Why is Moroccan tea so shudderingly sweet? To take the edge off the gunpowder? To bring out the flavour?
According to a lady from Bridlingto, yes. But there is much more to a glass of north African tea than that. In Morocco, the tea drinking ritual has great cultural importance.
If you go on one of Gail Leonard’s tasting tours around Fez, you learn that, in Morocco, giving others a huge sugar rush has cachet; it confirms social status. Each spoonful and every cube says something about you. The more sugar you put in your cup the richer you are. The higher your guests’ blood sugar levels soar, the more minted you are.
Gail moved to Morocco eight years ago and runs Plan –it-Fez tours. She sweet talks her clients.
“The importance of sugar as a currency in Morocco goes back to the 15th century when Madrassas ( Islamic schools and educational institutions) were built with Italian marble exchanged kilo for kilo with sugar,” she said.
“So many of the oldest buildings in Morocco were paid for in sugar.”
Moroccans consume over 1.2m tons of sugar a year, and sugar is still a status symbol in North Africa. In fact, a popular wedding gift in Morocco are outsized sugar cones. Giving your guests – in your home, café or hotel – incredibly sweet tea, is a sign of respect. It also shows off the giver’s wealth, as the sugar content of a cuppa reflects back on the provider. As does their badan, or silver tea pot, and the craftsmanship of the tray on which it is served.
Only in Morocco is hospitality shown by making visitors hyper, rather than relaxed.
You learn such things on Gail’s gourmet tour of Morocco’s oldest imperial city, its intellectual and sacred centre and now its gastronomic capital.
The city, four hours east of Casablanca, is really three cities in one. There’s the 13th century Jewish quarter, the new French quarter and its ninth century medina.
With eight miles of sandstone ramparts, the Fez-a Bedli walled city also boasts the oldest university in the world, El Qaraouyin ( 857) and the largest mosque in Africa.
In Morocco, giving others a huge sugar rush has cachet; it confirms social status
Fez now proclaims itself as Morocco’s foodie capital. If you are prepared to roll out the dough (the courses are not cheap) you can learn everything from lemon preserving to making your own traditional, seasonal Moroccan salad, complete with self-foraged mallow leaves.
Local chefs will teach you how to smoke an aubergine. And how to fluff up your couscous.
Gail prepared me. “The medina is the mother of all medinas, craziest of kasbahs and most bizarre of bazaars.”
She then told me that Persil is an essential ingredient in many Moroccan dishes. It is another word for coriander.
Her tour is a vital orientation for the most disorientating of places which writer Paul Bowles thought “a city which was not easy for everyone to like”.
The 560-acre souk is the largest car-free urban area in the world. 160,000 people work in 10000 alleys dedicated to all the crafts and grafts, traditional and modern. The Henna Souk is the cosmetic products district. Attarine specialises in spices and the Seffarine quarter copper products.
No one much cares that it is a Unesco heritage site. They have shopping to do, dirhams to be made, families to be fed and deals to be struck. As well as Maghrebi (north-west African) tea trays and badan teapots.
Everywhere silver is hammered, copper chased, wool carded and spun. You are pulled around by a tide of kafkans, djellabas and gold-tinselled sandals. And pursued by shouts of “belek, belek!” (watch out).
Donkeys carrying cured hides, horses carpets and scooters loaded down with eggs have right of way.
The souk of all souks is a maze of dead ends, windowless high walls and narrow passageways. You walk the cobbled streets past wall-eyed beggars, shisha pipes, taqiyah prayer caps, burnous and shaal cloth, through the bewildering wedding wear, pashmina shawls, dessert nomad bling, embroidered pouffes and babouche slippers. Only tourists wear fezes in Fez.
Recognizing your dry scalp, smiling men jump out at you with hair-nourishing and highly nutritious Argan oil.
You take in the dung, fish and pigeon ammonia from the world’s oldest leather tannery, Chouara. And thread your way among the sacks of olives, flour, powdered and flaked almonds, figs, dates, okra, giant cucumbers and aubergines in the vegetable district of Rciff.
You may get your shin barked by a passing crumpet cart, and a dead-eyed donkey might step on your toe. You don’t let your epicurean escort out of your sight.
We walked behind football shirts, surrounded by women staring through hijabs at shopping lists on their mobiles. In front of us, a butcher cut the throat of a cockerel, saying a prayer for its soul.
And then we went through a giant, studded door into a courtyard with a fountain. Fez’s old town is full of hidden gardens and mosques. Suddenly, we were in a mausoleum and next to a pavilion and, finally, a weaving shop.
The medina is the mother of all medinas, craziest of kasbahs and most bizarre of bazaars
Through an arch appeared more bags of chickpeas, flour, piles of nougat, cheese, jars of seffna, dried meats, aniseed and pre-bagged coconut macaroons, called moroccains .
We broke for refreshments in the salon du the on top of the medina’s Museum of Wood Carving. There, I learned that Moroccans use rose water in fruit salads and that gunpowder was brought to Morocco by a British merchant after the Crimean War, after he failed to convert Baltic people to Chinese tea. Verbena and wormwood are sometimes used. And you must always have three cups; it is impolite to refuse the third.
Berbers were probably eating seminola as early as 238 BC. They loved their millet broth. Kitchen utensils dating back to the 10th century suggest couscous is ancient dish. Moroccan cuisine has been influenced by its trade routes and by all its colonisers. The Romans brought vines and took back olives to light Rome. Arabs, who introduced sweet and sour cooking, brought new breads , saffron and cumin, which appears on every table as a condiment.
Saffron is grown in Tiliouine; the best mint comes from Meknes; the best oranges and lemons from Fez; and the best figs, dates, almonds from the south
Pastilla (or bisteeya) is a popular sugar-topped pigeon or chicken pie that comes from the Moorish or Andalusian period (1462-1615). It is made from thin, unbleached warka bread.
We returned to the mayhem, passing a camel’s head with blue-bottles nesting in its eyelashes. Michelle told me that camel is notoriously difficult to cook, probably because there is no oven big enough. Gail held some Ras el Hanout (meaning the best pick from the shop) Moroccan mixed spices under my nose, and while I inhaled, told me that Fez was probably the largest city in the world in 1170.
The next thing I knew a man was rubbing amber soap up my forearm and offering me kohl sticks. We crossed a scummy river passing mountains of salt.
The word for salt in Arabic is melha, much like its Maltese counterpart, and the Jewish quarters of Moroccan cities are all known as the Mellah. These were the keepers of the salt – the gold dealers and money lenders.
Seeing how hot I was, a stallholder kind-heartedly sprayed my face with rosewater, while a man repaired a pear-shaped 12-string oud, a lute-like instrument.
Over his head hung fretless ginbri and mizwid bagpipes. Behind him were CDs offering Chaabi folk, Berber ritual, Gnawa kickback, classical Malhun and Sufi brotherhood.
We moved on past hole-in-the-wall enterprises selling sfenj (doughnuts) and honey and sesame pretzels, as well as flip-flop emporiums. We got a last waft of grilling almonds, before a snaggle-toothed man offered me a turtle for a pound. He also had five snails for sale. How do you haggle for snails?
Another held out an upside down turkey. But chicken tagine was on the menu. Cooked and served in the traditional blue and white fassi pot.
With plenty of Persil.
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