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Tuesday, 12 February 2008

make mine Moroccan: part one

When I went to Fes the weekend before last I was under no illusion that I'd be getting to know the place particularly well. Four days is not the right time for cultural immersion and I pretty much let myself off the hook by remaining totally ignorant prior to landing. Thankfully, I got lucky. And the instigator was food.

I booked a class with local chef, Lahcen Beqqi, via the joint I stayed in, Dar Roumana (it is beyond beautiful and owned by a fantastic couple, if you don't mind splashing out a bit). When Lahcen arrived with a shopping basket at 9.30 on my first morning I was a little dazed after getting in late the night before. We headed straight into the throng of the souk, with stalls containing every kind of produce imagineable in the theatrical old-city setting of the medina. Here I got the first inkling of a very practical bent in the Moroccan kitchen: no part of plant or animal goes to waste. It can leave a vegetarian feeling a little squeamish.

We filled Lahcen's basket as he chatted about food and culture and gently pushed me out of gobsmacked bystander status. To his eternal credit, Lahcen wants you to get amongst it, talk to stall holders and buy ingredients for yourself.

Once we'd sampled dates, seen live chickens lose their heads, marvelled at some genital produce at the camel stall and filled the basket with fresh, tasty goodness, it was time to head to Lahcen's kitchen. There, I met his charming accomplices, the two Fatimas ('Fatima cous cous' and 'Fatima tagine') and enjoyed a mint tea and the breathtaking rooftop view of the medina before getting my apron on.

Over the next few hours we made four delicious dishes and I got some brilliant cooking tips. But Lahcen's classes are not really about equipping students with fancy techniques. Food is history, family, country, music and friendship, and it was conversation along these lines that was most enriching. If he had his way, the classes would be part of a broader cultural experience, the full Morocco story. He is already developing his business, Fes Cooking, in this direction, pushing you to engage as much as you allow yourself. In hindsight, I would have gone a little better prepared, with small change for the souk and some arabic so I could talk more to stallholders and the Fatimas in the kitchen. But, you know, as long as you are open to whatever interaction might come your way, there is no doubt you will have a wonderful day. And I did. Followed by the next day and the next and the next. I loved every minute of my Fes jaunt.

Recipes start tomorrow, beginning with Zaalouk...

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