Dar Namir - Interview with Tara Stevens

Cooking school in progress. Photo © Mariluz Vidal

Cooking school in progress. Photo © Mariluz Vidal

Tara Stevens is a food, travel and lifestyle writer based between Barcelona, Spain and Fès, Morocco. She contributes to a wide variety of travel publications ranging from the Telegraph and Conde Nast Traveler to FOOL magazine (a specialist food publication). She’s also contributed to several food publications by Phaidon Books.

Where are you from?

I was raised in Pembrokeshire, Wales, but I’ve been living full-time in Barcelona for 14 years by way of Copenhagen and Puerto Rico. You could say I’m a little nomadic.

Tara shopping for lettuce at the R'cif market in the Medina-Fez. Photo © Camilla Lindqvist

Tara shopping for lettuce at the R'cif market in the Medina-Fez. Photo © Camilla Lindqvist

What inspired you to open Dar Namir?

I’ve been writing about food and wine and the culture surrounding it, but the last few years I’ve been hankering to get my hands dirty so to speak. I love kitchens, restaurants, dining rooms and outdoor eating, and my favourite thing in the world is gather friends and family at my table and cook for them. Dar Namir I suppose became a natural extension of that desire. Inevitably it evolved as the renovation project progressed and I’m sure it will continue to do so. I wanted to create somewhere that people would feel at home, somewhere that feels alive and lived in, not a museum piece.

How does Dar Namir differ from the other hotels/riads in the area?

First Dar Namir is not a hotel, it’s a very tiny cooking school (see below) and a house rental. I love to be in a beautiful hotel for a couple of night, but I’ve always preferred being able to rent my own place for longer stays mainly so I can explore local markets and cook with their ingredients. I figured I’m not the only person in the world who wants to do that so Dar Namir was really conceived as the kind of place I’d like to rent.

I’ve stayed in so many places that have just one chipped mug and a blunt spoon by way of equipment so Dar Namir is all about the details: a big range cooker, plenty of pots and pans, interesting crockery for presentation, little vases for flowers or more often herbs in my case, and guests are free to help themselves to pantry stock i.e. coffee, tea, olive oil and vinegars, herbs and spices, as well as a G&T. I also stock a small range of Moroccan wines, which are available through an honesty bar system. There’s nothing more annoying than having to stock a pantry for a three-night stay (and believe me, I’ve done it many times over), or having to go out in search of a drink when you’re tired after a long journey.

Because I converted the bartal (the beamed recess off most courtyards in Fès) into a galley kitchen and the courtyard into my dining room, the most spectacular space in the house has also become the most used. It’s the truly the heart of Dar Namir and I’m very happy about that.

Beyond that I’ve just tried to make it as comfortable as possible. There are only two, en-suite bedrooms so it’s great for small families or couples traveling together, although the TV lounge can convert into a twin room if needed. I was very against a TV at first until some friends bought me one as a house warming present last Christmas, together with several memory sticks loaded with great films (both for adults and children). It was god-send on the nights we just wanted to chill out, or the weather was foul, or the kids needed some downtime. So it’s stayed, and so far every single guest has made use of it at least once.

There’s also a library and living room off the courtyard and a small, pantry kitchen on the roof, and WiFi of course. So it’s super comfortable, spacious and less than 5 minutes walk to the market at r’Cif. Another bonus is that I’m about 3 minutes walk to the nearest taxi, so you don’t have to do too much hiking around the medina if you don’t want to. My next job is to get the roof terrace planted and ready for use. I’m not massively green-fingered but I’m enthusiastic to learn so that’s the project for September in between cooking courses.

Merguez and eggs with goat curd, cumin and coriander. Photo © Camilla Lindqvist

Merguez and eggs with goat curd, cumin and coriander. Photo © Camilla Lindqvist

What does Fez have that makes it so special?

For me it’s the fact that it’s still so authentic and untouched. You go to many historic places that have become like caricatures of their former selves. Fès hasn’t and I’m not sure it never will, so it really does feel like stepping back in time. But there’s a deeper reason for my attachment to it. I’m aware that I am incredibly fortunate and privileged to live in two such wonderful cities, and it’s easy to take this lifestyle for granted. Fès keeps my feet on the ground and I think that can only be a good thing. I’m trying more and more to get involved in the local community and slowly, but surely, I think I’m getting there.

What are your favourite hang out spots in Fez?

