Saturday, 21 August 2010

The labyrynth of smells - fruit and veg market, Fez, Morocco

‘The smells’ – the unforgettable combination of cinnamon, rose water, cumin, dust and dung – disturbing and enticing at the same time.

‘The smells’ is what I tell people when asked why I fell in love with Morocco. If you are looking for dust-free streets and hassle-spared promenades, then Morocco may not be for you. But if you are turned on by the idea of snatching the last glimpses of the Middle Ages, go now and you’ll be forever haunted by the aroma of the leathery broad beans stewed with cumin and sold in shadowy corners; by the smell of old waters collected in the cobbled, no-wider-than-a-donkey’s-arse, streets; by just boiled potato sandwiches sold by a local gang of boys; by dusty but mind-blowingly delicate carpets; by the odour of freshly made leather goods, combined with intensely sugary mint tea poured from dizzy heights…

The streets of old Medina (Fez)

...We came back to Morocco almost five years after out initial olfactory affair with the place, choosing Fez, this ancient city with over 9000 streets hidden in its Medina, for a fleeting breather from London staleness.

The labyrinth of streets and smells

August is a low season in Morocco because of the unbearable heat (40C is normal). This year in addition it is the month of Ramadan, with its soul-testing fasting demands, making travelling a particular challenge. We decided to go on a whim, wanting to experience Morocco in its most uncomfortable.

But once landed, we were taken back by the smell of soil freshly impregnated with rain - the land felt fresh, enlivened. It was pleasant - too pleasant for those looking for the exotic 'otherness'. It was not until we reached the eerily empty walls of Medina (8pm is when everyone rests at home, having broken their fast, before 'hitting the town') that the memories - the smells - started to creep back in. No traveller can escape Fez Medina without getting lost. I wonder whether local inhabitants find their way by nose, as each corner, crook and cranny has its own smell, an olfactory labyrinth of a kind...

Souqs of Fez (and J with a yellow umbrella)

Fez Medina is broken down into sections, souqs, markets, each specialising in a particular trade, each with its unique combination of smells. Thus there is a spice souq, henna souq (now more famous for its pottery), tanneries with their revolting stench of leather treated with dung and chemical dies, the meat market with a whiff of coagulated blood and fresh innards…

Chicken on sale. Tesco 'fresh' carries a different meaning here

The fruit and veg market in the Western part of Medina is unsurprisingly most aromatic and fresh. Mid August is the time of figs - heavy, lilac ones and less sweet, lemony ones. All quite small compared to the perfect giants sold in London. Bursting with flavour quite literally, so ripen that they get slightly sticky on the outside. We couldn't hold ourselves and greedily bought a couple of kilos of each kind from a women who had just come down from a village in mountains.


Some believe the ultimate Eden fruit was this aromatic, suggestive-looking fruit, rather than a cool and firm apple

Yellow melons are on the other hand a lot bigger - and needless to say so much more perfumed - than those sold in Green Lanes. We had the pale-green flesh cut up and served with warm bread for breakfast each morning.

Fruit and veg market in Fez

I have read odes to prickly pears which carry a semi-iconic status on Greek islands, but I had myself been disappointed in the past with their undistinguishable flavour. In Fez these hedgehogs of fruits are sold in big wooden carts, with the seller swiftly and miraculously transforming each fruit into a round pink softness, refreshing to no end and only a few un-prickly seeds to deal with. I can't say the prickly thing is my favourite fruit, but I see what those hot-blooded Greeks might like about them.

Prickly pears sold across Medina to clench thirst

Then there were huge pink onions everywhere, almost translucent in colour, sweeter than the standard white variety. We bought just one and brought it all the way to London, where I've been slicing it carefully and enjoying bit by bit with a tomato salad.

Pink onions and very red tomatoes

And of course - tomatoes. Real stuff, with a smell and colour, fully ripen. Most on sale in Fez were not of a particularly fancy variety, but the patience of a farmer who left the fruit on its vine for long enough makes the whole difference. Those who know me know that tomato is what I live for in culinary terms. I hunt them down and buy in bags every time I'm in a county with a suitable climate.

...We came back tired to our hotel, smiling silly, happily, minutes before another thunderstorm poured down, shutting down most aromas of the city, quietening the sounds....We sneaked in our bags of fruit and bread - eating or drinking is not allowed until darkness, remember - and had our mini feast. In bed. Divine. Blasphemous. All the better for it.

Lunch in riad: tomatoes, figs, bread


rege said...

Oh you did it again! I'm jelous.

gastroanthropologist said...

The heat and all those fruits and veggies are so tempting! We went to Marrakesh and then up to the Atlas Mtns in Jan - was already warm then (not in the mtns, but in town) so can imagine it was quite hot. What a perfect lunch - those moroccan tomatoes and figs must be so tasty.

Katrina said...

Yeah, our original trip to Morocco was in December, I remember being amazed how warm it was, and so all those smells really got to me then:)

I have bought a few large Turkish figs just across the road the other day - they were good, but never quite a sticky and sweet.