May 23 2011
The first time I visited the remarkable food market at the Djemaa el Fna, the vast square in the middle of Marrakech, I was consumed with hunger and bravado in roughly equal measure; even so, it seemed prudent to eat the half sheep’s head that I had bought with some swiftness – preferably without inhaling.
A small crowd gathered, gold teeth glinting in the gloaming, and there was a ripple of applause as I finished. The owner of the stall, misinterpreting my speedy consumption as a sign of approval, dunked a hunk of bread into his huge pot, drenched it in the fat and liquor of a thousand sheep’s heads, and handed me my prize. I can still taste it.
On my second visit, a few months ago, I chose discretion over valour. Stall 31 offered some grilled, smoky merguez sausages; excellent spleen (well, I had to try something odd) fried with onions, ground coriander and parsley; and various brochettes of lamb and chicken: order the former as rare as you dare. Salads, breads and sauces come more or less unbidden, and are delicious; and, if you still crave something a little more outré, El Haj Mohammad on Stall 76 will sort you out with all manner of offal. I timidly stuck to syrupy mint tea and a glass of divinely fresh orange juice.
Were I to stay in Marrakech for any length of time, I would eat in the Djemaa el Fna most nights. There is something to be said, though, for trying one of the swankier restaurants that cater for visitors who like a little entertainment with their dinner. Le Tanjia, in the medina, is great fun: on several floors around a central courtyard, with funky music and even funkier lighting, the menu offers a vast array of salads, brochettes, vegetable dishes and tagines, all subtly spiced and moreishly Moorish. At some point, a gaggle of hip-shimmying belly dancers will arrive and hold all in thrall for 20 minutes or so.
No self-respecting Moroccans, of course, would go out to a restaurant to eat their national cuisine: that, after all, is what mothers (or, even better, grandmothers) are for. In London, where Moroccan grannies are thin on the ground, you should try El Cantara on Frith Street: chef and co-owner Hamza Harrak makes regular trips to Marrakech to find new recipes. The first floor is particularly Moroccan in style: try the pastilla, a fabulously crisp, rich little pie made with shredded chicken, cinnamon, sugar and ground almonds, or the chermoula sardines, with parsley, garlic and lemon, and then perhaps a classic lamb tagine, cooked with prunes, honey and rosewater.
Then, walk past the bar and out on to the terrace for a true taste of Morocco: an open-air shisha lounge reluctantly sanctioned by Westminster Council. Morocco has a thousand different aromas: apple-scented tobacco, let me tell you, is easier on the nostrils than boiled sheep’s head.