What's That Smell? Morocco's Communal Ovens

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What's That Smell? Morocco's Communal Ovens

Tourists who spend more than a day or two exploring any Moroccan medina soon notice baking being carried through the streets. It might be the flat, circular loaves of bread they’ve surely eaten at breakfast. It might be the coconut cookies, resembling macaroons, that many riads use to welcome guests to Morocco, accompanied by glasses of hot, sugary mint tea. Even if they haven’t seen the trays, visitors notice the sweet scent of fresh baking.

Most tourists assume that a bakery is doing a booming business supplying nearby restaurants and hotels. Until the observant among them notices that trays of raw dough are also carried through the twisting medina streets.

A twisting medina street. Photo by Johanna Read TravelEater.net.jpg

Medinas are the oldest sections of North African cities. Surrounded by high walls, many medinas are purposely labyrinthine, designed to slow down ancient invaders who breached the walls. The twisting streets and alleys are narrow, seldom wide enough for cars. The 1200-year­-old Fez medina is supposedly the world’s largest car-­free urban area.

Medinas have been lived in for centuries, and many practices have changed little. Donkeys
carry goods (and tourists’ suitcases) through the passageways. Men and women wear hooded djellabas (though most certainly with a cellphone in their pocket). Many houses don’t have running water, so residents draw cooking water from fountains and visit the hammam to bathe.

Few homes ­­or even buildings that have been renovated into riad or dar hotels ­­have ovens. Even if they do, they’re rarely used. Instead, home cooks and restaurant pastry chefs send their baking to the communal oven, the faraan.

The baker at the faraan, Moulay Idriss. Photo by Johanna Read TravelEater.net.jpg

With sticks of olive wood piled outside, family-­owned faraans have deep brick-­lined ovens within. The expert baker puts his neighbors’ dough onto a long wooden paddle and then slides it into the oven. He knows which part of the oven is best for sesame cookies and which is best for round khubz bread. He keeps track of which baking belongs to which household, even without the identifying marks some cooks put on their dough.

People prefer to use the faraan, even if their house has an oven. Bringing baking to the
communal oven means not heating up their kitchens in the hot Moroccan summer. It means
saving fuel, whether it be propane or wood. And it saves time.

Finding time to walk baking down the street and remembering to pick it up might seem more
difficult than baking at home. Not in community­-minded Morocco.

“If you’re busy, you just leave your baking outside your house,” Mustapha, a young man from Fez, tells me. “When one of your neighbours goes by, they’ll see it, bring it to the communal oven and pay the baker for you.”

Using the faraan is good for the community. The wood that fuels many faraans serves two
purposes: residual heat from the baking oven is absorbed into the hammam, often located
along a shared wall.

Whether the cook brings her baking herself or sends one of her kids with it, the faraan ensures the family stays in the loop on neighborhood news. Just by what is being baked, neighbors can see and smell ­­ who is having house guests and who will be making a special
announcement by serving a celebratory b’stilla pigeon pie.

The faraan is an equalizer ­­— everyone in the medina uses it to bake their bread and fish tagine, though the quality of ingredients may differ. As Mustapha explains, while neighbors may gossip about a man skipping prayer or a woman wearing skirts deemed too short, without question their household’s baking will be delivered to the faraan just like any other. He’s incredulous that I would think otherwise.

Moroccan khubz bread. Photo by Johanna Read TravelEater.net.jpg

Visitors to Morocco can get a taste of the communal oven experience by taking a baking class. Dar Zerhoune, an upscale guesthouse in the holy city of Moulay Idriss, an hour from Fez, offers a personalized one.

Passing down techniques learned from her mother and grandmother, guesthouse manager and baking teacher Hajiba Dahik models rolling sesame cookies into precise balls and teaches me the desired stickiness for each stage of bread dough.

When our six trays are full of sweets and savories, Dar Zerhoune owner Rose Button walks me down to the communal oven. Neighbours peer at us with interest. At the faraan, the baker chats with Rose in Arabic and points at the sesame cookies. Rose replies, gesturing at me. I’m convinced it’s because he can tell the cookies’ shape is obviously not Hajiba’s perfect work, but perhaps she’s just explaining the reason we have so many trays at once.

After-class feast on Dar Zerhoune's rooftop. Photo by Johanna Read TravelEater.net.jpg

Later that afternoon, we feast on our creations atop Dar Zerhoune’s roof terrace. Dribbling local honey onto the warm bread, I gaze across Moulay Idriss’ rooftops over to Volubilis, the UNESCO Roman ruins next door. The communal ovens used 2,000 years ago there are almost identical to those in every medina of modern Morocco.