I have just finished reading a book called A House in Fez by Suzanna Clarke and I encouraged anyone who has an interest in Morocco and the culture of the country to read the book. Suzanna and her husband Sandy decided to buy a dilapidated house in the Fez Medina after only their second trip to the country. You know the story, go on a holiday to a foreign country, fall in love with it and say ‘hey wouldn’t be great to live here’. Well not many of us have the intestinal fortitude to actually go ahead and do something about it. Suzanna and Sandy did exactly that and the story of their adventures in restoration in a foreign country, where neither of them spoke Arabic and had only a smattering of French, goes beyond building basics. The dream was to take the house, a Riad or courtyard house back to its original splendour, using traditional craftsman and handmade materials, rather than create a Moroccan fantasy house. In bringing this dream to reality they immersed themselves into the rich and colourful life of the city and the book takes us on a Moroccan journey into the day to day rhythms of the country and its customs and festivals.
A most enjoyable read, I felt as if I was alongside the workers when every shovel load of soil was loaded onto the bags being carried away from the renovation site by the donkeys and shared in the frustration when they had to pay the previous owners in cash. The red tape necessary to be given all correct licences and authorisations to be able to proceed the renovations is a story in itself.
The kitchens of the countryside differ considerably to the kitchens of the city which again differ from those of the wealthier households. In the countryside they are very basic with the women of the household producing a huge amount of food with minimum equipment; a chopping board, knives, wooden spoons with pointed ends, a grater for preparing salads, a brass mortar and pestle for pounding spices and almonds, a sieve with a pierced metal or leather base and a wide, shallow wooden or earthenware bowl for kneading bread, making couscous grains or preparing couscous. Cooking over a charcoal fire is preferred for tajines; the container for the coals can be of unglazed earthenware or a pressed steel charcoal brazier. Tajines of varying sizes are for family use or cooking for guests or a crowd.
But whether the kitchen is in the country, the city or in wealthier household its collection of spices is vital for the distinctively Moroccan cuisine.
The eight most important spices for Moroccan cooking are cinnamon, cumin, saffron (sold in small, clear plastic containers to maintain freshness), paprika, turmeric, black pepper and ginger (only dried ginger is used in cooking) and cayenne pepper. Then there are cloves, allspice berries, bay leaves, cumin and coriander seed, fenugreek, aniseed and caraway seeds. As tempting as the aromas might be, Moroccan cooks only purchase spices in small amounts to ensure their freshness, taking their purchases home in twisted paper packages to be stored in pottery jars.
At the street market or in the elaborately stocked spice shops, the head of the shop has his own particular blend of spices or ras el hanout, which can contain a mixture of anywhere from 10 to 100 spices. Each vendor has his own secret recipe and no two are exactly alike, as they are often secretly handed down through the family for many generations.
You can make your own basic version of a ras el hanout at home with a mix of spices combined with the floral and citrus scents of rose petal and orange peel
- 1 tsp black peppercorns
- 1 tsp cloves
- 1 tsp nigella seeds
- 1 tsp allspice berries
- 1 small piece of mace
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 2 tsp coriander seeds
- 2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp dried lavender
- petals of 2 scented rosebuds
- Grind all the spices together in a mortar with a pestle or an electric grinder to form a coarse powder.
- Toss in the lavender and rose petals.
- Store in a sealed container in a cool, dark place.