Sunday, January 17, 2010

and a good time was had by all – except for the chicken.

cooking01 The Cafe Clock sucks up English speaking visitors to Fez the way the local crusty bread sops up the last bits of savory red Moroccan soup. The proprietor, a Brit named Mike Richardson strikes me as a cross between Eddie Izzard (sans drag version) and that animated chap they go to on CNN whenever they need an energetic English stereotype. Mike is far from stereotypical - though he does seem to only have two modes – enthusiastic and really enthusiastic. He has created a bohemian bastion for artists, musicians, literati and folks just looking for a good meal in his impeccably restored building down a narrow alleyway just off of one of the main drags in Fez’s medina.  Mind of course, that a main drag in Fez is a pathway barely ten feet wide shared by pedestrians and donkey carts traveling in both directions. This former maître de of some of the swankier spots in London was on his way to Turkey when he somehow ended up staying in Fez. Lucky for us. Free WiFi, almond milkshakes, clean and well appointed bathrooms, jazz concerts, jam sessions, great coffee, a friendly staff that speaks English and French and a dinner menu that provided some of the best food we have had in our travels anywhere.

cooking02 If the Café Clock has one detracting feature it would be that it may be too comfortable for a culture shocked traveler looking for a bit of the familiar and could cause one to miss the richness outside of the haven created by this wonderful café. I would suggest one limit oneself to one maybe two visits to the establishment per day of a stay and get out there and explore the medina – Sorry Mike.

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Sara and I stumbled across the joint our first night in Fez. I ordered the camel burger and Sara the chicken couscous. The burger came piled high with everything from pineapple to beets stacked along with the hefty camel patty inside a fresh baked bun. The last time I had camel was in Kazakhstan, and even though the folks of the steppes have a couple thousand years experience cooking up the beast they could learn a trick or two from Café Clocks’s kitchen. Sara took a bite from her dish, then another, and another and whispered to me conspiratorially, “This may be the best thing I have eaten in my life.” We flip over the handbill that originally lured us in and see that cooking classes are offered. We ask our waiter about the classes and boom shock a la ka – Mike appears like a genie from a lamp. He explains that the class starts with a visit to the market in the morning with Souad the chef, a bubbly Moroccan woman who is quick to laugh and looks like a little bit of trouble, followed by an all day kitchen spectacle with said chef ending with us eating the meals we had cooked. At whole day’s entertainment, cultural lesson and a meal to boot for only 1200 Dirham. We book our class for two days later and head off into the January night.

cooking04 On the day of our class we arrive at the café at 9:15 am. We again meet Souad and we pick our menu for the day. Of course we are going to make the chicken couscous that Sara raved about. Mike is having poached eggs in a corner of the room and interjects “We’re never going to take that off the menu it is brilliant!” We also pick a red and savory Moroccan soup and honey macaroons (later after we’re friends, Souad convinces us to ditch the honey macaroons for her own special recipe these made of chocolate, crushed and roasted peanuts and coconut.) Souad convinces Mike to leave his breakfast to fix us all cups of cappuccino before we set off into the marketplace. We sip our coffee and watch as the other employees file in laughing and greeting us. Others appear with big bags of fresh produce for the day. Sara and I are the only two in the class for the day – so already we are feeling special.

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Sufficiently caffeinated we dive into the market. It is a Friday - the Sabbath day for Muslims so the streets are less busy than they usually are and this makes it a bit more pleasant and easier to hear the information Souad is giving us as we shop. She shows us a couple butcher shops and lets us know that there is no fish today because of the holy day and to fish would mean to work and only truly essential jobs are carried out. One such occupations it seems is seller of poultry. We stop and our teacher picks out the bird for our couscous. Of course, the bird is alive, after being weighed on a balance beam scale the butcher quickly slices its throat and tosses the thing into a boiling pot of water to prepare it for plucking. We will return later and it is now cleaned and cut into pieces and in a clear plastic bag. Souad then shows us an olive shop and tells us about the many varieties available in Fez and how no respectable family would ever invite in a guest without offering them a snack from a bowl of olives.

cooking06 This town is full of cats scurrying all about and we learn that each cat stakes out its territory near one of the food vendor’s stalls and that vendor then feeds it. Occasionally there are some feline fights over territory but all in all, the vast majority of cats we see seem pretty well fed. We’ve been in the streets for about fifteen minutes and I have been asking a load of questions until finally Souad puts her finger to her lips and shushes me. We  visit a camel butcher and are enlightened to the many medicinal qualities of the camel’s hump – it seems to be good for just about everything including withdrawal symptoms when one quits smoking.

cooking07 We stop in at a succession of stalls, herbs, bread, couscous, vegetables, and Souad’s woven market basket is slowly filling up with the ingredients for our meal. Everywhere we go Souad laughs and jokes with the men selling and is stopped in the street by people she knows, we feel like we are being led around by a local celebrity.

We get back to the café and have another cup of coffee and then descend into the cooking school’s well equipped kitchen in the basement. We start in to cooking and the rest of the day is a blur of laughing and cooking. We are let in on real secrets to delicious Moroccan cuisine – that if I told you here – well they wouldn’t be a secret would they? Suffice it to say – our meals ended up more than scrumptious – Bnin Bezeft (my own phonetically challenged approximation) I am told means wonderfully tasty in Arabic – well, that’s what we produced Bnin Bzeft! In fact once we finished our soup one of the restaurant’s employees came down and swiped half of it to serve to customers! As my old friend from Lebanon, Dr. Seif said years back as we chased a camel caravan across the deserts of Bahrain in a hotel shuttle van, “It was a magical day!”

So, my parting advice – if you visit Fez, make time for the Café Clock.

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5 comments:

lady said...

O gosh, sounds so wonderful! I had the opportunity to help make couscous with someone once. I was shocked by all the fat we kept putting in. We steamed it a couple times.

michael salinger said...

We didn't use any fat, we'll show you when we get back.

Kim Grey said...

The Cafe Clock sounds like a marvelous place!

smith said...

read all the travel blogs and enjoyed them. would like to see fez.

Max said...

I think it's really awesome how you got to pick your own chicken out. I'm reading an Anthony Bordaine book about Vietnam and he talks about how much he feels americans lose by always getting our meat in ubiquitous pre-packaged plastic containers. Compared to actually seeing the beauty of your food.

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