Handful after handful of fresh linked lamb sausages, each about the size and diameter of my pinky, were draped – almost lovingly – across the searing hot grill. Two inches of cedar and oak charcoal from the foothills of the Low Atlas mountains glowed red underneath, fed by the frequent and maddeningly competent (at least to anyone who’s ever been a backyard bbq master wannabe) fanning and blowing of the grill attendants. Concerto Meat and Hot Metal, a universal signifier of pleasure, was combined with shouted orders from the many cooks in the kitchen, great rolling belly-laughs as men in love with what they do and with those they do it with bantered back and forth, and the hubbub just out of view behind the wall of smoke, of snake charmers, water sellers, Gnawa musicians and dancers, and fortune tellers.
But above all, there in the new darkness of the early night, a full moon to one side, and the gauzily-lit stonework of the oldest mosque in Africa on the other, was the smell.
Redolent of peppers, of garlic, of cumin, wood smoke, melting fat, caramelizing vegetables, bread, salt-tinged steam, the haze that permeated everything – before rising into the dark sky and disappearing into the desert – was almost substantial enough to be meal in itself. This was why I was in the largest public space in Africa, at night, in the heart of the biggest outdoor restaurant in the world.
Edith Wharton once wrote that it’s impossible to understand, to truly appreciate Marrakech until you’ve stood on the roof of the Palace Bahia and gazed out at the city laid at your feet. I disagree. The palace is okay, mind you, but it’s not where you go to “get” Marrakech. That happens elsewhere, and I’d argue that it’s at the Place Djemaa el Fna, at 8 p.m.
Every night, the Place Djemaa el Fna in Marrakech, Morocco is transformed from a rather uninspiring (although much-prized) field of concrete and cobblestones into an open air epicenter of culinary experience.
As the sun sets, around a hundred restauranteurs move in, setting up stall after stall, rolling tanks of propane off of cars, trucks, and donkey carts, struggling under great canvas sacks of charcoal, and moving in boxes, bags, trays, buckets, coolers, and vats of startlingly fresh food. Within 45 minutes, smoke begins to fill the air, and by the time the sun goes down, everybody is up and cooking. And the crowds descend. It is not a tourist affair. Yes, there are obnoxious touts out to get you to come have a special tagine or a “best of its kind” fried fish, but they’re the minority and easy to ignore in the face of so much good (and good looking) food everywhere you look.
Instead, you have places like Haman’s grillade, where the merguez sausage, served so hot off the grill that the sizzling fat makes them vibrate, fills a small, shallow bowl. They are served with a chili-infused tomato salsa and great slabs of the ever-present sesame- or cumin-sprinkled bread known as khobz. Seated on long wooden benches surrounding three sides of a grill, 15 of us ate shoulder-to-shoulder, tearing off a piece of bread, picking-up a sausage with it, and dipping both into the salsa before trying to get it past lips locked in a rictus of near permanent oooohhhhh.
Then there is the harira place. Actually there are two very well-attended sellers of this iconic Moroccan spicy soup. As with most good food places almost everywhere, and like many of the most popular stalls in the Place Djemaa el Fna, the cooks do one or two dishes and that’s all. The soup places do soup, perhaps some crunchy bits to put in the soup, and a piece of cake afterwards if you are so inclined (and they have any left).
The harira itself was good, but the experience at stall 23 made it something way beyond that. Cooking away in 50 gallon pots, the harira is scooped into a bowl, handed over to you, and as soon as someone is done with a spoon it’s dunked, rinsed, and handed to you. The spoons themselves gave credence to the real concern of the cooks – there was no pretense to anything other than the soup – and I saw people eating with wood, metal, small, large, and partially slotted utensils, or just giving-up entirely and drinking directly out of the bowl.
France may lay claim to escargot (as well as the entirety of Western culture), but nowhere in the world do you see a people so in love with the humble snail as in Marrakech. Seriously. Gone is that which makes the escargot a thing of haute cuisine, and in its place three sellers of snails, side-by-side, doing everything in their power to waft the most seductive smells of broth and garlic your way. Great metal-core ceramic bowls, kept hot by the omnipresent propane, holding a couple of hundred snails each form the centerpiece of each stall. The proprietor stands behind, slowly turning the snails over in the broth, every once a while plucking one off the top, sucking the snail out, and tossing the empty shell over his shoulder. A big bowl costs about US$0.75. There are plenty of takers.
