Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Marrakech restaurants

I am in a daze. I have spent so little time in Bow recently that I feel like my roots have been yanked out. I've been in so many new situations that I've sort of forgotten what normality feels like. I realise this is a particularly lame thing for me to admit to since I didn't do any travelling in the true sense of the world: I went on two holidays with familiar faces in countries not dissimilar to the UK. But hey, that's how I
feel. I feel like I have seen things and done stuff and if that inclines people to be snobby about the fact that I didn't experience these things in south east Asia, or in any sense of the term, 'rough it', so be it. I could now segue into a rant about how I feel about poverty tourism but I have no desire to do that. Anyway - Marrakech! And Essaouira! It's so dusty.

Guys - I don't know what to say about it. I feel a big experienced-out. I've had a bit of a sensory
overload this month and that makes it difficult to remember specific times and places. Smells and milieus are easier. I'm only just now managing to recollect New York enough to annoy people with sentences starting with 'in New York, this happens'. Maybe I should try to convey a sense of morocco interspersed with chats about the food. Since this blog is also a medium for me to practise my scribbling, I ought to avoid chronological sequences of the form that my usual holiday blogs take. I should try and describe so that you feel like you're there because that's what successful authors do. I'll try and do that. Please don't mock me if I fail - I'm a proven unsuccessful writer. When I teach children how to write creatively, I make them close their eyes and tell me about what they see and smell and hear. Then I help them to form a cohesive paragraph involving too much imagery and way too many adverbs. That means that I shouldn't find doing the same thing too difficult. Let's try.

The streets of the medina are terracotta allies winding and changing level so much that I often felt like a small ant slowly winding my way up the inside of a piece of pottery. The presence of bright sunlight peeking through in a sharp, narrow lines enhances this impression and I lack the common sense to understand how little light gets in. It was so disorientating that even by the last day of the holiday, I couldn't find my way back to the riad. Well, maybe I could, but I was too scared to try and kept sneakily looking up whilst pretending to look away to avoid embarrassing myself further with Stompy and the Explorer. A note about my holiday companions: they were good ones. They were calm and responsible and had similar ideas to spending money and fun as me. In fact, they were so ideal that I think that I was the annoying/immature holiday pal. BUT I'm going out with one of them and (probably, I hope this is OK to say) better friends with the other than the other so it's probably fine. Right, guys? Yeah, OK. Let's move on.

To the sounds! Actually, I think the sounds aren't the second most important sense in this city. The smells are. Usually, the smells were delicious wafts of what was most probably tagine and charcoal infusing into red meat. Sadly, even these smells were vaguely reminiscent of food poisoning and served as a reminder that it was probably unwise to follow your nose if you wanted to avoid a stomach ache. (We did manage to avoid digestive tract related unpleasantries. Although we had to resort to some quite extreme measures to achieve this. Enough about that.) I'm not sure it's accurate to say that the pleasant smells were the most common. I think the most common was the whiff of putrefying garbage mixed with sweat. While this would be something to avoid in London, in Marrakech it just reminded me that I was exploring a different (frequently less sanitary) culture. Also, it reminded me of Bangladesh and got me thinking that maybe Bangladesh would be a nice country to visit if I wasn't in a quasi-prison. That's clearly my rose tints talking but whatever.

I have to admit, the starkly new atmosphere took a little getting used to. I felt overwhelmed and slightly frightened on the first evening. We were on the main Djema al Fna square which I think could be not-inaccurately described as the heart of the medina. But I don't mean the symmetrical Hallmarks heart. I mean the visceral, 'a heart is a fist wrapped in blood' Closer type of heart. At night, there's an odd contrast between the almost pitch black of the sky contrasted with the glaring lights that illuminate the faces of the various vendors. They're as aggressive as the vendors themselves who I often found very
intimidating. Finding the line between firm but not offensive was difficult and that was what we were learning to do on the first night. We did not pick up the skill quickly and that meant hearing a fair few misogynistic comments. This primed (Kahneman was my holiday book) to feeling distrustful of Aicha's stall, our first stop for dinner. Possibly the skewers of meat lying out like the TOWIE cast on their sunbeds also had that effect: I was very apprehensive but trying to remind myself of the Tripadvisor assurances that it was 'very clean'. And it was certainly very delicious. Bastilla was a little clumsily sweet for my tastes but the fish was just coated and still moistly fresh. I think the vegetable cous cous was nothing to write home about but mellow enough.

I felt emboldened that the night's meal hadn't had any ill effects and regretful that I hadn't had more of an appetite due to my fear. It meant that I approached our further meals in Marrakech at Chez Chegrouni and Bakchich Cafe with more gusto though. I recognise that the tagines at both the establishments were a real treat compared to what Moroccan food we can find in the UK but I'm still too tagined out to summon much enthusiasm for them at the moment. I will say that Bakchich had the most tender and moreish tagine I've ever had though.

Essaouira was a welcome respite from tagine. A relaxed, coastal town adorned in cobalt blue, it wasn't just the food I was glad to see a change in. The streets are cleaner, the mopeds less obtrusive and the people much friendlier. You can enter a shop and not immediately be accosted with trumped up prices. It was here that I did my first successful piece of haggling - a little red purse for 100dh. Yes, I'm aware that I was probably ripped off. But I'm proud to have bought such a cute item that qualifies as both coin and wallet for 66% of the (tourist modified) asking price. Less than £10!! 

So - the fish. Possibly the most vibrant sensory episode was the fish market. After circling the medina twice, we were met with dozens of thrashing, spitting, barely-dead breeds. It was terrifying. Oh and the smell! Pungent is the word for it. Crude aside - anyone who compares the scent of any body part to the smell of dish clearly hasn't visited a fish market. It would've been very Rick Stein for us to have the catch (slaughtered and) cooked there, but we were not brave enough. We were not even brave enough to try the fare at the touristified blue shacks down by the harbour. Instead, we went to Gnawa Blues. The service was slo-o-ow but worth it. The sole (part of my mixed grill) was the best fish I've ever had, I think. The squid had lost all traces of chewiness (if indeed it had ever possessed it), the sardines were SPARKY and the bream a slight disappointment. Highly recommend.

Sadly, dinner did not match. Let's not talk about our raw, cold dinner. (Prawnsand vegetables were a treat. Meat was like gambling in that it was tasty but bloody risky.)  Breakfast at the riad was also pale in comparison to the wonders of Riad Sidi Omar's. But that's because Omar's breakfasts were terrific, not because Magdoul wasn't doing his bit. Do I have much else to say? Fresh tomatoes and salads (though I post- realise is a dangerous food) make England's veg look pallid. Villa Flore was a fancy last night three course affair and well worth going to - you could feel the haute in the cuisine even if it didn't match the haute of Europe. £30 for three courses and wine is nothing to be sniffed at. 

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