The Fortified City

Rabat, Morocco sits on the Western coast of North Africa. Slightly north of Casablanca, and west of Fez, Rabat feels calm for a city of well over a million. The fifth-largest city in Morocco and the capital of Morocco since independence in 1956, it is sort of an in-between city; not quite as cosmopolitan as Casablanca, not quite as touristed as Fes and Marrakesh, and less hectic than Tangier. But with lovely sites and scenery, it is a pleasant place to spend some time. Settled as early as the 8th century, BC by Phoenicians and Romans, it outlasted the empire and became the home to Berbers. The city takes its name from the ribat, or “fortified place”, the fortress that the Berbers built on the Northern shore, which later became a kasbah. Over the centuries, the area saw waves of popularity, becoming home to many different groups, including the Almohads, Muslim refugees and pirates. Because it is bordered on one side by the Atlantic Ocean, it was an excellent spot for war campaigns, shipping, and yes, looting. Now, there are several beaches, particularly good for surfing, since the waves are untempered by a bay or much of a breakwater.

On the Northern tip of the city lies the Kasbah of the Oudaias, the site of the original ribat, now mostly residential. Just across the Bou Regreg river lies the city of Salé. Through the centuries, power often changed hands between the cities. Now, a tram runs neatly between them.

As you can see from the fog blanketing the Kasbah, the Atlantic Ocean plays a large part in the climate. This was quite an unusual amount of fog, and, although winter can be wet and chilly, March has been sunny and a warm 68 degrees.


Inside the Kasbah.

Just below the Kasbah is the Medina, or old city, the quietest , most well-laid out medina that I’ve seen (not that I’m particularly an expert, I grant you). To the south of the medina is the new city, where most restaurants, cafes and business occurs. Below that are more residential neighborhoods, including the one we are staying in, as well as Mechouar where the Royal Palace is, and the wealthy Agdal. The new-ish tram system provides fast, easy, affordable (one ride is 6 dirhams, about 74 cents) transport to most of the city.

The main sites of the city which we will be exploring are the Kasbah, which is also the site of the Andalusian gardens, the Tour Hassan and the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, where the previous two kings are buried, and the ancient Roman site of Chellah. There is also a very good archeology museum, and even a zoo.



Dinner in Rabat

We arrived in Rabat, Morocco just in time for some gorgeous spring weather, in time to miss all that air pollution in Paris, and in time for dinner! We are staying in an apartment in a neighborhood on the South-Western side of the city which Guillaume found on AirBnB the first time he visited, back in January. There are four apartments in the building: the older couple who own the building live on the bottom floor and all of the other apartments (probably initially intended for their children and their families, who instead live in France and Spain), are rented out to travelers. The apartment is quite spacious; if you want to know what luxury is, I will tell you: having two bathrooms so that one can be the “toilet seat up” bathroom. The woman who lives downstairs, Naima, offers to provide us with dinner every night. Unfortunately for our laziness and wallets, her cooking is so excellent we have taken her up on the offer nearly every day. The one night we decided to cook for ourselves, she brought us dinner anyway. She communicates with us mostly in French, with a bit of Arabic thrown in, and made sure to tell us that all of her cooking is traditional, local, organic and seasonal and that her homemade bread contains omega trois! She also taught us how to make a traditional tajine, the process and recipe of which I look forward to sharing soon. These are some of the delicious meals she has made for us. One of these days we will get to a restaurant, but I think we might end up being disappointed!


A Tale of Two Cheesecakes

I first came across cheesecake here in France when we were in Nantes. We saw it on the menu at several restaurants (at one, specifically “Virginia cheesecake,” whether this means the State or a lady, I don’t know. Does Virginia have excellent cheesecake?), and it came with the café gourmand at L’Industrie. But I thought it was sort of a fluke: a new trend, popular because of the youth of Nantes, like Brooklyn Brewery beer being popular with certain factions in Paris. In the months since, though, I’ve noticed that it is everywhere. At many restaurants, plenty of cafés and even in grocery stores in several incarnations including frozen and what I like to call “potted” desserts. And they are largely the same as the delicious American-style cheesecake that you make at home/get at Junior’s except for one thing: the crust. Graham crackers, arguably the most common, and definitely the most delicious crust material for cheesecake, are not really known here, and “they” (I don’t know, cheesecake police?) have decided that the closest approximation is something called speculoos. Speculoos cookies, or speculaas in Dutch, are thin, lightly sweet and spiced cookies of Belgian, Dutch and German origin. In English they are sometimes called Belgian Spice or Dutch Windmill cookies. They are traditionally made around Christmas using a springerle mold or rolling pin with shapes cut into it to create a pattern or picture on the dough before baking. Speculoos are now commonly sold in the Biscoff or Lotus brand. Although originally a very spiced cookie (with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cardamon, even pepper), a quick glance at the ingredients list tells me that, commercially, they are spiced with mostly cinnamon.

speculoos (6)

The first time I heard of speculoos was when that waffle truck, Wafels and Dinges, first came to New York and their speculoos spread began getting press. Then Trader Joe’s came out with a speculoos spread which they call “Cookie Butter”. Speculoos is now becoming a recognizable name in the US; some even rate it as a trend. We like novelty. But speculoos cookies are ubiquitous in France, even sometimes arriving in tiny plastic-wrapped form next to your espresso or coffee at a café, which was the way I was first introduced, without even knowing what I was eating. I would describe the flavor as a mix of graham cracker, gingerbread and snickerdoodle. It’s a nice cookie, crisp, not too sweet. And I will tell you that dipping peanut butter pretzels in the spread makes for a certain kind of snack heaven. But what really surprised me is, with a darker color, more caramelized flavor, and hint of spice, I actually think that speculoos makes a better crust for cheesecake than graham crackers. So they’re doing good work with cheesecake, and I might even try to replicate it when I return to the US. But I still don’t know what they are doing to the cookie and the hot dog.