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.