Recommended not only to those that are fond of cooking or exotic cuisine but also as one of the best introductions to Marrakech and its old city's way of life, in a city where local reliable guides are getting harder to come by. An excellent alternative to a day trip outside Marrakech, this is escaping the city while never leaving it. You will interact with the locals, get your bearings and learn to navigate the old city’s streets. Prepare a tasty tagine, take the dessert to the local farnatchi ( oven) and learn how to find the real saffron, among other things. The experience is personal as groups rarely exceed 10- 12 persons and everyone gets to ask all the questions he/she wants. Gemma, the organizer, has lived in Morocco for 8 years, speaks Moroccan, English and French and is a well of information on such different topics as how to get rid of the djinns ( spirits) in your kitchen, the social importance of couscous or ecological agriculture in Morocco.
|At 10 AM we were met by Gemma in front of Café de France, on Jemaa El Fna. Gemma is Dutch, has lived in the Medina for the last 8 years and speaks some Moroccan, apart from French, English and Dutch. The participants that day were: a Dutch couple, a Canadian lady, a teacher from England and her daughter and myself. We were then split into pairs and given each pair a shopping list, money and a shopping bag. And off we went, into the souks…|
|First stop was a little square just behind Jemaa El Fna. There, among food stalls and other sellers, the underground oven where the mechoui is stewed- it appears up to 40 lambs can be fitted inside the rather small looking oven. Shortly after we reached the olives and preserved vegetables section, where we purchased the tastiest black olives and preserved lemons. A few shops away, we got to see the different types of smmen (sort of local butter used mostly with preparing couscous but also preserving chicken). From|
|there we followed Gemma through the souks and down Semmarine to arrive on Place des Epices. Turned right and a crowded passage gave way to the old slave market where witchcraft accessories hang in front of shops, alongside skins of most exotic animals. After a few failed attempts at purchasing a kaftan (anyone sees the connection with the cooking here ?) , we got back to the spice market and into a herbalist shop. It took quite a while to be explained the virtues, names and
|colors of most spices and herbs around the shop ( and the world). Some of us got to smell and in some cases, taste them. We also got to know the difference between authentic and fake saffron. We learnt that nigella can cure almost any cold and fenugreek gives appetite. That is if anyone could lack an appetite while in Morocco… We bought the necessary amount of cumin, ginger, curcuma, paprika and cinnamon for our lunch. And then some. Always lingering on the edge of the souks|
and past the carpet market, we made our way into the local fruit and vegetable market, a small square probably busier than the Jemaa El Fna itself. After some careful planning, we got our necessary of potatoes, tomatoes, courgettes, carrots and aubergines. Talk about farm- to- table...
Next stop, the local bread oven. ‘Bread’ doesn’t quite define it. Tangias make their way in quite regularly. Cookies, biscuits and other pastries as well. Most of the time though, the children drop the bread loafs of every family early in the morning on their way to school. Then they collect it at lunch time on their way home. At this time of day, the bread loafs were patiently waiting for their turn as the man in charge was adroitly handling a huge wood bread paddle. Once out of there, we still had the time to enjoy coffee and tea on a roof terrace before reaching the riad where the cooking class is being dispensed. Even up above the souks, one is prone to constant sensory overload, carpets hanging from the rooftops, the muezzin calling to prayer, the ocean of satellite dishes all pointing out in the same direction, the snow on top of the Atlas far in the distance. Down in the street again and a few derbs later, we were standing in front of the Riad’s main entrance.
|Watch your head as you go through the doorstep, then through a passage way and out into the bright courtyard where all the necessary tools and boards were into place. We were helped by the two Moroccan ladies of the house. Each team was given a station with cutting board, knives, blender and all else we may need. We initiated with the starters which consisted in a variety of Moroccan salads and zaalouk ( a sort of tapenade made out of fresh tomatoes, crushed garlic, fresh coriander,|
|a few spices and fried mashed aubergines- make sure you try this at least once while in Morocco). Other stations prepared courgette salad, sweet carrot and cinnamon or mixed salad. In the meantime, the chermoula (dressing for the ‘boulettes de sardines’) was being prepared. A few small plates were filled with olives and amlou ( a paste made out of almonds and argan oil) so we can get an appetite going. The filleted fresh sardines were then chopped in the blender and mixed|
|with the dressing and turned by our very expert hands into balls before being placed directly in the pot where the tomato and olive oil sauce was already cooking through. Next to it, the side dish was a vegetable tagine made of carrots, green peppers, courgettes, potatoes, pumpkin, cauliflower, green beans and green peas. Ve-ge-te-rian heaven. Having placed the two tagines on the fire we followed with semolina and coconut biscuits. How can we leave the dessert out ?|
|After rolling tablespoons of dough into small balls and placing them in the trays, the trays were then taken to the same local farnatchi we had visited in the morning. On returning to the Riad, we sat down at the table and started eating our salads, rose wine or water to quench our thirst. Gemma was always around helping with cooking, giving advice, organizing the ladies and helping with serving lunch. She eventually joined us for lunch after the starters. We ended up|
|congratulating each other on our work and how little it took to turn things bought at the local market into the tastiest of meals. By the time we had finished our starters, the tagines were ready and so we had the main course. The 'boulettes' were to die for. Eight people talking and having lunch tend to take their time so it was just perfect timing when everyone had finished their main course to step out and fetch our perfectly cooked coconut biscuits from the oven.|
We had them as desert together with the ubiquitous mint tea. The relaxed ambiance makes it very adequate for both those that are really interested in cooking and those that are just there to have fun. It was close to 4 PM when we left the Riad and that left us with still plenty of time to discover some of the other gems of Marrakech and roam around the souks. This time we had our bearing right…
A big thank you to Gemma and everyone else involved. A video snippet of the course can be watched here .