An obsession with honey pulls a writer deep into the heart of Marrakech, on a quest for a taste of the desert.
Photo by mhiguera/Flickr.
THE TOUT CATCHES me about a block off Djemaa el Fna in Marrakech. “Speak English.”
I shake my head. No. That wasn’t a question; it was more of a demand, and I don’t respond well to demands. Besides, I have zero interest in speaking English. I want to go watch the performers in the square and maybe get a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. The last thing I need is somebody using the wrong verb forms while steering me to his uncle’s trinket shop in a Moroccan souk.
The tout isn’t about to give up, though. “Sprechen Sie Deutsch.” Nope, I’m not going to speak German, either. Surely my ancestors left Germany for a reason. I should honor that.
So the tout switches to French, and then Italian. Then Spanish. And, in what seems like a last-gasp effort, he even tries Arabic.
Finally, as the sound of a snake charmer’s flute begins to rise over that of two-stroke motorcycles and the bray of donkeys, just to get rid of him, I say in Japanese, “Look, sorry, I only speak Japanese.”
Without so much as a blink that a six-foot-two blue-eyed foreigner just spoke to him in Japanese, he answers back, “Daijoubu. Nihongo o hanashimasu.”
When I stop laughing, I hire him for the rest of the day. Surely anybody who can run through seven languages in less than a block can help me find some honey.
Wine snobs will talk endlessly about terroir, the particular geographic moment—a combination of soil and weather and topography as distinctive as a fingerprint—that defines the taste of a wine.
But wine, long before it reaches your table, has been aged, fermented, and fussed over with mad-scientist attention. If you really want to know what a landscape tastes like, you have to get local honey, straight from the hive, made by bees that know every flower in their territory. Honey with no processing. Honey is, after all, the only food in the world that never spoils; some found in the tombs of the pharaohs was still perfectly edible.
Honey is the true philosopher’s stone, turning landscape into flavor.
Most honey fans will rave about Tupelo, brought out of the swamps of the Deep South, sweet and smooth as that Van Morrison song. Or leatherwood, a taste from Tasmania’s thick forests that probably made the marsupial tigers go extinct out of sheer joy. But maybe because I first discovered honey at the edge of the Sonoran desert—my father kept hives in our backyard when I lived there as a kid—it’s the impossibly delicate arid honeys and the rarity of their tiny source flowers that draw me.
Think of the effort that goes into desert honey. A worker bee may live only a week before her wings are worn out from the friction of the very air she flies through to gather nectar. In that week, if she’s really productive and finds a lot of flowers, she’ll create about one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey.
Even if you put a hive down in the middle of an orange grove in full bloom, all together the hive’s bees might fly more than 50,000 miles to make a single pound of honey.
To make desert honey, though, they may fly the equivalent of a trip to the moon, searching out flowers as rare as falling stars to wish upon.
“Honey?” my newly hired guide says. “We just go to a food shop?”
So I have to do a little explaining. Today, almost anywhere you go in the world, if you buy honey in a grocery store, what you’re likely getting is a kind of flavored mud, gathered from hives and flower sources that can easily be hundreds of miles apart, a substance that bears as much resemblance to genuine, pure honey as Cheez Whiz does to a fine Époisses.
“No,” I tell Abdul. “I want souk honey. I want honey from the bees that are flying over our heads right now, looking for flowers on roof gardens. I want honey so fresh it has bee parts floating around in it.”
He looks at me like I’m a little crazy, but let’s face it, we both know he’s had weirder requests from his clients.
And so we dive into the market. I’ve already spent two days walking up and down the souk’s stalls, passing by everything from walls of slippers to carpets you know are never going to fly, and I’ve struck out.
Abdul and I start at the spice shops, their wares spread out in myriad colors as if the Easter Bunny got a little freaky with Saharan dunes. No luck. The proprietors send us to the medicine shops, where, quite frankly, I don’t even want to know what’s in half the jars on display. Or at least I don’t want to know what the jars cure, because the cures look way worse than whatever the ailment might be.
But the medicine men send us even deeper into the souk, where we dodge motorcycles and carts on the narrow streets, where we choke on the smell of leather that maybe needed to tan a few days longer.
By the third hour of our search, word’s gotten around, and shopkeepers know we’re coming. They have the tea ready, and I can tell how interested they are in our quest by the size of cup they pour. The big cups mean the idea has made them curious, too, made them think of something they’ve lost from their own lives. Over the smell of hot mint, the oldest remember when nothing was sweeter than honey, and a fresh, dripping comb was better than anything anyone has ever found to do with sugar. How much goes extinct that we never even notice is missing anymore? Last year, I had to explain to someone that telephones once had actual bells inside them. Today, we’re all remembering when honey tasted like sunlight on a single flower on the first day of true summer.
So, bulwarks against loss, the shopkeepers map the back alleys of the back alleys of the souk, sending us down passages where the only thread through the labyrinth is the amplified sound of prayers.
Morocco is famed as a place where no wish is farther away than the rub of a lamp, yet the honey stays hidden, and maybe that’s the greatest gift of all. I had purpose, as simple a purpose as a bee searching for that flower to turn into flavor.
By following Abdul around through the souk, by chasing honey, I’m learning the terrain in a way I never would have otherwise. My search is turning this landscape—random shops jammed with useless items shined up to catch the eye—into a place. We stop to ask the man working a foot lathe if he has any ideas; the jewelry makers put down their tools, get that lost look of memory in their eyes for just a second, and then shake their heads. No. It’s gone. But at the very next shop, a man comes out to tell us about his relatives who keep bees in the countryside, if only we had a couple of days to wait.
And as we search through the deep afternoon, I’m falling in love with Marrakech, a place I’d already decided on the first day I’d never need to come back to, because I don’t like crowds, noise, or shopping. But now it’s the place where half the market has helped me on a quest. Now it’s the place where I know how to greet a new friend, know the difference between the taste of tea brewed by a young man and tea brewed by a grandfather. And it’s where I’ve heard stories as particular to the place and time as pure honey.
We stop for dinner, and over tasteless chunks of dubious meat, Abdul tells me what it’s like to be grossly overeducated and hustling for money in the street. I tell him what it’s like to be grossly overeducated and goofing off for a living.
Evening prayer starts pouring out of loudspeakers. Last chance. In the souk, metal gates clang down as the shops close with the rise of the first stars.
Suddenly, a voice yells at Abdul from a doorway. He turns to me. “OK, hurry.” Nearly running, we turn into a blind alley, then pivot into something so small it can’t even be called an alley, which dead-ends into a gate that pulls back just enough for a hand to reach out and offer a small, leaky Tupperware knockoff with something very dark inside. “Thirty dirham,” Abdul says, and I quickly take the bills out of my pocket, make the trade. The gate closes with a click so definitive it’s hard to believe it was ever open.
I have a little bit of it left, even now. I take just the tiniest taste. The honey is thick, one of the thickest I’ve ever found in the world. Not amber, but nearly black. And as soon as I touch my finger to my tongue, I’m back in Morocco speaking Japanese to a guy who helped me map the flavors of the Marrakech souk. I taste oranges, incense, badly tanned leather, the breath of a donkey pulling an overloaded cart. All this turned sweet by the fine work of bees. I can taste a memory.
This appeared in the May 2014 issue.