The magic of Morocco

The first BBC Good Food ME Culinary Journeys trip, in association with The World At Her Feet, offered a fascinating discovery of colours, aromas and flavours in picturesque Marrakech.

Pre-trip meet-up

Our Culinary Journeys trip to Morocco got off to a grand start in Dubai. The participants met up with the BBC Good Food ME and World at Her Feet teams at Marrakech restaurant in Shangri-La Hotel Dubai, a couple of weeks before departure, to get to know each other and get an introduction to the cuisine, over tasty canapés. The camaraderie in the group was evident from the get-go, with lots of laughter and excitement about the trip, over Moroccan bites like Fig and pumkin Maasal with goat cheese; Chicken pastille; Cinnamon lamb tagine with glazed dry prunes; Beef kofta stuffed with pine nut couscous; and Almond briwat. The restaurant chef also joined the group towards the end, to give a short talk on the cuisine, while the rest of the time was spent planning for the trip. The ladies couldn’t wait to head out!

The fact that I was travelling with a group of ardent foodies was evident right from the beginning. After touching down at Casablanca, as we embarked on the scenic two-hour drive to Marrakech, past lush green fields and small villages, the conversation naturally veered towards food, favourite restaurants, which is the best place for what cuisine, and so on. The enthusiasm was infectious and the anticipation high.

We arrived at Dar Liqama, our home for the next few days, in the late afternoon to a welcome of Moroccan tea, homemade cookies and warm smiles. Located on the outskirts of Marrakech, in the midst of a palm grove overlooked by the nearby Atlas mountains, Dar Liqama is part of a two-villa compound that feels like a remote getaway but is still only a short drive from the city centre – albeit on a bumpy off-road track.

Dar Liqama translates into ‘House of green mint’, and is a poetic description of this historic-style villa that is home to one of just three Rhode School of Cuisine cooking schools, a luxury gourmet vacation provider. Designed to resemble a traditional Moroccan riad – a house built around a central courtyard – the luxurious villa houses eight bedrooms (the adjacent Dar Louisa has five), as well as the cooking school kitchen. Landscaped gardens with a marble fountain lead into the stunning entrance lobby which features traditional archways, an open atrium-style ceiling (with a retractable roof for rainy days and cold nights), another fountain gurgling in the centre, and hand-picked artefacts placed around the lounge area. Many genuine antiques have been restored and incorporated into the design, from the grand wooden entrance door, to the marble fountains, which gives the villa the feel of an authentic riad – with none of the space limitations that riads within the medina (the walled inner city) have.

The traditional theme carries through into the luxe bedrooms, each one of which is done up in a different style (some of them boast private fireplaces and terraces) with copper washbasins in the bathrooms; hand-painted tiles; and tadlaqt walls (a traditional technique of polished limestone finish). The pièce de résistance of the villa, however, is the sprawling first-floor terrace, which offers uninterrupted views of the palm trees and the Atlas mountains beyond, as well as the landscaped gardens, outdoor kitchen, and private pool.

It was here at the Las Terrases des Berberes that we gathered for pre-dinner cocktails on our first evening, where the low seating and the warm glow of tealight candles created a magical atmosphere. For dinner, we proceeded to the grand dining room – which, true to its name, offered the perfect setting for a formal dinner – to enjoy a lavish feast of salad, meatball and eggs tagine, and pastries. It was a taste of things to come, as there would be lots of eating over the next few days!

Breakfast the next morning was an alfresco affair at the poolside, where varieties of different breads, cakes and pastries, homemade jams and preserves, fresh eggs made to order – from the resident hens – and the sweetest freshly squeezed orange juice I’ve ever tasted, were all heaped on to the table. With the perfect weather, impossibly blue sky and a background soundtrack of twittering birds, daytime meals were enjoyed outdoors every day.

Lessons in food

That morning, we commenced our first hands-on cooking class, which was headed up by Rafik, the villa manager, cooking instructor and de facto guide during our stay. A professional chef who has worked in Michelin starred restaurants in London, among other things, Rafik teaches his courses in a friendly, chatty manner, incorporating details about the Moorish culinary culture and the essential spices used in Moroccan cooking, busting myths about the traditional cuisine along the way – there’s so much more to it than tagines and couscous! – while sharing useful cooking tips and tricks, all with a dose of humour. In that first cooking class, we were handed a small tagine each, with our names on it, which was to be our companion through the rest of our stay – almost at every meal, we were served massive portions of slow-cooked something or the other in our individual tagines!

The daily cooking classes were all fun and interactive, with lots of questions and food knowledge being bandied back and forth. For example, we learnt that the popular couscous salad is a modern western invention, and traditionally, Moroccans would never eat couscous in a salad form.

But salads are a popular part of Moroccan cuisine, with the abundance of fresh produce from around the region. In fact, at Dar Liqama, the concept of local produce is taken to a whole other level – they not only use herbs and vegetables from the on-site garden, but also
make their own olive oil (the freshness is evident from the distinct fragrance of olives coming through), use eggs hatched by their own chickens, and make their own honey! Whatever isn’t made or grown in-house, the kitchen team goes shopping for, from the local markets each morning – cooking class participants are welcome to come along on these market visits.

Among other things, we cooked Harira soup (a traditional lentil soup), a variety of tagines – from lamb and chicken to lesser known ones such as artichoke tagine – chicken pastilla, almond cigars, couscous with vegetables, Briouate, Moroccan bread, as well as learnt to make our own preserved lemon and preserved butter. We also got to cook outdoors on coal-fired stoves in the traditional style, as well as observed cooking in a Tangia – a large urn-shaped clay pot in which seasoned meats are left to slow-cook overnight, or even over a couple of days, in the wooden stoves used in hammams. We tried our lamb tangia two days later, which had been cooking in the villa’s own hammam, and were left ooh-ing and aah-ing over the flavour-infused meat that just fell off the bone, it was so tender.

