One of my requisite stops upon returning to Fez is “the honey souk”, Fondouk Kaat Smen, set back behind a display of carpets on Tala’a Kebira, the Medina’s High Street. Big blue plastic casks filled with honey line the sun-bleached courtyard. Sellers offer tastes to shoppers and ladle sweet goodness into small plastic cartons for take-away. There are several purveyors here, but I generally head for the back room at Nafis Hicham’s place, and for the wild honey I’ll find there.
Honey from the Atlas Mountains
There, bees who perished for their art loll in vats of sweet goodness. This shop has been a going concern for three generations, and although there are 17 or more barrels of honey on offer, the best versions are from the wild bees of the Atlas mountains.
Many things have changed in Fez since 2007 when Alice Feiring wrote about her visit to the honey souk, and the “feral honey” she found there. One thing that has not, however, is the variety of honey on offer here in the medina—and the quality. Oh, the quality! Feiring is known for her passionate advocacy on behalf of natural wines, such as those I sampled last year in Georgia; in my view, Alice Feiring’s good taste extends to the honey of Morocco, as well. And some of the best Moroccan honey is to be found in the plastic vats of Kaat Smen in the Fez medina.
And then there is smen…
As it happens, honey—along with olive oil and khliyah— a rich, flavorful dried meat packed in rendered beef fat—are comparatively recent additions to the offerings of Kaat Smen. Before it was a honey market, the square was the place to go for the stinky fermented butter called smen. It still is!
Smen is widely used across North Africa and adds a marvelous character to couscous. The families of vendors in the square have been making the funky stuff for centuries. For more about smen and the square that bears its name, read what Alex Schmidt has to say about Morocco’s Funky Fermented Butter for NPR’s The Salt.
Honey on the menu
All over Morocco, honey is a key ingredient in many beloved dishes. Especially during Ramadan, honeyed biscuits play a starring role in breaking the fast. At any time of year, honey-coated chebakkia are served alongside steaming bowls of harira, the national soup. And for visitors to Fez, no trip through the medina is complete without a walk past the little stalls selling all manner of honeyed treats.
Spoiled for choice
Through the years that Tom and I have been coming to Morocco, we have tried honey from every vendor in Kaat Smen, and I am always on the lookout for new wild honey favorites from the latest “vintage”. The carob honey is caramel-like, not grainy at all; the lavender honey evokes summer-time Provence, but my most recent “Aha! moment” came when I tasted honey from the caper vat. Caper honey is said to be the perfect balm for colds and flu, but it was the delicate and flowery taste that got my vote. Soon my choice was poured into a little plastic bin and taped shut for the trip down Tala’a Kebira to Dar Borj Dahab, our house near Bab R’cif.
We won’t be able to get through more than one container of honey during our current stay in Fez, so I stopped before I could get carried away. Should matters change, though, and we experience a honey shortage, it will be time to head back up the hill, where I’ll try another flavor.