James Clark stays at the Palais Amani, Fes in Morocco, and cooks up a storm in this amazing city.
I have always been a fan of second cities. They tend to be a lot more relaxed than capital cities and don’t have the need to compete to be the best. Morocco’s second city Fes is the ideal destination for a laid-back break.
Getting Lost in Fes Medina
Founded in the 9th century, Fes is one of the oldest and most culturally rich cities in the world. The city is divided into three parts, but I was heading to the medina Fes el Bali, the spiritual and cultural capital of Morocco.
The medina consists of almost 10,000 cobbled alleyways, and what seems like an uncountable number of dead ends. You’re going to get lost and if you are anything like me, you’re going to get disorientated a lot. Going astray in the world’s largest pedestrianised zone and lived in medieval Islamic city is all part of the Fes charm.
It soon became plausible to me that smell was a competent way to navigate my way around the medina. Each section had a distinctive odour, and the area around Palais Amani where I was staying for the weekend was no exception. The riad was located within a sniffs distance of Chouara – the world’s most famous tannery. I had read reviews on TripAdvisor stating that it was the most disgusting smell in the world, but seriously it wasn’t that bad. I’ve smelt much worse in London wandering the streets of the West End on Friday and Saturday nights.
The tannery is one of the most remarkable sights in the medina. It’s hidden away behind shops, stalls and street vendors selling all types of leather goods. I wandered into one of the shops, had a chat about how the leather was made and took the opportunity to go up to the roof to look at leather skins drying in the sun and on the multi-coloured vats of Chouara. Not much has changed since Fes replaced Córdoba as the centre of leather production over one thousand years ago.
Palais Amani is hidden behind giant wooden doors. The building was abandoned for over a quarter of a century until husband-and-wife team Abdelali Baha and Jemima Mann-Baha relocated from London and bought the former home of one of Fes’ most prominent families. It took the couple four years to renovate the property into the beauty that it is today.
Every detail has been taken care of from the sunlight pouring in through the Iraqi stained-glass windows which is quite a remarkable sight, the gold and azure Moroccan tiling on the walls, floors and pillars, and sense of tranquility and space. I was in suite two, which is where a family resided during the time the building was abandoned. They were there to keep it safe, and it was a treat to be walking up and down the connecting steps of the rooms where life had continued throughout quieter times.
The first thing that greeted me in the heart of the hotel was the ornate courtyard full of plants, sweet smelling orange trees, and the sounds and sight of the fountain in the centre accompanied by birds’ song. It was the perfect setting for morning coffee, and later in the day a bottle of Casablanca beer or glass of Guerrouane Blanc produced in a region of northern Morocco in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. It’s not common knowledge that the area has been producing good wines for more than 2,000 years.
Food is a highlight at Palais Amani and breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served at the Eden Restaurant and outside around the courtyard. Breakfast consists of an abundant amount of fresh fruit salad (sliced oranges picked from their trees, with pomegranate and mint) and natural yogurt, flatbreads with olives, cheeses, two types of honey, and a different Moroccan soup every morning. The broad bean soup was so good that I have thought about making it now I’m home. For dinner on the first night, I chose orange velouté (soup) and cheese briouates, beef couscous with vegetables, and pastilla with milk and almonds from the à la carte, but I soon became addicted to the pastilla, a flaky filo pastry parcel of chicken and almonds dusted with icing sugar and cinnamon. If only I could make that!
Cooking Up a Feast
Palais Amani has various activities available, and it wasn’t long before one of the Fez Cooking School posters grabbed my eye. I chatted with Abdul at reception and booked one of the private cooking workshops and souk visit tours that afternoon.
The tour started with a short walk with Abdul to the souk where we met chef Oussama. We bought fresh herbs from Achabin, aubergines from a street vendor, and other ingredients for the evening ahead. We sampled soup, different sweets and ventured into Place Seffarine for tea made with seven different herbs which was delicious.
Abdul knew his way around every nook and cranny. He was born in the city and was keen to point out the oldest library in the world, Al Qaraouine – the oldest university in the world, and the animal hides in pink, yellow, green, purple and blue along Dyeing Street. Before winding our way back towards the street vendors selling multi coloured purses outside Chouara and up to the rooftop and the outdoor kitchen at Palais Amani where the magic happens.
For the next couple of hours, we chatted while we grated tomatoes and garlic and charred aubergines over an open flame to make zaalouk, as well as chicken tajine with preserved lemons and olives, and Jawhara dessert with orange blossom water, cinnamon and sugar. The whole experience managed to be educational and fun.
At the time Morocco was playing Portugal and making quarter final history in the World Cup 2022. It started to rain as fireworks exploded across the night sky, so I headed downstairs back to the Eden Restaurant and enjoyed my finely cooked food there with another glass of Guerrouane Blanc.
The following day I had an afternoon flight back to the UK so rather than head back to the souk I decided it was time for some pampering at Palais Amani’s underground hammam where I was washed, steamed, exfoliated and showered before heading back to room two to relax before it was time to pack and head back out those giant wooden doors.
Palais Amani and Fez Cooking School
For further information on Palais Amani click here. B&B is priced from £160 per room per night
Fez Cooking School has group classes priced from £60 – £1405 for private classes with souk tour.
All images: credit Peter da Silva Communications