A few years ago I was lucky enough to spend a few days in Morocco. It was while I was sailing, so I arrived by sea at the fascinating fortified port town of Essaoira on the Atlantic coast of North Africa. It is an absolutely magical place, filled with colour, wonderful smells, music and a vibrant culture, with the sun setting red through the sands of the Sahara carried in on the wind, and the smell of the sea and smoke and spice in the air.
I spent my time there exploring the city’s ancient ramparts, watching djellaba clad men make tagine on the beach and, of course, wandering the medina.
Exploring the medina of Essaoira is one of the memories that will stay with me forever. It was a thrilling sensory overload. The wares sold in the little shops lining the streets are staggeringly wonderful and varied; a riot of brightly coloured blankets, hand-loomed from wool and sabra silk, beautiful wool carpets displaying the traditional patterns of the fourty-five different Berber tribes of the area, huge peaks of multi-hued spices filling the air with their delicious scents, hand made wooden boxes as exquisite as the swirling patterns of the thuya wood from which they’re hewn, and intricate jewelery of delicate filigree, bright enamel and shimmering glass beads. I could go on and on about the wonders on offer in the medina souks of Essaouira and still only scratch the surface, but suffice it to say that I think you could spend a lifetime there and still be discovering new treasures.
The wares on offer are magnificent indeed, but far from being all about the stuff you can buy there, a visit to the Essaoira’s medina is all about the experience. It’s like being pulled into a stranger’s life in the warmest possible way. It begins on the street. If you glance in the direction of a shop you’re engaged, chatted to, and drawn within. Once inside you’re invited to sit with the shop owner and have mint tea, the tea pot lifted high to pour into ornate glasses. As you sit supping the warm sweet mint, not just tea but a traditional symbol of hospitality and friendship, you’re regaled with stories of life in the desert and shown pictures of family and friends. (During our time in Essaouira several of our crew became quite friendly with a particular shop owner who was a magnificent character. I was having mint tea with him and he showed me a photo album filled with pictures of his family and home in the Sahara, and a picture of his camel; “Jimi Hendrix”) And it’s only after all of this that the bartering starts, a finely honed skill in its self, and one of which I am seriously devoid. It is such an engaging and enriching experience, you leave with your purchases, but also with memories of an incredible moment, one in which you touched another world, and with your belly full of beautiful Moroccan mint tea.
Morocco is one of the places that I’ve traveled to that I would very much like to return to one day. It was one of my top three favourite ports that we visited during my year of sailing. It was really magnificent.
A couple of years ago I was at a market here in Shetland and I came across a girl selling potted herbs. Among her selection I was thrilled to find Moroccan mint. I planted my tiny mint plant outside the kitchen window and each spring it returns bigger and more abundant than the previous year. As it will soon be dying back before the winter, I figured that I should grasp at the dwindling chance to use this beautiful herb to brew up some of this wondrous tea.
Moroccan mint tea is brewed from spearmint leaves, green tea, sugar and water. It’s left to steep a few minutes and then poured from high above the glass, and then back into the pot. It’s a lovely ceremony, and also aerates the tea giving it a better flavour. For my version I’ve opted to use honey to sweeten it in place of sugar, so it may have a slightly less authentic flavour, but is still lovely.
While, unfortunately, I can’t magically transport myself to Essaouira to share some mint tea with one of the warm and hospitable locals, I can pick some mint from my garden and brew up a pot, close my eyes and savour a little bit of Moroccan magic here in Shetland. Wonderful!
- 3 green tea bags (gunpowder green tea if possible)
- 25g fresh spearmint leaves
- 2Tbsp honey
- 1L water
- Boil the water.
- Put the tea, mint and honey into a tea pot or large jug, pour over the boiling water and leave to steep for 5-10 minutes.
- Pour into glasses from high above them and then back into the pot. Repeat this pouring once or twice more. This step is part of the tradition but will also aerate the tea giving it a better flavour and help to blend the honey through. After pouring into glasses for the final time sweeten with a little extra honey if you like, garnish with mint leaves and serve hot, or allow it to cool and serve chilled for a lovely cooling drink on a hot day.