I experienced Morocco through my nose. Partly anyway. It wasn’t a way I anticipated or planned; it just happened. Morocco’s scents and aromas accumulated in my consciousness until I realized that smell was as important as seeing to have an appreciation for the country.
It started with mint tea, the beverage that Moroccans drink in gobs. The aroma is subtle but unmistakeable. It’s consumed as much as coffee by Americans and Europeans, typically with lots of sugar. When we arrived at our first riad (in Rabat), tea was offered with cookies while we filled out government-required travel papers.
All riads thenceforth did the same. Serving tea is a gesture of hospitality. The preferred ritual will be the same. Tea is poured from a considerable height, easily 3 meters or so, into tiny glasses to aerate the liquid that’s made by pouring boiling water over Chinese green tea and fresh mint. A variation was putting mint directly in the glasses.
I began to love the beverage (without sugar) partly because of the refreshing scent. All the produce stalls sell bushels of fresh mint to satisfy Moroccan passion for tea.
The faint perfume that I smelled in the courtyards of many riads came from a basket of dried rose buds. They’re sold in bulk at all the spice stalls (image above). Originally from Syria, the Damascene (Damask or Damascus) rose is an important crop and is grown commercially in the M’Gouna Valley. Berber women manage the rose co-ops. Our driver Mustapha took us to a shop in Kelaât M’Gouna where the process from picking to distilling the petals for making rose water and oil was explained. The backroom had faint hints of rose attar. I was fortunate to see the flowers in full bloom, which happens in April and May, bushes growing in almost every conceivable corner.
As I strolled through the garden of the Dar Batha Museum in Fes, I caught the heady fragrance of orange blossoms, which has a jasmine-like bouquet. Nearby in the Jardin Jnane Sbil, the blossoms on the trees also permeated the air. This is an intoxicating fragrance that not surprisingly Moroccans try to capture in the production of orange water.
The tangy scent of oranges is also prevalent at this time of year (spring). Vendors in carts everywhere peddle freshly squeezed juice. Grown mostly in and around Fes, the fruit is sold widely in markets and souks. I had orange juice for breakfast every morning no matter where I was in the country, which I don’t normally do when I’m at home. Who can resist freshly squeezed OJ?
Lavender was just beginning to flower in the country. It wasn’t a flower that I normally associated with Morocco, but here it was and in significant amounts. There were excellent, redolent specimens in the Fes garden of Jnane Sbil.
Aromatic spices like cinnamon, cumin, coriander, ginger and paprika suffuse the air where tajines are made. And they are made everywhere, in virtually every restaurant that serves Moroccan cuisine. Tajine may just be its national dish. The other popular items are couscous and brochettes, as is Moroccan salad made with cucumber, tomato and red onion. The fragrances of these spices along with lamb, chicken or beef, come in waves out of the tajine vessel when the lid is lifted or linger when I pass stalls making them in quantity.
I find it hard to resist the aroma of freshly baked bread wafting from a bakery. It’s as likely to be coming from a commercial bakery as a eucalyptus or olive wood-fired communal oven (faraan) where women bring their unbaked goods. Bakery stalls in narrow streets of the medina are especially difficult to walk past without getting a tantalizing whiff. The display cases or shelves are piled with freshly baked bread. Moroccans consume mountains of bread, especially khobz that always accompanies tajine. No meal would be complete without bread. Breakfast at the riads in particular were showcases for all manner of bread, flatbread and pastries. Besides khobz, there could be msemen, batbout, harcha, meloui, beghrir, small Napoleons filled lightly with chocolate. As I’m not partial to high-carb breakfasts or of yogurt, it became a challenge for me to eat contentedly in the mornings, unless there were eggs or cheese.
I saved the ‘best’ for last—the tanneries. Both Fes and Marrakech have them, though the former is much more famous and easier to find. The odors have been described as a retching stench, of cow, sheep, goat and camel hides being treated in stone vats of pigeon dung, cow urine, quicklime, salt and water. Tourists are encouraged to shove sprigs of mint under their noses to mask the smell. It’s true that the tanneries reek but I didn’t find them overly offensive, stinky but tolerable. Still, I can’t imagine being exposed to this every day as are the tanners who follow a tradition that dates back a thousand years.
When you go to Morocco, keep your eyes open but do pay attention to your olfactories.