Monday, April 08, 2013

Food Fun in Fez For Frommers

Pauline Frommer, creator of the award-winning Frommer’s Travel Guides series, was a recent visitor to Fez. She wrote in the Toronto Star about her tasty day with Gail Leonard of Plan-it-Fez
Pauline Frommer 

“I think you’ll find this one to be really green and grassy,” said Gail Leonard, co-owner of Plan-it Fez and our guide on this tasting tour of the city. She dipped a big metal spoon into a plastic barrel of honey, and then drizzled the honey onto the plastic spoons my daughters and I were holding.

“You’ll never guess where the honey bees grazed to make this one. Can you guess? OK, I’ll tell you—on thyme!” Then she added, with a characteristic burst of cheery gusto, “And if you ever get a bad burn or rash, just smear some of this honey on and it will fix it. The Moroccans are brilliant at using foods for medicines, and honey is just packed with antibacterials!”

Gail - the Moroccan "spice girl"

And so, in the quiet back room of a store in the honey “souk” (market), began the honey-tasting section of our three-hour foodie tour. (It included 10 more types of wildly different honeys, from a creamy, sweet fig honey to a downright bitter honey derived from arbutus (which is in the strawberry family).

We’d been in the ancient city of Fez, with its 9,000-plus twisting streets (some no wider than shoulder width), for three days, but out with Leonard I finally felt like I was beginning to gain some insight into what made the city tick. And hearing the Moroccan take on health solutions—“eat local honey, and it will make you immune to the local pollens if you suffer from allergies,” she instructed—was fascinating.

It also was a shopping opportunity—so delicious were some of the honeys that my 10- and 14-year-old daughters insisted we buy three jugs for the road.

"And almost all her tales had to do with things we put into our mouths."

Of course, I would have expected them to eat honey. But when these often-picky kids tried a street vendor’s snail soup without hesitation, carefully picking the snails out of their shells to pop in their mouths, I knew that Leonard had a touch of magic to her. An inveterate wanderer, Leonard has lived in Japan and Germany as well as her native Britain, where she worked as a counselor for drug addicts.

Whether it’s that multicultural background, or simply a natural talent for spotting both the incongruities and universal truths in destinations, she’s a spellbinding storyteller. And almost all her tales had to do with things we put into our mouths.

Like the fresh-out-of-the-oven bread we had in a 400-year-old, subterranean, stone-walled bakery. It was manned by a gruff baker with a 10-foot-long pole that he used to slide loaf after loaf into the oven. Working a 10-hour shift, two days on and two days off, Gail explained, he feeds the loaves of bread into the wood-fired oven, baking 2,000 in a day, up to 4,000 in wedding season.

But (luckily) he didn’t also have to make the dough himself. The loaves are fashioned by local housewives (and restaurant owners). Each morning, they bring in the unbaked rounds and they’re delivered back by runners who are required to remember which dishcloth or tray belongs to which family. Make a mistake, and the loaf might be sent back.

“The bakery’s the center of gossip for the neighbourhood,” Leonard laughed. “They can tell by the dough if Mum’s a bit stressed!”

We also visited crowded markets where we grazed from stall to stall, trying agriche (a pate of camel’s meat), dried beef preserved in fat, chebakaya (a fried cookie drenched in honey), orange-blossom water, crepes cooked over egg-shaped terracotta sculptures, and more.

We looked over but declined to try boiled sheep’s head (the owner would have apparently removed the wool for us, but that wasn’t enough incentive for my kids). Obviously, we couldn’t finish everything we tried, but that was ok, explained Leonard: the store owner would give our leftovers to anyone in need who wandered by.

Gail's stories make the tour

Could we have had a similar experience on our own? Possibly. In Fez, merchants group together by type (so all the honey vendors are in the honey souk, all the spice merchants tend to cluster side-by-side, etc.) so it’s easy to see which one is best by the crowds gathered in front of some stands, but not others.

But Leonard’s stories make the tour, as does her careful research into the sanitary conditions of each vendor: none of us got ill (a common problem in Morocco), even after an afternoon of trying all sorts of street foods.

Finally, it was time for the tour to end. Sorry to say goodbye to Leonard, we approached the doors to our Riad (hotel). She then pulled from her purse what looked like a tiny broom. “It’s the dried flower of the agave,” she explained. “You just break off the end and use it as a toothpick. Perfect to get that last bit of camel meat from between your teeth!”

You can contact Gail Leonard at Plan-it-Fez

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