Moroccan food and stories in Montpellier
It is worth loosing oneself in side-streets to feel the mix of cultures in Montpellier. In the Rue du Faubourg Courreau a couple was the first to introduce Oriental traditions with Moroccan food among locals.
Going out of the centre
From the centre of Montpellier, Place de la Prefecture, take down the street Rue Saint Guilhem. After the crossing you are not any more in the Old City, but you get into the multicultural neighbourhood Figurolles. Five years ago the connection street, Rue du Faubourg Courreau, had garbage lying around and was marked by desolated shop fronts. In recent years it is slowly transforming to become more and more attractive. Beside kebabs, you find a Chinese restaurant as well as a French Bistro and a leather artisan shop.
It was an important artery: a French bakery did the best ‘Bûche de Noël’ cake of the town. You should have seen the line of people waiting in a queue before Christmas!
But a place you should not miss is the restaurant and tea salon serving maroccan food: Les Doigts d’Or de Fès (The golden fingers of Fez). Home-made sweets are lining up on the counter. Coming in, the smell of Tajine, meat and vegetables cooked in a clay dish, Couscous and freshly baked bread make it hard to resist not to taste everything.
Today you might not believe that when the extremely kind shop-owners Najat and Abdelouhed Bricha, both around 50, opened in 2001, it was the first and only Oriental Shop in the street.
“It was an important artery: a French bakery did the best ‘Bûche de Noël’ cake of the town. You should have seen the line of people waiting in a queue before Christmas!” There was also a ceramic shop, a funeral service, a health and well-being shop… No restaurant and nothing Oriental. “This is why we chose this place. They were missing someone like us,” Najat tells me over a mint tea.
Moroccan food: Keeping the old recipes
Traditional cooking is very important to the couple, who grew up in the Old City of Fez, Morocco. Najat’s mother was already passionate about cooking, spending her time reading recipe books. She transmitted this love to her three daughters.
I wanted to contribute my share.
Still, she surely did not expect back in time that Najat, the eldest, would some day perpetuate this heritage with a restaurant. “I wanted to contribute my share. The recipes are not as authentic any-more as we learned them. I wish to keep this knowledge,” Najat says.
She explains me the names of the pastries: Makrouts with date paste, twisted Chebakia with sesame, Mantecao, Almond Cigars, layered Baklava, Kadaif, also called Angel’s Hair… I concentrate to remember. The major ingredients are crushed almonds, pistachio, nuts, semolina, puff pastry dough and honey. Licking fingertips is here totally accepted.
Before making pastries, Najat was a nurse. To her parents it was important that the girls should be independent before getting married. So Najat followed, as expected, the footsteps of her father and worked at the hospital in Fez. Abdelouhed was a jeweller. When both of them met it was “love at first sight”. She packed her suitcase and left with him to France.
Building a space together
The 90s was the time of the socialists in France. Abdelouhed wanted a change, to leave Morocco behind after the death of his father and asked for immigration papers. Those were accepted and the adventure began. They were only 22 when they arrived. After a few years, they started making pastries for everyone – there was a huge demand. When their twins were born and the family grew from two to four children, they chose to buy a business space and to settle: “We wanted to share some of the home we carried in our hearts with the people here and decided to open an affordable, family restaurant accessible for everyone.”
This they achieved: their clients range from students, administration workers, academics, to parents with baby strollers.
Before, their store had belonged to an orthopaedic shoe seller who was old, got ill and died. A lot of renovation had to be done, but this did not matter to Najat and Abdelouhed. She brought ceramics from Fez all the way back to France in her old car, a Peugeot 405 break. Abdelouhed opened the wall to create an arch-door, they build themselves the presentation counter for the food and Najat sewed cushions for the seats. “When we work together we can do beautiful things.”
Convince yourself of this with the moroccan food, as even the cooking is done hands in hands. When the evening service is over, they start preparing the pastries for the next day. Sometimes until 1am in the morning. “You need to like what you are doing, otherwise you don’t stand the rhythm,” Najat explains me. Impossible to delegate the cooking to others – consistency in the taste is important to them.
Najat speaks of her clients as her guests. If you go to Les Doigts d’Or de Fès, take your time, don’t be in a rush – it is part of the charm of the place. It is much less about money and much more about sharing. After the interview she does not let me go without a box of her creations: “Made with love…” Should you pass there, please say hello from me.