RABAT, Morocco — On a typically sunny Friday in September, Rabat’s Mohammed V Avenue performs an ancient ritual. The street is slowly coming to life after the quiet of the lunch and prayer hours, in anticipation of the busy workday. Shopkeepers sweep their doorsteps and open their stalls. Couscous-filled shoppers begin to populate the street. Mohammed Ben Kasem participates in the ceremony as he arrives to oversee the scene at his French-style cake shop Patisserie Saïd, exactly as his father and grandfather did every day for decades before him.
Just as in decades past, Patisserie Saïd presents customers with a glass case filled with a dazzling array of carefully frosted mille-feuilles, rich opera cakes, and roulades with impeccable cream swirls. Ben Kasem is more of a businessman than a baker but knows enough of the family trade to ensure the cakes always meet quality standards. The cakes are baked fresh every day by a separate baking staff off-site (the shop itself, more of a stall than a proper storefront in its current form, is too small to house a fully equipped kitchen) and delivered to the medina, where vendors dole out slices of sweets for four dirhams apiece.
“All our ingredients come from here in Morocco,” Ben Kasem said with pride.
Ben Kasem is the third-generation owner of Patisserie Saïd, and not much has changed since the day his grandfather set up shop in the early 1900s—he’s even working out of the same spot near the southern entrance to the medina.
“We make the cakes identical” to the ones his grandfather originally baked, Ben Kasem said in French. “We’ve added four or five different cakes, but the others have always been exactly like this.”
Patisserie Saïd is nothing if not consistent. The bakery’s clientele has come back year after year to enjoy their favorite sweets, so there is no need for fancy improvements or gimmicks. There is no rotating menu, no promotional offers, just the same quality that medina dwellers can depend on.
The bakery is medina street-style, meaning it has no chairs and is often crowded. To get their hands on a Ben Kasem creation, customers work their way up to the case through crowds of shoppers and hawkers. This requires some sharp elbows at peak times. They then exchange four dirhams for a slice and park firmly at the attached shelf to savor their treats.
Today, visitors will find the bakery in a temporary stall on Mohammed V Avenue, about 100 feet from the Marché Central, Patisserie Saïd’s usual home. The Marché is currently under construction as part of a United Nations-sponsored restoration of the medina launched in 2014. Ben Kasem expects the bakery to be back in a more permanent space in May 2020. He doesn’t gripe about the construction or the loss of the original storefront, but rather speaks of it with excitement, jokingly calling the old building “ancient.” No matter what space it fills, the soul of Patisserie Saïd has remained constant, and Ben Kasem sees no reason for that to change.
When asked how his grandfather learned to bake, Ben Kasem threw up his hands and said simply, “He learned!” After a moment of thought, he added, “He learned from the French.” The French influence on Patisserie Saïd is unmistakable. Instead of the honeyed briouat pastries and nutty cookies that fill many of Saïd’s neighbors’ display cases, Ben Kasem’s grandfather staked his ground in bringing traditional French baking to the medina. Years later, this vestige of the French presence in Morocco continues to flourish.
Running the family shop wasn’t always the plan for Ben Kasem. In fact, this is only his fourth year at the helm of Patisserie Saïd. His main career has been driving in various capacities, operating trucks in France and taxis in Brooklyn. He found that to be a perfectly fulfilling career, but when his father started to consider retirement, Ben Kasem returned home to join the business. Father and son worked side by side for a few years before the elder Ben Kasem took a step back, confident that he had passed the tricks of the trade on to the next generation.
The line might stop here, though. Ben Kasem’s son has no interest in business–cakes or no cakes. Instead, he is pursuing a degree in medicine, although devoted customers should take heart in Ben Kasem’s midlife change of course. It’s easy to tell how dear to Ben Kasem the place is. Describing his accession to the Patisserie Saïd throne, he declared with gravity, “This makes four years since I received the torch. Now I’m responsible.”