The age-old and headily aromatic Souk El Najjain spice market, tucked away amid the snaking alleys of Fes el Bali, is the perfect place to soak up the flavours, hues and differing shades of taste that together make up the zest of Moroccan culinary life.
Simply locating this souk is a great adventure. Fes el Bali is the name of the Old City of Fes, a bewildering maze of more than 9000 narrow lanes and cramped alleyways, slim arteries and dark passages that link the medina’s innumerable souks, fondouks and fountains, its mosques and madrassas, cafes, private homes, barbershops, workshops and tiny factories.
Before we enter the Old City gates my guide offers this sage advice: “Should you get lost, then look for an empty donkey and follow. It will be heading toward one of the four gates.”
Donkeys are the only means of getting goods into the heart of this maze and, once unloaded, they head out of the medina maze to fetch more stuff.
Fes is said to be the Arab world’s most complete medieval city and daily life within the medina is one of Morocco’s most fascinating spectacles. Scherazade could have gleaned 1001 tales every single day simply by standing on a corner observing all the activity.
Along one narrow lane I find bright woven textiles, rolls of delicate silks, coarse cottons, tailored shirts, kaftans, djellabas and embroidered blouses. Around another corner I’m ducking through hats and bags suspended from the ceiling.
Another alley is lined with nougat stalls. A winding lane has shops stacked with richly coloured and intricately patterned hand-woven carpets and rugs. Deals are being done at low tables over a glass of thé nana, the ubiquitous Moroccan mint tea. Brass lamps hanging from the eaves shed their soft light through panels of coloured glass.
I nudge my way past wooden frames stacked with babouches, those popular decorated Moroccan leather slippers with the long curly toes. I see shops filled with pottery, others with gleaming dishes of polished and engraved brass and tin. I inspect a cabinet filled with necklaces of chunky amber and silver as well as impressive Berber knives sheathed in scabbards of animal bone.
Finally I find the food souk. It’s a kissaria (covered market) where the spice merchants squat patiently among sacks of condiments, surrounded by baskets piled high with turmeric, cumin, ginger, paprika, cinnamon sticks and caraway seeds. They show me other popular local blends called baharat, za’atar, ras el hanout and dukkah.
Across the way are the herb sellers flourishing large bunches of fresh mint, coriander, basil and parsley. Ropes of dried figs hang from doorways. Straw mats are strewn with garlic or onions and I see tables stacked with juicy olives, nuts, preserved lemons and dried fruits.