Where to Find Morocco’s True Flavors

The real foragers aren’t in San Francisco or Copenhagen. They’re tromping through Morocco’s mushroom-gilded forests.

Where to Find Morocco’s True Flavors

Chanterelle Mushrooms at Hotel Auberge Dardara

Photo by Peden + Munk

If the first rule of collecting wild mushrooms is “never take anything you can’t positively identify,” the second must be “you won’t find any along the trail.” In the Rif Mountains of Morocco, that goes for animal trails as well. Goats and cows and even wild boars enjoy mushrooms too, said my guide, Mohammed Elafia, as he pointed to a pale stump nibbled off at ground level.

Flashing a patient smile, Mohammed ducked under a low branch, releasing a shower of morning raindrops onto the peaked cowl of his woolen djellaba, the traditional deep-sleeved, calf-length robe worn by men in the Rif. Then he disappeared through a tangled lattice of shrubs and bramble.

The sky was a whorl of charcoals and pearl grays, and here, at an altitude of 1,700 feet, the morning was chilly. The cork oaks that dominated the forest were ragged and gnarled, their trunks shiny black where the thick bark had been removed. (The cork regenerates every decade or so, and workers harvest it again.) Tender ferns sprouted up in the loam, beards of moss dangled from twigs, and delicate purple and red flowers added pinpricks of spring color.

I heard Mohammed’s son Abdelghani call my name, and I scrambled down the wet slope until I spotted him under a cork tree, crawling on his hands and knees toward a chanterelle protruding from sodden leaf litter and acorn shells. Sweeping the base clear with his fingers, he cut around the stem with a plastic-handled paring knife and handed me the mushroom.

Smooth and a deep golden-yellow, the chanterelle had a fluted vase shape, with a ribbing of slender folds on the underside and a tapered stem. Before placing it in my wide wicker basket, I inhaled the pronounced fruity smell and caught strong notes of apricot.

Chanterelles grow singly or in loose clusters. Abdelghani and I dug out another dozen or so before moving on in slow pursuit, looking for the dull glint of gold among the woody browns of the forest floor.

In Arabic, Rif means “edge” or “border.” As Africa’s northernmost range, the Rif forms an almost impenetrable arc along Morocco’s Mediterranean coast and historically has provided protection against invasions from the north. It stretches from Cap Spartel, on the country’s far northwestern tip, some 220 miles east toward the border with Algeria. But it really starts about two hours southeast of Tangier, at Chefchaouen, where the mountains rise up dramatically. The Rif was once called bled es siba (“land of lawlessness”). Tamer now, the region remains the chief supplier of hashish to Europe. But, little known to most people—including many Moroccans—the Rif’s forests also conceal 35 varieties of edible wild mushrooms.

Mohammed and his sons aren’t guides in the traditional tourism sense. They know the forests intimately because they graze the family’s goats there. And they know their mushrooms, too. Like many other young men in the nearby hamlets, when Abdelghani or his brothers are out with their flock, they sometimes pick up mushrooms to sell to a middleman who sends them on to Casablanca. Women out gathering firewood or fodder for animals collect mushrooms, too. Chanterelles, porcini, and black trumpets are the easiest to sell, along with valuable matsutake found higher in the cedar forests. Some of the mushrooms are destined for restaurants in Morocco’s largest cities, others for European markets, such as La Boqueria in Barcelona, where I’m a frequent visitor to the stall of Llorenç Petràs, Europe’s finest purveyor.

I cook with mushrooms as often as possible, but in Spain, where I live, the seasons are short, and many of my favorite local fungi are autumnal treats only. Not so in the western Rif, which gets more rainy days than anywhere else along Africa’s Mediterranean coast. Mushrooms can be found into May.

A few years ago, while I was working on a Moroccan cookbook, my wife, our two young daughters, and I stayed at Auberge Dardara, a guesthouse and restaurant about seven miles outside Chefchaouen. Joined by the owner, Jaber Elhabibi, and a handful of Moroccan guests from Casablanca and Rabat, we gathered mushrooms with Mohammed and another of his sons, Nafia. In just a few hours we filled our baskets with several varieties, including a type of coral fungus the size of a cauliflower. That visit whetted my appetite, and I had returned to forage during peak season. “You can find mushrooms here all the time,” Mohammed had told me, “but March is the best.”

