Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Out of Essex - Marrakech. Part 2.

If you read Part 1 of my Marrakesh travels, you may remember it left us with the cliffhanger....how would stuffing myself with the very cheap but delicious local street food affect my delicate Western stomach. Surely I was asking for trouble? But, with none more surprised than myself, and without putting too fine a point on it......everything in that area was functioning correctly. Heartened by the non developing situation - I left the comfortable confines of my Riad, and ventured out onto the street to get ripped off haggling (badly) in the maze of Souks and to eat more local street food from even more horrendous looking vendors.

Lunchtime found myself and the girlfriend weighed down with various shopping bags, and striding in the midday sun into an area of town known as Riads Zitoun. We were looking for a restaurant in the Place Des Ferblantiers, strangely enough, the Lonely Planet guide informed me that it was actually called Restaurant Place Des Ferblantiers. You'd think with such a common sense naming convention the place would be a breeze to find. But, this being Marrakesh - the restaurant has no sign or name on it. I stand in the square and study the map intently - turning it this way and that, I'm standing here - so that building is behind me, so that building in front - must be it....there are what could loosely be defined as 'restaurants' on every corner - just to add in an extra element of confusion. They all look rough - plastic chairs, makeshift grills, packed with locals....no tourists. Daunting. Finally I spy tagine's in one, the Lonely Planet guide raves about the tagine's....that's why I'm here. We have a winner.

I hesitatingly enter, and try and make eye contact with whomever I order some food from in this joint, there's a few people milling around the grill area, they all look like customers to me. Finally I spy an employee and manage to order two tagine's in a mixture of pidgin English and atrocious French. Of course I have no idea what kind of tagine I'm getting, for all I know it's sewer rat. We sit at a table, surrounded by locals busily munching away - they all seem to be sharing one Tagine between two. I'm aware that myself and the girlfriend are the subject of some speculation with the diners.....no doubt commenting favourably on my excellent bearing and fine chiseled features - or perhaps more likely, how best to steal our possessions and dispose of the bodies....I have no idea. I avoid making eye contact and concentrate on radiating confident, invincible vibes.

The waiter appears and dumps some of the excellent flat-bread on the table, and a few minutes later two tagine's are deposited as well, the conical lids are whisked away and oh wow..... that's what I call a tagine. Large pieces of Potato and carrot are arranged in a conical pile over large chunks of Lamb - it's steaming hot and smells gorgeous - I wade in, all thoughts of my surroundings banished. It's really good.

It's all going swimmingly, I'm a complete glutton, so I stuffed my food in no time at all - I'm lazing, back against the wall, clutching my belly and smiling in a contented yet benign fashion at my fellow diners.....I see what can be best described as the classic old crone peering at us from the street outside through the grilled window. Perhaps she's not looking at us, maybe she's looking for someone else. She enters, sits down in an empty chair next to my girlfriend who is still munching away happily on her tagine, smiles and proceeds to plunge her hand in, grabs a chunk of Lamb and begins to eat it noisily. My Girlfriend looks aghast. Hello, thinks I - this sort of thing doesn't happen in the Butlers Wharf Chop House, how do I deal with this?. Not being equipped with the language skills to utter "Excuse me, mind getting your paw out of my Girlfriends Lunch?" I did the next best thing and started laughing instead. The Girlfriend also saw the funny side of it with a 'Guess I'm finished then' - we got up to leave....the locals were all grinning, no doubt amused to see how we'd react.

The price?, 25 Dirhams per Tagine. (That's around £2.50) Old Crones hand in your grub is thrown in free.

Much later the same day, with the evening fast approaching, we once again made our way to Djemma El-Fna, the huge central square that becomes a vast open air restaurant every night. I wanted to ignore the food stall reps, and eat at a stall I'd seen the previous night that appeared to be packed with locals. I wasn't entirely sure what food they sold, but it had to be good.
We found the stall on the corner without too much trouble, and were waved and shoehorned into a space on the communal bench between the other diners.

Once again, the bread arrived, the tomato salad arrived and we were asked what we wanted - no menu, I could make out merguez sausages - so went for those. Up they came sizzling and hot, combined with the bread and tomato salad, fantastic. But, I spied that the oriental looking diner next to me (He was Japanese it turned out) was eating something else entirely...some kind of stew perhaps. Taking my queue from the old crone earlier in the day I reached over and carefully picked the choicest piece of meat out of his food and ate it in front of his eyes whilst smiling at him. No, that image is absurd. I'm British. Of course I didn't plunge my mitt into a fellow diners food, it's just not the done thing. Instead, I said to him "Excuse me, what's that?" pointing at the stew type dish. To which he replied in excellent English "I don't actually know, it's good, try it if you like" Not having to be asked twice, I plunged a bit of bread in - and wow....kind of a sweet lamb and onion stew? no idea what it was but I instantly said to the guy on the grill - "I'll have one of those please" It arrived within minutes and myself and the girlfriend ate the lot in no time. I wish I knew what it actually was though - if anything just to have a go at re-creating it at home. The price, for two 50 Dirhams (£5)

Our last and final memorable meal was at our Riad (Hotel/Guesthouse). I'd read on the tripadvisor review that the food was excellent. The only stipulation that you order your food in the morning so their cook could get to the local market and buy the ingredients. It doesn't get much fresher than that, and I was really looking forward to a Moroccan home cooked meal.

