Returning to the amazing city of Marrakech since our first trip 3 ½ years ago we stayed in the splendid Club Sangho in the Palmeraie, the oasis of 150,000 palm trees north east of the Medina or walled City.
This was a bit like Walt Disney does Morocco with the swimming pool pure Bedrock from the Flintstones. Nevertheless it was somewhat splendid. Highlight was a cooking course at the achingly stylish Riad Lotus Privilege, an art deco Riad, with a Dada, a traditional chef preparing a Moroccan Lunch which we later eat in photo shoot surroundings by the pool in the courtyard. Later we had afternoon tea in El Menzeh in the exquisite La Mamounia Hotel whose pool side scene would make the Beverly Hills Hotel look shabby. Al Hamra “The Red City” is still the most amazing of places.
I read about the cookery courses in a travel article and thought it would be a good way to get under the skin of the place and see a Riad. I sent off an email more in hope than expectation and was astonished to receive a call the next morning from the Manager Farida, who spoke perfect English, and 2 minutes later the deal was done. For 500 dirham each (c. 45 euros) we would be picked up by car at our hotel, brought to the Riad, spend two hours with the Chef and a translator preparing a 3 course Moroccan meal. Then we would enjoy a tour of the Riad, drinks by the pool and have the meal we prepared served to us. Afterwards their car would bring us either back to our hotel or anywhere else we cared to visit in the City.
The word Riad comes from the Arabian term for garden, “ryad”. The ancient Roman city of Volubilis in northern Morocco provides a reference for the beginnings of riad architecture during the rule of the Idrisid Dynasty. The design of these courtyard dwellings in the coastal regions of Morocco were an adaptation and modification of the Roman villa. When the Almoravids conquered Spain in the 11th century they sent Muslim, Christian and Jewish artisans from Spain to Morocco to work on monuments. These artisans brought with them the idea of arranging the rooms of the house around the central open-air courtyard that has become today’s Riads. The riads were inward focused which allowed for family privacy and protection from the weather in Morocco. This inward focus was expressed in the central location of most of the interior gardens and courtyards and the lack of large windows on the exterior clay or mud brick walls.
Entrance to these houses is a major transitional experience and encourages reflection because all of the rooms open into the central atrium space. In the central garden of traditional riads there are often four orange or lemon trees and possibly a fountain. The walls of the riads are adorned with tadelakt plaster and zellige tiles. Well little could have prepared us that morning as we disembarked from the car which had collected us from the open spaces of the Palmeraie and brought us to the Ksour district of the Medina of Marrakech, a bustling city within 14 Kms of “ramparts” and which is home in these medieval surroundings of a quarter million of the Red City’s million inhabitants.
This fantastically glitzy Riad is down an improbably dark lane in the northern part of the medina. As Simon led us down this alley way like many a Marrakech visitor before us we wondered what lay at the end of these seemingly nameless, random, twisting lanes and then we were met by a huge cedar door in a plain wall. As with most Riads, the street front is modest, this makes the courtyard seem all the more astonishing. Entering a narrow corridor hall nothing prepares you for the vision which greets you in the courtyard. Set against a pure white wall, two tall obelisks clad in mirrors stand sentry beside a pool in the centre of a black-and-beige marble floor. To either side are cream sofas, and a row of orange trees screens off the dining and sitting rooms. The decor is a fusion of contemporary chic and French Orient. Part of the style-conscious Lotus group, the hotel was designed by Antoine Van Doorne with his trademark edgy glamour. The extravagance continues in the five bedrooms, spacious hammam and on the bamboo-lined roof terrace. The three suites and two double bedrooms are huge and are decorated in strong colours. All have Bang & Olufsen sound systems and DVD-players. The bathrooms have plenty of marble and mirrors.
Sated by these photo shoot surroundings Simon introduced us to our chef and teacher the delightful Fatiha. Moroccan food is one of the most sensual in the world. It appeals directly and unashamedly to the senses of smell, sight and taste in a way that few other cuisines can match. The souks are magical places, with smells and sights that make one feel hungry just thinking about them. Around every corner, waft different smells to surprise and delight.
|Her star pupils?|
Moroccan cuisine is full of healthy recipes that are big on flavour. With intriguing sweet-savoury flavours and a subtle, complex combination of spices, Moroccan cooking is often considered one of the world’s finest cuisines. Typical Moroccan recipes including chicken tagine, vegetable couscous, pastilla, preserved lemons and Moroccan roast lamb. Most meals begin with a simple selection of mezze, which might include a bowl of olives or a selection of cooked vegetable salads dressed with olive oil, sprinkled with cumin and served a dip and flat bread. The tagine or roast meat dish may come next, served with couscous and often a salad. A simple plate of prepared fresh fruit or dessert marks the end of the meal, before mint tea is served.
Our meal today was in that tradition, a starter course of three vegetable salads followed by three tagines and then a simple desert of layers of brick pastry interleaved with scented yoghurt and spiced fruit. All this prepared in the scrupulously clean kitchen under the watchful and skilful eye of our “Dada” Fatiha. In front of us were mini-spice tagines and where the recipes refer to spices it is a miniature spoonfuls from these tagines, equivalent to a pinch.
|The Three Moroccan Salads;
Carrot, Aubergine and Courgette.
Use fresh carrots for this easy Moroccan Carrot Salad. Once boiled and cooled, the cubed carrots are tossed in a simple vinaigrette with cumin. Cold Carrot Salad can be prepared a day in advance. If making the same day as serving, allow an hour or more for the salad to chill and marinate. Serve Carrot Salad by itself or as part of a Traditional Moroccan Salad Plate. Also try Carrots with Paprika and Cumin.
