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.

Fes Cooking and Cultural Tours, Fes Morocco

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.

http://fescooking.com/