But the fantasy shattered a little when I made friends with a group of young Moroccan students as a student in Paris. They were cool, over-friendly (I had to hide in the common toilet a few times to avoid them looking for me, they never did know how to take no for an answer), and chain-smoked - not cigarettes (which would have been bad enough), but marijuana (which I am absolutely against, especially when it is smoked for pleasure).
But the fantasy was alive long enough for us to want to visit the country (the Northern city of Tangiers) in November 2001 when we were living in Andalusia. Went in our car and crossed over by ferry.
Recently I rated Tangiers not worth a visit in 43places.com. I admit that it was an unfair rating since the country is a beautiful one and we had not seen the rest of it yet. But we never got to enjoy what we saw, so much of a hassle the visit had turned out to be unfortunately.
The nightmare started when we left the ferry in Tangiers. There was a uniformed guy standing at the exit of the port with papers for us to fill in and we were expected to pay for something. OK, fair enough. And just next to him, was another guy (in civilian clothes) who started to tell us how to fill in our forms (without being asked) and who, though we ignored him, insisted that we had to pay him for his ''service''. And apparently he was not at all in the employ of the port authority but allowed to hang around somehow. Quite like those guys in free public parking lots in Spain ''directing'' you to your lot and expecting a fee for their ''service''!
Then we arrived at our hotel in the heart of town. The parking was free, but when you were parked, some guy came along to inform you that he was the warden and that he would like to be paid for looking after your car, with an implied or else... I do not understand. Why don't they just charge upfront for the parking instead of telling us that it was free of charge?
Then another guy working for the hotel came up to us to tell us that he would love to be able to show us around his city and that he did not expect any payment for this offer. Such a nice guy. So proud of his city.
It started out quite well, we walked around town, went to the beach and looked at the sea. With the guy around, not too many people dared to come up to us and so it was a relief. In the Medina, he asked us if we were hungry and what we would like to eat. Unanimously we said : ''A good Couscous or Tajine!'' and he claimed to know a really good restaurant for that and brought us there.
True to his word, he waved us goodbye politely after bringing us to the restaurant. We were led to a table near a window which gave us a pleasant view of the bazar below us. Smells of food and spices wafted up to our nostrils and whetted our appetite. We ordered a Couscous with Chicken and a Tajine with Beef and waited happily for our dinner.
When the food came, we couldn't believe our eyes. Even in the lousiest Moroccan restaurant in Paris we've eaten better. The Couscous was tasteless, the chicken dry. The Tajine contained meat balls so tough you could play ping pong with them. And the worse part was the bill when it came, the food cost more than what we would have paid in Paris, how could that be? We were in Morocco! And there was supposed to be music and a dance performance and the only sound accompanying our meal was the noise coming up from the streets below.
Hubby for once decided not to act the civilised European man (and pay the fixed price). He asked the Manager of the restaurant over, gave him a piece of his mind and told the guy he wouldn't be paying what they were asking for. He named them a price and added that that was already more than what he thought the meal was worth.
We could see that the guy was furious, but we had a kid with us and he must surely realise that it wouldn't do to start aggressing tourists especially if they were from Europe. So we paid the amount we wanted and left. All the way back to the hotel we had different groups of men following us, offering to sell us this and that, tours, translations, transport etc. It was a pain.
The next morning, we bumped into the guy who introduced us to the restaurant. And he had the cheek to ask us for a tip for having introduced us to the restaurant! Did they think we were idiots or what?
The next 2 days were just filled with people harassing us wherever we went, not even allowing us to have a quiet conversation between us. ''Hello! I speak good French, I make a good guide....'' ''You want to buy leather bags? My uncle has a shop in the Medina...'' It went on and on, you kept saying ''No, Thank You'' but nobody cared.
And there were few women in the streets so I got quite a bit of unwanted male attention, it was unnerving. One funny thing though was that the men would always approach the Hubby to offer their good or service and he would say : ''I don't have money with me.'' And it was true, of course, since in the family, I carry the purse. Ha ha.
We ended up spending quite a bit of time in our room to avoid the harassment. And on the last day we drove away from Tangiers and visited another town which was calmer and nicer and actually had a rather nice time.
And when we entered the port again in our car, the same people were there to get money from us for unnecessary services. We threw them our loose change, drove onto the ferry and told ourselves that we were glad to see the last of the country.
It must be around that time that I decided to make my own Couscous. And I am happy to say that it tastes many many times better than what we were served in Tangiers, even in the restaurants we went to after the 1st one. It really is very simple, as you will see for yourself.
First of all, you'll need a rather large pot. Heat up some olive oil and fry 2 onions cut into halves and picked with 6 whole cloves. Add in 2 pieces of bashed garlic, 400g of beef (oxtail, any part that has meat and is good for making soup) or better, lamb (it's less strong in smell than mutton) and brown everything for a few minutes**. Add in 1 stalk of celery, 1 Cinnamon stick, 1 fennel bulb cut in half, 1 Tbsp of ground Cumin seeds, 1 Tbsp of Mustard seeds, 1 Tbsp of ground Coriander seeds, 1 Tsp of ground Turmeric, 1 Tbsp of ground Ginger, 1 Tsp of ground Nutmeg, 1 Tbsp of ground Paprika***, 1 bay leaf and half a cup of chick peas. Add in 6-8 cups of chicken or vegetable stock and let it simmer for 2 hours.
**If you want a cleaner broth, first blanche the meat in hot water till all the impurities surface. Pour away the water and rince the meat in cold water piece by piece. Heat up the pot and brown the onions etc and then add in the cleaned meat and the water/stock. And if you want an even less oily broth, cool the broth overnight and then remove the layer of fat the next day.
Wash, peel and cut into chunky sizes 2 carrots, 3-4 turnips (navets en Français), 1 potato, 2 red Capsicum, 5-6 tomatoes, 3 Zucchinis. Add the vegetables (in time-to-cook order, not all in one go) in the sauce together with 1-2 Tbsp of concentrated tomato purée and cook for 30 minutes.
In a big bowl, pour out 1,5 cups of couscous grains (semoule de couscous en Français, we buy them in packets in a supermarket). Pour 1,5 cups of boiling water over it. Let the grains absorb the water and puff up. Then put the bowl into the microwave oven and heat it up for 2 minutes. Add in 25g of butter and a generous amount of olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Use a fork to loosen the grains, mix everything etc.
Heat up some olive oil in a grill and grill the Merquez sausages (they are spicy and delicious). Once they are cooked, add the lamb chops to grill. Add salt, pepper and rosemary to taste. Best not to overcook the lamb, we eat them rosé (pink) inside. Squeeze some lemon juice over the lamb chops when they're done.
Put some couscous grains in a soup plate. Arrange a Merguez sausage, 1 or 2 lambchops and the braised beef on top of the grains. Add in a few vegetables and then scoop some of the sauce over everything. Garnish with fresh Coriander leaves before serving. If you like it hot, you can also add in some Harisa (a chilli purée).
If there are couscous grains leftover, you can always make a Taboulé with it. It's a kind of salad made with raw cucumber, fresh red Capsicum, fresh tomatoes, half a red onion all chopped up into small pieces and mixed into the grains. Loads of olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, juice from 1-2 lemons, mint leaves and parsley. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving. Goes beautifully with grilled meats or on its own.
And if you do not know what to do with the leftover chick peas, add some ground cumin, chilli powder, chopped garlic, sesame oil, olive oil and loads of lemon juice, mix everything with a blender and you have a Chick Pea Hoummous Dip!
***If you do not want to do your own mix of spices, just buy a packet of Raz el Hanout which basically contains at least 4 of the different spices I've mentioned.