Serious woe. I’ve been slacking on this blog and never even covered my trip to Fez last November. It’s a city that I love. Despite knowing it for over 25 years, I still manage to find new streets, new trades, new streetfood. While researching my book Medina Kitchen (or The North African Kitchen as the US edition is called) Fez became more than just a seductive shopping labyrinth and actually took shape as a slowly changing society. Getting to know the Fassis was a privilege and getting to know their cuisine even more so. This, by the way, is not the breakfast of the title – that comes later.
Back there again in November to research a magazine feature together with a brilliant and fun young Dutch photographer, I realised how infinitely slowly those changes actually take place. There is now a growing influx of foreigners buying properties in the medina, many of them hoping to make a sybaritic living running a riad hotel. Some do, some don’t, but as the numbers grow so does competition. I was told real estate prices haven’t budged in two years, though the number of riad-hotels now easily tops 100. The problem is partly the climate. Unlike Marrakech’s brilliant blue skies, winters here tend towards the cold and damp when woollen djellabas become your best friend.
Five years or so ago there were only a handful of guest-houses, and in 1996 only one. At that time the only chic hotel was Palais Jamai which sits high on the northern hilltop, overlooking the medina walls. For picture research sake and for nostalgia, we trekked up there, the first time I’d returned in about 20 years. I even remember meeting the illustrious Edward Said holidaying there with his family when I first stayed there – around 1983 . The view is still breathtaking, the gardens still luxuriant and the old 1879 wing still stunning – but it was deserted. We took mint tea alone on the vast terrace and soaked up a few rays of winter sun before grabbing a petit taxi and whizzing back to the Place Rcif, the beating gastro-heart of the lower medina.
Now this is where I enter into a kind of gastro dream-world. Knowing what goes into Moroccan tagines, I revel in what the market offers here. Pure heaven, as much for the quality of produce as for the displays. I see still life after still life, and can never resist buying a few little bagfuls – fresh pink garlic, preserved lemons, purple olives, luscious dates – some of which find their way back to London with me – pungently. I also take masses of pics, taking care not to hurt anyone’s feelings (it’s their country, after all), particularly in the case of women. And there are a few faces I know – like the chicken-seller with his triple-focal specs, who features in our book. He’s still there, plonking live chickens on the scales before dealing with the necessary then producing them plucked and trussed to the client 15 minutes later.
What I love too are the seasonal aspects. At this time of year the great delicacy is snail soup. Every evening a stall sets up with a huge steaming pot of it – crowds materialise instantly to buy a bowl and sup on the spot, crowding round for warmth. It’s less enticing to see the creatures live – crawling around a huge basket as they await their maker, in all senses. Here they are – and of course wherever I travel there will always be an olive or two on the horizon, as in the basket below.
Back at base I feel I belong to a family. On my last three trips to Fez I’ve stayed at Dar Seffarine (www.darseffarine.com), a strategically located riad right beside the venerable Kairaouine mosque and library, easy to get to though typically tucked away down a side-alley, and quite stunning. The owners, Kate from Norway and her husband/ partner, Alaa, from Iraq, have done wonders to restore this beautiful 18th century mansion. They are architectural and design purists, so there’s virtually no sense of the 21st c other than a functioning bathroom and electricity. Even at night they favour candle-light, making evening arrival a magical experience, enhanced by subtle incense. Sounds hippy – but it isn’t, it’s very chic.
What I love above all is the roof terrace, with fabulous views – as above. Far over the medina rooftops to the hills beyond, and at specific times (prayer) with a soundtrack of wailing muezzin – all tones, all volumes in one mega cacophony. It’s stirring stuff and stone benches piled high with cushions invite long-term contemplation. Breakfast is served just below the terrace in a dining-room flooded with morning sunlight – crisp, freshly baked Moroccan bread, divinely soft mille trous (baghrir), a spongey pancake that melts in your mouth,
along with homemade jams, quince, orange, raspberry.
Then there are the malaoui, flakey, hot, sweet pastries, the freshly squeezed, naturally sweet orange juice, the strong dark coffee… Fez I shall be back again.