I enjoy the thrill of the hunt, of venturing into the deepest reaches of the forest in search of wild fungi, but I love the spoils of the effort even more. On this return trip, I had also come to eat. Once Mohammed, Abdelghani, and I had collected five pounds or so of chanterelles and some porcini with bright yellow undercaps, the three of us headed back up the hill to the road. Mohammed walked slowly, his hands buried in his djellaba, his cowl pulled up against the rain. He spotted a final few chanterelles poking up in the dense forest. He added these to the basket along with sprigs of wild lavender and various herbs I didn’t recognize. It wasn’t a great haul, but enough for a couple of meals.

Back at the Auberge Dardara, I passed the basket to the chef, Mustapha Zaizoun, who immediately set to work cleaning the mushrooms. He trimmed the ends, tapped the unfurled caps with the flat of the knife blade, then brushed them with the dry bristles of
an inch-wide paintbrush.

I took off my wet boots and sat down in the dining room for lunch. As I warmed up beside the flickering fire, I nibbled on wrinkled black olives—dry cured and chewy, with hints of bitter smokiness—and hunks of leavened bread with a crust coated in wheat chaffing. Soon came small dishes of chilled cooked carrots seasoned with cumin and paprika, a mash of roasted eggplant and red peppers called zaâlouk, and fresh goat cheese—blended with olive oil, garlic, and oregano—that was light as mousse. These were followed by a bowl of bessara, a creamy, pale puréed soup of dried fava beans. When I finished eating the soup, I went into the kitchen to watch Mustapha prepare the main course, a mushroom omelet. He had taught me to make this dish on my previous visit, and I not only included it in my cookbook but also added it to the two dozen or so family favorites I prepare at home.

Mustapha had arranged the ingredients on the patinated steel counter. He stood, almost formally, before them in his short-sleeved white chef’s jacket buttoned over a black hooded sweatshirt. He is mute, and the kitchen was almost silent as he used hand signs to give instructions to his two assistants. He thinly sliced some chanterelles, crushed cloves of garlic under the heel of his hand, and then sautéed both with fresh bay leaves. After whisking eggs (from a neighboring farm) with a generous pinch of cumin, he poured them into a skillet. Once they had set, he arranged the mushrooms and garlic on the eggs and added minced parsley and a sprig of just-clipped rosemary.

A few moments later, Mustapha slid the omelet onto a plate and handed me a fork and knife. I took a bite. The mushrooms were delightfully toothsome, and as for the eggs, nothing better absorbs the flavors of the hills. Before I could eat more, though, Fatima, Mustapha’s assistant, snatched up the plate and insisted I go to the dining room and eat it properly.

As I lingered over a dessert of creamy goat’s-milk yogurt topped with heather honey, Dardara’s owner, Jaber, joined me at the table. He gingerly held the rim of a scalding glass of murky tea, stuffed with mint but also with fresh absinthe leaves, marjoram, rose geranium, lemon verbena, and a variety of wild thyme. Born and raised in Tangier, Jaber had returned to this area, where he had spent childhood vacations visiting his grandparents, and opened Dardara in 2000. Quiet and thoughtful, he wears frameless, square-lensed glasses, a thick beard, and a generous mustache that could be twisted into handlebars.

Before Jaber had finished his tea, we could see that the clouds had dissipated somewhat, and the hills rising above the auberge shone green in the afternoon light. “There is a forest of Aleppo pine trees where we might find Amanita caesarea,” he said. Caesar’s mushroom is one of the few edible amanitas and one of the most sought-after varieties in the forest. He would show me himself. He pulled a djellaba over his fleece vest, and I put on my wet boots.

Despite the momentary lull, heavy drops of rain splattered the windshield of Jaber’s car as we climbed a thousand feet higher than the cork forest we had explored that morning. Even though it was the end of March, snow covered the tops of nearby hills. Across the valley, in a fading patch of sunlight, the white- and-blue-hued town of Chefchaouen huddled under a pair of twin mountain peaks.

A single highway sinuously runs the length of the Rif. Intermittent hamlets of a few dozen families, densely cultivated fields, and grassy hills form a mosaic around patches of forest that change with the elevation. Scrub oaks and cork oaks, Mediterranean pines, wild olives, and orchards of figs, plums, and almonds give way to Aleppo pine, tall maritime pine, thuya (an indigenous cypress beloved by woodworkers for its grain), and fir. The higher elevations are dominated by magnificent stands of cedars 40 to 50 feet in circumference and up to 200 feet tall. There are jackals and red foxes, troops of macaque monkeys that pass through, and large raptors that wheel out of limestone escarpments.

