A Lesson in Moroccan Flavors

Food & Wine: Almond Cake with Mixed Berries
Photo © John Kernick
By Gisela Williams Posted February 25, 2015

In Fez, food is the entryway to a culture that is traditionally quite closed, says cooking teacher Tara Stevens. Here, she shares her favorite recipes and introduces the locals, expats and visitors who most inspire her.

In Fez, food is the entryway to a culture that is traditionally quite closed, says cooking teacher Tara Stevens. Here, she shares her favorite recipes and introduces the locals, expats and visitors who most inspire her.

The Courtyeard Kitchen
Tara Stevens led me up a narrow, unmarked alley and through a gated door, to an even narrower alleyway. The 42-year-old British food writer and chef opened an old carved wooden door and ducked inside. We had stepped into her house and intimate new cooking school, The Courtyard Kitchen at Dar Namir in Fez, Morocco. The entrance room had a mosaic-tiled floor and walls that soared three stories up to the sky; a well-equipped kitchen was tucked into an alcove.

Stevens came to Fez eight years ago, after hearing about a café opened by a former maître d’ from legendary London restaurant The Ivy. She ended up writing the Clock Book cookbook with him and buying a house. Now at the center of a group of expats and locals who are passionate about Moroccan food, Stevens is helping to build a more creative culinary community. She is also the woman to know for travelers who want to discover the city’s astonishing food scene. “This culture is very closed,” she explained to me, “especially for a woman. You can’t go into mosques and it’s difficult to strike up a conversation with locals. Food is the key that unlocks the doors.”

That night, Stevens served me a feast with some of her favorite cooking-school dishes: roast lamb shoulder in spiced butter, a green salad with beets and a creamy feta dressing. The Courtyard Kitchen is not your typical culinary program, she said: “When guests arrive, we discuss what they want to cook and see. I make a lavish breakfast, like scrambled eggs with desert truffle, and my almond cake. Then we head into the medina [the old walled city] to shop for a meal we’ll prepare together.” She added, “It’s like spending a few days with a fanatic foodie friend who cooks and eats and explores with you.”

The Market Experts: Plan-It Fez
When I asked to tour the medina in Fez, Stevens connected me with Gail Leonard.The British expat and her Australian friend Michele Reeves are the founders of Plan-It Fez, a travel company specializing in culinary trips throughout Morocco. Their adventures range from tasting the medina’s best street food to making hand-rolled couscous in a small village. As I followed Leonard down an alley lined with small shops, she told me that though she had lived in Fez for six years, she didn’t connect with the locals until she began using the communal bread oven. “When I brought my tagine pot to the neighborhood oven—still common here—someone would tell me, ‘Don’t use too much cumin.’ Someone else would share the name of her butcher.”

At the Fez markets, Leonard encourages visitors to taste everything, especially her favorite dishes: maakouda (spicy potato fritters) and stuffed camel spleen sandwiches. “It’s like meatloaf,” she explained. She invariably heads to the vendor Nafis Hicham, who sells wild Atlas Mountain honey in a tile-lined shop. “Moroccans believe in the health benefits,” Leonard said, dipping a spoon into a blue plastic vat of honey flavored with carob. It tasted like caramel. “Carob helps digestion,” she explained, then moved on to a vat that exuded a perfumed scent: “Lavender is good for stress.”

We wound our way through the medina to a nut vendor, where we bought a kilo of almonds. We brought them to a miller stall: On one side were hand grinders for meat; on the other, mills for nuts and grains. Stevens had instructed us to have our almonds ground into flour in order to make her signature almond cake.

The Organic Farmer
A 10-minute cab ride from the city walls of Fez brought Stevens and me to a bumpy dirt track, then to a modest organic farm with vegetable gardens, corn and wheat fields, and animal pens. We were greeted by Meriem Farah, a slender twentysomething wearing a head scarf and Converse sneakers, then introduced to her parents as well as a half-dozen siblings and their young children. Her father and brother gave us a tour of the livestock: sheep, goats, cows, chickens and pigeons. Stevens had heard about the Farah family’s farm from a chef friend whom Meriem had contacted on Facebook. The news of an organic farm near the medina spread quickly through the local culinary community. Fez’s countryside is populated by small farmers, but none have ambitious, Internet-savvy daughters like Meriem.

“In a place like Fez, many young women are married off at the age of 13,” said Stevens. “It makes what Meriem is doing to promote her family’s farm especially impressive. She’s a sign of the next generation of Moroccans who can change things. She might have an advantage because there are seven women in this family and only two men.”

Meriem led us to a cornfield behind a small goat shed and sat us around a low table surrounded by small rugs and pillows. She poured us strong mint tea and offered a basket of khobz, warm flatbread made with freshly milled organic whole-wheat flours; next came a tagine made with chicken that had been flavored with mint tea, then cooked with lots of parsley and mint, plus ginger and coriander. Meriem’s mother, Fatouma, is famous for the dish—justifiably so.

The Visiting Chef to Watch
Jérôme Waag of Chez Panisse hosts a pop-up at black-and-white-tiled Restaurant Numéro 7. restaurantnumero7.com.

The Teacher to Know
Tara Stevens takes cooking students to markets to shop for ingredients, then back to her school to make dishes like stewed beans with chile. darnamir.com.

The Travel Gurus to Book
Plan-It Fez, run by Michele Reeves, and Gail Leonard, offers food-focused tours throughout Morocco. plan-it-fez.com.

Gisela Williams is the European correspondent for Food & Wine. She lives with her family in Berlin.

Recipes:
Stewed White Beans with Green Chile and Herbs
Little Gem Lettuce with Roasted Beets and Feta Dressing
Almond Cake with Mixed Berries
Chicken Tagine with Herbs and Harissa Olives
Fez-Style Roast Lamb Shoulder
Moroccan Split Pea Soup with Sweet-Spiced Pickles
Sweet-Spiced Pickles
Baked Spring Vegetable Omelet with Goat Cheese and Mint

Related:
Moroccan Recipes
Hearty Stew Recipe
Chicken Recipes

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