Dar Les Cigognes, Marrakech Morocco

The escorted tour of Morocco has come to end and I’ve arranged to spend the last leg of my holiday in Marrakech, staying a private riad in the heart of the medina, and undertaking my own culinary adventure for the remainder of my time in Morocco. My internet search on cooking classes in Morocco had recommended Dar Les Cigognes which by all accounts is the preferred destination for those who take their Moroccan cuisine seriously. Yotam Ottolenghi filmed the Moroccan segment of his Mediterranean Feast cooking series there and the team from Williams-Sonoma featured a culinary day within this riad in their blog. And to top it off, the June 2013 edition of Delicious magazine had a Marrakesh feature which included Dar Les Cigognes so after a week after my last class in Fes, I was anxious to start cooking again.

Finding my way to Dar Les Cigognes was a small adventure in itself, but thankfully I made it just in time for my scheduled afternoon class. Stepping into the boutique riad was a contrast from the busy street outside. Cool and tranquil with a stunning, elegantly designed interior, it was a welcome relief to sit in the cool and listen to the sound of running water for a few brief moments. I was introduced to Pierre Herve, the General Manager of the riad, who took me on a personal guided tour of the mellah (the Jewish quarter of the medina) and I learnt a little about its history and the architecture. Walking around the labyrinth of alleyways to see the furan (communal oven) used for baking bread and then taking a detour via a narrow passage through the local hamman to get to the small neighbourhood market, we walked throughout the different sections of the souk where Pierre explained the different facets of Moroccan cuisine and market life.

Returning back to the hotel, I was led into the large kitchen within the riad and introduced to dada Fouzia who I would be cooking with in a hands-on class. Many Moroccan women who cook, do so by touch, taste and instinct and have learnt these recipes traditionally over years of repetition and so unlike the cooking classes I enjoy back home, I had to write my own notes as I also prepared each dish from scratch!

My first challenge was to make my own warqa pastry so I diligently watched as the dough was prepared, mentally taking my own notes as the mixture was spread expertly onto a hot frypan set over boiling water with a thick paintbrush. When cooked, the layer of pastry is then peeled from the pan and oiled to keep moist. Then it was my turn! My first attempt at warqa wasn’t too bad and regaining renewed confidence, I managed to create the ten sheets of pastry required to make b’steeya with no rejects! Next we cooked the seafood filling for the b’steeya and then started to prepare a selection of Moroccan appetisers, including zaalouk, grated zucchini and sweet tomato salad.

Pierre was concerned that I would be hungry just eating salad and b’steeya and so as an added bonus, Fouzia also graciously showed me how to make seven-vegetable balboula which included making couscous from scratch, hand-rolled and steamed three times over boiling water. Throughout each cycle, I put both of my hands into the steamed couscous to separate the grains with dollops of oil and salt. I think by the third round, my red hands put up a protest as it became harder to bear the hot temperature of the couscous and get the airflow required to fluff the grains properly. In my mind, I was thinking this was way too hard and that when I got back home, I was still going to resort to instant couscous anyway!

With the selection of vegetables steaming on the stove and the b’steeya browning in the oven, I kissed Fouzia good-bye and went upstairs to the rooftop of the riad to watch the sun slowly set over the medina and eat my handiwork with a glass of red wine.


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.