Alix Clark explores this Moroccan city’s bustling souks and ancient medinas, tasting and cooking local delicacies, and meeting people who’ve swapped their fine-dining careers for new lives in this magical, medieval destination.
30 Jun 2013 - 12:26 AM  UPDATED 30 Mar 2021 - 4:57 PM

The roof of the alley is low and propped up in places by wooden beams that look like they were put up as a temporary measure hundreds of years ago. In a neighbourhood more than 1200 years old in the world’s most complete medieval city, time is largely irrelevant. The sounds of the souk (outdoor market) fade as we walk away from the madding crowd towards a sanctuary of community, cultural learning and good food. “As salaam alaykum,” the host says as he greets us with a smile and welcomes us into the cafe situated in a traditional riad (house with courtyard), where tens of nafirs (brass trumpets used to wake the faithful during Ramadan) hang – almost float – from the timber beams three storeys above us.

Located in Fez’s ancient medina, Café Clock is the brainchild of Mike Richards, formerly the maître d’ at some of London’s finest restaurants, including The Ivy and The Wolseley. Now the owner of Café Clock, a cultural centre and cooking school housed in two adjacent riads, Richards says with a grin, “I used to do an awful lot of air-kissing, but all the kisses we give here are the real thing.” 

It’s been six years since Richards left the rarefied air and white tablecloths of London’s fine-dining scene to work on this “side project” that has since become his way of life. In addition to delicious house-made dishes, including its famous camel burger, the cafe offers musical jam sessions, calligraphy lessons and cooking classes. “There’s no alcohol served here as I didn’t want to exclude the locals,” says Richards. “I’m happy that 45 per cent of the patrons are locals; people like young students hanging out here on their way home.” 

The cooking school is what has brought our group to Café Clock today and we take a seat around a large table in a private room overlooking the courtyard as our teacher, Saoud, begins explaining common Moroccan ingredients. In addition to freshly ground spices such as cumin (so much more fragrant than what’s generally available in Australia), turmeric, cinnamon and coriander, Saoud introduces us to khilii (dried beef, lamb or camel that’s been preserved in fat, then shredded and cooked with eggs for a winter breakfast). “It’s Moroccan fast food,” she says with a smile before moving on to a crunchy, savoury snack, which Saoud says she “gives to a man to keep his mouth busy”. Warqa or brik pastry is a paper-thin pastry similar to filo, but much more flexible. It can be scrunched up without breaking and is used for filled pastries, as well as for making the famous Moroccan pigeon pie, pastilla. The pastry can be made at home, but most Moroccan housewives buy theirs fresh from the souks, where old women wipe the dough onto a hotplate with a practised hand, or frozen from supermarkets in the suburbs.

Before we move upstairs, Saoud has one more key ingredient to show us. Ras el hanout (literally ‘top of the shop’) is a combination of anywhere between 19 and 26 spices, and individual blends are kept fiercely secret by the attar (spice mixer). This spice blend is used in rubs for meat or as a flavouring for tagines and couscous. Many Moroccan spices are used for their health benefits as well as their taste, and ras el hanout is said to warm the body.

It’s certainly warm as we head upstairs to the cooking school, where Saoud swiftly divides us into groups and assigns tasks. While one team chars eggplants and long green chillies over a flame, another chops lamb and measures spices for a tagine, while a third group prepares sweet coconut macaroons. All the while, Saoud keeps up a running commentary. “When you chop the eggplant, you must use your hips as if you’re belly dancing,” she instructs one student, while showing another how much argan oil (a tree-based oil native to Morocco) to add to a salad. As we wait for the tagine to cook, Saoud welcomes our questions about life in Morocco, an Islamic country ruled by a parliamentary constitutional monarchy. Photos of King Mohammed VI, Commander of the Faithful, and his family are to be found in most shops and hotels, and the royal family also owns a large, national supermarket chain. Morocco is a wonderful mixture of the modern and the traditional, and Saoud explains that family is really at the centre of all social interactions. Extended family meals are regular affairs, and men and women separate once the meal is eaten. The men may move to a coffee shop or cafe, while the women stay home to attend to the house and talk among themselves. “We share our problems and don’t see the need to be private about any troubles we are having,” says Saoud of the intense female friendships she enjoys. When it’s time for everyone to leave, a bowl of soup is served, “to give them the energy to walk home”.

