Much ado about taboo

Until 2005, non-Muslims were not permitted to stay overnight in Moulay Idriss.

Guide books warned the tourists who dared to visit to be out of town by 3pm. This is what Edith Wharton had to do in 1919 when she visited the town, known as the holiest place in the country, to research her classic travel memoir, In Morocco. Although there was nowhere for her to stay, she claimed she was the first foreigner to witness the town’s frenetic moussem — the music- and dance-drenched summer celebration considered by many Moroccans as an alternative to the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.

Well, there are places to stay now, and an intriguing new restaurant run by Mike Richardson, former maitre d’ of the Wolseley and the Ivy in London who recently became the first foreigner to buy a property here. The red-headed pioneer moved to Fez, an hour east, five years ago to set up Café Clock (concept: crazy Moroccan souk meets Venice Beach-style café, with camel burgers) and now intends to do the same thing in Moulay Idriss.

“Foreigners are warmly welcomed now,” he says. Moulay Idriss’s reputation as an unwelcoming place wasn’t down to religious sensitivities alone. “From what I can gather the myths come about because the place is so special. The Moroccans wanted to keep it a secret.”

His new restaurant, Dar Akrab (Scorpion House), is perched on one of two hills in this ancient town where Moulay Idriss el Akhbar, the great-grandson of the prophet Muhammad and the man who brought Islam to Morocco 1 200 years ago, is buried.

Tour buses from Fez used to come no nearer than Volubilis, an eerily abandoned Roman city, a 20-minute walk from the town. There is still no regular public transport — the cheapest way to get here is in a shared “grand” taxi from Fez or Meknes.

The climb to Dar Akrab is steep but worth it for the incredible mountain views from the white minimalist terrace as you eat your scrambled eggs with desert truffles, or your Moroccan barbecue, the house speciality. In a Moroccan barbecue the meat, usually lamb, is cooked Mechouia-style (a Berber as opposed to Arabic method) — outdoors over hot coals and basted with a herby, spicy marinade made of cumin, paprika and coriander.

Keeping it local
If you want more details, well, you can ask the other customers because, unlike at many of the fancy new places in Marrakech, at Dar Akrab you can meet young locals, men and women. “The vibe is going to be dictated by the people of the town,” says Richardson. He bought the place as a refuge from his life as a fêted resident of Fez.

Café Clock, in the middle of the souk, is so successful that every time he steps outside, he is grabbed by a stallholder selling pet chameleons or homemade rosewater who wants to pass the time of day.

Even for the non-famous, Fez can feel claustrophobic after a few days, and the huge skies and dramatic views of Moulay Idriss are a tonic.

Boy soup

Other attractions include ancient Roman hot springs, a 10-minute walk away in the peaceful hills, with two moderate-sized baths built into the foothills of Mount Zerhoune. You can swim here — the water smells of cumin and hot stone. (In the summer, Richardson says, it is “boy soup”.) But even if you don’t take a dip, it’s worth the climb for the astonishing views.


Looking down on the vast plains of Volubilis gives a real sense of being in Africa — as well as a flash of what Roman Africa might have felt like.

Thanks to Dar Akrab, Moulay Idriss is starting to wake up. Richardson’s local friend, Fayssal, runs a new five-room guesthouse, Dar Zerhoune. It’s a modest wood-framed, tile-floored boutique hotel with classic keyhole-shaped doors, lots of romantic balconies and a rare baraka or carving to Muhammad in the central courtyard denoting that that part of the house originally came from Mecca.

The conservatory-style dining room on the cushioned roof terrace has (again) incredible mountain views. Breakfasts come with local honey and couscous bread dipped in olive oil from a grove just down the road.

Food and friendliness are the biggest attractions of Dar Zerhoune. The only other real competitor is La Colombe Blanche (maisondhote-zerhoune.ma) opposite Moulay Idriss’s tomb. It has eight bedrooms in classic mismatched Moroccan style (inexplicably, most of the furniture is covered with doilies).

Meat by men
Fayssal’s dad, Mustapha, is a great host too. Once a week, he offers guests the option of his tangia, the Moroccan hotpot famously cooked only by men. It’s a very male dish in that there is lots of meat and not much work.

You take a big ceramic urn to the butcher, get him to fill it up with spiced meat and then you take it down to the hammam (steam bath). You leave it in the hammam fire, go off and have a good steam and when you’re ready you take it home and announce, “Hey, honey, I made the dinner!”

The big show-off moment comes when Mustapha empties the urn in front of me. The richness of the sauce and the tenderness of the meat momentarily shock me into silence as the inscrutable Fayssal and his jovial dad smile down at me.

Food will be a big part of Richardson’s new venture. He already runs cooking workshops in Fez, and will be doing the same at Dar Akrab.

His friend, cookery writer Tara Stevens, has just published Clock Book: Recipes from a Modern Moroccan Kitchen (33books), inspired by Richardson’s menus. In Moulay Idriss, she will be manning the Moroccan barbecue and teaching guests how to make everything from duck in spiced pomegranate molasses to crystallised rose petals.

Richardson is also putting Muslim-friendly cocktails on the menu: “Alcohol-free but full of bright colours and glitz. We’re going to bring in a bit of glamour.” —

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Advertising

Where is the deputy president?

David Mabuza is hard at work — it’s just not taking place in the public eye. The rumblings and discussion in the ANC are about factions in the ruling party, succession and ousting him

Zuma turns on judiciary as trial nears

Former president says pre-trial correspondence is part of another plot

SANDF inquiry clears soldiers of the death of Collins Khosa

The board of inquiry also found that it was Khosa and his brother-in-law Thabiso Muvhango who caused the altercation with the defence force members

Lockdown relief scheme payouts to employees tops R14-billion

Now employers and employees can apply to the Unemployment Insurance Fund for relief scheme payments
Advertising

Press Releases

Covid-19 and Back to School Webinar

If our educators can take care of themselves, they can take care of the children they teach

5G technology is the future

Besides a healthcare problem Covid-19 is also a data issue and 5G technology, with its lightning speed, can help to curb its spread

JTI off to court for tobacco ban: Government not listening to industry or consumers

The tobacco ban places 109 000 jobs and 179 000 wholesalers and retailers at risk — including the livelihood of emerging farmers

Holistic Financial Planning for Professionals Webinar

Our lives are constantly in flux, so it makes sense that your financial planning must be reviewed frequently — preferably on an annual basis

Undeterred by Covid-19 pandemic, China and Africa hold hands, building a community of a shared future for mankind

It is clear that building a community with a shared future for all mankind has become a more pressing task than ever before

Wills, Estate Administration and Succession Planning Webinar

Capital Legacy has had no slowdown in lockdown regarding turnaround with clients, in storing or retrieving wills and in answering their questions

Call for Expression of Interest: Training supply and needs assessment to support the energy transition in South Africa

GIZ invites eligible and professional companies with local presence in South Africa to participate in this tender to support the energy transition

Obituary: Mohammed Tikly

His legacy will live on in the vision he shared for a brighter more socially just future, in which racism and discrimination are things of the past

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday