26.07.2016

The Magic Of Marrakech

By Jo Cooksey

Food is one of the big loves of my life and the other is travelling, particularly abroad. I love planning trips and researching all the amazing dishes that will be on offer at each location. I buy travel guides and related cookbooks and spend the countdown to departure imagining all the amazing places I will visit and all the incredible food I will eat whilst I’m there. When I get the chance, I also love to travel alone. I’ve been doing it since I was 18 and find it very therapeutic. No one else to worry about, no one else’s timetable to work to, just me, myself and I.

The Road To Morocco

One country I have always dreamed of visiting is Morocco and in particular Marrakech. I love the architecture, the colours, the romance and the food of North Africa. Over the centuries Morocco has been invaded many times and as such is now a melting pot of races and religions, yet it has melded in to one fascinating culture, with hospitality and acceptance at it’s core.

With the help of the Moroccan Tourist Office I planned the trip, booked my accommodation and then the flights with easyJet. This is the first time I have flown with them and to be honest I found great. No different to any other budget airline. I wanted to stay in the heart of the medina, in a traditional hotel, or riad as they are called and the Riad Palais des Princesses seemed to tick all the boxes for a solo traveller.

World-renowned architects and artisans had converted this ancient, former Royal residence into a 4 star hotel a few years ago. Protected from the hustle and bustle of the city by it high walls, it is a haven of peace and tranquility for the weary traveller. It is 2 minutes from Jamaa El Fna square and the souk but the cool and welcoming interior could be a million miles away. The hotel is off a little alley and as you enter, the hallway opens up into a beautiful internal courtyard that is open to the heavens and complete with a lovely fountain. The whole building is very traditional in style and decoration and all the rooms have air con, bathrooms, fluffy toweling robes, cable TV and free Wi-Fi. To get to my room I ascended a winding staircase that opened on to another, smaller courtyard, around which the bedrooms are set. Carry on up the next narrow set of steps and you will come to a rooftop terrace where there are very comfy sun loungers, each with a clean towel rolled up and laid upon it. Another little set of steps brings you to the topmost terrace where there are tables and parasols and a covered lounging area. Much appreciated after a hard day in the souk.

For very little money the hotel will arrange your airport transfers and a well- stocked hot and cold breakfast buffet. There is also a small indoor pool, spa and traditional Hamman. During my stay I had a 45 minute massage and for approx. £18 I was pummeled and kneaded within an inch of my life. To say I felt relaxed after it is an understatement.

Exploring and Discovering

I spent my first day getting my bearings, travelling not too deep into the souks and goggling at the beautiful trinkets and fabrics on sale. Marrakech is a feast for the senses. During the day Jamaa El Fna square was relatively quiet, probably because we slap bang in the middle of the Muslim festival of Ramadan. However, there were some fresh orange juice vendors, snake charmers and men with monkeys. Throughout my trip I steered well clear of the snakes, not only because I hate them but because I had been warned that their wranglers will try and drape them round your neck and charge you for taking a photo, whether you want one or not. The same is true of the monkey men. I don’t hate monkeys, I love them and as such I have a big problem with any animal being used as tourist bait. Plus they didn’t seem to be treated with much kindness by their handlers and on several occasions I had to stop myself marching up to them and confiscating their apes. Being an animal lover in a country that doesn’t treat animals the way we Brits tend to is always going to be a difficult call. There are a lot of donkeys pulling carts in Marrakech and I did see a few that had nasty open sores from where their makeshift harnesses had rubbed them raw. However, I did some research when I came back and found that there are several international animal charities, such as SPANA, who work across Morocco, doing their best to educate, treat and inspect working animals. Hopefully their work is making a difference.

Eat Your Greens

Prior to the trip I did some homework around the local cafes and restaurants and having worked up an appetite, I headed to one that had caught my eye in the guidebook. Called the Earth Café, it was a stone’s throw from my riad and served up a small menu of organic, sustainable vegetarian and vegan food and freshly made juices. They are currently opening a second site in the city and they also own an olive farm where they press their own olive oil. I’m not a vegetarian but I love my veggies and if done well vegetarian food can be magnificent.

I found the café quite easily and stepped in off the street, turned around and immediately stepped out again. I had walked straight in to the kitchen. I peered up and down the street looking for the main entrance but it turned out that that was the way in. Nice to be able to see how clean and tidy the kitchen was though.

I walked through the kitchen and into the courtyard, where there were tables and chairs but no other diners and started to peruse the menu on the wall. There were 4 vegetarian choices and 5 vegan choices. A waitress came out and offered me a table. After careful consideration I chose a filo parcel filled with pumpkin, spinach, carrots and goat’s cheese and a top serving of what they referred to as apple sauce. However, this was more like roasted slices of apple dusted with cinnamon and very nice too. I also chose a fresh juice of beetroot and ginger. It was the most fantastic jewel-like red colour when it came and the sweet, earthiness of the beetroot came through beautifully. Sadly, there wasn’t much taste or heat from the ginger but it was still very enjoyable. When the filo parcel arrived it was a very generous size and I have to say absolutely delicious, with hints of cumin and cinnamon mingling with the creamy, sharp goat’s cheese and vegetables. Very filling and satisfying. As I was finishing up the place began to fill up, so I was obviously a little early. This was shaping up to be a fabulous foodie trip already.

Stepping Back In Time

One thing thing I really wanted to do whilst in Marrakech was a cookery course. Again, with the help of the Moroccan Tourist office I had contacted the La Maison Arabe, a 26 room, 5 star hotel, who run their own classes, both in the hotel and at their country club on the outskirts of the city. They very kindly offered me a complimentary course. An interesting note is that it was decided to open the school, the first in Morocco, after guests of the hotel kept asking for recipes of the food they had eaten so they could recreate them in their own homes.

This was to be the highlight of my trip and on the second day I excitedly dashed to the square and jumped in a cab. A word to the wise, Morocco is a haggling culture; even taxi fares are fair game. Never get in a cab without first agreeing a price, otherwise they will try and charge you £20 for a two minute trip. Haggling is part of the fun anyway.

My taxi pulled up and the driver directed me down a narrow alleyway, whilst reassuring me that I would find the hotel entrance there. What I found was probably one of the most beautiful hotels I have ever had the privilege of stepping foot in and the story behind it is fascinating.

Back in the 1930’s, a French woman, Hélène Sébillon-Larochette, had moved to Marrakech with her daughter, who suffered from a chest complaint, after doctors had advised them that the dry desert air would be better for her. In 1946 the pair approached the local pasha to gain permission to open a restaurant. He granted their request and within a few years it was a world-renowned stop for many celebrities and VIPs. It was the first independent restaurant to open in Marrakech. During their tenure they welcomed the likes of Winston Churchill and Jackie Onassis.

If I remember correctly, the restaurant closed in the 70’s and remained so until Italian aristocrat, Prince Fabrizio Ruspoli, bought it in the 90’s and set about expanding it in to seven adjoining riads. He personally oversaw the transformation in to the beautifully elegant and much-lauded hotel it is today. It has been described by the travel bible Frommer’s as being “the epitome of Moroccan elegance” as well as being named as ‘One of the Most Beautiful Hotels in The World’ by L’Officiel Voyage. The décor, a combination of the best of Moroccan architecture and English country house is opulent and sumptuous. There are paintings on the walls, beautiful fabrics on the furniture and interesting objet d’art on every surface. The bar is a handsome homage to the Art Deco period. The attention to detail is wonderful and there obviously wasn’t any scrimping on cost when the hotel was developed or in it’s upkeep since. The staff are attentive and professional and the atmosphere calm and reassuring.

