Slowly, we continue our venture through the labyrinth of the medina, leaving behind the alluring atmosphere of the herbalist’s stand. As we drift past the mysterious sublimity of old cedar doors, crumbling pink passageways and cascading vines; our guide, Abdul, remains a warm and inviting beacon of reassurance as we progress through heavily worn archways and the opacity of long narrow tunnels. Marrakech, somehow, embodies a seeming duality where shadow and light, reality and the fanciful interplay with one another, manifesting into a world of wondrous imagery and contrast. Motorcycles and mobile telephones serve as our sole reminder of the present, here, within the coral hued walls of city. Yet, these fragments of modernity cannot obscure the ancient spirit that lends its essence to this reality. Whilst the hypnotic melodies of snake charmers echo on the breeze, we find ourselves surrounded by the esoteric rituals of fortune tellers, and laboriously decorative palaces built for grand viziers and kings. One such place in particular strikes us, plundered and forgotten with only storks to guard its weary battlements. Harmonious, yet, discordant, vibrant yet weary; a balanced space struck between two opposing forces.
In front of us, Abdul stops to peer into a small, open doorway; its appearance is almost deceptive as it proves to be hidden to the untrained eyes of tourists and those not accustomed to life within the medina. We will stop here for a short while, Abdul whispers as he turns to face us with his ageing brown eyes, playful and intelligent, my friend here, makes the best Berber whiskey. Eagerly, he enters the shrouded haze of the passageway, beckoning us forward with the movement of his palm. As the lingering smell of leather begins to increasingly thicken, our eyes grow accustomed to the dimly lit surroundings of a high ceilinged shop. We make our way deeper, further within, only to be greeted by a pleasing benevolent display of carpets engulfing us in an untameable sea of colour.
* * * * *
An ascending stream of dancing vapour entertains our vision, as Yassine pours his infamous Whiskey Berbère into delicate glass cups from his old, charred teapot. The distinctive, aromatic hints of mint permeate the heavy leather scented air, as we sit, relaxed, amongst the high piles of carpets. The secret to good Berber whiskey, Yassine smiles, is double boiling as this take away the teas’ bitterness. Abdul nods approvingly as he sips the golden elixir. Sweet, fresh, soothing; silence echoes within the four surrounding walls as we each enjoy the peaceful ritual of drinking tea.
Now then, Yassine utters as he places his small glass onto the metal tray in front of us, businesslike and assertive, how may I help you? Abdul sits forward, glass still in hand, I wish to do business with you, I want to see what carpets you have. Not too big, something like this size, he points towards a pile, let me see what you have. Turning to us, Abdul laughs, Marrakech people do not go to the souks for carpets, they are all made in China- also, too expensive! No, we come here, for Moroccan prices and good quality. Yassine is a Berber, and he sells Berber carpets, all handmade!
Amiably and proudly, Yassine begins to explain the art of dyes and workmanship of his kilim carpets, particularly of ones made of aloe vera and camel hide;
Poppies, lilacs, pomegranates, indigo and saffron, some of the items used to create the vivid colours of the carpets, with quartz, used to seal the colours. Berber people search for the stories within their hearts, and that is why, all these carpets, are unique. You see, each carpet I have here, tells a story of the weaver, be it through the symbols she wishes to use- which is passed down from her mother and her grandmother, and her mother, or, through the way she weaves. Her energy travels into the carpet and her feelings, dreams and hopes, documented through the knots or shapes she uses, telling of her personal journey through her life. Some symbols are common in Berber carpets, like the diamond shape, to keep away the evil eye, but mostly, they are whatever each family interprets them as. They hold a secret story that only weaver and possibly the family, her tribe, can truly interpret.
The eloquence and passion of his words resonate deeply within me. His feelings towards his carpets were not too dissimilar to my feelings towards food and recipes. Influenced, adapted, altered, some forgotten, others timeless and unchanged. The feelings of people, their culture, their memories, their love, all encapsulated within the food that they prepare, passed down from one generation to the next. Yassine turns towards Abdul to showcase his beloved collection to his faithful customer, a calm prelude to the heat of a haggling dual. Although smiling and light-spirited, there is a hint of sadness in Yassine’s dark eyes; a subtle reminder of the duality found here, in the Red City. One where a choice sometimes needs to made between holding onto nomadic, traditional life passed on through the generations, and one of a necessity of survival, as a culture and as a people through the onset of modern influence.
As we finish yet another glass of tea after a successful haggle, a woman enters the shop. Come, Abdul says, looking at his watch, I will take you back to the herbal shop to collect our things. As we finish our drinks and begin to leave the welcoming atmosphere of the shop, Yassine, turns towards us, placing a Hand of Fatima in the palm of my hand. For good fortune, he smiled, before turning back towards his customer.
