Haggling for snails and eating a Roman picnic on a trip to Fez
A Roman picnic and a visit to Morocco’s ninth-century Fez el Bali medina deliver an assault on the senses
The leather tannery at Chouwara which dates back to the 11th century
A view over the Fez el Bali medina in Fez, the largest car-free urban area in the world, where some 160,000 people work in 80,000 shops in almost 10,000 alleys
Dormouse was not on the menu. Nor flamingo tongue. But when in Morocco, do as the Romans did, and have a picnic.
We do just this at the Walila farm. Sitting on kilim rugs below the Zerhoun mountain, we raise flutes (rather than 4th-century goblets) to toast the world’s first celebrity chef and cookery book author. Marcus Gavius Apicius, confidante of emperor Tiberius, probably provided most of the recipes for the 4th-century cookbook bearing his name. He was a well-known gourmand and once sailed to Libya to sample its shrimp. Banqueting bankrupted him before he died by suicide.
Our unique Roman picnic comprises saffron chicken with plums, beans, celery, custard, olive bread and cheese. With lots of cherries and, of course, grapes. But no potatoes or tomatoes or chocolate – these ingredients came from the New World and had no place in a Roman picnic basket. Thankfully, today, togas are not obligatory.
Volubilis (or Walili in Berber) is the old capital of Mauritania and the southernmost city in the Roman empire. It lies between the important cities of Fez (which has held the title of capital of Morocco five times) and Meknes, the capital from 1672 to 1727. Containing plenty of mosaics celebrating Dionysius and Bacchus, Volubilis has triumphal arches, temples, blue limestone villas and the remains of olive presses and mills. Volubilis olives once lit Rome.
It is said this is the only place in the world you can enjoy an authentic Roman picnic, but you can also learn to cook Fassi (Fez-style) too. Fez, which was the capital until 1912, now proclaims itself Morocco’s foodie capital, as well as its spiritual and intellectual centre. It houses Africa’s largest mosque and oldest university in the world (859AD).
You can do some study of your own, with lessons in Berber and Fassi cooking, where you learn everything from lemon preserving to making your own traditional seasonal Moroccan salad, complete with self-foraged mallow leaves.
Local chefs will teach you how to coddle a chicken and smoke an aubergine and how to fluff up your couscous. There are cookery workshops at the Palais Amani (palaisamani.com) which offers a range of classes from learning to make traditional breads and pastries for €67 per person, to a tajine workship which includes a souk shopping tour, €97 per person.
Or you can take a trip 10 miles from Fez to Dar El Mandar, where, at a bijou farm guesthouse with a farran (public bakery), you can release your inner Berber by learning basic skills at the bakery for €195 for the day (this is cheaper for groups).
At the Palais Amani, I meet chef Houssam Laassari who takes us on a market tour prior to the cooking lesson. Nothing prepares you for the sensual impact of Fez’s ninth-century Fez el Bali medina, the largest car-free urban area in the world. Some 160,000 people work in 80,000 shops in almost 10,000 alleys dedicated to all the crafts and grafts, traditional and modern.
You follow the chef and his straw shopping basket around the bazaar as he shops for the lesson. No navigational app is available, so an escorted tour is vital to orient yourself in the most disorientating of places.
One which writer Paul Bowles thought “a city which was not easy for everyone to like”. And he was right. Fez is an acquired taste. The taxis may be cheap but their seats leave your buttocks doing an impression of the local zellij mosaic tile patterns. Shopping lends new meaning to words like browsing, harried, hassled and hot.
No one much cares that the 560-acre souk is a Unesco heritage site. There are dirhams to be made, families to be fed and deals to be struck. As well as Maghrebi (north-west African) tea trays, crepe pans and teapots to be bashed out.
Everywhere, silver is being hammered, wood sawed and planed, copper chased, wool carded and spun. You are pulled around by a tide of kaftans, baggy djellabas (cloaks) and gold-tinselled sandals, all the while surrounded by shouts of “Belek! Belek!” (“Watch out!”).
Donkeys carrying cured hides, horses with carpets and scooters loaded down with eggs have right of way.