Serves 4 as a side.
1 1/2 lb. (about 700 g) fresh carrots
1 1/2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
Pinch of paprika, pepper, Salt, cumin, fresh parsley (finely chopped), garlic.
Peel the carrots and cut off the tops. Cut the carrots into small cubes about 1/4″ thick. Wash the carrots and drain them. Place the carrots in a pot, cover them with cold water, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer the carrots about 10 minutes, or until desired tenderness.
Drain the carrots, then immediately cover them with cold water to stop further cooking. Allow the carrots to sit in the water for a minute, and then drain again. When the carrots have cooled completely, mix them in a large bowl with the remaining ingredients, seasoning to taste with salt and pepper. Toss gently to mix, cover tightly, and refrigerate at least an hour or overnight.
3 medium courgettes, sliced, blanched, dried and left to cool.
In the bowl add a pinch of paprika, pepper, salt, cumin, chopped fresh broad-leafed parsley and mashed garlic. Mix with one tablespoon each of oil and vinegar and refrigerate as for the carrots.
Take two large aubergines, sliced and fried with olive oil on a griddle, dried on kitchen paper and left to cool. Place in bowl and add 1 1/2 tablespoons of tomato puree, pinch mashed garlic, smoked paprika, pepper, salt, cumin and 1 tablespoon of olive oil, Mash together and refrigerate for an hour before serving.
Tagines (the food) are basically a sort of stew, a mixture of vegetables, poultry or beef with the addition of fruit at the end. So how do you cook a tagine? Traditionally, you arrange the food and the meat in the middle and you pile the vegetables around it. You then put the lid on and leave to cook slowly over a charcoal stove (called kanoun). Fruits are usually added in dried form to contribute to the overall sweetness of the dish. Tagines also contain salted or preserved lemons, giving them a unique flavour that can’t be replicated using fresh lemons. The tagine is traditionally served with couscous, rice or bread. When eating, start on the outside with the vegetables, working your way to the meat at the heart of the dish.
Chicken tagine with preserved lemons and olives
This slow-cooked chicken incorporates the mellow tanginess of preserved lemons, a common ingredient in Moroccan cooking. Preserved lemons are lemons which have been pickled in salt and their own juices. They add a salty, distinctive lemon flavour to Moroccan tagines, sauces and salads, and they’re easy to make at home.
In a tagine arrange two chicken portions washed and skinned. A small onion (red and chopped fine) and a pinch each of parsley, ginger, cumin, salt, pepper, crushed garlic and saffron and 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Cut a preserved lemon in half and arrange on top of the chicken. Add water and mix together over and into the chicken. Add black olives. Put tagine cover on and put it on the top gas setting for 30 minutes. Check regularly during cooking, turn and top up with water. When adding the water don’t pour it over the chicken, add it to the sauce.
For the meatballs:
750g (1 1/2 lb) minced lamb or beef
1 onion finely chopped, a pinch of chilli powder, finely chopped flat-leaf parsley, salt & pepper, ground cinnamon, ground ginger, ground cumin. Sunflower oil for frying.
For the tomato sauce:
Onions chopped, tablespoons of olive oil, 2 garlic cloves crushed, tomatoes, peeled and chopped, teaspoons of sugar, 1 small fresh chilli pepper, seeded and chopped (optional), chopped flat-leaf parsley and chopped coriander and an egg.
Make the meat mixture into small meatballs and arrange on base of tagine. Pour over tomato sauce and crack an egg into the middle of the tagine. Add more water. Put on hot gas for 10 minutes and serve immediately.
Tagine of Beef with prunes.
Put dried prunes into hot water for 5 minutes.
Take a shank of beef and put in pot with onions and parsley. Add a pinch of ginger, pepper, cinnamon, saffron and a tablespoon of oil and mix well. Add water to cover and mix, put into pressure cooker and add 3 teaspoons of caster sugar. Cook for 45 minutes in a pressure cooker and check. Take dates off heat add honey and cinnamon and mix. Serve in a hot tagine and pour over the prunes and liquid and chopped almonds immediately before serving.
This consisted of circles of Brick pastry with fresh fruit and yoghurt. The pastry is Tunisian in origin, but is now made in France and used there and across the Maghreb and is called feuille de brick. In Tunisia it was used for making deep-fried pastries filled with spinach, cheese and eggs, spiced meats or fish. Feuilles de brick look and feel like fine, lacy cloth with a satiny sheen and texture. When fried they are crisper than spring roll pastry and when baked they have a dry, melt-in the-mouth crunchiness, which is better than filo.
For each serving take 4 circles of Brick. Finely cut banana, kiwi and apple and toss with orange water and cinnamon. Add icing sugar to the yoghurt and orange flower water.
Spread fruit on a circle of Brick and top with the yoghurt. Repeat until you have four layers. Just before serving sprinkle with icing sugar. Serve cold.
After that we enjoyed a tour of the suites and the hammam of this ravishing Riad before enjoying a pre-prandial libation under the orange trees. Then we enjoyed the meal we had prepared at a beautiful table pour deux set up beside the beautiful pool in the courtyard. Oh for more days like this!
Riad Lotus Privilege
22 Fhal Zefriti | Quartier Ksour, Medina, Marrakech, Morocco
For more on Marrakech see;
|Une table pour deux|