Photo Credit: Christopher Hirsheimer
''Think of Marrakech as an oasis in the pre-Saharan desert. Warring nomadic tribes, armies of traders and invaders—every culture has left its mark. The Arabs brought our religion across North Africa around A.D. 700. The Almoravid princes who built the walled city came north from the Senegal River in 1062. The Spanish were ever present. The French protectorate lasted from 1912 until 1956. And each wave of conquerors had to contend with the local Berbers, the tribal people from the mountains who were here first. My father was a Berber from a remote village in the High Atlas Mountains. He had two wives and 24 children and lived to be 103.''
Ahmed Zaidane Lasry is talking. He has been talking since he met us at the airport with a lipstick red silk foulard poking from the pocket of his immaculately tailored Italian suit; his whispered Arabic chirps are all it takes to slip us through customs. He is driving us to his home in the medina (the old city) of Marrakech, his well-used BMW negotiating the narrow alleys and almost brushing the burros they were built for—and it has become clear to us already that Lasry is a wall of words, a river of them. He went to school on life and came out a well-connected guide. ''Besides Arabic and Berber, I picked up English, Italian, Dutch, and German. But mon français est correct. Très correct.'' To begin to understand Marrakech—its traditions, its food—people rent houses, spend years. But we don't have houses or years: We have Lasry.
We have Wolfert, too. For an American cook, there's almost nowhere you go with Moroccan food that Paula Wolfert—who published Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco in 1973, and has defined Morocco's immensely sophisticated cuisine for us ever since—hasn't been. Much from that seminal book remains with me, especially her description of the country's legendary hospitality: ''…an embarrassment of riches, total satisfaction, abundance as an end in itself and as a point of pride for the host.'' That, and the memory of some convincing meals at a Moroccan restaurant in San Francisco (where I recall the cozy community of shared eating as much as the sweet and savory food), had left me longing to visit Morocco. Last spring, I hook SAVEUR executive editor (and star photographer) Christopher Hirsheimer on the adventure, and she immediately lures to our office a group of knowledgeable Moroccans, whom we pepper with questions: ''Should we go to Fez or Marrakech?'' we wonder. ''Fez is more refined and sophisticated,'' our guests reply, ''but less has changed in Marrakech.'' Done. ''Is our idea of Moroccan hospitality just a romantic sentimentality?'' I blurt. ''Does it still exist?'' ''Yes,'' they reassure us, eyes twinkling. ''It still exists.''