Whether visiting “just for looking” as the locals are fond of saying, for browsing for particular items or for making actual purchases, food markets hold a fascination for visitors. The food meccas of the Mercat de la Boqueria in Barcelona, Spain, the Mercado Central in Santiago, Chile or the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne, Australia, attract many thousands of visitors and locals alike for example. In Marrakech there are many smaller markets, particularly scattered, seemingly randomly, within the medina, with fewer outside of the old city ramparts. A visitor in self catering apartments or villas, those looking for a lunchtime snack or stocking up on “nibbles”, fruits, nuts, dates and olives to return to their riad with, will join the local people in their search for provisions. The present review concentrates on just two of these, the largest ones, both being indoor markets.
The first of these food markets can be found on Avenue Haumann el Fetouaki which leads from the south of the square, Djemma el Fna, to the Mellah. The shops and stalls here are housed in two adjoining buildings. The second covered food market is the Marche Central is to be found in Gueliz (new town) situated off Avenue Mohammed V on Rue des Nations Unies opposite the main post office (La Poste). It was known as the French Market as it evolved to meet the food requirements of the officers, administrators and merchants (along with their families) in the days of the French protectorate.
Part 1 – Fruit and Vegetables
A large variety of fruit can be found here, mainly locally produced, but some imported. Local yellow apples and imported sharp green ones, sit alongside small and sweet Moroccan bananas (originally from the Canaries). Pears of several varieties are displayed to effect. Apricots, peaches and nectarines are boxed next to various oranges – Seville for confitures, eating oranges and those grown especially for juicing and yet others for the production of orange water. Seasonal tangerines, mandarins and occasionally kumquats can be found. Other citrus fruits include a variety of lemons and limes. The harder to find “limoun beldi” or “citron beldi” are the small, thin skinned variety used for the Moroccan speciality of preserved lemons, favoured in many tajine recipes. Ordinary lemons do not work as well due to their high water content. Grapefruits, both yellow and red “blood” varieties can sometimes be seen.
Other fruits to watch for are the marvellous, bright red/purple cherries (again seasonal), loquats, physalis (cape gooseberries, Chinese lanterns) and custard apples which taste, somewhat strangely, like a cross between a potato and an apple. Grapes are abundant, green, yellow and “black”; none are seedles. Figs occur in every hue, cream through yellow to red, mauve and black. They are eaten raw and cooked being used in both sweet and savoury dishes. Melons too are well represented with varieties succeeding one another as the season progresses – Charantais, Ogen, honeydew and Galia are the sweet breakfast or dessert varieties to look out for, while chilled watermelon provides a welcome thirst quencher during the heat of summer days. Pomegranates, persimmons (Sharon fruit), imported mangoes and prickly pears (the fruit of a species of Opuntia cactus) are popular. Vendors will relieve the customer of the task of removing the spiny outer skin of the latter fruit, otherwise gloves are essential! Local strawberries appear from late spring on heaped barrows and are large, very sweet and very cheap. Large green and yellow quinces are used in savoury tajines and are a treat for the visitor more accustomed to the small and tart European greengage.
Vegetables are well represented too, many commonplace but some more unusual ones can be discovered. The vegetables (French “legumes”, Arabic “khodar”) which are botanically fruits include the ubiquitous tomato. Unevenly shaped, variously coloured and at all stages of ripeness these are at the core of Moroccan cuisine. Not the insipid wateriness of identical, pre-packaged supermarket European fodder but tomatoes with real texture and taste. (The same can be said of other local vegetables too.) A real treat that the visitor can look out for are local Italian plum tomatoes, fantastic raw in salads, in sauces and especially as the main ingredient of a summer tomato soup (with fresh basil). Sweet (bell) peppers, red, orange, green and yellow, are found with the longer green Moroccan peppers. Chilli (chili) peppers, mostly fiery hot and green or sun ripened red, appear in two main varieties – the long thin (Moroccan) ones and the increasingly prevalent “Scotch bonnets”.
