The Communal Baker of Fes

As we wound our way through the dark and forbidding passages of the ancient Medina in Fes, our guide repeatedly pushed us poor goggle-eyed westerners through doors. Almost invariably, once inside, we would be transported into an alternative world, wonderfully light and colourful and brimming with human joy and energy.

This doorway was different.

It was low and, as far as I recall, there was no door to open. I had to stoop to pass through the arch and step down into the smokey and blackened cave of a room. My eyes could not make out very much in the enveloping darkness. Our guide chatted to a dismembered voice that emanated from a raging fire set part way up a wall.

As my eyes adjusted, I was able to discern a wiry man crouched low on his haunches, on a grey, dust carpeted floor. He was wielding a very long handled peel, in front of a simple, gaping, wood fired oven. He deftly removed several flat round loaves of bread from the furnace, and placed them in a small number of baskets and trays that were on the floor behind him. Then he turned his attention back to the oven and began to move the embers about, making sure the base of the fire was clear of debris and ready to receive the next batch of bread. Our guide babbled on, explaining exactly what we were seeing. He need not have bothered. I knew what this was and I was transfixed. If I had ever bothered to write a bucket list, I now realised that this moment would have been right at the top.

Eventually I managed to tear my gaze away from the flames and take in the rest of the tiny room. Deep shelves lined a couple of the walls and a mess of wood, much of it broken furniture and twiggy bits, was piled, floor to ceiling, against another wall. The shelves had a number of trays, boxes and baskets on them; bread awaiting baking, or collection. The wood, I was told, is purchased by the baker and not, as I had assumed, donated by the community members in part exchange for this service. This man runs a business.

A very blurred (!) picture of the bread oven: even the camera had trouble adjusting to the darkness.

The bake house works like this; local residents bring their home made, shaped, proving, but un-risen loaves, that have been carefully covered in spotless cloths. The job of the baker is not only to bake the bread, but also to make sure that every batch in his charge is allowed to rise to the perfect point for baking. Once baked, at this precise moment, he must make sure that everyone receives their own loaves when they call to collect them. He must never muddle up his customers’ breads.

If you know me, you know I have a bit of a bread fetish. I eat it, I make it, I love it. It is such a simple thing that can keep your gut biome so healthy and, when fresh and warm can bring a group of strangers into friendship, as they rip off lumps, dunk them into a simple unctuous sauce and eat. There is nothing like it, that costs so little and yet offers so much. Knowing this about me, you can imagine my gushing, girly, response to the realisation that I was in a communal bake house. I still come over a bit wobbly at the very, heavenly, thought of that moment.

As a sideline, this hard grafter also bakes daily trays of nuts to sell in the Medina and he will bake almost any food for a fee. People here do not have ovens, preferring to cook on simple burners using bottled gas. The communal Baker comes from an ancient tradition that still, to this day, suits everyone.

I have to admit that I nearly did my Captain Oates impression that afternoon, “I’m just going outside and may be some time.” Only Wally and our guide could go outside and leave me for some time. I was such a happy bunny.


Don’t miss the short video at the bottom of this page.

We’d not long arrived in Moulay Bousslham after a day sitting on our bikes and we needed a walk. We headed for the lagoon, which is beside the campsite, followed by a breathtaking walk. After no more than an hour, we found ourselves on the end of a sand spit, with the wild Atlantic on one side and the serene lagoon on the other. A fast flowing channel joined the two.

As we meandered about, picking up shells and watching the little fishing boats ride the surf and then the narrows to return to safe harbour, a man caught my attention. It was Omar, who had spent the day line fishing and wanted me to take a picture of him with his meagre catch. He spoke as much French and Spanish as me; so, not much!

We exchanged phone numbers, so that we could send the photos to his smart phone, which he kept at home. That evening, after a great meal in one of dozens of fantastic and cheap restaurants here in town, we sent off his photos.

Our evening meal, overlooking the sea.

The next day dawned misty and cold and we headed off to a small town an hour away for a huge local Sunday market. Two hours later we arrived, but that’s another story. When we got back we checked our messages to find Omar had invited us to his home the following day. After a couple of WhatsApp video chats, everything was set. He would pick us up at 9.00am, we would buy food, eat at his home, look at his village, go to Larache, a beautifully elegant seaside town, and then be returned to our campsite. It was a risky opportunity and we accepted graciously. We were now ‘Omars Amigos’.

The campsite service vehicle, emptying the bins.

The next day went to plan. We were picked up, we shopped in Omar’s local town for fish, vegetables and fruit and then whizzed off to chez Omar, deep in the Moroccan hinterland.

Shopping in Omar’s nearest town

His little village; cart wide mud tracks, no tarmac, well water, jury rigged house electricity, small junior school and a small mosque, buildings limewashed in pinks, sand and blues. The whole place feels like a warren of tunnels. Behind the ubiquitous 2m high, walls and double steel gates, was the milk seller, behind others, their father, brother, cousin (mi prima/o), uncle. Suddenly the lanes dissolve into a clearing and there is a tiny shop, bustling with buyers, and someone repairing a vehicle, horses and carts ply their trade; and then we squeeze back into the maze. It all flashed by so fast.

Omar’s uncle’s house.

Here the horse and cart rule. For Omar to own and run a car is a status symbol and a source of income. He ferries people to and fro within the dirt track system that he calls home. It is a place no ‘Petit Taxi’ dares to enter, for fear of the damage that would be done to the cars suspension.

The more usual transport here, horse and cart.

We had to wait for the food to be cooked by the women of the family. The men and I chatted and drank tea and water, in a pristine sitting room, as Omars mother presided. Mum and I wandered in and out of the man space and gave a hand with the food preparations. It was a chance to meet every one else.

Dancing in the kitchen with the women and children.

After our meal, eaten with no cutlery, in a different, equally beautiful room, whilst sitting on softly upholstered, ground level seats, at low level tables, I was dragged away by mum. The women and children had cleared the kitchen and it now it became a disco. And we danced.

Locally grown strawberries.

Soon Omar turned up and dragged me away from the party; I seem to be popular in these parts. It was time to head off to Larache and then afterwards back to the campsite.

We recommend Larache. The influence of the French is evident. This place has it all, sandy beaches, fishing port and market, ancient Spanish fort and a fading charm that is hard to resist.


We were returned to the campsite to find the Chinese Emperor and the German couple gone. We now have a new neighbour. Let’s see what tomorrow brings.