Essaouria

Getting a Grilling

I’ve never been a great lover of fish, other than for the few months I lived in Jerez de la Frontera in Andalucia, a town famous for its sherry, flamenco (where it was supposedly born), and being the home of the Royal Andalucian horse dancing school, none of which particularly enthused me, although it did have the most incredible fish market. (And, apropos of nothing at all, Jerez is near Cadiz, the first city and port in Europe and where that supposed icon of British gastronomy – deep fried fish – was born, invented by the Jewish community as a Shabbat meal because it could be eaten cold.)

But, a couple of thousand miles south, to Essaouaira, Morocco’s home of the ‘laid back’ on the southern Atlantic coast, and just the place to sample the best fish in the country.

Ragragui Botzad is a mere slip of a lad in his early twenties, but for a few years in his teens he helped his father, Hussain, man the small fishing boat that has been Hussain’s livelihood for over thirty-five years. Each morning Hussain walks to the port to look at the sea; if it’s calm enough he works, if it isn’t he doesn’t. It’s a simple as that. No matter what the catch, the first fifty dirhams from the sale covers petrol, the second is rental paid to the owner, and the rest he splits with his one-man crew. Eventually Ragragui decided that the same sickness that bedeviled Horatio Nelson, a violent stomach aversion to the swell of the waves, was a good enough reason for him to end his fishing career. But it left him with an excellent knowledge of the local fish, so he was the ideal chap to take me around the fishing port and help me choose lunch.

The quayside in the harbour around noon is where the words ‘hustle’ and ‘bustle’ were made for. Men and women alike, young and old, haggle over sardines sparkling in wooden boxes of crushed ice, dorada still with a salt-sea smell, family-size octopi, and some seriously ugly specimens that look terrifying even when dead.

Ragragui walks me along the quay, chatting with acquaintances and explaining to me the best way to cook some of the more unusual species. But as my lunch is to be something that will be grilled on a barbecue and not cooked in a pot, he ends our stroll with his friend, Hamid. A fine dorada is selected and a handful of fat sardines, bigger than any I’ve seen the fish markets in Valencia, Spain, where I live – and Hamid has a big hand. The seven he drops on a piece of paper alongside the dorada are far more than I would normally eat. For this lot I pay the princely sum of twenty dirhams, about one fifth of what I would pay at home. When I hand over the money, Hamid tries to put another dorada on the pile, just for friendship’s sake, but I tell him that as much as I appreciate his generosity, it would probably end up being eaten by one of the street cats because I had enough for a grand lunch already.

We stroll back to ‘grill street’ in the narrow alleyways off Derb Chbanat, where cubby-hole restaurants prepare tajines of slow-food takeaways. On the way I pick up a bottle of Poms, my favourite sparkly apple juice when I’m in Morocco. Ragragui has to go to work so puts me in the hands of Madame Hadija, who takes the plastic bag of fish to clean and grill it.

In the small square, charcoal grills made from large cans cut in half are set up on rickety tables thrown together out of odds and ends of lumber. Three worn out white plastic garden tables and seven chairs shunted together below a pair of beach umbrellas, one advertising coffee and the other with faded oranges as the motif, provide the dining area of Madame Hadija’s establishment, a place where locals sit and exchange a few words if no-one is using the chairs for commercial purposes.

Three one-person tajines rest on top of individual charcoal burners, and are constantly being replaced as they are carried away for someone’s lunch. When one is removed the coals are given a quick rake over and top up, with a breeze from a small circular ventilation wall fan held in Madame Hadija’s hand to get the coals glowing before another tajine is set in place. As the smoke wafts along the light breeze through the alleyways the aromas of grilling fish perfume the air.

Like a sommelier showing the label of an expensive bottle of wine, Lahcen, the man who is to cook my sardines, holds them up in the fold-over grill for my inspection before putting them on his round charcoal burner. The local bakery is literally a hole in the wall, and while my sardines are cooking Madame Hadija walks over and buys the small flat loaf I’m to eat with my fish.

As much as I like dorado, I’ve never been a fan of either sardines or charcoal grills, but with something so fresh from the catch, a large squeeze of lemon and the cook’s decades of experience I’m converted, although my problem is the same as it is with making a decent cup of mint tea. Can I produce this splendid flavor at home?

Getting a Grilling is Day 12 of Morocco on the Run, a whirlwind tour of this enigmatic country.

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