Chez Rick's


A Muslim country is perhaps not the best place for a drinks columnist to take her holiday. A Muslim country during Ramadan's month of fasting, when all the cafes and restaurants stay shuttered until nightfall, and things are even more desperate.

"They all look like bars," whines my latest love, "and then you ask for a beer and you discover they're not." Indeed, Casablanca is a town full of ornamental beer pumps.

We are offered mint tea at every turn and it is no consolation that the drink is known as Moroccan whisky. But we know there is alcohol to be had somewhere. For didn't Bogey proclaim, "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world . . ."? If there is a gin joint in Casablanca, we shall find it.

We have been trawling the streets since nine o'clock last night and now it is past noon. We need a lead and deduce that the best place to get a drink will be in the environs of Le Matin. This newspaper may host a glut of French (non-Muslim) employees, and it is largely inconceivable that where there are hacks there is no alcohol. We hit the trail and strike gold immediately. Right next to the newspaper office is Au Petit Poucet, a restaurant which has become a Casablancan institution of rickety 1920s elegance. There is only one man inside but he boasts a voluminous beer gut, a good sign.

Within seconds we are installed at a wooden table under a beautifully ornate, hand-painted ceiling. "Deux bieres, s'il vous plait," we request, eyeing up Beer Gut's tantalisingly half-full glass. "Yes," nods the Moroccan waiter. Once our lunch order is completed he carefully reads it back to us - two beers, half a dozen oysters and a salad nicoise. "Very good," says the waiter one last time, turning on his heel. "Only we have no beer." This, we soon discover, is typical of the Moroccan. He will listen to your request. He will agree approvingly. He will even enter into a polite discourse on the finer points of a deal. Then, at the last moment, he will explain why your request is impossible. This is his brother's shop/bar/souk stall. His brother has gone to Fes for Ramadan and he is very sorry but he is in no position to sell. Like the newspaper vendor who told me he had no Daily Mail at present, but since I was English perhaps I might care to exchange this dirty old pound note he had been saving in his wallet for just such an occasion. And so on.

But in Au Petit Poucet the waiter surprises us. "No beer," he repeats firmly, blithely oblivious to the fact that Beer Gut has one. "But we have gin, whisky, rum, wine . . ." This is indeed a hack's restaurant. We forget about beer and order a carafe of rose. Almost all Moroccan wine is surprisingly drinkable, though Allah knows who drinks it besides foreign visitors. Apparently, the French brought wine to Morocco only this century, when Morocco became a French protectorate. Now Moroccans tend the vines in the fertile soil around the imperial city of Meknes in the north-east. Rose is very popular, and a mesmeric complement to the sweetness of tagine spices and honeyed pastries that comprise Moroccan cuisine. Guerrouane and Gris de Boulaouane both balance delicate crispness with a fuller flavour and delicious fragrance. But in most places you choose from a list of four or five and, if you pick the right one, will never know it's the only one they've got.

Here in hack's paradise a scurrilous-looking scribbler has slunk in and repaired to the table behind the door. He opens lunch with a tumbler full of red martini which he chases with half a bottle of Moroccan red. Then another half bottle. We are drowsing over the remnants of our second carafe of rose when the waiter reappears. "Un petit cognac pour monsieur et madame?" he suggests smoothly, instinctively striking at our moment of greatest weakness. Of all the gin joints in all the world, this must be among the best of them. Bogey would definitely have approved.