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.

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.