We ate out under the stars, our table being on the top floor of the roofless riad courtyard. For starters, I had ordered Briouat, which were triangular pastry filled with either minced beef or cheese. My Girlfriend ordered Pastilla - a kind of pastry 'pie' which traditionally has a pigeon filling but in this case contained chicken.

The starters arrived and they were huge. The Pastilla was about 4cm thick and as big as a dinner plate. A whole stack of Briouat filled the other plate. These were starters?
Our waitress explained that Briouat are a speciality of Fes - another Moroccan city, and that Pastilla is traditionally only served at weddings or for honoured guests. In the case of a wedding, they make one as big as the table we were eating on. (Around a Meter wide!)
Slightly daunted by the size of the starters - we tucked in and yes, it was very good, the Pastilla especially being extremely sweet - but having a savoury chicken filling, it was to say the least extremely unusual. But very tasty.

We ate far too much of our starters, as when our Tagine main courses appeared I knew I wasn't going to get far with it. Once again huge portions, mine was Lamb and my Girlfriend had beef with couscous - it was extremely good, you could actually discern the Ras El Hanout spice in it - but far too much.
Bloated, dessert arrived in the shape of Moroccan pastries - Our waitress told us that once again these are normally served at weddings -interestingly, the strength of the almond taste telling the guests how wealthy the happy couples family is....almonds are expensive, the more - the better. By this point we were way too stuffed to eat more than a couple of these.
The cost of this home cooked meal in the Riad? 300 Dirhams apiece (£28 each). So, still a bargain by anyones standards.
So, that's what we ate in our few days in Marrakech - and amazingly despite eating at some places, which from appearance at least would no doubt turn a UK Food Inspectors hair white - neither of us had dodgy stomachs. We had a great time, the food is dirt cheap, fresh and exotic - so if you get the chance, go. Just make sure to avoid grilled 'cock' (see part one) and old women's stray hands in your dinner.


Lizzie said...

I love that you've labelled your post 'old crones hand'. Excellent story! I wanted to go to Marrakech once but the ex boyfriend was told a horror story about a mate who almost inadvertently sold his girlfriend....

Emily said...

Hi Dan. Sounds incredible food. I am hankering after a trip to Marrakech and have been wondering how difficult it is to find the restaurants recommended in Lonely Planet etc. I have been to Tangiers and parts of Tunisia and Egypt where there are souks and know what a maze they are. It certainly sounds like it's worth hunting out these culinary gems though. Funny stories well told. You and your girlfriend will laugh about these scenarios forever.

The Ample Cook said...

Brilliant post Dan. You painted a great picture of the place and of the food. What an experience with the old woman! I bet she's entertainment for the locals, watching how the unsuspecting tourists react!

Dan said...

Lizzie - Doesn't suprise me. Sadly I couldn't unload the GF on the unsuspecting Moroccans, and had to bring her back.

Emily - Thanks! My top tip for the maze like Souks - a little key ring compass you can get for a couple of quid in Blacks - amazingly helpful to know which way is North when your totally lost.

Jan - Thanks. You may be right - the locals seemed to think it was hilarious.

Foodie said...

That is a funny story. I didn't get on with the pastilla although the one I ordered had pigeon. Well, mainly pigeon bones to be honest!

Loved the place. Make me want to go back...

Food Urchin said...

I think its great how you and your girlfriend took the old crones hand in your stride, most people would have freaked I'm sure.

Sounds like you had a cracking time out there, thinking right now, when can I go?

Alex said...

Looking forward to seeing what other posts come up in the 'old crone's hand' section!

Erin said...

Hi! I’m the Community Manager of Ruba.com. We’re building a website to highlight some of the most interesting places travelers around the world have discovered. We’ve read hundreds of blogs about Morocco and we think that this post is awesome! We’d love to discuss highlighting excerpts from your blog and other ways of tapping into your expertise if you are interested. I’m at erin[at]ruba.com.
Thanks! :)

Anonymous said...

I've found you've just got to go with the flow when you're abroad, as long as their hands are in your food and not in your shopping it's tolerable. I have had some food nicked off me by a monkey in India before...not exactly chop house butlers wharf either...