I have become quite fond of.

Next came a tajine of greens with calamari and herbs, shark kebabs, and a most delicious John Dory, delicately flavoured with cumin. Our cups were abundantly refilled with the house juice of several unnamed fruit and herbs— a concoction unlike anything I have ever tasted— sweet and earthy.

Every morsel of that John Dory was devoured, and our dishes were cleaned to the clay. Then dessert came our way: one dish of fresh strawberries in honey with pomegranate seeds, walnuts and pine nuts, and another of warm nuts in honey and a hint of eucalyptus. My oh my, the memory of this feast is making my mouth water as I type!

The entire experience was so wonderful, from the divinely delicious food and juice, to our lovely waiter who gave me a clay mug as a souvenir at the end of the meal. I have a soft spot for wooden spoons and forks, and for the bees who joined us for dessert. Should you find yourself in Tangier, make sure you seek out Le Saveur du Poisson— it's a fixed seasonal menu, a bit pricey for Morocco at 200 Dirhams a person (about 20€), but well worth it!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

the colours of tangier

White, blue, and yellow colour the buildings of Tangier. Gulls laugh in the sky, and salt scents the Atlantic breeze.

and now for something completely different

We had long been avoiding Morocco's big cities in favour of more remote destinations, but then came a weekend which found us on a train to Tangier. The typically four hour journey (which ended up being close to five) from Rabat gave us time to dig into a book, and before we knew it we were hailing down a cab to take us to the medina. I never got into the Beat poets nor any of the writers who had lost themselves in Tangier's maze of alleys, so I had no romantic notion of the city or feeling of nostalgia. Colleagues of mine insisted the medina was gritty and rough, but what I found was a low-key, easy to navigate town with good food and generally nice people— I say generally, because we were told to f*** off in English by two random men after politely declining their help as guides. Other than those two, people weren't pushy, and we had some genuinely lovely experiences. The contrast between city and desert is enormous, but there's always mint tea and a friendly as-salaamu 'aleikum.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

leaving figuig

Dust and smoke layered beneath a bluing sky as we made our way out of Figuig. Preparations for the day's Fantasia— a fabulous, macho horse riding and rifle show— were underway, with horses awaiting their turbaned riders. I have yet to attend a Fantasia, but hope to see the one near Rabat this year.

We headed towards Oujda, a city on the closed border between Morocco and Algeria, the road generally smooth and marked with camel crossing signs. Mirages lined the horizon as the temperature climbed, and clouds began to move further and further away from us.

chanting and the chopping of hands

It was the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed that had given me the extra day off work for us to make the nine hour drive to Figuig. Unbeknownst to us, the sleepy oasis town at that particular time of year transforms into a major festival, with the few available hotel rooms booked weeks in advance— we were so lucky to have found a place to stay!

Figuig's little streets were bustling with ladies wrapped in white, men flooded the cafés, and there seemed to be several important celebrations to attend. After dinner on our second night, we decided to take a walk into the centre to see what we could see. A large white tent had been erected just past the cafés, which drew my curiosity as I saw women flocking there in large numbers. Pedro was unable to follow me inside, so he went off in search of a mint tea.

Women of all ages filled the tent and its surrounding area. I found a spot to stand on the right outer edge of the tent, by one of its supporting poles. Colourful fireworks lit up the sky, while elder ladies in white gathered closer to each other in the centre, their eyes lined dramatically in kohl, with red headbands decorated in silver encircling the tops of their white hijabs. A sweet incense scented the air, while some women began chanting softly.

Encouraged by the selfie-snapping and recording that was taking place around me (all by Moroccans), I tried filming the chanting that was building, but within minutes the lady in light blue standing in the above picture made a gesture to indicate that she would chop off all our hands. This caused some embarrassed giggles from my fellow photographers, which made our hand chopper break out into a wide grin.

Once our cameras were safely away, a brazier with glowing coals was brought to the elder women in the centre, one of whom began to heat the skin of a large, flat, circular drum. She beat it with wrinkled hands from time to time, and once it had reached a tone that pleased her, the chanting began, accompanied by a mesmerizing rhythm. The only words I could understand from their lips were Mohammed and Allah. Later on Pedro and I met up to return to our guest house, where the melodic chanting from a gathering of men crept in through a pipe in our bathroom, going on deep into the night.

