La Maison Arabe, Marrakech Morocco

It’s my last day in Marrakech, my final cooking class, and quite frankly I’m exhausted and wondering whether my plan to complete four sequential cooking classes in Marrakech might have been a little too ambitious. But walking into the beautifully decorated La Maison Arabe hotel complex, all symptoms of tiredness and exhaustion seem to melt away.

At a table outside by the pool, I meet my fellow cooking companions and our hostess and wait for the day’s program to commence. When it was time to begin, we started with watching a demonstration of Moroccan pancakes being made with savoury fillings, cooked on a hot grill by a dada in the outdoor kitchen. They were so delicious that I almost forgot that I was there to cook! After devouring our pancakes, we made our way to the purpose-built kitchen on the other side of the pool area. The kitchen was fully equipped with individual cooking stations with sinks, stoves and spices, LCD TV monitors and mirrors and I almost felt that I was about to appear as a guest contestant on a televised cooking show.

Having settled at our station and put on our aprons, we were introduced to Fatima, our cooking instructor and began with making batbout, Moroccan bread. Thankfully, having made it a couple of days earlier, the technique came back instinctively when it was my turn to knead the dough mixture. While the bread was proving, we gathered together to watch a demonstration of how to make authentic Moroccan mint tea, which tastes much nicer than the variety that it is usually available from the supermarket.

After enjoying our tea in the sun, we had the opportunity to visit a communal bakehouse near the hotel and watch the local people bring in their own bread to have cooked in the oven while they do their daily shopping in the souks. Around the corner from the bakehouse, we visited a smart-looking shop with glass jars of spices, decorative interior lights and an array of souvenirs for our spice workshop.

Back in the kitchen, it was time to don the aprons again and start preparing Moroccan salads for our lunch. Under strict instructions to carefully peel the skin from the tomatoes to fashion into a rose decoration, I threw caution to the wind and sliced half the skin and tomato flesh together into a pulpy mess. Satisfied with my hideous creation, I kept cutting the rest of the vegetables required for the rest of the salad. Fortunately, Fatima took pity on me and donated her beautifully crafted rose into my bowl.

With one salad completed, it was time to start on the zaalouk, tomato and eggplant salad. After completing five different cooking classes in Morocco, zaalouk was the only constant dish prepared in each class, which speaks to the incredible variety of food within Moroccan cuisine. After five different variations, it’s still my favourite salad.

Putting the salads to one side, the gas burners were lighted in readiness for the chicken tagine we were about to prepare. Fatima carefully guided us step by step through the process, from chopping the ingredients and adding the spices in order, and in next to no time the chicken was cooked and it was time to add the preserved lemon and olives to the dish.

With our tagines cooked and ready to eat, we bade farewell to Fatima and went outside by the pool to wait for our lunch to be served. When I registered for my class online back home in Australia, I also registered for Moroccan wine tasting to enjoy with my meal.

When the salad course was served, I was given a glass of a light and fruity Beauvallon Blanc (100% Chardonnay) from the Meknes region which was an excellent accompaniment with the cold salads and baked bread. Hot on the heels of the first wine, my next wine arrived to enjoy with the tagine course.

Reading the wine notes, this red wine came from Domaine du Val d’Argan, which I had read about in a recent Gourmet Traveller Wine article on Moroccan wine by Jancis Robinson MW, where she wrote about a roussanne wine she had enjoyed in a riad in Marrakech and went in search of its producer, Domaine du Val d’Argan near Essaouira. My sample was the El Mogador red blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mouvedre, which was delicious wine but best drunk with restraint in the heat of the day.

The dessert course was a beautiful milk pastilla made with deep-fried filo pastry, a light orange blossom custard and toasted almonds matched with a glass of Thalvin Cuvee du President (CP) Rose (50% Cinsault, 40% Grenache, 10% Cabernet Franc) from Domaine des Ouled Thaleb in the Ben Slimane province.

After enjoying a wonderful day and delicious meal with new friends, I returned to the kitchen one last time to say thank-you to our host and was pleasantly surprised to receive a gift bag containing the recipes of the day and a small terracotta tagine to take back home to Australia.

Faim d’Epices, Marrakech Morocco

I’ve reached the halfway mark of my gourmet cooking adventure in Morocco and I have arranged a culinary day with Faim d’Epices, recommended by the Lonely Planet guide. My email instructions are for me to be at Bab Ksour and wait for someone to pick me up in a van with the purple star anise logo at an appointed time, which thankfully arrived right on schedule as I was starting to get a few marriage proposals from a few dodgy looking men!

After the privilege of two private cooking sessions, this is a small group class where I will be cooking with eight other people from the UK and Ireland, who are also visiting Marrakech. A short journey through the city and we arrive at a small, rustic farm on the outskirts of the Marrakech with a grove of olive and orange trees. I meet Michel, who owns and operates the cooking school, resplendent in his unique corporate uniform of purple sneakers and matching hat. Sitting together in the lounge area over hot beverages, we introduce ourselves and learn what Michel has in store for us. With his witty humour and French charm, he takes great delight in letting us know that we are there for his good pleasure and to cook his lunch.

Donning on aprons, we start the day with a group demonstration on how to make batbout (Moroccan bread) with Nezha, our instructor and learn the art of mastering the “box” and “stretch” techniques to form the dough. Then its our turn to head over to our individual cooking stations and start making our own bread. I loved the large, special-purpose terracotta dish and getting my hands into the flour, semolina, water and yeast and bringing the dough to life. After half an hour of boxing, stretching, boxing and stretching, the bread is formed into a small circle and wrapped in a towel to allow it to continue to prove.

Next on the agenda is our spice test. Using our special funky, blacked-out purple sunglasses, Michel passed around different spices, herbs and Moroccan ingredients for everyone to identify by using our sense of smell only. When I identified ras el hanout, I had a hard time convincing Michel that this blend of spice was readily available in Australia and that I had used it once or twice before!

Time to cook our batbout on the stove and Michel turns up the music and brings out the drums to entertain us while the bread is cooking on the stove top. When the bread is cooked, we create prepare a mixture of sugar, cinnamon, orange blossom water and butter to slowly cook and soften the prunes in preparation for the lamb tagine.

With another demonstration session learning to make cucumber salad, zaalouk and Moroccan salad, it was time to fire up the gas and start to prepare our tagine. Chopping onions with the smallest vegetable knife known to mankind was an interesting challenge! Nezha guided us through the order and quantities of spices and preparation of the tagine. As our tagine was slowly cooking there was an opportunity to rest outside and enjoy the view of the orchard and the warm weather.

The whole day was relaxed and fun in a beautiful setting away from the manic mayhem of the medina. With a final demonstration and hands-on opportunity on how to make msemen (Moroccan pancakes or crepes), the roasted almonds are finally added to finish the tagine and then it was time for a long, indulgent lunch on the back patio, eating our bread, tagines and salads. Just when I thought I couldn’t possibly eat another thing the pancakes, fresh fruit and homemade ice cream suddenly appeared in front of me.

This is the cooking class that keeps on giving, even after you have finished for the day. All the participants were given a bag of ras el hanout to take home, a beautifully presented glass test tube containing our technical instructions (aka recipes) and I received an email certificate with my “official” Junior Moroccan Masterchef qualification, photos taken during the day and additional recipes to try at home a week later. Merci Michel and Nezha!

http://www.faimdepices.com/