Moroccan spice

The age-old and aromatic Souk El Najjain spice market, in the midst of ancient Fes, is the perfect place to soak up the flavours, hues and differing shades of taste fundamental to Moroccan life. Finding the market is a great adventure itself. You need plunge boldly into the human tide that flows ceaselessly by day through the oldest quarter of this venerable North African city.

Fes el Bali is the name given to the medina, the Old City of Fes. Within these ancient walls lies a bewildering maze of more than 9000 narrow lanes and cramped alleyways. Navigation through this perplexing labyrinth is not for the faint-hearted. A guide is essential should you hope to make any sense of your surroundings and successfully negotiate the serpentine network of slim arteries and dark passageways that link the Old City’s innumerable souks, fondouks and fountains, its mosques and madrassas, the cafes, restaurants and private homes, barbershops, workshops and tiny factories.

My guide is Hamid Na’il, who offers sage advice: “If you do get lost, then look for an empty donkey and follow. It will be heading out, towards one of the medina’s four gates.” Donkeys are the sole means of transporting goods into the heart of the labyrinth and they have right of way. Before long, while failing to heed a warning whistle and shout, I am almost bowled over by a beast of burden that careers round a corner laden with heavy boxes.

Fes is, by repute, the Arab world’s most complete medieval city and the daily life of the Fassis, the local inhabitants, ranks among Morocco’s most intriguing spectacles. Scherazade could have gleaned a thousand and one tales each day simply by standing on a corner observing local streetlife.

Stepping into the medina means instant transportation into the past, a shift in time and relative dimension as if travelling by Tardis. Such a mesmerising, initially overwhelming transition makes the mundane act of following someone rather tricky, but a good guide hovers patiently while his clients catch their breath. I join this human hubbub, keeping Hamid firmly in sight.

The distractions are immediate, manifold and thrilling. The 21st Century dissipates in a trice. I’m assailed by unfamiliar sights, smells and sounds with absolutely nothing contemporary before my eyes. We surge through narrow streets and dim lanes flanked by innumerable tiny shops stocked with a kalaidoscopic array of colourful merchandise. Occasionally I glimpse a pair of western jeans, but most Fassis wear traditional hooded djellabas.

To pause and snatch a photo means being buffeted by the current and washed aside like flotsam. Women cover their face when they see my camera. I feel an intruder so decide to simply look, digest and enjoy rather than strive to record.

******

Each souk we visit specialises in different goods. Along one lane are bright woven textiles, rolls of delicate silks, coarse cottons, caftans, tailored shirts and flowing djellabas, thin cotton tops and embroidered blouses. All manner of hats and bags hang from the roof. Down another alley are shops with floors and walls covered by intricately patterned hand-woven carpets and rugs. Deals are being discussed at low tables over a glass of thé nana, the ubiquitous Moroccan mint tea which fuels all discourse. Brass lamps hanging from the eaves shed soft light through panels of coloured glass.

We pass wooden frames stacked with rows of babouches, those fancifully-decorated Moroccan leather slippers with long curly toes. They are popular souvenirs but I can’t see myself padding around in a pair.  Further along I haggle instead over a small leather ottoman. The mandatory bargaining banter is part of the process. Eventually we agree on a price and the shopkeeper rolls up the hassock and binds it tightly. It’s light, easy to carry and far more useful to me than gaudy shoes.

Fes el Bali is truly an Aladdin’s cave. I visit shops filled with pottery. Others sell gleaming dishes of beaten, engraved and polished metal, mostly brass and tin. There are spaces crammed full of carved wooden tables and large embossed boxes. I pore over a cabinet filled withe necklaces of chunky amber and silver and inspect impressive Berber knives sheathed in animal bone scabbards.

Deeper still within the medina we strike a traffic jam, a crush of stationary shoppers choosing vegetables and fruit. No-one gets frustrated; there’s no footpath rage in medieval Fes. I nearly tumble over a man sitting beside a basket of fresh eggs, then find momentary refuge in a shop filled with trays of succulent dates. Immediately I’m offered one to taste. A nearby fruit shop has oranges stacked in neat pyramids. Another stall stocks bottles of fragrant rose water.

The core of this food souk is a covered market or kissaria , open to the sky yet shaded by a straw roof filtering the harsh daylight. It’s here that I find the spice merchants, squatting patiently among sacks of condiments, surrounded by baskets piled high with powders of all colours.

Turmeric, cumin, ginger, paprika, cinnamon sticks and caraway seeds are easily identifiable while Hamid explains less recognisable piles, which are popular local spice blends called baharat, za’atar, ras el hanout and dukkah. Other baskets hold more mysterious mixes, secret blends and special spice rubs concocted by each merchant.

Nearby herb sellers flourish large bunches of fresh mint, coriander, basil and parsley. Straw mats are strewn with garlic or onions. Python-like ropes of dried figs hang from doorways amid a copious array of juicy olives, nuts, preserved lemons and dried fruits.

I remind myself that I’m at the heart of the Moroccan kitchen in the middle of a complex maze deep within an ancient city that hasn’t changed significantly since feudal times. Could travel be more fascinating?

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