Friday, May 12, 2017

a welcome respite

There's something so calming about deserts, whether they're made of the finest grains of sand or the roughest rocks. The quiet, the radiating heat and cool nights, the colours... I have loved deserts since I was a child, since my family left California for Dubai in the early 80s. There's a vivid, clinging memory in my mind of watching a snake move across the yellow sand past the wall of my primary school, the scent of oleanders on the breeze.

The peace I found in Figuig's surrounding desert was a welcome respite after a hectic time in Rabat. Work routines need to be broken by little adventures. It's good for the soul.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

dining in the oasis

Have you ever seen anything like this? This glorious feast for more than the just belly is simply called trid, after the thin, transparent sheets of dough that line the plate. Trid is a flour dough that is rolled into little balls, spread onto a flat surface until thinner than paper, then fried on a flat pan. The trid is then rolled and layered to create petals on a plate, topped with fragrant chicken, fried almonds and sultanas, with some hard-boiled eggs for good measure. The dish is communal, and eaten with the hands (always the right hand!) by pulling a petal of trid and rolling it toward the centre of the plate to fill it with a little bit of everything delicious. Not only is it ever so tasty, it's fun to eat too! We shared our trid with some fellow guests at the auberge we were staying at, and an older gentleman with quite the sense of humour.

As Figuig is an oasis of palm trees— once an important stopover for many Moroccans on pilgrimage to Mecca— there were of course, plenty of dates to delight in. I have had all sorts of dates from various parts of the world, but the ones I had this night were undoubtedly my favourite. I was told that they were "fresh", which I took to mean that they were in the early stage of ripening— hence their beautiful golden colour:

This was one of the most memorable dining experiences I have had in Morocco so far. I loved the sweet and savoury combination of the chicken and sultanas, with the soft trid and crunchy almonds— and of course, the dates were gorgeous! Sharing food with fellow travellers and locals alike made it all the better.

Figuig was turning out to be one of my favourite places in Morocco...

Sunday, April 30, 2017

tunnels of mud and concrete

As temperatures can rise to a maximum of near 40º in Figuig with an unforgiving sun, the older part of the town is a small labyrinth of narrow alleyways that are often covered, forming cool tunnels of relief. More modern homes and walls are made of concrete, but it seems that mud was traditionally used, casting a familiar orange glow when struck by light— the orange of the earth.

Though there isn't much to Figuig other than the palmeraie and humble homes, I was quite taken by the little town. It just felt good— people were warm and kind, the atmosphere was relaxed, and the bleak surrounding landscape is something that appeals to me. Thoughts of returning danced around my head before I even left...

Saturday, April 29, 2017

where the palms lie

In a far corner of Morocco near the Algerian border lies the town of Figuig, a little pocket of green palmeraie surrounded by rocky golden desert.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

the desert

delicious things

While in Dakhla, we filled our bellies with boiled eggs and flatbread with olive oil and cumin for breakfast, the occasional fig, thyme and olive oil jam on crusty bread while on the road, and plenty of seafood and tajines for dinner. There was this wonderful little date-filled pastry (pictured above) that we bought one morning from a bakery that I had been stalking— it never seemed to be open when we we drove by. The pastry was a highlight of the trip as far as food was concerned!

Seafood in Dakhla was another highlight. We often found ourselves indulging in octopus and fish soup at a smokey little joint called Casa Luis.

Now I know this doesn't look very appetizing, but one of the ubiquitous Moroccan dishes that I have come to consider comfort food is the kefta tajine— a clay pot of meatballs simmered in a tomato sauce with an egg for good measure. It's delicious, and pretty much guaranteed to keep you away from any gastrointestinal distress, which is quite common in Morocco. Since tajines, which are dishes named after the distinct clay pot that they are cooked in (a shallow clay pot covered in a cone-shaped top— which you can see behind the tomatoes in this previous post), are simmered on a fire for a significant amount of time, I have found that they are pretty safe to eat. The only cases of horrific bowel distress that I have succumbed to in Morocco came from an accidentally eaten under-cooked shawarma, badly washed raspberries, and a rotisserie chicken. This kefta tajine was lovely, with a little bit of fresh cilantro sprinkled on top: