Morocco‘s third-largest city tends to go overlooked, and it certainly isn’t shouted about as a culinary hotspot. Even getting here – with limited flight connections and rail services – requires some effort. And once you’re inside the largest medina in Africa, a colossal walled labyrinth of around ten thousand lanes, things get even trickier.
It’s a far cry from ever-popular Marrakesh, whose main square and souks, packed with snake charmers, fortune tellers and acrobats, have become a movie set of tourist-orientated camera-ready experiences.
Get hungry in Marrakesh and there’s a whole host of restaurants that crowd the Jemaa el Fna, many dishing up the same tick-box menu of tagine or pizza. Not so in Fez, where finding a good place to eat is both the challenge and the charm; book a restaurant here and someone will have to pick you up to guide you there.
In the medina street food oscillates between the bizarre and the delicious. Snails prodded with safety pins sit alongside mysterious vats of meat wedged in what resembles a yellowish, greasy lard. Tempting bowls of glistening fat olives accompany piles of sticky dates.
With a local little knowledge, or some luck, you can stumble upon candlelit riad courtyards, quirky cafés tucked down nameless alleyways and creative restaurants that are cleverly blending traditional and new styles.
The edible side of the medina
The medina, Fez’s timeless, ever-beating heart is steeped in tradition. This is a maze where even locals get lost. Ask a Fassi if they ever lose their way and you might be met with the chuckled response “yes, everyday – that’s the beauty of it”.
It’s no surprise; everywhere you turn worn-down stone pathways twist and writhe, inexplicably opening out into stall-lined thoroughfares before being squeezed into steep dead-end alleyways so narrow that the sun can barely penetrate and you have to turn your body sideways to pass through.
This is a place, in many ways, living in the past. Heavily-laden mules are the only form of transport, camel heads are displayed outside local butchers and taking your family’s bread to be baked in the communal oven is still a morning ritual. And best of all, food – often in unusual guises – is everywhere.
To truly get to grips with the edible side of the medina, the cookery course at Palais Amani is a great start. Before whipping up a selection of traditional dishes – anything from a delicately spiced tagine with a smoky aubergine zelouk, to a cinnamon dusted, flower water-infused orange dessert – chef Hussim will take you on a shopping mission through the medina.
Let yourself be guided along streets where men sit on stools barricaded in by their goods, peering out from behind walls of carrots, mounds of fresh mint, huge piles of purple radishes and crates overflowing with oranges.
Explore passages where row upon row of vibrant spices spill out from woven sacks and perfume the air.
The stalls here are made for grazing: women skilfully spread out delicately thin pancakes, hole-in-the-wall operations dish out steaming bowls of harissa soup, and stalls display rows of syrupy almond pastries.
Image by Olivia Rawes
Back in Palais Amani, the intricately tiled, lantern-filled restaurant serves traditional treats with a modern twist. Try the incredibly tender lamb tagine presented on a bed of artichoke hearts, or delve into a colourful mosaic of Moroccan tapas dishes on the roof terrace that overlooks the medina’s sprawl.
Modern cooking with cultural influences
Today, many restaurants in Fez are waking up foodie trends by blending Moroccan culture with new ideas.
Café Clock, a quirky restaurant that doubles up as a creative hub offering everything from yoga and calligraphy classes to film screenings, is famous for its cinnamon-salsa-topped camel burgers, a delicious mix of local, traditional ingredients repackaged as a western favourite.
The most striking example of this modern take on cooking is Resto Número 7, an innovative pop-up style concept that hosts chefs from around the world for three month placements. The restaurant’s chic black-and-white interior acts as a blank canvas against which the resident cooks bring their own creative twist inspired by Moroccan cuisine and the local, market-fresh ingredients.
Recent chefs, Oliver Truesdale-Jutras and Phoebe Oviedo, mixed their Canadian and Filipino backgrounds with the local influence to create dishes such as seared swordfish in a buttermilk, fennel and Harissa sauce, adobo-glazed turkey thigh with garlic couscous and a deconstructed panna cotta topped with sautéed banana and torched cinnamon crumble.
Even more change is on the horizon for Fez. Plans to transform part of the medina are already well under way and are due to be completed in 2017. Locals say this redevelopment will turn the city into the “Venice of Africa”, creating a boulevard along the river where people can stroll right through the heart of the medina – a project that will undoubtedly bring more places to eat and stay.
There is hope that it will draw more visitors to Fez, increasingly allowing it to compete with other Moroccan tourist hubs such as a Marrakesh.
Only time will tell what effect this has, but for now at least the pulls of modernity and tradition seem well balanced. Fez has hit that sweet spot: the perfect mix of enchanting time-warp and exciting city.
It’s a food lover’s dream: come, eat your fill and don’t forget to get lost.
Olivia did a four night cookery break at Palais Amani, a luxury riad located inside Fez’s medina. Explore more of Morocco with the Rough Guide to Morocco. Compare flights, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.