If you are not lucky enough to visit in the company of a chef, for a couple of euro, young men will navigate you through it all and introduce you to their father (or uncle) in his underground showroom where you sit on a battered sofa while he climbs a ladder to show you something you don’t want, because all you need is a breather.
And then, with a polite “La, shukran” (No, thanks), you are back in the maze, the dead ends, windowless high walls, narrow passageways, wall-eyed beggars, shisha pipes, walking the cobble streets past the area dedicated to wedding wear, pashmina shawls, desert nomad bling, embroidered pouffes and slippers.
Recognising your dry scalp, smiling men jump out at you with hair-nourishing argan oil. They shout “Kiss, kiss”and offer poppy petal lipstick and hamman scrub mitts.
Your young guides will undoubtedly walk you straight into the smell of cow urine and pigeon guano at Chouwara, a leather tannery dating from the 11th century. This is one of the few locations you’ll be able to find without a guide: your nose will lead you there.
From the terrace of a leather goods shop you look down at the huge inkpots of dye, your guidebook telling you it’s “the most odiferous place in the world” and the shop owner telling you that the smell is free and his leather negotiable.
Back on street level on our Palais Amani culinary tour, we thread our way through the sacks of olives, flour, powdered and flaked almonds, figs, dates, okra, giant cucumbers and aubergines in the vegetable district of Rcif. You need to watch your step here or you may get your shin scuffed by a passing cart selling “beghrir” crumpets, or a donkey might step on your toe.
Sticking to the main “dreb” or street, Talaa Kebeera, we walk behind Real Madrid football shirts, surrounded by women staring through burqas at shopping lists on their mobile phones.
Chef Laassari makes his selection at a chicken stall and we watch as the butcher, Zouhir, slits the throat of a cockerel, saying a prayer for its soul.
Progress out of the market is halted when we get stuck in a bottleneck of olive dealers from the Talagh hills. A few yards on, we are held up by a “hemar” (mule), bow-legged under a five-seater Arabic floor couch.
But then we are through a giant studded door into a courtyard with obligatory ornate fountain. Then onwards into a mausoleum, a 14th-century Koranic madrasah school and a weaving workshop.
Chef stops for some persil, which he tells us is an essential ingredient for a Moroccan zaalouk salad. This seems rather unappetising until we learn that persil is not a washing powder brand, but rather the name Moroccans give to coriander.
For an hour, we trail Laassari through the organised bedlam of unforgettable Fez, passing a camel’s head with blue-bottles nesting in its eyelashes. “The hump is the best cut,” says Laassari with a smile.
We are invited into every cafe to enjoy mint gunpowder tea and the “best” panoramic view of the medina. While I’m sure this spiel hasn’t changed in 1,300 years, the prices keep up nicely with inflation.
Chef bought some filo-like “warka” bread from his friend Oussame. It’s used for Moorish pigeon pies. The filling flaps in cages next door.
We pass mountains of salt (that were once traded for Italian marble) and hole-in-the-wall enterprises selling doughnuts, honey and sesame pretzels, and the famous Ras el Hanout spice mix.
Before getting back to the Palais Amani, a restored former merchant’s house with a citrus garden courtyard, €13 G&Ts and views of laundry lines and satellite dishes, we pass flip-flop emporiums, more stuffed footstools, bedspreads and clutch bags, get a last waft of shaved cedarwood and grilling almonds before a snaggle-toothed man offers me a tortoise for €1.
He also has five snails for sale in case I want to make traditional Moroccan snail soup. How do you haggle for snails?
Marrakesh receives 10 million visitors every year. Fez gets just a tenth of that figure, partly as it has only been a tourist destination for eight years. With direct flights from London though, this will change.
Gail Leonard, a Yorkshire woman who runs Plan-It-Fez, the company behind the Roman picnic excursion, says part of its charm is that “Fez is in-your-face, authentic Morocco”.
“The past is still alive and flourishing here,” she adds, something we learn as we tuck into the meal prepared during our Berber cooking class.
Ryanair flies daily from Stansted, see ryanair.com – for more information, see visitmorocco.com, palaisamani,com, plan-it-fez.com/ 212 0 535 638 708. info@plan/it-fez offers Roman picnic excursions to Volublis, €115pp inc transport and translator.