Off To Cookery School

I arrived early for the class and was shown to a comfy seat in the courtyard and served traditional mint tea and a tray of delightful sweetmeats. Once all my fellow classmates had arrived we were shown outside to a waiting minibus and whisked off to the country club. We were an eclectic bunch of 10, from many continents: America, Australia, Canada, Austria and the UK, yet we all chatted easily on the journey.

Our mentor for the day, a lovely, jolly lady called Wafaa met us, sat us down and gave us an interesting potted history of the hotel, Morocco, its people and its food. I remember her saying that, “Moroccan food is an open door the country’s whole culture. Food brings people together. There is no religion or politics in food.” Afterwards we were given a tour of the herb garden and invited to smell and taste the amazing array of plants, including thyme, mint, rosemary, lemon verbena and an incredible smelling but unfamiliar herb called Geranium Rosa.

We walked to the end of the garden and into an outdoor kitchen where we shown how to make mint tea in the customary manner, which involves a lot of pouring from height. Afterwards another lady showed us how to bake Moroccan bread in a traditional cobb oven, on a bed of red-hot pebbles. Bread is served with every meal in Morocco and is used instead of a knife and fork. After the demonstration we all had a go flattening out the balls of dough on to the end of a long paddle and flipping them on to the oven floor. They took moments to cook and we all tucked into the delicious hot bread.

Then it was back to the main building where we shown to our stations in the school’s stunning kitchen and introduced to our Dada for the day. A Dada is traditionally a female chef and is much revered in Moroccan society. The woman who rules the kitchen rules the household.

The menu for the day was to cook a staple of Moroccan cuisine, a tagine of chicken and preserved lemons with a vegetarian option as well. A tagine is the conical earthenware pot, in which the dish is cooked, rather than the food itself. Once that was bubbling away we were to make both hot and cold vegetable accompaniments. The Dada, who was stood on a raised station, gave us step-by- step instructions and we all had TV screens in front of us in order to be able to see exactly what she was doing on the hob. Wafaa and an assistant also patrolled the benches, helping out where they were needed, offering useful hints and tips.

As the dishes were prepared the kitchen was filled with the most delicious aromas and we were all eager to taste our efforts. So while we waited for our tagines to cook to perfection the Dada demonstrated how to make some traditional biscuits. She rolled together two small balls of almond dough, one plain and one with chocolate, in such a manner that when flattened they created a swirled pattern. It was good fun but suffice to say some people’s swirls were better than others.

Following that we were shown how to make a dessert that is the specialty of Marrakech, a milk and almond pastilla. A creamy milk and almond custard sandwiched between circles of warqa, a pastry very similar to filo and sprinkled with toasted almonds.

Once the cooking was done we all assembled at the outdoor dining table and ate the fruits of our labours. It was a veritable feast and very well cooked if I do say so myself. After lunch there was a little ceremony where we all presented with a certificate and a small tagine of our own to take home which was a lovely touch. We were offered the option of staying on and enjoying the pool or taking the next shuttle bus back to the hotel. Most of us took the bus as we hadn’t brought our swimwear with us and on the way back we all agreed we’d had a fabulous day and an exceptional experience.

Boiled Sheep’s Head Madam?

That evening, I decided to eat in Jamaa El Fna square, another part of the trip I was really looking forward to and the one that had fuelled my desire to visit Marrakech in the first place. Early evening sees a plethora of street food stalls setting up, selling cous cous, kebabs and harissa soup. There is also a choice of local delicacies such as boiled sheep’s head, stuffed spleens and snail soup if you are feeling brave. I wasn’t. I set off to the square in a very ebullient mood but sadly this was to be the most disappointing part of my trip. The kiosks are all together, set up in regimented rows and as I began to wander down the first lane I was accosted by menu waving men from each stall. You get used to the constant attempts by stallholders in the souk trying to tempt you to look at their wares but I’m very good with a polite “Non Monsieur” and a dismissive wave of the hand. Here though it was a whole different ball game. I couldn’t browse what was on offer for the frankly aggressive stall reps, one of whom actually, physically put himself in my way and when I asked him to move he started shouting, “I never touched you!” I never said he had! Now I am a seasoned solo traveller and don’t have any qualms about visiting far flung places on my own, I’m always sensible and take proper precautions not to put myself in harms way but for the first time ever I felt threatened and unsure of the situation. However, I guess it must be really hard to work in the hospitality industry when because of Ramadan you can’t eat or drink between sunrise and sunset. I made a hasty exit and instead enjoyed a pleasant supper at one of the square’s restaurants but I can’t help feeling I missed out on a wonderful culinary experience. I have since learned that this is the norm in the early evening and it is better to wait until 9 or 10pm before eating there.

