Catherine Henderson learns how to make some Morrocan morsels in North Africa’s souk city
A family holiday in Marrakesh, with two kids in tow who had never ventured anywhere more culturally exotic than the south of France, felt like a potentially complex mix of a holiday, hovering somewhere on the holiday richter scale between challenge and adventure. We knew that the hustle and bustle of busy souks and assertive traders looking to net their next naïve tourist as they stumbled amongst the narrow medina alleyways with speeding mopeds around every blind corner – had the potential to overwhelm all four of us, just as much as excite. The odd day focused on an activity might, we suspected, feel something of a relief; so when a bit of pre-holiday internet research led us to Lalla Fatima and her one day tagine cookery course I, along with teenage daughter, Kate, suspected we were onto a winner.
Starting early at the spice souk seemed a sensible beginning, as Kate and I, along with nine other tourists, keen to absorb something of the local culture in a potentially more sophisticated way than just having a henna tattoo, gathered around Lalla our guide and teacher for the day, eager to learn more about the unique blend of spices and ingredients required to create an authentic Moroccan tagine – a dish which, according to our own home grown, Jamie Oliver, is best described as a “stew with attitude”. Slim, with long dark hair and wearing tight jeans and knee length leather boots, Lalla was every inch a successful westernized Moroccan woman – skillfully demonstrating the Moroccan culinary delights handed down to her by her own mother and at the same time creating a well-executed tourism business for herself and her wider family.
Saffron, ginger, tumeric, cumin, pepper and the Moroccan spice blend known as “ras el hanout” were all duly sniffed, tasted and then bought – as Lalla carefully explained their significance in creating a balanced tagine. Surrounded by Moroccan housewives haggling assertively for their weekly spices, we took our lives into our own hands and headed across the madness that is one of Marrakesh’s roads, towards the meat market. With the raw and distinctive smell of dead animal wafting all around us, we were asked to choose what type of tagine we each wanted to cook; plumping for chicken I headed off for what was to be our first cultural wake-up call of the day. Remember, of course, that we were hundreds of miles away from our nearest branch of Tesco and the santised plastic covered trays of meat to which we’ve become unhealthily accustomed. I was asked to choose which of the five chickens nervously eyeing me from the wire cage on the dirty counter would be destined for my tagine pot – the colour began to drain from Kate’s face as we watched the doomed chicken, literally be drained of its life blood, upside down in a rusty tin can, no holds barred hallal style. As Kate’s turn came she wisely decided, despite being a previously enthusiastic carnivore, that fish tagine would be her “tagine of choice” for the day.
On the way to the relatively safe haven of the neighbouring vegetable stalls we purchased freshly made sheets of filo pastry which would later transform into the crispy golden casing for a beautiful aubergine starter. Lalla sent us off in all directions – her willing helpers for the day – commissioned with purchasing onions, potatoes, courgettes, garlic, salted lemons, olives and fresh herbs; and then, with straw baskets bulging, we piled into awaiting taxis for a 15 minute high speed journey beyond the now familiar walls of the medina and off to the Berber village which Lalla called home.
Our dusty cavalcade soon arrived in the village, though “village” might not be the best description for what looked, to our western eyes, more of a deserted dirt track – with a handful of small high walled riads on either side. At first sight, the only sign of life was four children playing football barefoot in the dirt, along with of course the obligatory scrawny cats, bones jutting at odd angles beneath flea bitten fur. A battered wooden door set within the high concrete walls led to Lalla’s family home –a traditional Moroccan house, with well organised vegetable garden and shaded terrace where we would spend our day. This was an enterprise which included three generations of the family, with Lalla, ably assisted by Mum and Grandma, having created a successful family business that was thriving on the back of Marrakech’s growing status as a choice destination for those from Europe and beyond. Lalla confided that her tagine cookery classes were now fully booked seven days a week for the next few months, with custom being brought in largely via the millions of worldwide customers now linked into the delights of TripAdvisor.
A home brew is an intrinsic part of being welcomed into any Moroccan home, and as we sat on brightly coloured cushions, with tiny coloured glasses of steaming, heavily sugared mint tea, the intense madness of our first couple of days in Marrakesh felt just a distant dream. As we shared tales of our Marrakesh experiences with our fellow tagine devotees, of pummellings in local hammans, exotic botanical gardens and day trips into the High Atlas mountains, we chopped and sliced our vegetables in merry bonhomie. Lunch, served by family members, was a range of freshly made breads, spiced houmous, rich falafel and plump olives all washed down with more mint tea. Time was invested by Lalla into explaining the precise use of spices and extra special ingredients which need to be incorporated to create a tagine which had the potential to be talked of for days to come – prunes and almonds with chicken, plump olives and salted lemon with sea bass and fresh dates with lamb shank. All were sprinkled with more salt than we would use in a month back home – our American tourists visibly blanched as Grandma tutted and poured more salt into each tagine dish.
With ingredients blended, spices rubbed lovingly into meat and ingredients piled high, there was a tangible air of expectancy as we carefully nestled our individual tagines onto the hot barbecues. An hour or so later and regular judicious tasting and adjustments by Lalla and yes, the addition of more salt by Grandma, and our tagines were ready to be devoured. I can only say that my personally chosen chicken did not die in vain. As we collectively congratulated each other on our newly acquired tagine skills, Lalla and her Mum started preparing for the next day’s cohort, and for creating memories which would last longer than they could have ever dared hope.
Need to know
- Cheap regular flights to Marrakesh now available from Easyjet and Ryanair from most major airports – we flew Ryanair Edinburgh to Marrakesh
- Accommodation: we stayed at Riad Dar Nimbus in Marrakesh and at Riad L’Ayel d’Essaouira in Essaouira
- Lalla Fatima’s cookery course: [email protected] price 500dhm per person – Reviews on Trip Advisor
- Best time of year to visit: April to early June, and September through November to avoid extreme temperatures
- Immunisations: no vaccinations are required by law to enter Morocco, but Typhoid and Hepatitus A are strongly recommended. It is also a good idea to be up to date with your polio and tetanus vaccines.
For more Middle Eastern food articles, be sure to log onto the CD-Traveller website next week!