One thing that becomes clear, as you move from stall to stall, is that there is much more going on here than an evening of eating under the stars. Even satiated, unable to imagine yet another bite, Djemaa el Fna still evokes something primal. Wharton was a traveller who came to Marrakech to see this world that the French had made their own. Her view from a palace roof was of a place, an exotic geography of red-walled buildings. But well before her visit, and well past it, Marrakech served as a refuge, a gathering place on the fringes of wide-open, humblingly harsh deserts and mountains. People gathered there to connect with other humans, to see others of their kind, to do again those things that make us who we are. The Djemaa el Fna reminds the world of Wharton – our world – that the community of food is not about buildings, about going into some place – small and limiting – to eat, it is instead about communion and community. And, if you’re lucky, a clear sky and a full moon.
This piece appeared originally on Foodie is the New Forty.
It is a great stereotype (although no less true for it) that it’s difficult to get a bite to eat anywhere in France without having to share the experience with a dog. They lounge about in dining rooms, cuddle in the crooks of arms, wag appreciatively in the presence of favorite little nibbles, and generally imbue the scene with good cheer. So, too, cats (although without the cuddling, wagging, and slobbery lounging). Yet, cats are often given short shrift in paeans to French dining (Hemmingway, perhaps, aside). It’s too bad.
I was reminded of this not too long ago, when dining alone on a cool spring night—ensconced as I was in the far corner from the door in one of those ratty tapestry-covered chairs that in their peeling gilt suggest long service and many happy meals—I felt a brush against my arm. Looking up at me, his paws kneading tufts of stuffing and shredded brocade, was the restaurant cat.
“Bonjour,” I said.
He rolled his eyes. Ah yes, Paris.
I rubbed the top of his head.
He purred. He stared deep into my eyes.
I looked down at my plate. He looked over at my plate. I raised an eyebrow. He smiled through his purr and the thicket of white whiskers that reminded me of an old man chewing an extension cord. I touched a fried potato.
He said, “Are you freaking kidding me?” Or something very similar.
“Well, that’s all I’ve got for you,” I said.
He looked at me as if I was even more stupid than he’d imagined. Then he reached deep into that reservoir of unquenchable Gallic surety, took a deep breath, cocked his head a little, and got down to business. Staring, purring, each paw—fluffy white with black spots on the arm of the chair—flexing and stretching. Little sounds—field tested over generations by restaurant cats in the Marais—hinted at a kittenhood spent wet, cold, pursued by rats, always hungry, with nothing but the occasional crumb carelessly overlooked by the pestilential hordes of red-eyed pigeons.
I started to tear up. I rolled my eyes. He was good.
He knew it. His purr got louder.
Something gave way. A crack in the wall. It was no use.
A little pinch of steak tartare. Self-satisfied cat smirk. A quick flick of his tongue and he was gone.
Next to me was a table of three or four couples—from the tone of the conversation, good friends—none of whom seemed to notice anything out of the ordinary. I ordered another glass of wine, accepting of my defeat. And all the happier for it.
Among the reliquaries and instruments of the kitchen, nothing is as sacred to a cook as his or her knives. Ask the right sort of question, and you’ll get entire doctoral-level disquisitions on the varying benefits of steels (e.g. 1080 carbon versus 440C stainless), methods of sharpening, which knife is the right knife for the right job (duels have actually been fought over this question—a downside of arguing while handling pieces of sharpened steel), and so on.
But get outside of the kitchen, and interest in the knife drops precipitously. For the vast majority of us, the only other real connection we have with a knife is at the dinning room table. And even then we’re faced with barely crafted pieces of metal that are supremely useful if you’re working your way through a plate of peas, but otherwise require the sort of perverse effort that is reserved for our postindustrial world where function is often secondary to manufacturing cost and sales price.
All of which forms the backdrop for a recent trip to Paris, where I found myself on the Left Bank’s Rue Racine. I was headed for a place near the Sorbonne called Bouillon Racine (home of a superb duck confit), but just as I got to the front door my phone rang, so I kept on walking. By the time I hung up I was nearly at the Odeon, and so had a couple of blocks to walk back—this time paying attention.
