The most memorable part of the trip to Fez for us was a visit to a tannery. Leather goods are what Fez is famous for. The tannery we visited was established in the 12th century and is STILL owned by the same family. It’s quite something to look down on a “production line” which has changed little in almost 1000 years.
You can only view the tannery from above for two reasons – the mint you are handed at the entrance to hold up (to) your nose gives advance notice of the first reason – ammonia. The corrosive lime used to burn the hair from the leather is the second. It wasn’t all that smelly when we were there; in summer it’s a different story. It’s a tough job being a tannery worker at all times of the year, but particularly in the heat.
The white brick vats lined with ceramic tiles to the left are where the hides are first soaked in the lime solution. They stay there for a week. Then they move to the “stinky” yellow-coloured section at the back. The hides spend a week soaking in these vats of pigeon poop to soften them.
At this point Adam asked what may have been his most probing, deep, and only, question of the year long trip so far. “Where does all the poop come from?”
Farms from the neighbouring countryside provide the poo, and also pigeon meat to make the local culinary delicacy. It’s called pastille (sounds like bast-eea) and is a sweet/savoury pigeon pie coved with pastry and sprinkled with cinnamon and icing sugar. We ate one later in an old mosaic-lined restaurant down a never-to-be-found-again alley within the medina. (The first thing a new local mother is given after delivering her baby is a slice of pastille to give her energy.)
The third stage in the tanning process is the dyeing. The guide told us that natural dyes are still used at this tannery: poppy for red, pomegranate for brown, mint for green, indigo and cobalt for blue, kohl for black, henna for orange, tamarind for beige and saffron for yellow. The hides soak for a week in the dye. They are trampled by barefooted tannery workers, who follow a hide through the whole 3-week process. They are paid piecemeal.
The tannery workers have their own hammam, but we still saw a few workers walking round the medina with arms stained bright red. Jobs still often pass down family lines.
Some tanneries have moved to using chemical dyes, such as chrome. The labour intensive hands-on process doesn’t really go well with modern chemicals. And although drainage extraction systems are being put in place, these don’t recover all the chemicals and the river is also becoming quite polluted.
The hides are lastly left to dry on the rooftops.
The final leather goods are gorgeous. Good leather smells of very little and can hold a flame. Camel hide is the lightest and most expensive, and goat the softest. Because buying anything but the tiniest of souvenirs would involve leaving behind a child, I’ll have to come back another day without the campervan or children.
[There’s another post about the medina itself]