Other fruits masquerading as vegetables include cucumbers, small gherkin sized to large and smooth skinned, and all seedless, courgettes (zucchini) – small, large, globe, pale to dark green, the smaller ones with their flowers attached (good for stuffing and deep fried – and a variety of aubergines (eggplants). Small purple and white striped aubergines can be stuffed with a spiced (ground) minced lamb filling and baked in a tomato sauce. Fresh beans and peas, technically seeds, have a long season. Fresh peas in their pods are especially sweet (if a slight “fiddle” to prepare) and broad (fava) beans are commonly seen in salads and couscous (one of the seven vegetables in the classic Moroccan dish “couscous aux sept legumes”). Green (French, runner) beans are very common and often served in a vegetable medley (“jardins des legumes”). Artichokes are relatively cheap and easy to find but the markets sometimes obtain a much smaller variety, golf ball in size, which have a spiky outer coat. A devil to prepare but well worth the time taken! Jerusalem artichokes (no relation) are a root vegetable and can also be found here. Cardoons, the stalks of an artichoke variety, are rarely seen in countries north of the Mediterranean, and are very fibrous and require careful preparation. Stewed cardoon is often served as part of a Moroccan mezze/hors d’ouvres. Slaoui, a gourd like member of the squash family, is rarely encountered outside of North Africa and is delicious as a stewed vegetable side dish or as a component of a vegetable tajine.
“Traditional” green vegetables include cauliflower, celery and chicory (confusingly called endive in French), cabbages (white, green and red varieties), the aniseed flavour of fennel, okra (lady fingers, gumbo) and a large variety of lettuces – cos, Romaine, baby gems, and endive (yes, you have guessed, chicoree in French).
The onion family is represented by onions (obviously!) red (Spanish), English white and more rarely globe white (with white skins). Leeks, shallots, both pink and white, and garlic, purple and white, complete the allium squad. Root vegetables include the ubiquitous potatoes and carrots, celeriac and turnips (swedes) – smaller than northern varieties ranging from table tennis ball size upwards – in two types, golden and mauve/white. Delicious glazed in a local honey with fresh orange juice. Fresh beetroots and radishes are easily obtained.
The same large variety of fruit and vegetables can be found in the Marche Central with a few additions to suit the foreign palate (although many Moroccans are developing a taste for these, and dishes prepared by Moroccan cooks and chefs are appearing on restaurant menus).
White, yellow and green asparagus, although exported to Europe for many years, can be found in the Marche Central. Fresh mushrooms are also becoming popular especially cultivated ones (akin to champignons de Paris) and field mushrooms. With luck the visitor can also discover morels, boletus, chanterelles and oyster mushrooms too. Broccoli is a relative newcomer to the vegetable scene and sweetcorn (corn on the cob, maize) although easily found grilled, sold at street stalls, can now be bought fresh in the markets.
Part 2 - Meat and Seafood
This second review concentrates on the same covered markets, the largest ones, both being indoor markets.
There are several butchers’ stalls in both markets. These usually specialise in beef or lamb, not both. The terminology used here is mainly UK English, other countries of course having their own descriptions. Shoulder, flank and brisket are commonly used as braising cuts and therefore are the ones commonly found in tajines. Beef and lamb ribs are cheaper cuts too and in the case of lamb form the meat basis for the “breaking of the fast” soup, harira.
More expensive are lamb cutlets (single chops but “gigot” on request), lamb and beef fillet and steaks, and a trussed beef roast known by the French name “faux filet”. This is rarely found outside of the covered markets which have a large non-Moroccan clientele (although Moroccans are equally well represented in these markets too.) A “Sunday roast” is as yet a foreign peculiarity! Minced (ground) meats are popular too, and used in kefta tajines, in Indian style kebabs and a savoury stuffing for vegetables (“meshwi”). A customer can ask for meat to be minced with extra fat (for moistness and flavour) and/or spiced. The small spicy sausages called merguez can be found here too, normally lamb.
Meat offal can be found alongside the other cuts: liver (beef or lamb), kidney (usually lamb, but occasionally beef), lambs’ brains and beef tripe, both bleached and unbleached.
In addition two butchers in the Marche Centrale offer horse meat. These shops can be readily identified by a painting of a horse’s head (or a photograph of a fine looking stallion) hanging above the counter.) Horse flesh is cheaper than that of sheep and cow and is offered as braising cuts, fillet, minced (ground) and even as merguez.
Chicken is the predominant fowl on offer. Alive. The shopper chooses one and it is weighed (the price quoted is the live weight), dispatched and defeathered by machine. The giblets (lights) and the bird are then handed over in separate bags. “Dzhazh bildi”, original chicken (the equivalent of free range) appear in the market as well and attract a premium price.
Another bird is seen occasionally too – squabs (young pigeons). These are especially used in the classic b’stilla (pastilla). Ducks, and even more rarely turkeys, are the province of the itinerant street seller and are not usually found in the markets. Although not poultry, rabbits are often seen for sale, again live. They are used in tajines or for grilling (broiling) often served in a caramelised onion and sultana (raisin) sauce. They are farmed animals.