La Jardin de Majorelle

The following day was a sightseeing day and the first call of the day was to the Jardin Marjorelle, a taxi ride away from my riad. I was up with the lark as I had been told it was best to visit early in the day to avoid the crowds and the heat.

These gardens were originally cultivated by French painter, Jacques Majorelle who moved to Marrakech for the climate in 1917, before buying the land that would become the Majorelle Jardin in 1923. He spent the next forty years developing an oasis in the city and having an Art Deco style villa built. After finding inspiration in the Atlas Mountains Majorelle developed his signature shade of vibrant blue, which is still very much in evidence at the gardens today and is a striking contrast to the relaxing greens of the planting.

Majorelle was forced, by a messy divorce and a subsequent set of tragic circumstances, to open the gardens to the public and then later to sell his portion of the gardens and the villa in 1961. Five years later the fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé found the gardens, which were still open to the public and when they heard of their impending sale and demolition to make way for a new hotel they put in their own bid and won. That was in 1980 and they then went to great efforts to restore the plot to its former glory ,whilst always respecting Majorelle’s original vision. Today it a calming, tranquil and beautiful space, far removed from the hustle and dust of the city.

Within the grounds there is also a museum that houses Yves and Pierre’s extensive collection of Berber clothing, jewellery and accessories. It is fascinating and the starry ceiling in the room that contains the intricate and exquisite jewellery creates a breathtaking effect. For fans of Yves Saint Laurent and his haute couture there is currently a museum being built next to the gardens and a sister one in Paris, that between them will house over 5000 garments, over 15,000 accessories plus much of Saint Laurent’s art and photographs. Both are due to open Autumn 2017 and sound like a really good excuse for me to return to Marrakech.

Symphonies In Emulsion

My next stop was La Maison de Photographie, a gallery that houses images of Marrakech taken between 1870 and 1960, by unknown visitors and world- renowned photographers, such as Pierre Boucher and Nicolas Muller. Coming from a family with four generations of photojournalists, photography is woven into the very fabric of my being. However, getting there was a little more difficult than anticipated.

I went to the taxi rank outside the gardens and negotiated a fee with a driver and got in his cab. He was a very chatty fellow but his English wasn’t brilliant so I just nodded along whilst he told me about various interesting places to visit, including what he referred to as a pharmacy. The next thing I knew the taxi pulled up outside said shop. Somewhere along the way my nodding must have indicated my interest in visiting this emporium and I would imagine the driver receives a fee for every unsuspecting tourist he pitches up with. I could have been annoyed and demanded that he take me to my preferred destination but I actually decided to go with the flow. I have travelled quite extensively and in some countries, such as Thailand this sort of detour comes with the territory.

Inside the shop I was greeted by the ‘pharmacist’, who talked me through all his herbs and spices and their apparent health benefits and twenty minutes later I walked out of the shop with £22 worth of spices and assorted merchandise. My taxi driver was waiting for me and as we set off again he started to enthuse about the camel park but I was wise to him now and told him very firmly that we were going to the museum. He shrugged, smiled and did as he was bid, dropping me right in the heart of the souk, a couple of streets from my destination.

