The atmosphere is electric; the authenticity of the old Medina from 1100 AD, remnants of the ancient caravan routes that traded spices, men in strange dress and intoxicating smells colliding in the air. It’s all at a hectic pace. I feel like I’m playing a part in a circus performance as the shopkeepers vie for my Dirham to buy anything from baboosh (coloured leather slippers) to olives, crockery to cow hooves. I don’t know where to look. Food providores with carts of steaming snails, giant dates and…hmmm, I thought, I don’t even know what those things are . . . tempt me in every square.
I’m in Marrakech, where the name alone is mesmerising. The ochre-stained lane ways and twisting tunnels of floor-to-ceiling-stacked stalls all meld together with snake charmers, story-tellers and captivating music.
Wandering the souks (market) I find myself in the Rabbha old square, once known as the slave market. I call it the ‘medicinal quarter,’ as its side stalls are overflowing with specimens assured to fix your flu, detox the demons or spice up your sex life. Merchants are happy to demonstrate soap on my hands, scent up my nose or explain the magic powers of lizard skins, tiger furs, gazelle penis and dried snake. “Lady might like to try some traditional cosmetic for sale,” enquires one trader while painting my hand with Ghassoul Clay. “We use it as face mask and body scrub,” he continues. It’s not until after my purchase that I discover that North Africans have used this natural mineral clay pronounced ‘Rassool’ for 12 Centuries, where it is extracted from the only known beds in the world under the Atlas Mountains. It naturally balances the pH, is hypoallergenic and is perfect for sensitive skins.
Spices, herbs, curing agents and medicine for every kind of ailment imaginable are available. Those feeling unwell come to traditional Berber (Indigenous North African) Pharmacies for a custom-made remedy.
Gazing over the special brewings and poultices for impotence, insomnia, headaches, PMT, baldness and diseases, I request my own package and watch as a concoction of herbs is weighed on the old lead scales for my upset tummy – thanks to a kefta (ground spiced meat ball pocket) from a lunchtime souk stall.
“Berber people have been using herbal healing for centuries” shares my medicinal master. “I teach you some. Cumin,” he says, “is for Diarrhea and is on restaurant tables instead of salt and pepper; Orange Blossom Oil is good for the nerves, stress or insomnia and Nigella Sativa (Black Cumin Seeds) is for sinus clearing and snoring. Another ancient Berber remedy passed down through the family is Argan Oil, produced here in Morocco for food and cosmetics. It also helps to alleviate a cough.”
One of the best herbs for healing in Morocco is mint. Other than helping cover the stench of pigeon poo pits at the tannery (a story for another day), it helps reduce gas, bloating and nausea; cleanses the stomach and assists with cramps. Mint can also help headaches, lung congestion and asthma. Its use is common in the Moroccans daily life where mint tea is enjoyed day and night.
The Moroccan tea ceremony is considered sacred in some parts and its rituals quite an art form. Traditionally it’s the role of the man of the house to serve the tea, where a higher pour equates to a better brew. Lifting the pot to pour aerates the tea and adds bubbles that sit on the top of the glass to show guests that the tea is fresh.
Tea drinking, I’m told by our Riad host, is as much about the teapot, how it’s made, the pour and ceremony as it is about greeting family and welcoming friends. This is evident everywhere in Marrakech, as locals and visitors alike clutch delicately adorned glasses of steaming tea crammed full of mint leaves, and who knows how many cubes of sugar.
As for me – a non-coffee drinker, I loved the taste and experience so much I tracked down a traditional Moroccan family mint tea recipe to bring a little herbal tradition home.
Moroccan Mint Tea Recipe
- Add 1-heaped teaspoon of Gunpowder green tea to pot. Add boiling water to cover the tea and bring to boil. Remove from heat and pour water away. This helps to uncurl the tealeaf, loosen tea powder from the dried leaves and remove bitterness.
- Add large handful of Moroccan mint, fill pot with boiling water and add sugar to taste. Bring to boil.
- Lift the pot high in the air to pour, aerating the tea and serve in pretty tea glasses. Sweeten with sugar to taste.