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.