Channon H: Dispatch #2 – Tagine Tasting in Morrocco

It’s my own fault really. I’ve been in France since May and mostly I buy fresh veggies, and fruit and cheese and bread (finally found a good baguette place…now I’m officially French).

The week before last I ate African food at a music festival in Marseille and just last week, I went to Morocco with my friend Jessica. In actuality, going to Morocco is quite the French thing to do: most Moroccans speak French as an official language (although never if they can help it- Arabic is king), and with Ryan Air, tickets were only about $60 round trip from anywhere in France. I could spend hours talking about my experience there – my trip through the old town “medinas”, our 4 hour train ride (sans air conditioning), the nice people we met (one who even insisted we stay at his house with his grandma), and all the wondrous and miraculous ways we got cheated.

But, Clarence, I’ll just stick to the food.

Our first stop in the country was Fes to the east. We stayed at a youth hostel, where for about $8 a night we got a free breakfast – café-au-lait and croissants filled with cinnamon jam.

I’ve realized that the idea of a nice American breakfast with eggs, sausage, toast and pancakes is un-heard of anywhere except America (tant pis! Who wants to mail me some bisquick?)

On one of our first nights, we ate our first tagines in a lovely restaurant recommended by Jessica’s guidebook.

Mine – salty lamb and sticky prunes, baked until soft and caramelized. Jessica had her first vegetable tagine made of couscous, carrots, potatoes and onions (first of many because, like the French, Moroccans eat MEAT). They’ve mastered the use of tagines – mini-clay ovens, cone shaped, and made right in the city. The clay creates a stabilized hot temperature around the stews inside, so the vegetables get tender, the meat gets a little crispy on the skin, and the couscous soaks up all of the juices. Tagines are made with chicken and citrus (which I ate the next day), eggs, fish, couscous, veggies, etc, and you can buy one at any Crate and Barrel to try it for yourself. To really appreciate it, though, you’ve got to have a great curry, and Moroccan curry has a nice base, different in every part of the country and not super spicy.

While in Fez, we went to the city center “medina”. The medinas are known as the oldest parts of a city (there are medinas in every major city in Morocco), and they are often sinewy mazes of streets and thick stone buildings. They are rarely marked by street signs often so boxed in that you can’t see the sun.

People live here, and they shop here, and if you’re not from here, good luck getting around. We were told we needed a guide, so we got one from the tourist office. We were fully aware, however, that he would mostly take us to shops in hopes of getting us to buy ludicrous amounts of stuff, getting a nice little cut from the shopkeepers for himself at the end of the day. (more on that another time). I ended up buying a packet of curry from a cute little medicine shop. I was so happy with my souvenir, smiling at the little old store owner the entire time, until I walked out and realized I’d spent $10 on one tiny baggie.

The medina itself sold every kind of fruit, every kind of vegetable, bottles of rose water, and packages of sweets and nuts and dates in every size. Often given at weddings, little sweets are very important and signify the sweet life yet to come. (keep that in mind the next time you feel guilty about that 3rd snickers bar you ate during the Tuesday meeting).

After 3 days in Fez, we travelled on an overnight bus clear across the country to the Atlantic Coast – a little seaside town called Essouirra, with a constant cool breeze and about 10,000 sea-blue fishing boats. While overlooking the beach, I had a nice plate of “crevettes” – pink shrimp grilled in their shells with slices of lemon.

But apparently, the thing to do here is walk down the sea-port and head to the fish shacks where you can pick out your fish and watch them grill it up before your eyes. You can finish with some fresh orange juice, which everyone seemed to drink all day long – seeing as a cold glass cost about 1 or 2 durham (the equivalent of about 20 cents).

Spending only the day on the coast we took a bus back to Marrakesh, the biggest city in Morocco (although not the capital because the King preferred to move it). Marrakesh reminds me of…hmm…I’m trying to think…oh yeah….L.A. You have your usual medina in the center, humongous modern discotheques, fast-food chains,more hotels than you think are necessary, crazy drivers, lots of smoking and beautiful, beautiful, beautiful people. Moroccans are gorgeous, but they must have some crazy genes, because the temperature boiled up to about 120 degrees for the 3 days we spent in Marrakesh. They seemed to get along fine, especially the women who adhered to the strict muslim laws of covering up.

I, on the other hand, could barely find the energy to lift my fork to my mouth. But I persevered for the sake of the food and I finished my last 3 days with another large tagine of couscous and chicken at our little hotel (Riad Ghallia – highly recommended), some meat on a stick (my favorite!) at a little lunch spot, lots of patisseries for breakfast and many many cold sodas. Apparently, soda in the rest of the world is still made the old fashioned way – with actual sugar, and not the corn syrup you usually see in the states. Tasted like heaven!

Now that I’m back in France, I really have to get to eating French food. I’m still on that hunt for the perfect meal, but now that I’ve found the perfect baguette place (the trick is to go to a place where they sell a lot of sandwiches), I seem to be addicted to bread and cheese. I’ll try harder, Clarence!

Travel lesson #22 – I received a lovely surprise gift from Morocco – stomach cramps for about 3 days straight. We realized it wasn’t actually the food, but the fact that we’d neglected to use bottled-water to brush our teeth. It’s not that the water is “bad” it just contains some natural bacteria that we’re not used to. THANKS MOROCCO!


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