Ras el hanout - which means "top of the shelf" - is a fascinating and complex spice blend: ask 100 Moroccans how their family makes it, and you'll get 100 different recipes. In her cookbook, Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco, Paula Wolfert says that even Moroccans find it mysterious.

"It is a very old mixture of many spices, sometimes 10, sometimes 19, sometimes 26; Moroccans have told me of a ras el hanout that contained more than 100 ingredients."

Wolfert bought some ras el hanout in Fez and, after analysing the contents, counted 26 spices, which included familiar ingredients such as black pepper, cumin, cloves and cinnamon, and exotic ones: belladonna leaves, orrisroot, grains of paradise and gouza el asnab.

Her recipe calls for 16 spices - she does give another version with only eight, but says it's "far less thrilling to make or use". Wolfert adds that some versions call for spices with aphrodisiac qualities, such as Spanish fly and monk's pepper.

Naturally, with a blend of so many spices, nothing should dominate - the flavours should be balanced. As with all ground spices, the flavour fades quickly. It's best to make ras el hanout in small quantities, and by grinding the spices yourself.

Wolfert says ras el hanout is used in tagines, a hashish (cannabis) candy called majoun and rice and couscous stuffings.

Susan Jung