The University of Paris borders one side of r. Racine. Its unbroken stone and masonry façade creates an interesting sort of street: one side feels oppressive and claustrophobic, which, in turn, accentuates the more familiar mix of shops, bistros, bars, and the occasional apartment entrance on the other. Cuts down on stimulus, and you can focus.
I lingered just a bit at an antique shop and a bookstore (as one does), and finally found myself, about half a block from the restaurant, at a wooden grey-blue façade with plate glass windows, through which honest to God incandescent bulbs burned. Another jewelry store I thought, at least until some part my brain started shrieking in protest. I accomplished a stop worthy of the roadrunner at the edge of a cliff. I had stumbled—hungry and jetlagged—on Ceccaldi, perhaps Paris’s best knife store.
The Ceccaldi family is from Corsica, and their knives reflect the lusty beauty of the island. I would genuinely love to replace almost every knife I’ve ever owned with one forged and made by these folks. But what the Ceccaldi shop got me thinking about instead was the arc—or maybe the circle—that begins with the sharp stone of Neanderthal, passes through crude metal and utilitarianism, then through artwork and status, then to mass replication and distribution, and then to what shops like Ceccaldi represent—a sort of return.
This sort of thing, the return—in various forms—is going on all over the world, particularly in the west, and particularly within the United States. But in France, of course, it is tinged with the bittersweet hope that patrimony and stubbornness can stand against the future, even when it’s clear they cannot. And, although the US has its share of gifted custom knifemakers of a culinary bent (my current favorite is Joel Bukiewicz at Cut Brooklyn), Ceccaldi is only one of a number of such stores in Paris, much less all of France.
It is a testament to mankind’s ingenuity that its oldest tool—after our forecraftsmen moved from stone to iron—has changed little. A knife made the way Ceccaldi makes a knife is an expression of a sort of timelessness in human life. Melt, pound, shape, temper, sharpen. Even if we don’t seek out blades like theirs, we can appreciate them. We may not have developed a truly biological—that is to say evolutionary—appreciation for knives (unlike, for instance, for snakes), but we’re all carriers of a potent memetic infection, one that is as intricately intertwined with the DNA of human culture as any other.
In France, unlike most other countries, obvious exceptions are places like Japan and China (and increasingly not even the Middle Kingdom belongs on this short list) there is a very deep river connecting past to present. In France, it connects the contemporary with a golden age—one that stretches an impossible distance from 987 to the Second World War. It also makes France an unfair target for those who believe the only value is the future.
History has meaning today, even if specific historical events do not. The neoantiquarian crafts and practices exist not as memorials but as touchstones. The making and the doing are making and doing, but they are also living and flourishing. The creation and use of a knife from Ciccaldi are acts of cultural conservatism in the best possible way. And demonstrate that these rivers connecting past and present flow in both directions.
It was early. But not too early to be tucking into a plate of toasted country bread, béchamel, bacon, and cheese. Nor too early to be on my second cup of coffee. The rain had stopped, leaving the pavement damp and little bits of cold March sunshine reflecting in the puddles. Regardless of how pretty a city is, if you arrive at five-thirty in the morning after being wedged for eight hours into a middle airline seat only slightly bigger than your hips and considerably smaller than your shoulders, until you have that first sip of coffee and a little something to eat it’s mostly lost on you. At least that’s always been my experience. A little caffeine and a little hot fat and suddenly you’re able to pay attention.
I’d wandered aimlessly down Blvd St.-Germain and picked a café at random, glancing at the menu only long enough to elicit a rumble of appreciation from a stomach tired to death of peanuts and soggy fruit salad. Now, content almost beyond measure—dry, warm, full, and a little edgy—I could look around and see what was what. I travel mostly for the streets, for the lives that happen on them and for the incredibly powerful and conflicting feelings of continuity and disjunction: the familiar and the fantastic. There’s lots of that, of course, everywhere. But in Europe, if you’re coming from the US, the feeling is even more seductive and delicious. No more so, I think, than in Paris.
Just across the street from my café is a row of shops, all open to the early morning air. There aren’t many customers yet, but the shops buzz. Each is emerging from the nighttime chrysalis of locked gates and barred windows. The shopkeepers extend tables into the street before laying out the fruits, and vegetables, fish, and bread for sale. They work quietly, except when they don’t. There is humor—a lot of it, laughing comes over the street and through the open doors of the café—but there is also a practiced, studied competence and fluidity. It is the same every day, but every day a little different as seasons and the crowds change.
