Essaouira in the Kingdom of Morocco: how not to get cheated when buying spices, dyes and perfumes.
As I write I am surrounded by the smells of musk noir and santal, or sandalwood as we know it, in my rooftop room in the Maison du Sud riad in Essaouira. The ancient walled city sits proudly on the Atlantic coast, the high ochre coloured walls protecting the town from enemies, real or imagined, and the fishing harbour at its feet is strung with rows and rows of vivid blue fishing boats. There is romance for the eye aplenty here. But this is not a destination for the faint hearted or for those who have lost touch with where their food comes from. There is nothing processed here.
I pitched up for a photography and cookery course with Anglo-Moroccan couple Darren and Naima Lewey. He does the photography (www.imagesinthesun.com/morocco-cookery), she does the cooking (www.cookingholidaysmorocco.blogspot.com). Naima started the day with a trip to the market where we gathered ingredients for our cooking class in the afternoon (more of which later). A leisurely ramble past stalls of indecent piles of olives, mountains of fruits as well as shops with live chickens (no packets of pumped up chicken breasts here and a steady slaughtering hand is clearly part of the job spec), we finally came to Chez Makki. Annoyingly, Le Guide Michelin had been there some time before us, drat.
Located just off the main fish market Chez Makki is something of an institution and is run by five brothers. We were met by one of the brothers, Khalid Souah, the epitome of Arabic hospitality. After a chat through a selection of the many spices on offer he made us traditional Berber tea, also called royal tea. A first sip confirmed the regal title is well deserved. The elegant little pot was filled with lemon verbena, cinnamon, juniper, dried rose buds, star anise, liquorice, galangal and a small pinch of sugar. Unlike black tea it is not left to infuse, the flavours are released by pouring the liquid from the pot from a height into the dainty serving glasses, one pour into each glass, then it’s returned to the pot, before a final pour into each glass to drink. The golden liquid is bursting with fragrance and the layered flavour notes dance and play on the palate. Not something to be rushed.
Once refreshed Khalid got back to work telling us about his argan oils, herbs, dyes and perfumes. He was keen to fill me in on how to tell the difference between the fake and the real thing. Apparently there are plenty of unscrupulous traders about. (By the way I should say I got top marks for the pronunciation of Khalid, the ‘kh’ is like the ‘gh’ in Haughey, but maybe a little more guttural, if that’s possible). I can’t think why that came to mind. Anyhoo, here are today’s tips:
It’s all about the three little stamens. If you can’t see them anywhere in the pile you’re being offered then you are probably buying coloured flecks of dried plants mixed with occasional bits of saffron. Another good test is to wet the saffron with the tip of your finger: it should streak into a vivid yellow colour across a piece of paper, as it does here. Indeed the colour keeps on giving, as in the picture below, which is why you only need a little. The fake saffron on the left has a very dull colour when wet and offers little pigmentation.
Natural dyes are common in the markets across Morocco. If you thought it was sad that our mammy’s no longer do dressmaking then give the women of Morocco a thought. Some rural women are still dying their own fabric. That said the colours are incredible: just the tiniest dusting of the dried murex snail bloom into vivid colour. Indeed the Roman’s imported the murex purple from Morocco for their Imperial robes. I was tempted to buy some but I think my friends would draw the line at purple togas.
Perfume is not something invented by Kim Kardashian or David Beckham. It’s an ancient tradition and the Berber’s have played their role in its sweet smelling history. Blocks of what look like sugared candy fill Khalid’s shelves but they are resin of sandalwood, musk and amber (amongst many others), which are used as a scent. A gentle brush on the wrists and behind the ears is all that is needed. They are ideal for people who have problems with the chemicals in mass-produced scents and remarkably they can last for up to four years. I’ve packed a supply of them to keep me going. Hopefully Santa Maria Novella doesn’t find out I’m cheating on her.
But the star spice on the shelves at Chez Makki is the famed Moroccan rass el hanout, meaning ‘head of the shop’. Essentially this is an ‘all-spice’ of everything in a spice shop and a key ingredient in Moroccan cooking. Check back tomorrow for my cookery class with Naima where she created ‘zalok’, an aubergine starter using rass el hanout as well as turmeric, cumin, paprika, fresh coriander, fresh parsley, garlic and preserved lemon. Naima says it’s great for getting kids to eat aubergines … so she probably hasn’t met very many Irish kids. Still, this big kid loved it.
Follow me on twitter at @goldenshots for notifications all the tasty updates this week. #Essaouira