08 May, 2007

flowers and saffron, Moroccan style

Friday dawned hot and fair, and Avery woke me up to drag me up the steep flights of stairs to the roof terrace, where everyone, including Pete who had just arrived before I awoke, had assembled for breakfast. Could there be a more idyllic setting? Everyone remarked on the beautiful ancient mosque adjacent to the riad (Moroccan for "home", but only if your idea of home is a small palace), and the morning prayers emanating from it at 4 a.m. I was smug in my possession of a very efficient white-noise-maker, and had not been awakened at all by the sounds (turns out "Amazon rainforest" trumps prayers as far as decibels go, or maybe I was just very tired).

I have to say that life is a little more glamorous, a little more edgy, and I in particular a little more self-conscious when one's breakfast companions include two professional photographers and one fashion designer! Not that he ever said anything about my admittedly lowbrow Gap and whatever else clothing, but Vincent's friend Emmanuel's impeccable style and running commentary on all things clothing-related was a definite kick to my laziness as far as fashion goes. He is one of those men on whom clothing hangs like on a hanger, broad-shouldered, tall and quite perfect looking, and I found myself wanting to hide behind Avery's cool sense of style. But at the same time, he exists in a sort of otherworldly state of innocence, floating through conversations, meals, shopping trips and parties in a sort of gentle kindness. Emmanuel is one of those people for whom John's and my invented phrase "shiny-object syndrome" was intended: his eye is constantly being caught by something that will then inspire his fashion designs, be it a rare plant in the Yves Saint Laurent garden, a length of fabric in the market, or Avery's hairstyle, and he flits from subject to subject with absolute spontaneity.

Then Mike was a source of constant laughter, as well as documenting our holiday with the devotion of a kindly paparazzo. He has the professional's ability to frame shots, find the perfect angle, and somehow turn quite an ordinary situation into an event to record. Avery admired his trick of holding his camera overhead as he walks, to capture the activity behind him with energy and simplicity. I guess practice makes perfect! He and John spent a lot of time talking cameras, and I'm certainly looking forward to his pictures of the weekend. But mostly Mike's contribution to any situation was his bubbling, conspiratorial, seductive laughter. What a gift to find most of life amusing!

And Boyd was... Boyd. Total iconoclast, refusing to pretend enthusiasm for the swarming market when all the rest of us were in a state of avarice and bargain-hunting, watching the activity with the indulgence of a favorite uncle, finding us all quite nutty. I have a feeling that there are still waters running deep with Boyd, because Vincent (who knows him very well) kept saying, "Where's Boyd?", and Boyd would protest that he did not always have to be outrageous, he could simply enjoy himself on holiday, couldn't he? Was he on good behavior for us? He said not, and we can only hope to get to know him better and see how his funny, ironic demeanor develops. Completely good company.

Pete was what I am now coming to think of as his typical self: unruffled, always calm, acting as the perfect foil for Vincent's changeable, mercurial charm. He can tell a story better than anyone I know, I think, one involving a farmhouse (could the story have been set in Morocco? perhaps) that was an absolute tip, a disaster of mess and filth, and when the owners invite guests in, they look around at the debris and moan, "Oh, no, someone's left the cow flap open!" Lounging in his traditional Moroccan long robe (must find the word for it, like an Arabic sari-ish), he radiated benevolent good humour all weekend.

Then there were Peter and Jane, the gallery owners from Notting Hill whose space had engendered in my such envy last fall, and who were part of such a festive evening at Vincent's house around the same time, as well. We're hoping to make it to their next show, "Paule Vezelay and her circle: Paris & the South of France," opening on Thursday. Check it out if you can; Peter and Jane have a very quirky and stimulating aesthetic and you'll be glad you put their gallery on your radar screen. I hope there's a special place in the afterlife for people who are nice to other people's children. Both Peter and Jane, and in fact everyone Vincent invited to share his birthday, treated Avery like an actual person, which was a relief since they could easily have seen the one small child invited as crashing bore. What nice people.

