Seeing as we're all stuck at home and in need of a little colour and excitement, I thought I'd revisit my trip to Morocco last year, which I didn't get around to sharing on the blog at the time...
Exotic, crazy, colourful Marrakesh, so many intriguing cultural experiences but for the cook it’s a brave new world of tagines, cous cous, pastilla, meschoi, briouts, tangia, rfusa…
At first, the experience is virtually overwhelming. The souks and medina cover an area of approximately 19 km and are not for the fainthearted. Acres of stalls selling everything you can imagine and much that you can’t. I armed myself with a map and the phone number of the manger of the riad where I was staying so they could come and rescue me if and when I got hopelessly lost.
Before you venture into the Medina, sit down with a glass of frothy mint tea and a plate of Moroccan pastries and plan your adventure. I only had five days but I was determined to make the most of every moment.
I’d chosen to stay at a beautiful chic riad owned by Jasper Conran, L'Hotel Marrakech, with just five elegant bedrooms surrounding an inner courtyard garden with orange and banana trees, a date palm and a trickling fountain in the centre even a 10 metre lap pool for those who might like a refreshing dip even in winter. The food was delicious – breakfast, lunch and dinner – Bouchra is the cook (dada) here. The elegant dining room has tall metal windows, huge mirrors and portraits of Indian maharajah. Billie Holiday crooned and the candles flickered as I enjoyed my first dinner at a low round table by the fireside. Three little Moroccan salads, zaalouk (aubergine), taktouta (red and yellow pepper), cooked carrot and cumin and then a superb lamb tagine with artichoke hearts, fennel and cooked to melting tenderness so all the flavours melded together. The dessert was layers of flaky warka with pastry cream and a chocolate caramel sauce. We’d hit the jackpot…
Breakfast was another little feast, four different Moroccan breads and lacy beghrir, the tender Moroccan pancakes. I was determined to learn how to make at least these light lacy pancakes. I cheekily knocked on the kitchen door; Bouchra welcomed me into her kitchen and over the next few days showed me how to make a whole range of breads. Many, ingenious variations on the well-known Moroccan flat bread – msemen.
Some were cooked on the griddle others, shallow fried then drizzled with honey and sprinkled with coconut. Some were savoury to enjoy with eggs or b'sara (buttara), the thick lentil and bean soup often eaten for breakfast. Others were light, flaky and slathered with honey butter. Then there are all the tagines which take their name from the earthenware pot with the conical lid in which they are served and if you are lucky also cooked. These can be vegetarian or made from seafood, chicken, beef, lamb or rabbit with seasonal fresh vegetables and fresh or dried fruit, olives and maybe nuts.
Tagine royale with dates or prunes, almonds and apricots, is one of the best loved of all. But there’s also chicken with preserved lemon and green olives or with caramelised onion and raisins or with caramelised onion and tomato. I ate superb versions of these at Al Fassia on 55 Boulevard Mohamed Zerktouni in the Ville Nouvelle, owned by the Marraskhi sisters and almost entirely run by women. The food is superb but you must book ahead. I managed to do it on the internet from Ireland and confirmed when I arrived in Marrakesh. Don’t miss the pastilla with pigeon and the mezze made up of fifteen Moroccan salads, I had both lunch and dinner, sounds beyond greedy but I simply couldn’t taste as many dishes are I wanted in one sitting.
Cardoons were in season during my visit and they too make a wonderful addition to a tagine.
Close to L'Hotel Marrakech on Derb Sidi L’ahcen St there were lots of little shops and stalls piled high with freshly harvested vegetables and fruit, others offered an enormous variety of spices, olives of every hue and preserved lemons, an essential flavouring in so many Moroccan dishes.
Lots of little butcher shops too. Everything was very fresh– there doesn’t seem to be a tradition of hanging meat and every scrap of the animal is sold and used, heads, feet and all the offal and entrails. Street food of every hue, apart from msemen, round or square, flat bread, cooked on a griddle and served with butter and honey. One stall just sold goats feet to add to tangia, a stew cooked in an earthenware pot in the underground wood-fired ovens that heat the water for the famous hamman (baths).
The flavour and texture of the slow cooked meat that emerges from the earthenware pots is rich and delicious and continues a long tradition.
You’ll find a little cluster of cafes that serve tangia and meschoi, meltingly delicious slow roasted lamb falling off the bones served with cumin and salt on Meschoi alley on the east side of Djemaa El Fna just around the corner from the olive and pickled lemon souk. For harira and bsara head for Djemaa El Fna, Marrakesh’s central square, a crazy open theatre. There are snake charmers, henna tattoo artists, colourful water sellers in fringed hats that make more money from having photos taken than they do from selling water. At night the square ramps up several notches, over 100 chefs arrive with their grills, utensils and set up their stalls. Musicians tune their instruments and the fun begins in earnest.
Everywhere vendors are trying to entice you to try their specialities. The adventurous shouldn’t miss the snails and sheep’s head and other miscellaneous parts. Slide onto a bench beside a stall and enjoy every second of the spectacle and the food – unlikely to be a gastronomic experience but the atmosphere is unforgettable.