Well, Restaurant Numero 7 obviously, because it’s my other baby so to speak. But there are lots of great places these days. Among the more high-end places the rooftop at Karawan Riad is just around the corner from me and there’s no more spectacular view in town for a casual lunch. They also have a beautiful tearoom, a sunken lounge, a more gourmet restaurant and a wonderful hammam, so you can end up spending quite a bit of time there even if you’re not staying. Guests at Dar Namir often make use of their facilities, which is great.

A regular, lunch-on-the-run stop for me is Omar’s steamed chicken vermicelli sandwich in r’Cif (it’s a thing of wonder), or if I have a little more time I’ll head up to Achabine where you have the best range of traditional Moroccan eats whether it sumptuous tagines, cumin-spiced lamb brochettes or comforting bowls of beans and lentils. I tend to go here more in the winter when I feel I need feeding up.

The chef at the Palais Amani is fab too and they have the most delightful, art deco inspired bar on the roof for a pre-dinner drink. Vincent Bonnin at Dar Roumana for me is the best chef in town, so this is my top choice if I want to treat myself to a proper blow-out with French finesse. His menu changes regularly and it’s always inspiring. Likewise, impeccable service from his wife Vanessa and right-hand-man Mohammed ensures you feel extra special. It’s where I go to celebrate.

I love to go to Robert Johnson’s Ruined Garden for a tapas style lunch and it’s such a brilliantly friendly and eclectic environment that you can easily while away an afternoon here sipping freshly made juices or gorging on homemade cakes. It’s a bit like the medina equivalent of the TV bar, Cheers, you’ll always meet someone you know here.

If I’m after something a bit more upmarket I’ll head for the Jardin des Biehn, which is another gorgeous garden serving three course lunches (French and Moroccan), and sometimes stay for a mani-pedi and a hammam too. Mike Richardson’s Café Clock is an old favourite and very close to my heart as I wrote their cookbook several years ago. For my money it’s still the best breakfast spot in town and the Sunday sunset concerts continue to be the best regular cultural event in town.

Maison Moi Anan is a surprise newcomer in that Anan serves sensational regional Thai cuisine, and conveniently enough it’s just around the corner from Restaurant Numero 7. If I’m feeling in need of a Sunday chill out then I’ll go and have a long, lazy brunch at the Hotel Sahrai, or just lie by the pool at Alcantara.

For drinks on a Friday and Saturday night, Mezzanine is always lively and fun (and it’s the only place in town you can get a decent margarita).

The engine room. Photo © Camilla Lindqvist

The engine room. Photo © Camilla Lindqvist

You offer tailor-made cooking experiences in your custom-built school. What kind of cuisine do you teach?

I don’t like to tread on the toes of local cooks or other cooking schools so I don’t generally teach traditional Moroccan food. If you want to know how to make a really great tagine or couscous, you should go to a local cook. Period. However, if you want to experience a modern take on Moroccan cuisine – meaning a lighter, healthier and more diverse approach to cooking with Moroccan produce, herbs, spices and other key ingredients like preserved lemons – then the Courtyard Kitchen at Dar Namir is the place for you.

I plan all menus in advance with clients so we can be sure that they are getting something that they actually want to cook, and we usually do 4-5 dishes including a bread, which we sit down and eat together with a Moroccan wine pairing. As an example we might do my take khobz (traditional bread) with wild marjoram and black olives; chicken, preserved lemon and olive briouats with a harissa-honey-mint dipping sauce; sardine kefta with lemon zest and cumin; beetroot, goat curd and wild herb salad; beef ‘tagine’ with star anise and orange; almond berry cake with lemon labne.

You seem to be really busy as you are also the project manager behind Restaurant Numero 7 in Fez Medina. Are you involved in more projects?

Yes, my business partner Rebecca Eve who also teaches at the cooking school (she’s the baking specialist) and I have just soft launched Anajam Home (www.anajamhome.com), and we will launch properly in late September / early October. We specialise in hand-made Moroccan home wares with a contemporary edge. We work with extremely talented local artisans) to support them, and b) to try to help preserve their craft while developing new products closely with them. Our range now includes wool blankets, table linens, orchard wood presentation boards, beach blankets and fouta (hammam towels), candelabras, basketware and other household items. We also have a side brand called Anajam Vintage, which seeks out old crafts from the past such as our range of enamel picnic ware and vintage picnic blankets.

Essential herbs. Photo © Camilla Lindqvist

Essential herbs. Photo © Camilla Lindqvist

Ground spices. Photo © Camilla Lindqvist

Ground spices. Photo © Camilla Lindqvist