Morocco on your stomach: An unexplored food paradise
Gastronomy is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Morocco. But it’s packed with culinary adventures
I, who would never be tempted to attempt a bungee jump, was standing at a street food stall in the bustling Djemaa el fna, Marrakesh’s famous square, viewing my bowl of snail soup with some trepidation. It’s not an easy thing to tackle, even if you can eat escargot, done French-style, with abandon. This was earthy, dark and, frankly, rather smelly. But once I’d had my been-there, eaten-that moment, I was ready to take in the attractions of this public space, declared a world heritage site by UNESCO. The food market that comes alive at night was all that the travel channels promised it would be and more.
Besides the rows upon rows of food stalls, selling seafood and meat brochettes, sheep heads and innards, the square is where the city gathers – to listen to story-tellers and fortune-tellers, watch acrobats perform and get henna tattoos. The sights, the sounds, the smells of Djemaa el fna are part of the essential Marrakesh experience.
Leave the Place, as the locals call it, and you can lose yourself in the labyrinthine heart of the medina. The narrow cobbled ways are lined with shops selling carpets, baboushes, the jewel-coloured footwear, and other artefacts for tourist shoppers. There are also pyramids of spices, vats of olives and dates to be bought here. It was in the medina that I discovered one of the marvels of North African architecture and an elegant way of life — the Riad.
The heavy wooden doors which lead off the narrow alleys provide no hint of what lies beyond. Behind these doors are sprawling Moroccan homes with a central courtyard, open to the sky and paved with marble, with fountains and bird baths set amid orange and pomegranate trees. You cannot but marvel at these cool havens of tranquillity and soak in the luxury they afford. Many of these have now been converted into small, boutique hotels. The Riad El Zohar was one such beautiful home. From its terrace there was a spectacular view of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains; it was just the spot for drinking some mint tea, very sweet and refreshing after traipsing through the souk.
You can eat well everywhere in Morocco, savouring tagines of rabbit or fish with wonderful flatbreads and pastillas, the flaky pies. After seeing the sights of Marrakesh, which includes the towering Koutubia mosque and the Majorelle Gardens, where Yves St Laurent is laid to rest, it was off to Essaouira, on the Atlantic coast. This small port town, known also as the city of gulls, is popular for its marine sports and pulsating club scene. Reggae rules here and Bob Marley, who was a frequent visitor, is revered.
For the foodie, Essaouira is a seafood paradise. Right at the edge of the fishing port is the restaurant Coquille St Jacques where you can eat some superlative sardines and shrimp as you watch the gulls wheel about. A cheaper option is to stop at one of the dockside seafood stalls, stocked with the day’s catch – sea cucumbers, langoustines and all manner of creatures I couldn’t even identify – which you can have grilled to order. It doesn’t get fresher than this.
But my best food memory of Morocco was yet to come. My next stop was Casablanca. I eschewed the quick bus and took a taxi through the longer route that hugs the Atlantic coast. The vistas are amazing, the ocean crashing below dramatic cliffs and rock formations. En route is the village of Oalidia, known for its oyster farms. Here, at the Ostrea, poised most prettily by the lagoon, I had oysters harvested only moments before. Washed down with some very drinkable Moroccan white wine it’s a meal I shall always remember.
And on to Casablanca, which is a large, modern city, with its Hassan mosque, located at the water’s edge and dominating the skyline. Along the beachfront are places to eat and drink and smoke hookahs. I went also to Rick’s Café, a recreation based on the movie classic. I drank a champagne cocktail here, remembering that that’s what Claude Rains orders for Ingrid Bergman on her first night at the café.
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