A maze of crooked streets in the medina, lead soldiers at the Forbes Museum, annoying haggling in the souks, perfumes at Medini’s, antiques at Majid’s, traditional crafts at the Centre de l’Artisannat… These are the sights and sounds of Tangier. But its pulse is truly taken through the taste buds.
Don’t miss the food market!
From the 1920s to the 1950s, Tingis, its Roman name, had been a fashionable playground for the likes of Paul Bowles, Malcolm Forbes, Barbara Hutton (the Woolworth heiress), Joseph Kessel and Andre Gide. In earlier times Delacroix, and later Matisse, were in awe of its incomparable light.
But independence from France (in 1956) was followed by the repressive fist of the late King, which brought regression and decay. Tangier’s appeal changed, but not its food.
In 1999, Tangier began revamping its dilapidated image, and major changes were expected. A modern harbor and train station, sewage lines in the medina, road development and beautification of the city. King Mohammed VI said that he would do in four years what his late father—King Hassan II—did in forty. His vision is to bring Northern Morocco “closer” to Southern Europe.
In Your Bucket Because…
• Knowing the old Tangier will enrich your experience of the new one—yet some things never changed.
• It’s an easy day-trip from Southern Spain
• For everyone: Foodies, romantics, adventurers, tourists
Guides — Whether you Wanted Them of Not
One of the changes: The infamously overzealous guides were warned to leave visitors alone. Back then, this is how you might have experienced it.
A guide clad in a hooded-djellaba would politely, and unrelentingly offer his services as soon as you disembarked. If you were afraid of getting lost, you might have booked him. He would not tell “how much” but at the end of the day when you ventured to pay him what seemed right, he would tell you how offended he was. If you didn’t want a guide, it would not matter: Even an assertive “Choukrane” (shoe-kran; it means “thank you”) would not convince him that you knew your whereabouts as you rushed to a “petit taxi,” and asked for Le Grand Socco (the large square) where you would access the souks and eventually the food market.
Once there, he would be waiting. If you tried to go on alone, it would only be a matter of time until you noticed his familiar face following you. After you got lost, he would carry your bags and take you only where he wanted; resistance was futile. Today, guides are not allowed to harass tourists, but other customs remain.
Food Market Basics
First rule: Bargaining is the order of the day.
Second rule: Don’t snuggle or get too close! And don’t forget to secure your bag so it is inaccessible to a pickpocket walking or standing behind you. Once, a shrewd young man pretending to haggle for me, put his arms around my shoulders and took a case from my not-so-secured bag. Worse than losing money, it contained my car keys—the ensuing is another story.
So, fasten your bag but remember to unfasten your senses.
The market is a line-up of small booths built with concrete blocks, except for the large hangar-like produce area. Most vendors are locals, but here and there, women in traditional dresses of striking colors sell their products from baskets laid on the mud floor. They are Berber tribal people who came down from the nearby Rif Mountains where they eke a harsh living on the rugged slopes. As you make eye contact with a smile, you will notice the deep wrinkles that outdoor life and farming labor printed on their tanned faces. They might not mirror your friendly approach, and you might wonder if they are as curious about you as you are about them. Remember to ask for approval before photographing.
Tangier Food Market Will Knock your Taste Buds Off
Start your shopping tour with some of the basics of traditional Moroccan cuisine: You can’t miss the rows of wooden barrels filled with pickles so pungent they clear your sinuses. Move on to large bowls of colorful olives and buy a sample of the multi-colored mix to taste the different flavors. Notice the wooden shelves with glass jars of preserved lemons still soaking in salted lemon juice. They are key ingredients of Moroccan cuisine such as tagines—a stew slowly cooked in a traditional glazed dish with a hat-shaped lid.
On the next row, choose from the hefty piles of plump nuts, dried figs and fresh dates still clustered on their stems. Also used in tagines, they contribute to their sweet and savory taste. Frown if you must, as you smell the content of round earthenware bowls with a loose lid. Smen is to Moroccan food what butter is to French cooking. Its particularity is a salty flavor that I find similar to an aged blue cheese. Made from clarified butter (traditionally churned from camel milk), salt, and dried herbs, it was a traditional keepsake given at birth and kept until wedding day.
Are you sniffing like a cat nearing catnip? The combined aromas of the spices are tickling your nostrils. The dazzling display of seeds of cumin, fennel, anis and coriander adds texture, while golden turmeric, rusty paprika and numerous blended spices in earthy shades of brown and green complete this odorant palette.
A fragrant souvenir of Tangier would be the famous ras-el-hanout spice-mix for couscous. The “top of the shop” is a jumble of all key spices used in Moroccan cuisine. Although each vendor has its own recipe, the forty ingredients must be of the best quality — “from the top of the shop.” Its appeal is said to be mystical.
Even if flies get the first bite of anything in sight, you can’t miss the meat and fish markets. Tangier is where the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea unite. The smells of unquestionably fresh fish and meat mix in the stuffy surrounding air. You will notice evidence that, here, nothing is wasted. Only if you are an expert in animal anatomy will you know what “this” and “that” really are.
Don’t pass displays of fresh and fragrant herbs without getting a bunch of lush mint and lemon-verveina! Even if you cannot use them all, for a few cents, their energizing scents will strangely relax you. How about delicate tiny rosebuds to place on your nightstand? Or, fragrant orange flowers to refresh your bathroom? In fact, how about infusing them, Moroccan style?
Next up are the feta cheeses in their own juices. Air-dried for a couple of days, cubed, and topped with a thin slice of quince-paste secured by a toothpick, enjoy them as tapas. Fruit and vegetables are remarkably fresh: Vendors know better than risking the wrath of a Moroccan housewife. And who can resist that whiff of fresh bread from the traditional ovens of the medina!
Late in the night, you will lay in bed exhausted but content, and it will all seem like a dream.
As the King’s new summer residence, Tangier is better and safer than ever. As the gateway to Europe, caution is still required if you travel alone.
Most guides are multi-lingual. Some can organize cooking classes in Tangier and guided tour of the food market.
If you go from Spain, the seventy-minute crossing by ferry or hovercraft through the Strait of Gibraltar might test your sea-legs: Plan accordingly.
Copyright 2012, Marie Claude Arnott. All rights reserved.