Breakfast was a triumph of simplicity: glorious fresh-squeezed orange juice, a frosted glass of mixed local fruit (peaches were very much in season) topped with unsweetened yogurt, rich cafe au lait, and every day a different little bread: Friday was a lemony corn bread in thick slices, Saturday little crepes, and Sunday rolls speckled with some native seed. Just delicious. After conferring in the sunny courtyard (while Avery amused herself with the flower petals strewn all over the floor, more falling from the bougainvillea as the minutes passed) we decided to head to the Jardin Majorelle, a glorious tangle of international plants originally designed by the painter Louis Majorelle in 1924 and recently restored by Yves Saint Laurent, amazingly. The garden is nearly as remarkable for the overwhelming blue (a sort of impossibly cobalt shade) of its pots and walls, as for its flowers, but it is worth a visit in any case. Both Emmanuel and Mike snapped innumerable photos as we wandered among the winding paths. Bamboo so old and tough that people have scratched graffiti into it! Cacti sprouting blossoms, strange spidery ferns growing perfectly horizontally, amazing. On a truly hot day it would be an oasis of calm and cool, and as it was on our perfect day it was a real pleasure.

From there we emerged into a sort of unofficial taxi rank and were immediately set upon by what might have been three brothers, or at least three very solid business partners, who assured us that they were absolutely necessary for our happiness. Vincent discussed with them various lunch possibilities, and we ended up in the opulent and oh so exotic Palais Chahramane in the Jewish quarter of Marrakech, eating until I thought we would have to be rolled out. A first course of seemingly endless dishes of vegetables to share, accompanied by typical Moroccan round bread: steamed carrots, courgettes, haricots verts, aubergines stewed with garlic and tomatoes, gorgeous lentilles with parsley, still al dente, marinated cucumbers, roasted beets. Then it was onto a Moroccan delicacy called a pastilla, which I can describe only as a sort of baklawa stuffed with roast chicken. Seriously. A crispy, delicate, sugared puff pastry crust, with chicken and cinnamon inside. Glorious! Then a tagine of chicken, scattered with oil-cured olives and scented with preserved lemons (although the lemons themselves were not part of the finished dish, as I have had before), slow-roasted lamb shank that had the consistency of a Peking duck, richly fatty and crispy, falling off the bone.

The best dish of all, though, to my mind was my platter of tiny little Moroccan meatballs, keftas, served in a tomato sauce with two perfectly poached eggs nestled among them. The flavor of egg yolk plus garlicky tomato plus lamb was ridiculously and unexpectedly delicious, and although it had sounded odd on the menu, I'm so glad I tried it. Not that I plan to drop an egg in my next skillet of spaghetti and meatballs, but still, it was a delicacy, and tasted very foreign and exotic, and after all, that's the point, isn't it?

Finally there was an enormous mound of couscous topped with roasted peppers and aubergines, and although I don't normally groove to couscous, I tried it in the spirit of the day (and also to keep up with Avery who was eating her weight in everything). It was a revelation: supremely fluffy and light, with real flavor. It must be a different variety altogether to what we get here, or in America. Just when we thought we couldn't eat another bite, along came a huge platter with a towering pile of oranges, their shiny green leaves still on the stems. Vincent asked for a little dish of cannelle, cinnamon, and showed us how to dip the peeled sections of orange into it. Now, I have always been a bit anti-oranges, not being a girl who adores pith, but I was glad I deviated this time, because the flavor of the oranges was beyond anything I have ever had before. Someone reminded me that the road to the airport was lined with orange groves, and certainly these were the freshest I have ever tasted.

It was such fun to sit back among the glittering cushions, look up at the walls and ceiling entirely covered with bright tiles, listen to the outrageous conversation, definitely not rated G, but since Avery didn't seem to mind, we didn't mind. I think it was a case of the bits of the conversation we wouldn't have wanted her to understand being so over her head that it didn't matter! For some reason, too, Pete got stuck humming the theme song to "I Dream of Jeannie," and by the end of the lunch we all were as well. And "Avery, if you had to be one of the Flintstones, would you be Fred or Wilma?" My French came back in leaps and bounds, reminding me as I was reminded in Paris last fall, use it or lose it.

