Finding Genuine Saffron in the Mellah & Chermoula
Asked which experience is our favorite from Marrakech and my husband will quickly answer, “the Mellah.” As the old Jewish quarter, it may seem obvious why he answers so. But what makes the Mellah of Marrakech enticing is not so simple.
Destination: Spice Souks
When we climbed into our taxi (after agreeing upon a price–taxis are not metered, and all prices are up for negotiation) and gave our desired destination, the cab driver responded with a confident, “spice souks,” our purpose presumed. The driver blindly entered traffic, honked, and nearly white-lined us to the Mellah. Upon stopping at the destination, he kindly shouted some directions (helpful, perhaps, if either one of us understood Arabic or French), and we stepped out.
Our journey begins in the square of the Mellah. Carts full of hides pulled by overworked mules struggle to pass us. A man comes up behind us carrying about six live chickens by their feet, suspended upside down. The chickens seem to have resigned to their fate. They may flap their wings or squawk here or there, but for the most part, they’re silent as Moroccan women fondle them, testing for their meatiness.
Mellah: the soul
The souks in the Mellah resemble those from Jaama el-Fna, but there are some nuances. First, while the souks in Jaama el-Fna and those in the Mellah both will serve complimentary Moroccan mint tea, the souks in the Mellah specifically like to serve Berber-style mint tea. The Berber-style mint tea seems nearly the same to our untrained palates, but its sweetness comes from naturally occurring Stevia. The regular mint tea, on the other hand, is sweetened with a baseball made of sugar. Additionally, the souks here insist on trying to convince you to allow them to add a pinch of eucalyptus to the tea, alleging that it helps you to breathe. I suspect their real motive is just to laugh at your reaction to the dizzying strength of the eucalyptus.
The second difference is that the Mellah feels like a more authentic Moroccan experience. One, the bargaining starts with a lower price point and the salesmen are much less aggressive. Two, this is clearly a locals’ shopping haunt. It’s not an uncommon scene to see a Moroccan housewife shopping for the ingredients for that night’s dinner.
Jaama el-Fna is the heart of Marrakech; Mellah is the soul.
Don’t get ripped off: 5 qualities to look for to ensure you’re buying genuine saffron
Saffron grows in Morocco and is sold for much cheaper than it is in the states. However, beware! Many souks will try to pass off fakes (such as colored corn husks, which looks nearly the same). Here are some qualities to look for in genuine saffron:
- Ask to taste a thread of the saffron. It should not taste sweet. It can taste floral or pungent. Some saffron may taste vaguely of honey, but a sweetness is a red flag.
- Pull the thread of saffron out of your mouth and inspect it. The color should not have faded–the thread should remain dark red.
- Rub the wet threads on a piece of paper or a tissue. It should color the paper yellow, not red. If it doesn’t give off any color, it’s too old.
- Genuine saffron threads are thicker on one end and taper on the other.
- Watch out for saffron with too many yellow threads mixed in. It’s a normal occurrence in genuine saffron, but those yellow threads should be minimal. They offer no value and only add to the weight.
We scored some pretty good quality saffron for a fraction of the price back home.
For dinner after the Mellah, I had the most mindblowing tagine. It featured a white fish, marinated in chermoula and cooked with vegetables on top of a bed of potato slices. Here is the recipe for the chermoula marinade, which would go well with chicken or with fish. The fish tagine recipe can be found here.
For more travel pictures, from my husband’s perspective, please check out Thirteenth Knight Photography.