By early afternoon, it was time to part ways. With farewells made, we begin our way back through the labyrinth towards the vibrance of the souks. Shimmers of gold dance their way through the openings of reed roofs of the markets, cutting beams of light through the shadowy corners of the centred walkway. The air is perfumed with the smells of incense (bakhoor), leather, cedar and the occasional mouthwatering aromas of fried fish and herbs. When we grow weary and overwhelmed by the activities and coaxing of merchants around us, we will find calm and tranquility once more back at the Riad, our oasis amidst the maelstrom that characterises this ancient city. But, until then, we will wander once more as we continue our journey into the heart of the medina.
French Partridge Pastilla With Toasted Almonds, Herb Shoots and Quail Eggs
The seasonal gaming has come to an end and it seemed rather fitting to rejoice the ending of this season with the last of the bird game and the slow beginning of another. Although February is a late winter month, somehow, the view of tiny stalks of awakening daffodils and tulips reassures the approach of Spring. It has been relatively mild where I live, with the occasional flurry of snow and bone chilling winds. Having sprouted a few herbs indoors in January, I was pleasantly surprised to find fresh shoots of green gently stretching upwards towards the sky. Here at Sumac & Dutch, we are strong believers in seasonal foods, local produce and, perhaps the most important of all, respecting and acknowledging where our food actually comes from. In this dish, we try to ensure that every part of the bird is used, be it the meat and edible organs for the pastilla, the bones of stock, later for feeding my plants (we still haven’t figured out what to do with the feathers yet, but we are slowly getting there). This recipe that I will be sharing, was inspired by the exquisite cuisine of Morocco, particularly the delicately sugar dusted pigeon pastillas, which we could easily have devoured morning, noon and night. This recipe is by no means traditional but encompasses the sweet and savoury flavours of our travels and the seasonal pleasures of England.
Makes: 12 servings
Cooking time: 2+ hours
1 french partridge (also known as red-legged partridge), cleaned and de-feathered
1 woodcock, cleaned and de-feathered with head, legs and internal organs still intact
2 medium white onions, diced
4tbsp olive oil
1tsp fleur de sel
1tsp white pepper
1/2tsp ras el-hanout
pinch of saffron
1tbsp boiling water
1/4tsp tonka bean, ground finely
1 cup parsley shoots (adult parsley can be substituted)
1/2 cup coriander shoots (adult coriander can be substituted)
2 hibiscus flowers preserved in syrup + 2 tsp of the syrup
3 1/2 cups almonds, blanched
10 tbsp confectionary sugar + extra for dusting
10 quail eggs
1 medium chicken egg
10 sheets of warka pastry (filo can be substituted)
2-3 tbsp ghee, for brushing
Preheat the oven to 180c (160c fan-assisted) 350f. Place a large pot on high heat on the hob. Drizzle the olive oil into the pot before adding the onions. Fry for 5-10 minutes until sweating. Add the woodcock and partridge and fry until golden brown on all sides (10 minutes).
Meanwhile, crush the saffron in a mortar and add to the 1tbsp of boiled water and rose water and infuse for 5 minutes. Turn down the heat to medium-low, adding 250ml of water into the pot with the infused saffron water. Also add the salt, white pepper, ras el-hanout, turmeric, ground tonka bean, parsley, coriander and the hibiscus syrup and flowers. Give a gentle stir, place the lid on the pot and allow to cook on simmer, stirring occasionally (20-25 minutes).
In a small roasting tray, place the blanched almonds evenly on parchment paper. Place in the oven for 20 minutes or until golden brown. When ready, take out of the oven and coarsely grind, adding 8tbsp of confectionary sugar and 3tsp of cinnamon. Leave to one side.
Once the birds are cooked, turn off and place away from the heat, taking the birds out of the stock to cool on a plate. When they are cooled, you may remove all the meats and the edible internal organs from the birds (note: most of the internal organs of the woodcock liquidises during the cooking process, creating a delicious, albeit gamey liquid. The brain is also a delicacy and can also be added to pastilla, if you desire). Once the liquid is cooled slightly, crack the quail eggs and the chicken egg in a bowl and whisk together. Pour the eggs into the liquids, whisking quickly before adding the honey and 2tbsp of confectionary sugar. Turn on the heat slight, and cooking gently until the scramble eggs becomes soft and thick ensuring that it does not go dry (5-10 minutes). Take off the heat, season to taste and place the scrambled eggs into a bowl. (Note: this stage before the constructing of the pastilla can be done a day or two before and just assembled on the day).
When ready, turn the heat on in the oven to 200c (180c fan-assisted) 400f. First, brush a 7 inch (18cm) wide skillet or pan of similar measurements with ghee, then, working quickly, place two layers of warka sheets into the pan, brushing ghee onto each layer. Place the egg mixture onto the pastry, topped with the the meats, then place another 3 sheets over this, brushing the layers with ghee. On top of this next layer, add the sweetened, coarsely ground almonds. Next, cover this layer with the rest of the warka sheets, brushing and tucking in the sides of the pastry under the pastilla (or as neatly as possible). Bake in the oven until golden brown (18-25 minutes).
When ready to serve (traditionally served hot, but equally delicious cold) dust with confectionary sugar (add extra cinnamon if desired). Eat immediately. Eat within 2-3 days and store in a cool place.
Thank you for reading.