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.

Souk Cuisine, Marrakech Morocco

It’s the fourth day of my personally created culinary holiday in Morocco and whilst I’m slightly tired from awakening with the call to prayer in the medina at 4.30am, I am no less enthusiastic to participate in another cooking class.

Souk Cuisine is recommended by Lonely Planet, but what inspired me to sign up for this class was that I would be cooking alongside, and supporting local women who instruct at the cooking school.

Meeting outside Café de France at 10am, I’m introduced to Gemma van de Burgt who runs the school, and the other class participants who have come from the US, the Netherlands, England and finally myself being the token Aussie.

We started off the day by splitting into smaller teams and being given a shopping list of the ingredients to be purchased for the day’s lesson, along with a small pencil case of local currency to use when shopping around the souk. After initially freaking out about my appalling ability to communicate in Arabic and my non-existent bartering skills to use with the local market sellers, I quickly regained my sense of adventure and loved the “Amazing Race” style tour of the souks to locate spices, fresh fruit and vegetables. It was lovely just walking around at a leisurely pace and seeing a part of the medina where the locals shopped for their own food. If one seller was particularly busy with customers, we had the freedom to find and support another vendor who might be selling smaller quantities of the same product and who would also benefit from our purchase.

When all of the items on our team shopping lists had been purchased, we walked back through the medina to the riad where we would be cooking our lunch. Arriving at the beautiful riad, we had the opportunity to refresh ourselves with a drink, grab our recipes and aprons and then split again into teams to cook particular dishes on the menu. The courtyard of the riad had been set up in the style of an outdoor kitchen underneath giant banana leaves and white cloth, with transportable stoves and workstations, bathed in warm sunshine.

The menu for the day consisted of Moroccan salad, courgette salad, sweet carrot salad, zaalouk, briouates, sweet pumpkin salad, sardine tagine with chermoula, tagine fish with preserved lemon and ghriba biscuits.

As I had previously made salads and meat tagines in my other classes, I was keen to try something new and make the fish tagine. One of the local women came over to assist at the workstation and teach us the recipe. However filled with enthusiasm and keen to start cooking, our little team had begun to slice the green peppers incorrectly, and her disappointment was evident! After being assured by Gemma that the dish would still be okay, we moved onto slicing carrots, potatoes and tomatoes before learning how to make the chermoula to marinate the fish and vegetables and assemble the tagine.

With the tagine slowly cooking on the stove, it was time to move onto making briouates. Thankfully I had learnt how to make this dish in Fes so I had the privilege of cutting up the warqa pastry, showing others how to make them and to repair the ones that didn’t quite resemble a triangle shape! With all the dishes finally prepared by the different teams, we were well and truly ready to head upstairs to the rooftop terrace and eat!

As much as I love cooking, I also get a lot of pleasure from eating and enjoying a long, leisurely lunch in the afternoon with no particular place to be. There was a colourful array of delicious salads to start with, whilst relaxing with a couple of bottles of Moroccan wine and chatting about our various holiday adventures and life at home while the tagines were brought out to the table. Unfortunately all good things eventually do come to an end, but I didn’t leave before indulging in a couple of ghriba biscuits with traditional mint tea before heading off for an afternoon siesta.

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!

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.