Jaber pulled off the road and parked under a sheltering canopy of high-branching pine trees. We stepped out onto a springy carpet of six-inch-long pine needles, which mounded in cushiony piles around the base of each tree. We started looking immediately for the smooth reddish-orange caps of Amanita caesarea. As we did, Jaber identified the surrounding plants and shrubs and explained their numerous medicinal and culinary uses. His profound knowledge of the natural history of the region is matched by his deep feelings for it.

“In rural life, attachment to the land is key,” he said softly. “It is stronger when you go back to your ancestral land. The desire is stronger to preserve, to protect, to belong.” This is expressed in Jaber’s work with the international Slow Food movement and his commitment to using local products—honey collected from a cork hive in the forest, herbs gathered in the hills around Dardara—at the auberge. The local landscape has always been an important part of the Riffian larder. Indeed, long before innovative chefs like René Redzepi at Noma in Copenhagen began plundering nature’s wild largesse and using it to reach lofty heights of culinary originality, before foraging became fashionable among foodies from San Francisco to San Sebastián and Sydney, rural Moroccans were gathering what grows wild around them—for nourishment, medicine, and the variety of flavors.

Jaber took off his glasses and wiped away a misting of rain. The light was beginning to fade, muting the colorful forest floor. A long-legged buzzard lifted off heavily from an overhead branch as we made our way back to the car. It had rained steadily for more than a week. A few days of sun, Jaber said, setting the empty basket in the trunk, and the amanitas would burst up through the needles. “When dealing with the weather, you must be patient.”

The porcini were a bit spongy, Mustapha indicated with his hands that evening when I was back in the kitchen watching him cook. He shrugged and proceeded to show me the best way to use mushrooms in this condition. He sautéed them quickly in hot olive oil with crushed garlic and bruised fresh bay leaves. Flames shot three feet high out of the pan. After just a minute or two, he slid the mushrooms onto a small plate, and we stabbed at them with toothpicks. Their texture had turned velvety, and hints of the garlic and bay graced their robust woodsy flavor.

Mustapha then turned his attention to preparing a deceptively simple cream of chanterelle soup. Moving his hands in the air, he sketched out the shapes of needed ingredients to Fatima, who went to the storeroom and returned carrying onions, potatoes, and butter, then went outside to get a handful of fresh parsley. He had more chanterelles than he needed for the soup, so he put the sautéed extras into empty Kraft mayonnaise jars and preserved them in olive oil from Dardara’s own trees. After sealing the jars, he placed them on a shelf in the kitchen, saving the mushrooms for use after the season was over.

When the soup was ready, I went into the dining room to enjoy the rich depth of the mushrooms’ natural flavors, which seemed to blossom from Mustapha’s light-handed treatment. Unmasked by other ingredients, the chanterelles, in contrast to the sautéed porcini, had a light earthy freshness and a slightly peppery finish.

While you can talk about an overall Moroccan cuisine, distinct regional ones exist, too. Dardara’s kitchen epitomizes the cuisine of the western Rif, an area known as the Jebala, where cooks use (often wild) herbs, olive oil pressed in tiny stone mills called maâsras, goat meat and fresh goat’s-milk cheese, almonds, and dried legumes and fruits. They bake dense breads in wood-fired ovens. Even such signature Moroccan dishes as slow-cooked tagine stews are unique in the Jebala, exemplified by the version of goat tagine with dried figs that Mustapha made at my request. Cooked in an oval terra-cotta dish made from the dark clay of the area, the meat was so tender it required no knife to cut. The aromatics of cilantro and thyme offset the sweetness of the plump figs. Mustapha set a sprig of wild lavender across the top of the goat. The decorative purple flower added a whiff of perfume to the dish. Pooled at the bottom was just enough sauce to soak up with bread.

While I was eating, Jaber came into the dining room. He knew a different forest where I might have luck finding Caesar’s mushrooms, he said, and he’d called another shepherd who would take me out in the morning. Maybe later, if the cedar groves weren’t snowbound, I could look for matsutakes. As I finished my goat tagine, I was already imagining the fine things that Mustapha would do with those varieties.

Jeff Koehler is an American writer, traveler, photographer, and cook. His writing, recipes, and photographs have appeared in many publications, including NPR.org, the Washington Post, NationalGeographic.com, Saveur, Food & Wine, Gourmet, Fine Cooking, EatingWell, Los Angeles Times, CS Monitor, Afar, Men’s Journal, Atlantic Monthly online, Virtuoso Life, Dwell, Tin House and Penguin’s literary journal The Happy Reader.
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