This incredible sense of community is something Gail Leonard felt keenly when she moved to Fez from the UK. The former addictions counsellor now runs food tours through the souk and lives with her daughter in a riad within the medina (the city’s old quarter). “When I visit friends, they always ask me to stay the night – in a house that’s already full of people! They think I must be so lonely living in the riad with my daughter.” Gail moved to Fez full-time nearly five years ago and, together with Australian Michelle Reeves, plans itineraries for travellers keen to experience the Moroccan culture intimately. “We continue to be surprised on a daily basis by what we find, what we can create together and how inspiring that becomes – for us, for our clients, for our employees and for Moroccan tourism,” says Gail. 

As she weaves her way confidently through the souk, Gail points out the most favoured snacks and collects samples to taste along the way. “River snails in a spicy broth are an evening snack,” she explains, lifting the lid on an enormous cauldron of molluscs. Carts piled high with prickly pears (the fruit of a cactus) are on every corner and, in addition to being eaten “like melon, it’s also thought to be very good for your skin”. A regular sight in the souk, along with the countless stray cats, are the butchers marked with the carcass of the animal they’re selling. A popular offering is ras nifa (steamed sheep’s head). The brains are removed and the head is steamed and served with cumin, salt and chilli – a condiment that’s also delicious on the hot chips we nibble on over lunch.

The smells, sounds and sights of the souk are almost overwhelming as we pass by tiny stalls where men with large grinders make fresh marzipan from ground almonds and orange-blossom water, spice traders hawk their aromatic and distinctively cone-shaped wares, and a honey merchant beckons us into the back room for a taste. Honey is much revered in Morocco; it is mentioned in the Koran and is considered a gift from God. As with many foods, it has health-giving properties and it’s believed that eating local honey will give you immunity to any lurking local bugs. Our tasting includes a variety of honeys naturally flavoured with lavender, thyme, fig and eucalyptus – each distinctly different and delicious.

While some of our group delve further into the souk in search of brightly coloured leather ottomans and intricately worked metal lamps, others retreat to the luxurious calm of Riad Fès. Made up of five linked riads, the hotel is a maze of intimate courtyards, outdoor rooms, large terraces, a spacious spa and a bar perfect for enjoying a cocktail or fruit juice before heading to dinner in the ruined garden of Riad Idrissy. Built 400 years ago and named after the descendants of city founder Moulay Idriss, this riad has been restored to its former glory, with towering ceilings, intricately carved cedar doors and elaborately painted ceilings. As night falls, three musicians play gnawa (traditional Moroccan music) and our host, Robert Johnstone (another escapee from London’s fine-dining scene), brings out platter after platter of classic local dishes to which he has given a modern twist. “Moroccan women are very set in their ways when it comes to cooking,” says Johnstone, who operates a cafe in the garden during the day. He adds, “I like to put my own interpretation on the dishes.”

Johnstone also prepares traditional Roman picnics for groups visiting Volubilis, the remarkable Roman ruins a few hours away that are noted for their completeness. As we wander up that ruined city’s main street, away from the triumphal arch, we imagine the cry of street traders and the clatter of hooves on the cobblestones – sounds not dissimilar to those of Fez’s medina, which is the world’s largest urban car-free area. The widest streets are designed to let just two mules and their cargo pass each other. While the narrow streets and lack of cars are perhaps the most obvious signs of Fez’s ancient roots, another is the medina’s bakers. Many of the city’s residents have their bread cooked by local bakers in huge wood-fired ovens. In these dark, soot-stained rooms, bakers and assistants keep track of whose bread (or macaroons or blood sausage) is whose. Khobz (basic Moroccan bread) is made daily and consumed with every meal except on Fridays, the holy day, when couscous is eaten. Bread is held in high regard and it’s frowned upon to throw any away – leftovers are either collected and fed to livestock or left as offerings on ledges around the city.

As we carry our trays of macaroons, made under Saoud’s watchful eye, through the laneways of Fez to the local baker and avail ourselves of his ovens, the scent of orange-blossom water mixed with wood smoke creates an aroma that is distinctly Moroccan, perfectly in keeping with the timeless workday rituals of this ancient city.