Other highlights included learning to make couscous from scratch – a slow, labour-intensive process of steaming and rolling the grains by hand – and baking our own bread in the outdoor wood-fired oven. Some of the participants in our group were so enthusiastic to learn, they would come down early in the morning to help the lovely kitchen team prepare breakfast. All the hard work was rewarded with a certificate which was handed out to each participant at a formal ‘graduation dinner’ on the last evening.

Journeys of discovery

It wasn’t just cooking all the time, however, as every day, after the classes, we headed out to explore the city and beyond. Marrakech is also known as the ‘Red city’, because of the terracotta-hued walls of the fortified medina, as well as most of the buildings – according to government rulings, no building in the city is permitted to be painted in any other colour, to maintain the uniformity; this is a quirk across Morocco, with different cities having different signature colours assigned to it.

There are plenty of other colours to assault the senses, however, at the D’jemaa el F’naa square, the throbbing heart of the city inside the ancient medina. A bustling, chaotic, exotic social gathering place, the sprawling square hasn’t changed over the years, still playing host to a medley of snake charmers, acrobats, musicians, magicians, fortune-tellers and other entertainers. Labyrinthine alleys veer outwards from the main square, where you can bargain away to your heart’s content for traditional handicrafts such as pottery, ceramics, rugs, jewellery, lamps, and brass work.

The square is overlooked by the towering Koutoubia mosque, Morocco’s largest mosque, surrounded by beautifully landscaped gardens. Nearby are some of Marrakech’s other important historical attractions, the Bahia palace, and the Saadian tombs. The Bahia palace, which dates back to the 19th century, is a great example of Moroccan craftsmanship, with stunning stuccos, intricate inlay work and zellige – a traditional technique where tiles painted in natural dyes are inlaid by hand to create geometrically-patterned mosaics. The Saadian tombs, morbid as they may sound, are another example of the country’s rich design legacy with its intricate decorations of tiles and carvings – and come with an interesting story to boot. A 16th century burial ground for the Saad dynasty, it was later sealed when the tyrant ruler Moulay Ismail took over, only to be discovered as recently as 1917, by the French.

With our appetite for culture whetted, we headed back that evening to the villa terrace for a soiree with G’nawa music – a genre of African-Islamic religious music and dance. The friendly entertainers – who are typically found performing in the D’jemaa el Fanaa square – sang in impassioned voices and danced with complete abandon, and seemed truly immersed in the music, sweeping us along on their beautiful, spiritual journey.

While it isn’t hard to find beauty anywhere in Marrakech, one of the most picturesque spots in the city has to be the Jardin majorelle, a 12-acre botanical garden owned by Yves St Laurent, and a popular tourist attraction. Designed by French artist Jacques Majorelle, who can probably claim the garden as his ultimate masterpiece, the colourful Jardin Majorelle offers a stunning interplay of nature’s beauty with human creativity. Home to a staggering variety of cacti (in a variety of sculptural shapes that look too quirky to be natural, but are!) and other lush foliage, the garden even has a colour named in its tribute – the Majorelle, a bright cobalt blue that the artist has used extensively in the garden, along with accents of bright yellow and orange in decorative urns placed around the garden. This is a wonderfully relaxing place to meander around in, and presents incomparable photo-ops.

Our excursions took us not only into the hurly burly of the city, but also into the lap of nature, up to the snow-capped Atlas mountains. A day-trip to the Berber village of Imlil, set at the foothills of Jebel Toubkal, the highest peak of the range, takes you past a rapidly changing landscape – desert terrain gives way to green mountainsides with babbling brooks gurgling downstream, alongside. We made a pit-stop at a local market on the way up – a busy hive of industrious activity where everything from second-hand Ralph Lauren slippers to fresh fruit is for sale, with the ubiquitous tagines bubbling away at food stalls. Taking the scenic route also allowed us to stop at an argan oil cooperative society in Tah’nout, where underprivileged local village women hand-produce argan oil from the seeds; you can get your fill of shopping for argan oil products here, whether it’s cooking oils or beauty creams.

Once we got to Imlil, a tiny village that is popular as a starting point for trekkers, we disembarked to then take a gentle hike up to Kasbah du Toubkal – a picture-perfect hotel perched on a cliff-edge, with a terrace restaurant which reputedly offers the best views in North Africa. We were welcomed into the community-centric eco resort, which is built in a converted Kasbah (former home of local chieftain), in traditional fashion with rose water spray and dates dipped in milk. The restaurant, at 1,800 metres above sea-level, is a popular lunch spot for day-trippers like us – we tucked into a set menu of fresh salads, melt-in-the-mouth tagines, couscous, and fresh fruit washed down with Moroccan tea to finish, all served with a good helping of Berber hospitality.

While we came back from the trip with a recipe book and certificate from the culinary classes, souvenirs galore, and thousands of photographs, the memory of that warm fuzzy feeling you get from a combination of a stunning environment, fantastic food, friendly hospitality and good company, probably best sums up the overall experience for everyone involved.

Foodie shopping in Marrakech

You can’t take a group of ladies on holiday, and not have shopping high on the agenda!If you want to spare yourself the stress of bargaining, head to the Bouchaib artisan complex in the Medina, where you will find everything you could buy outside in the markets, at fixed-price rates, and in air-conditioned comfort. Here are some of the can’t-miss souvenirs we picked up:

  • Tagines
  • Ras-el-Hanout spice, an essential in Moroccan cooking
  • Mini-tagines to serve dips and chutneys in
  • Argan oil for cooking
  • Moroccan tea sets