The next day, back in Western attire, Lasry meets us at our hotel, the Palmeraie Golf Palace, set in a 12th-century grove of soaring date palms. (The Almoravid rulers once hunted here; captains of industry now play golf here.) Captive in the BMW, we speed past jacaranda trees, all bright purple blossom and no leaves. We're heading, it seems, to have tea with a woman Lasry just remet after 33 years. ''I once had a bike. They rented it from me. I never saw them again until last week at the airport.'' At some point we just give up trying to picture this happening at home.
Lalla Koute greets us in an open courtyard many times larger than Lasry's. It is a garden, really—its quadrants thick with orange and lemon trees, a fountain in the center, and long salons at each end. In the kitchen, surprisingly unadorned for a house this grand, Koute, in a fawn-colored djellaba, welcomes us in good English: ''Any time is teatime in Morocco.'' (It turns out she's been to UC Berkeley.) We follow her through the garden to a salon and, removing our shoes as she does, join her husband, Said, a policeman, and a young student named Mohammed Sebti. Koute brings us plates of homemade pastries—crescent-shaped hlal, or moon cakes; smid, topped with sesame seeds; feqqas., which look like biscotti—and bowls of mixed dates, figs, walnuts, golden raisins, and peanuts. Then she twice pours the tea into a glass and back into the pot and finally, from a height of two feet, into our decorated tumblers. We sip the minty warmth of its welcome. ''We did not do this especially for you,'' she explains. Lasry elaborates: ''You prepare these things every day for guests, and every day someone comes. In Morocco, you never ask why. We are here for reasons we cannot explain. God will never let me meet bad people. I met these people last week because I wanted to show you something.'' After an hour, Koute sprinkles our hands with orange-flower water from a silver ewer and bids us good-bye. Inexplicably, Mohammed joins us.
It is night in the medina. Magic and mystery. Lasry's car stops at the dead end of an alley. We descend to a scattering of little boys who are not so much begging as curious. A tall man in an elegantly flowing white djellaba meets us. Lasry utters only the restaurant's name: ''Yacout''. The man nods, we follow. He knocks at a heavy wooden door. It opens. Another beautifully robed man leads us down a hallway lit only by candles in silver-and-glass lanterns, past a courtyard with an exotic tree-lined pool, and up a narrow curving staircase. No one speaks as we climb three stories onto the roof for a drink. As we look out over the roofs of the low-lying city, we hear the drumming, always the drumming, from the streets.
Soon, another white djellaba comes to lead us down to our table. It is set for four, but Lasry, all graciousness, suddenly disappears, leaving us with Mohammed—and something of a language barrier. From our low banquettes, we are only vaguely aware of other guests as our dinner proceeds. We never order; we float, wanting for nothing. Salads arrive, nine in all, riffs on those at Lasry's house: silky roasted green pepper with cumin; artichokes and baby zucchini; cubed fried calf's liver; lamb and quince. Two waiters carry in a giant leather tagine and uncover it to reveal three whole chickens with preserved lemon and green olives. The tender flesh is deftly loosened by a waiter, then left for us to eat with our fingers. It is one of the lushest things we have ever tasted.
Another tagine, this time of lamb and green beans in succulent sauce, follows. I'm vaguely aware that the idea of pacing oneself has fled altogether. Then, like rice at an Asian banquet, there is couscous to end this one—a classic seven-vegetable couscous. Finally comes a dessert bestila (often spelled besteeya or pastilla), a delicate pie as big as the table, with many flaky-leaved layers of pastry and a cream filling scented with orange and roasted almonds. Somehow I am not surprised to learn, when we return to visit Yacout in daylight, that the restaurant is a large private house, with only a house-size kitchen, where each pains-taking step of preparation is a deliberate celebration of the cuisine's glorious traditions.
Another night, we slip away sans Lasry to check out the stuff of legend at La Mamounia, the 1920s hotel set just inside the medina's walls. Wandering its splendid gardens in the moonlight, admiring its Art Deco interiors, it's easy to imagine when this was the only luxurious doorway to the Sahara. In the elegant traditional Moroccan restaurant, with its ornate pierced plasterwork, we revel in the earthy authenticity of mhammar—braised lamb.
''Bismillah [On God's name],'' murmurs Lasry as he starts the huge Ford Explorer we've rented to drive the Ouarzazate road into the snow-capped High Atlas Mountains near the Berber village where he was born. ''Mahi mushkila? [No problem?]'' I ask. ''Getting this car we had plenty mushkilas,'' he laughs. In the back is…Mohammed. We sense he's been adopted, somehow, and don't ask. Leaving town through perfect groves of olive trees and vast fields of poppies, we try explaining to Lasry why it's funny that we're bringing Mohammed to the mountain.
''Here is every climate in the world in one wonderful country,'' says Lasry, becoming all guide. Quickly the red villages appear, nestled into hillsides waving with wheat. Women cut sheaves and load them into baskets on donkeys' backs. This is where the couscous begins, I think to myself.
Villages become tightly packed and isolated as the grade increases. ''Look, please!'' and we stop for a bunch of kids by the roadside; a 6-year-old leads a cow. Lasry speaks tenderly to them in Berber. Long, deep valleys luxuriate between red hills and the ancient high towers of casbahs (medieval fortresses). Patterns repeat: square brown houses with flat red roofs, courtyards noisy with roosters and children. We're now on roads the Explorer has no business exploring—with drops so terrifying that with each ''Look, please!'' from Lasry, Christopher and I giggle harder.
After two hours, in the tiny town of Taddert we marvel at the Berber tagines—smooth mounds of saffron yellow potatoes, punctuated with strips of pepper, topped with tomatoes—cooking over coals at roadside stands. ''Berbers are healthy,'' Lasry informs us. ''They eat a lot of fresh vegetables, couscous, and only a little meat.'' An hour later, we arrive at a high flat place where the road seems to end. ''Down there is my town, Anmeter, where 24 families still live.'' We look at the village in the valley, trying to place Lasry in his Adidas running suit in this 16th-century setting, still a two-hour donkey ride away. Lasry spares us the donkeys and we turn back to have lunch at an informal restaurant in a heavy woven-wool Berber tent at the mountain outpost of Telouet. We're offered tea, a tomato salad, and a jewel-like Berber tagine, just like the roadside version. As we eat, I think that if, as has been said, Morocco (like Provence) is a cold country with a hot sun, it is true, too, that Morocco is a poor country with a rich cuisine.
For days, Lasry has promised us a woman who makes warqa, the pastry leaves, thinner and more delicate than Greek phyllo, used in bestila and other Moroccan pastries, and for days, no one appears. Embarrassed, he explains that people don't make warqa anymore; they buy it. But on our last night, in the kitchen of our hotel's excellent Moroccan restaurant, Lasry produces three home cooks who enthusiastically take us through the complex steps of making bestila—this symphony of Moroccan cuisine. Then Lasry, the man who unfailingly makes his monthlong pilgrimage to Mecca every year, steers us to (go figure) a karaoke bar. He turns suddenly serious. ''I feel that God knows me. He gives me what I ask for and what I don't ask for. I am 57. All I can ask at the end of my days is to be in a small village and call people to prayer.'' Then, just as suddenly, he grabs the mike as the Blues Brothers appear on screen and belts out loud with them: ''I'm a soul ma-a-an.''