Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Souks + Spices

It's taken me long enough to write this.

It always takes a while to reflect on a time abroad - the minute the plane touches back down in Londontown the 'real world', the flurry of e-mails that need checking and laundry demanding to be done, seems to erase the carefree previous weeks, leaving only a watermark of hazy memory, almost as removed as a picture taken by an anonymous postcard photographer. After a week or so, when the e-mails are pruned back to mildly manageable and laundry is...still waiting to be washed, it's almost necessary to think back on a holiday if only out of desparation in minutes snatched from the stress of work. I'm convinced this escapism aids sanity. Just a theory.

And so vicariously back to Morocco:

Again almost on impulse, in need of a little sunshine and craving change after the dragging depths of London's winter, JR and I decided a trip to Morocco was just the ticket. Initially the jaunt was intended as a long weekend, but after we discovered a villa owned by her company was going vacant, we pushed back our flights a week. And oh, we were glad we did.

Landing at its palatial airport, we were whisked into Marrakech and the holiday began almost before we knew it. We were dropped into the thick of it, the chaos of the central square Jemma el-Fna, and it was a near-physical assault to all senses - sometimes truly physical, depending on the tactics of snake charmers or spacial awareness of motobike drivers. Marrakech really whacks you over the head, or drapes over your neck or smacks you in the leg, with its presence.

And just as quickly we were behind the door of our riad and away from it all. We had found Riyad El Cadi by fluke on The Interweb, and as one of the few riads as close to the medina and, let's be real, with a remotely appealing website (Marketing 101, people) we had booked in fairly blindly. What a fantastic fluke. We were welcomed beyond the heavy wooden doors and into the orange-blossom-saturated courtyards with fresh orange juice (like liquid sunshine, I tell you) and delicately sweet and nutty crescent-shaped Cornes de Gazelle or Kaab el Ghaza cookies.

The maze of exterior and interior rooms are all whitewashed, accented with dark wood and intricate ironwork, and hung with rare and antique textiles, collected by the riad's late German diplomat proprietor. This and the history of the house were relayed by his daughter, who now runs the it in his stead.

With four of us, we stayed in a suite on an upper floor, overlooking the plunge pool and connected to the tented roof terrace, where we ate breakfasts of strong cinnamon-scented coffee, more fresh juice, giant-crumpet-like Berber pancakes, and homemade yogurt, slightly runny and with only a hint of sweetness. This was good yogurt. Opinion-on-yogurt-changing-yogurt.

From the riad, we embarked each day into the city's labyrinthine alleys, losing ourselves in the wandering rather than the oft-undecided destination. The city is a study in contrast - crinkle-faced old men in their hooded djellabas yelling into mobile phones, the deep burnt orange of the building facades jarring against blue skies, the arresting calm and cool of courtyards once over the threshold and away from the saturated souks, the seductive perfume of orange blossoms wafting over that elemental smell of "something burning" (as perfectly identified by Arundhati Roy in The God of Small Things), the light sweetness of the pastries to follow tagines of a deep savoriness that can only be achieved from the addition of countless spices and built over hours of stewing.

Speaking of tagines (you knew it was only a matter of time), we ate very well. Café des Épices, overlooking the spices square but set away from the seething souks, was perfect for a rustic lunch of slices of flatbread slathered in avocado and a deceptively delicious sandwich of roast meat. We were also enchanted by La Maison de la Photographie, Africa's only dedicated photography museum, which, beyond its incredible collection of photography exhibited in such a serene space and described by knowledgable docents, has the highest rooftop terrace in the city and a simple set lunch to eat atop it.

Besides the requisite and always-amusing dinner immersed in the circus of the central square, we loved Le Jardin, in a glade-green tiled courtyard canopied with tropical palms, for its fresh and simple salads and for introducing us to the best of Moroccan wine, the one red they serve, a rich and fruity 2009 Medallion. Le Grand Café de la Poste is another excellent ex-pat spot, luxurious in its low-key clubbiness, although in the new city and more for atmosphere than for eating.

For something more traditional, Le Foundouk serves traditional dishes in a decidedly modern setting - the lower floors are richly appointed but we loved the roof terrace, gently lit by colorful lanterns. Le Foundouk ignited our trip-long affair with pastilla, which is a sweet-savory pie traditionally made with pigeon. It tastes like what you might imagine an eggy chicken crumble encased in phyllo to taste like... in the best way. Trust on this one. At Le Foundouk we also tasted one of the trip's best tagines - gamey lamb with candy-sweet prunes - and one of the alltime worst drinks - mahia, a digestif made from figs. And I thought you could never go wrong with figs.

After a few days, we skipped out of Marrakech proper to the villa. A fortification of a house, suffice it to say it was pretty much paradise. Its lushly-decorated living spaces, boundless canopied beds, proximity to constant cocktails, and an outdoor couch shaded by bougainvillea (made for tipsy after-sun afternoon napping) were worlds away from the chaos of the city, but we didn't just lounge poolside for the rest of the trip.

One day brought a trip to a weekly Berber market and up into the Atlas mountains, astounding in the sudden rise of their snowy peaks. After hiking up to a waterfall and twisting our way back down through the valley, we stopped at Virgin Group's Kasbah Tamadot for a much-deserved drink (45 minutes of heavy walking, people!).

Another day held a drive to Essaouira, that fortified coastal town which struck more as Greek than Moroccan with its blue and white boats and buildings. We arrived at its harbour with no map and no plan and wandered its meandering streets, lost in its mellow vibe.

While wandering, we literally stumbled upon Taro Cafe, a tiny place overseen by a quietly glamorous French expat, where Cam fell in love with a sweet and creamy avocado milkshake and we ate from a selection of small bowls, including spiced carrot soup, ratatouille, rosemary-scented zucchini, fried aubergine, roast chicken, a sweet orange-and-carrot sluice and a salad with a delicious dressing nutty with argan oil, from the simple chalkboard menu.

On the way home, our final night, we headed to La Mamounia, the historic hotel (Winston Churchill was a fan) of Moorish opulence. And now I know, from experience, that there is no better way to end an adventure than with a bucket of Manhattan, roasted nuts dusted with paprika or cumin, and a footman in a white ensemble and matching fez to bring you cigarettes on a silver tray.

So we headed home, with the shouts of the souks ringing in our ears, warm tingle of sunshine on our shoulders, sticky remains of dates on our fingers, the tang of fresh yogurt and nutty-sweet savour of honey-almond butter rolling around our mouths, and perfume of orange blossom still lingering on our clothes.

An assault to all senses. And I'm still putting cinnamon in my coffee to make it last.

Riyad El Cadi

Café des Épices
La Maison de la Photographie 

Le Jardin

Le Grand Café de la Poste 

Le Foundouk

Kasbah Tamadot

Taro Café

La Mamounia

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like an amazing trip to Morocco! Thanks for the inclusion of awesome pictures, links, and clever use of typeface. Really makes the descriptions come alive.