The Maison de la Photographie is a small building and the exhibits are set on three floors around the obligatory central courtyard, with a rooftop café offering excellent views over the city. The work contained within it is stunning and the thing that struck me the most is how little Marrakech has changed in the last 140 plus years. There are some breathtakingly beautiful large portraits on the ground floor and dotted about, that record the diversity of Moroccans and the heady years of the 1930’s, when the country became the playground for the rich and famous of Europe.

Once I had had a good mooch round I had to find my way back to my riad through the souk. Easier said than done. I followed the signs, of which there were many, to Jamaa el Fna Square but to be honest I don’t think they take you the most direct route, more a meandering shopping route. I picked up a young Aussie lad along the way, who was similarly lost and together we found our way out of the labyrinth eventually. All in all it was a pleasant and interesting stroll through the alleyways and lanes.

A Last Hurrah

That evening was my last before the journey home so I decided to spend it sampling the menu at La Maison Arabe. The restaurant surrounds the swimming pool and is lit with candles. The effect is quite simply stunning. My dining companions and myself eschewed at starter and went straight for the mains. I chose a specialty of the house, chicken couscous with caramelized onions. I had been in Marrakech for 4 days and this was my first taste of authentic cous cous. At home I can’t get enough of it and this dish was cooked to perfection. The grains were light and fluffy and combined with the tender meat and spices this dish was heaven. We had our meal with a rather delightfully fruity Moroccan produced Rose wine. It was the perfect end to a perfect break.

Overall, I loved Marrakech and will definitely be returning, hopefully for the opening of the Yves Saint Laurent museum. The accommodation is faultless, the locals, in general, are friendly and welcoming and the food is a dream. It is still relatively cheap and your money seems to go a fair way. I took £130 for five days, in which I ate and drank out every night, visited local sites, took taxis, tipped people, bought souvenirs and had a massage. I didn’t skimp on anything. Most Moroccans speak English to a greater or lesser degree and if you studied French at school then you are in luck as it is their second language.

There weren’t really any downsides but then I guess I’m pretty easy-going and love to travel and explore. Perhaps it’s worth noting that this is a Muslim country and though very tolerant I would you suggest respecting their ways just as we would expect the same in our country. For instance, it is expected that people, particularly females cover their shoulders and legs in public. Save the skimpies for by the pool. Anyone selling anything can be pushy, just smile sweetly, say a polite ‘No’ and carry on walking…unless you are actually interested in what they are selling. Another tip is to speak to them in Welsh. If you don’t acknowledge them in the first language they try, they will then hail you in several languages from German to Spanish to French. If I really can’t get away I answer them in Welsh, with a quizzical expression on my face. My Dad used to do this when I was a child and I’ve been doing it ever since. It works, no one has the faintest idea what you’re saying, so they just give up. You don’t need to be fluent in Welsh, just throw out a few places names and phrases. A favourite one is “Look you, di bach Eisteddfod Llandudno yaki da” or the longest place name in Wales, “Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch”. Alcohol is not widely available, certainly not in the shops and only in a few restaurants but you can always take a bottle with you from duty free to enjoy your room. So if you are looking for a different kind of city break, one with warm sunshine, fascinating history, amazing food, hospitable locals and only a short hop from the UK then choose Marrakech, you won’t be disappointed.

To see more photo from this trip please go to our Flickr Page

Useful Links:

easyJet: http://www.easyjet.com/en
Moroccan Tourist Board UK : http://www.muchmorocco.com
Riad Palais de Princesses: http://www.palaisdesprincesses.com/en/homepage/
La Maison Arabe: http://www.lamaisonarabe.com/en/hotel.html
La Maison Arabe Cookery School: http://www.lamaisonarabe.com/en/ateliers-cuisine.html
Jardin de Majorelle: http://jardinmajorelle.com/ang/
La Maison de Photographie: http://maisondelaphotographie.ma/article.php
Earth Café: http://earthcafemarrakech.com

Photos: © Taste Today