Fish and Shellfish
Members of the herring family (although not herring themselves!) are commonplace at the fish stalls. Sardines, one of Morocco’s best known exports, are ubiquitous and very popular, normally sent lined up on large metal trays to the local community baker. They are spiced with added onion rings and red sweet (bell) peppers, or made into fish balls for another variety of kefta tajine.
Fresh anchovies and the large horse mackerel can be bought too. Most of the fish found in the markets come from the North Atlantic although some Mediterranean species find their way south to Marrakech. White fish includes conger eel, hake and grey mullet. Sand eels and red gurnard add colour to the displays. Sole (Atlantic grey) and whiting are staples. More expensive fish include John Dory, sea bream, sea bass, sea wolf and monkfish. Tuna and grouper fall into the more expensive category. Freshwater trout from the lakes of the High Atlas appear on a very infrequent basis but are well worth looking out for. The cartilaginous species of shark, skate, ray and dogfish are regularly offered.
Crustaceans and molluscs are to be found at the same stalls. Atlantic mussels and oysters are sold in net bags, replete with barnacles and the occasional frond of seaweed. Squid, and sometimes octopus, can be purchased. Squid (calamari) is very popular. Although not a crustacean or a mollusc, small black and very spiny sea urchins make a seasonal appearance too.
Part 3 – Grocery Items and More
This third and final part of the review concentrates on only one of the covered markets previously reviewed. This is the one to be found on Avenue Haumann el Fetouaki which leads from the south of the square, Djemma el Fna, to the Mellah. The shops and stalls here are housed in two adjoining buildings.
Wooden or steel cylindrical “bins” at these shops within the market contain a large variety of dried store cupboard ingredients. These include various pastas, rice and couscous (and other semolinas) of different grain sizes. Dried maize (corn) and Bulghur wheat adds to the variety on offer. A range of flours, mainly wheat but sometimes barley, are on offer. Other bins offer fresh garlic bulbs, both violet and white varieties. Dried fruits are on display in attractive wicker baskets – apricots, figs, bananas – while a large selection of dates, particularly Tunisian, are packed like sardines into waxed paper lined boxes.
Pulses such as chickpeas, green and yellow lentils, white (lima) and flageolet and broad (fava) beans stand alongside these other ingredients.
Dried nuts are commonplace, unroasted and roasted and salted, almonds, chestnuts and walnuts, and occasionally autumnal North African pecans. Pistachios are an Iranian import and a great favourite in patisserie, milk shakes, ice creams and yoghurt drinks (raib). Commercial versions of raib can be found in the chill cabinets – unflavoured, vanilla, strawberry, pistachio and almond.
Coffee beans, pure Arabica varieties, can be ground to order in store. The shopkeeper’s own favourite spice mix (aromatics such as cardamoms, cinnamon and cloves for example) can be added if wished, or the customer’s favourite blend added to the melange. Yemeni mocha for an aromatic daytime drink and Ethiopian dark roasted after dinner coffees are favourites.
Dried leaf teas are packed in colourful boxes: the widely used Chinese (green/gunpowder) tea being the leaf of preference for “Moroccan whisky”! Granulated, powdered and blue paper wrapped cones of loaf sugar are to be discovered amongst these. The sugar cones are often used as a mourning gift as vast volumes of mint tea is offered at this time.
Bottles of orange flower and rose petal water make useful gifts.
Olives. A multitude of colours – green through yellow to red, pale mauve to violet to black, can be discovered in the market. They can be pitted or whole, crushed or stuffed. Herbed (coriander, parsley, sage and thyme) and spicy marinades add to the flavours, while the ones with preserved lemon are particularly good too. They are displayed in basins. There seems to be no end to the choices available. They are sold loose by weight or in presentation jars for gifts. Shoppers’ tip: ask for the olive oil drained from these olives as a ready-made cooking oil, or in salad dressings and for marinades.
Other products are available in these stalls too. Preserved lemons in open enamel basins, newly preserved and bright yellow to the aged buff coloured ones (which have a greater depth of flavour). Cornichons (small gherkins) are either vinegar pickled or brined, and again can be purchased in presentation bottles, as are capers.
Here too the visitor will find basins of smen, often erroneously compared to the Indian ghee (the taste is not similar), and the product called khli – scraps of lamb preserved in smen and usually sold in plastic tubs.
This review can only provide a snapshot of comestibles to be discovered in the covered food markets of Marrakech as so much produce is seasonal and changes on a daily basis.
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