In 2002 I was lucky enough to have spent a few weeks in Morocco, mainly in Fez. The medina in Fez was my first real experience of a medieval city, that is the fabric of the city and the social structure of the various guilds. The layout of walled city is quite extraordinary, which is reflected in it's classification as a world heritage site by UNESCO. It is quite literally a maze of walls, madrasas, caravanserais, palaces, houses, mosques and souks. It was while wandering around the souks in this city that I first became interested in historical cuisines and cultures. Now it would be incorrect to say that Moroccan food was "Medieval", it is as contemporary cuisine after all. However, there are many elements of the food that do have an ancient pedigree and which have a continuity with the food prepared around the Mediterranean over the last few thousand years. In fact, not only the food of the Mediterranean, but also more northern regions like Britain. While I was staying Fez I happened to be reading a book on British food history and it was while doing this that I noticed the obvious similarity in the food I was eating in Fez and the historical food that was eaten in the UK. Not an original thought, I agree, but it did generate a huge personal interest in historical and contemporary cuisines and how the inter-relate ( I have written down some of my thoughts on this at The Great British Curry).
The copper workers souk. In the bottom left you can see the an enormous kiskis (couscous steamer) used for communal celebrations such as weddings. It was to my great regret that I didn't work out a method of transporting one of these grand structures back to the UK.
A small open area where a number of narrow alleys of the souk intersect. In the background you can see a loaded donkey which is used to transport goods through the narrow alleys and streets of the souks. In the forground you can see various fruits (plums, green quinces, grapes, limes and melons), a man with a bunch of mint (for mint tea no doubt) and various vegetables. Of special interest is the bottle gourds at the bottom of the photograph. This was the first time I had seen these vegetables outside a medieval manuscript.
Shown here is the gourd harvest in the 15th century health handbook, known as the Tacuinum Sanitatis. These popular medieval European handbooks were based on the Arabic Taqwin medical text by Ibn Butlan. In reading about historical foods in Europe I have sometimes seen recreations of medieval foods (pre-New World contact) where pumpkin/squash is used. The use of these New World fruit is obviously erroneous and in fact the fruit/vegetable that these older recipes are referring to are these white flowered bottle gourds (Lagenaria siceraria). These gourds come in numerous varieties, many of which are not actually edible. The edible strains are harvested young when sweet and tender, older fruit is fibrous and can be bitter. They are eaten in many regions around the world. One type, known as cucuzza is still grown in Sicily were it is either eaten young as a vegetable or the rind of older fruit is candied and turned into a cinnamon and rosewater perfumed sweetmeat, known as cucuzzata, suggestive of an Arabic origin.
Olives and preserved lemons.
The often phographed tanning vats in Fez. Usually, these vats full of brilliant coloured dyes are the image that you are presented with - very pretty. This is the less pretty part of the process, where the raw hides are being treated in vats of old pigeon dung. It is worth keeping in mind that all of those pretty images represent some very hard and nasty work for the people working there.