It’s hard to explain, but I woke up on New Year’s Day not with a hangover like some of us, but with the firm resolution that I was going to travel and cook in Morocco this year. I had researched week-long, residential gourmet cooking adventures to Morocco previously and cringed when I saw the cost. Most of what was on offer had three hands-on or demonstration classes at best, variable accommodation in a riad, a visit to a mosque and a few meals included. When you throw in the cost of the airfare from Australia to Morocco, my dream of learning how to prepare fabulous Moroccan cuisine and immerse myself in another culture and warm sunshine seemed almost unattainable.
So I decided to get creative and try a different tack. With the help of a friend who I met on an Exotic Persian & Middle Eastern cooking class last year, I managed to get a great deal on a ten-day tour of Morocco and airfares. Then I attacked the internet looking up every single offering of cooking classes in Morocco available on Google. Most of the classes were in Marrakech, but there was one in Fes with a chef that caught my attention. When I looked over the tour itinerary, it turned out that there was a leisure day in Fes with nothing planned, so I thought I would try my luck and see if I could book a class with Lahcen Beqqi.
Fast forward four months later, I’m calmly sitting in the hotel reception in Fes, jumping out my skin with anticipation that I’ve absconded from my tour group and I’m about to spend a day cooking. Lahcen came and picked me up from the hotel and we drove to the medina to select the fresh produce from the souk that we would need for our cooking day. Wandering through the different food stalls, we choose everything from lemons, beetroot, peppers, melon, tomatoes, eggplant, fresh parsley and coriander, then onto the spice shop. It was exhilarating seeing all of the beautiful colours of the fruit and vegetables, the spices and the sights and smells of the market. I had to keep remembering to watch where I was walking and to get out of the way of the donkeys who were moving past the stalls. While we were selecting our spices, my eyes lit up when I saw several containers of quality saffron in front of me, which would be the modern-day equivalent of gold in Australia. Thankfully Lahcen negotiated my purchase of saffron and I curtailed myself to only four containers.
Next we bought warqa pastry and it was fascinating seeing how it was prepared after I had seen Ottolenghi try to cook it himself on his cooking series earlier this year. I tried different samples of dates and nuts, bought olives and preserved lemon, tasted fresh goats curd and then it was time to select the star of the chicken tagine I was going to prepare that day.
With a heavy ladened basket, Lahcen and I walked through the medina to the riad where we would be cooking our lunch. The riad was beautiful and after I took lots of photos of the interior, we sat down and I had my first introduction to Moroccan mint tea and pastries.
Time to start cooking! While the chicken was marinating in a mixture of salt, lemon juice and water, I started to prepare the eggplant and tomato for our zaalouk salad. I had read recipes where you needed to grate tomatoes but I had no conceivable idea how to do that in practice until Lahcen demonstrated it for me. Easy when you try! For the next couple of hours, I happily chopped garlic, onions, parsley and coriander and peppers while there was a flurry of activity in the kitchen. I cooked the zaalouk on the stove and learnt how to make goat’s cheese and olive briouates with warqa pastry. Then it was time to start to prepare Lahcen’s speciality, chicken tagine with olives and preserved lemon or djaj mqalli. While the chicken was cooking, I got to work on grinding nuts and slicing dates to make date balls with orange blossom water, walnuts and almonds. It was fun creating several different dishes and having my dodgy knife technique corrected by a chef!
Finally, it was time to eat! The chicken tagine was so tender and delicious – I could happily eat that dish every day for the rest of my life. Zaalouk is now my favourite salad and the date balls and the mint and melon salad that Lahcen had whipped up were a perfect way to end the meal. Happy with my achievements, it was time to go back to the hotel and read over the recipes that Lahcen had given me. Several of my friends from the tour also enjoyed sampling the date balls with me over coffee the next day and I got to prolong the fun I had in Fes for a little bit longer.