Time is of the utmost importance at the charmingly named Café Clock situated in the gastronomic capital of Morocco and the oldest Islamic city in the world – Fez. The sympathetically restored 250 year old courtyard house is home to a successful café and cookery school, owned by Englishman Mike Richardson, whose aim has been to create a cultural hub for a vibrant community. A former maître d’ at London’s prestigious Ivy and Wolseley restuarants Mike has established a cookery school with a difference; one that aims to revive the art of traditional Moroccan cookery with the help of Souad Maijda who has been leading classes in the kitchens there for four years.
‘I learned how to cook at home from my mother,’ she says, explaining how her passion for food was born. ‘We’re from Nador on the Mediterranean coast, and she loved to cook seafood. After I got married and moved to Fez, my mother-in-law taught me to prepare traditional dishes.’
Moroccan cuisine has a long and exciting history. As different societies settled in the country, so their culinary influences impacted upon the community. The Berbers introduced the tagine, the Jewish community enjoyed caramelized fruits, jams, preserved meats and vegetables. The Arabs brought couscous and introduced the shawaya (traditional barbecue). Northern Morocco was a Spanish colony resulting in paella and churros lingering there, and the French were responsible for Moroccans’ love of cakes and breads.
It is, however, the use of spices in particular combinations such as chermoula, ras al hanout – a blend of about a dozen spices particular to Morocco, including Morocco, including cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and chilli, as well as the inclusion of ginger, turmeric and coriander that makes Moroccan cooking unique. ‘My favourite dish is grilled sardines marinated in a chermoula mix– it makes me think of home,’ Maijda enthuses. ‘And fresh olive oil is very important in our cuisine. It comes from the many olive groves in the Fez area. Then there is the ferran [community oven] where we take our bread to be baked, along with pumpkin and our tagine. Tagine is a meat stew cooked in a clay vessel of the same name directly on coals or over a gas flame.
‘We adopted Middle Eastern dishes and put our own twist on them,’ she tells us. ‘Moroccan food has more colour than that of many other Arab countries, because of the vegetables and spices we use. And our cuisine is also famous for the way we combine sweet and savoury flavours. An example of this is our wonderful B’stella – a traditional dish made from pigeon or sometimes chicken, egg, cinnamon and sugar before being encased in warka which are thin pastry sheets and cooked off in the oven.’
Maijda firmly believes that the core ingredient of any Moroccan dish is love. ‘The best food comes from the heart. Here in Morocco, we show someone we care for them by preparing them a wonderful meal. I think it is very important never to forget who you are cooking for and how special they are to you. My passion for food comes from my mother and she has insisted that I pass it on to my children and everyone who comes to my classes. This is such an important part of our culture and we don’t want to lose it.’
Students at the cookery school can learn, under Majida’s expert and often humorous instruction, the essence of this tradition. During a typical one-day workshop, they go with her to the souq to bargain for fresh ingredients. Then Majida will teach her cooking techniques and share her knowledge about the diversity of flavours. By mid afternoon the students will be enjoying the fruits of their labours – a three course feast. Alternatively, Majida offers a two-hour bread-baking workshop or a one-day patisserie workshop.
‘I teach them how to shop, how to mix spices, how to prepare the food and how to present it – all in the true Moroccan style,’ Maijda explains. ‘I aim to teach my students how to adapt what they learn to cook here using the ingredients available to them in their home countries. Another aspect of my class is cultural learning. I want to share as much of my culture as possible. I want people to leave with a wonderful idea of Morocco and the people.’
Photographer: Abdessamad Azil