Lord have mercy, we ate. Then we came out into the sun again and there were our taxi drivers, waiting to take us to the market, the souk Jemaa El Fnaa. Now, I am not much for bargaining. I like to know what something costs and just either do it or not. But bargaining was expected, and Avery took to it like the proverbial duck to water. It's a bit of a tragedy, though, because somehow since her purchases the little guys have gone missing: two little leather camels complete with bridles and halters. Can we have left them in the riad? Brigitte has not found them so far, but I haven't given up hope. Avery went in with a certain amount of money and great determination, and emerged totally triumphant, likewise with a silky bright blue top and trousers, and a little pair of slippers for Anna. To match her own pair, a gift from Vincent. Can you imagine, each of us found a pair of exquisite leather slippers, called baboushes, each a different color and everyone's the perfect size, by our beds on arrival at the riad. Vincent sets a very high bar for the role of host. Hey: it was his birthday; why was he giving presents? Because that's Vincent.

Everyone was shopping for textiles, silver, shoes, bags, and then John and I were introduced to Vincent's carpet source, Brahim Frifra, of the Bazar El Hamra, tucked away in the secret recesses of the market. Not for Vincent the easily accessible, open shops at which lesser mortals find their wares. No, we had to be led down a dark passage, to a padlocked door hidden by a poster of the sights of Marrakech, which was furtively moved to one side and the door opened by a silent little man, who led us through a filthy courtyard, past a tiny bakery set back in the wall, past an old marche des esclaves, slave market, up a crumbling staircase, down another passage through which dust motes danced in the light, and then... the most beautiful carpets you can imagine. John bargained, more and more were brought out to show us. "Special price just for you. Special special price, will not be any lower," and tattered books of business cards of "famous" and "important" customers reverently displayed for our admiration. Finally we settled on a large one, a medium-sized one, and a small one for Avery, just like Goldilocks.

I got my wish and visited one of the spice stalls, with towering pyramids of dusky cumin, paprika, coriander, every spice you can imagine, piled in cans outside, and inside a veritable shangri-la of spices, oils, pigments, medicaments, you name it. I bought a mixture called ras el hanout, a Moroccan sort of curry powder, smelling strongly of cumin, and a bag of lemon ginger powder, a small mound of Moroccan saffron which the proprietor assured me was miles better than Indian saffron. And a jar of something called argan oil, reputed to cure everything and make it taste better at the same time.

At last we made our way to the grand square in front of the market and, if you can believe it, hailed a caleche, a horse-drawn carriage to take us back to the hotel. So exotic, so foreign! Just wonderful, heavenly to sit down finally, even with Avery on my lap so we could all fit, and jounce along past all the donkey carts, the snake charmers, the covered-up women, feral cats, and drink it all in. I often feel that the world is becoming one enormous Starbucks, enlivened by Wal-Marts and McDonald's and dressed by the Gap, so to find myself in a place of such wild weirdness was truly a relief. I have to get out more, clearly.

Arriving at the hotel, sweet Mohammad asked if there was anything we needed, and it was but the work of a moment to ask for a couple of glasses of ice, and after running down a list of possibilities, a glass of jus de peche for Avery, and retire to our room. How cosy to hear a discreet "knock knock" on the wall outside our room, and Mohammad come in with a silver tray. What luxury! After we all relaxed for a bit, had a cocktail, and scraped the dust off ourselves and prettied up, it was time for a candlelit dinner around the shallow central pool. Lovely brochettes de viande and little parcels of pastry holding cheese, or spring-roll-like crunchy vegetables. I wish I knew what they were called, but they are a sort of Moroccan version of the Indian samosa.

Vincent's sister Pam arrived, stirring up for me a whole lifetime-ago memory of her holding week-old Baby Avery in our New York apartment. Isn't it hard to separate a real memory from a photograph? Would I remember that day without the picture of us all, Vincent, Pam and our friends Chris and Marla, all staring down at the baby in Pam's arms, me to the side and John behind the camera. A long time ago. I felt so lucky that we were still friends with these lovely people, ten years on.

And how cosy, too, to carry a very tired Avery to her own room adjacent to ours. I remember childhood evenings of being put to bed while a grownup party was still going on, and how peaceful it felt. A day and evening to remember...

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