I settled my bill and headed across the street to do some up-close and personal gawking. My first stop is the Poissonnerie Boulannaise, where—completely distracted by something I’d just caught out of my peripheral vision—I’m nearly run over by an enormous basket of scallops. A twisting two-step later I’m standing over a medium-sized pile of sea urchins. I turned to the guy stocking fish stock just inside and asked if they have the little beauties all the time. He laughs. That’s what I thought, and a perfect example of the frisson when the expected (a good fish monger in Paris) and the unexpected (freaking piles of uni) come together on the street somewhere.
Next door is the Charcuterie St Germain. I walked—almost a crawl, really—past the glass-fronted display cases and open bins twice before wandering in. I asked the young guy behind the counter what was new and interesting and he pointed me to a display of deep chestnut colored sausage flecked with fat. “Boar,” he said, pleasure radiating off his face. “It’s very good.” More frisson.
And next door to the boar was the cheese shop supplied by Cremerie des Carmes. Cheese shops in France are among my favorite places in the world. Nowhere, really, do I feel a greater sense of exciting, thrilling, and provocative dislocated familiarity than standing among rounds and slabs and logs and baskets of cheese from sheep, from cows, and from goats. There are somewhere around 400 distinct cheeses in France, and depending on where you are, you can get enough regional and local variation to get that number up around one thousand. For me, a small little taste of Epoisses and I’m a happy camper. The cheese guy told me that he sells a little bit of everything in his shop over the course of a week or two. That’s a lot of really excellent cheese, particularly when paired with the bread available at Boucherie Volailles a door down, or with pears from the grocery Quatre saisons next to the fish shop.
It’s just a street corner (at the intersection of St.-Germain and Rue Monge) with a few places to buy food. And, yet.
Gunpowder and paper are fine and all, but when I’m in a certain sort of mood, I think that one of the greatest contributions China has made to the world is something far more banal, and far more delicious: the dumpling. They come in many shapes and flavors, translucent or bready, pinched or rolled, filled with vegetables, or pork, or lamb, or seafood. They are dipped in soy sauce, splashed with vinegar, eaten hot, devoured cold, gazed upon lustfully through steamed windows, or found under bamboo on a corner cart. They can be a meal, a snack, or a temptation. And they are everywhere.
Late last week, in the midst of a billowy downpour of willow and poplar pollen, the dumpling craving was in full swing. Luckily, in the Back Lakes area there is an interesting experiment going on. Responding to the growth of both Western and provincial cuisines in the city (the latter of which sweeps through with tsunamic ferocity on a regular basis), Nine Snacks (the public face of the Old-Beijing Traditional Snacks Maintenance and Development Association) does its best to offer old-school Beijing tasties…not least of which are some stunning dumplings.
This is the sort of place – chaotic, loud, crowded, full of energy and energetic eaters – that food people craving something both new and old can find a happy home. It’s also comforting in its anachronistic willingness to push back against the wholesale transformation of the city. Like the small – but vocal and inspired – groups working to preserve the hutongs, Nine Snacks is struggling to preserve culinary traditions that while not exactly on the edge of extinction, are subject to forces that threaten their relevance to the new city and its inhabitants.
I write today to praise the pork rib. But not any pork rib. Oh no. You see, I have had many pork ribs. I have cooked many pork ribs. Hell, I have donned the vestments of the porcine canonical priestly class and worshiped at the altar of the pig. But, never before have I had a pork rib like these pork ribs.
Cooked until tender, the fat buttery soft, dusted with salt and pepper, and then deep fried until crispy, these ribs defy satisfactory description. They are served simply, with only a little bowl of finely ground Sichuan pepper on the side.
The sharp flowery bite of the sichuan pepper, the uncutousness of the melted fat, and the sweetness of the meat combined to do something quite extraordinary: change the game for me when it comes to pork. If I cannot match – somehow – the experience of that first bite sometime in the next year or so…I’m going to have to initiate an annual Santiago de Compostela-like pilgramage to Xiao Wang’s Family Restaurant in South Chaoyang. Really. That good.