Monday, 8 November 2010

5 days in Marrakech

Ana jay. This is what I repeated as we reluctantly left Marrakech after 5 magical days. I refused to say "bis lama". "Ana jay" is Arabic for "I will return", whilst "bis lama" means "goodbye".
I came to learn these words in a different context. It was day 3 of our stay and we were sitting eating breakfast, discussing with our hosts, Edwina & Taoufik, what we would cook in the day's cooking class. With Edwina's guidance we chose 15 dishes and then set about writing the shopping list. We then had to rewrite the shopping list in Arabic so that when we went to the market Y & I could ask for all the food. When we went to buy all the fruit, vegetables, herbs, nuts, preserved lemons, butter & milk we would say "afak atini ..." (please may I have) and then "bis lama". But when we went to ask for pigeons, chickens, calamari, sardines, and wakha pastry, we put in our order and then said "ana jay" as we would continue on with our shopping leaving the fishmonger to gut, clean and fillet our seafood, the butcher to grab a pigeon or chicken from the pen, kill and pluck it, and the pastry man to make us a pile of wafer thin pastry - we would then return to collect our goodies.
We spent 5 days staying at House of Fusion (until recently known as Riad Merdoudi) in Marrakech, Morroco. The house was bought by Australian (& mad leopard print wearing) Edwina, about 10 years ago. She spent 4 years renovating the house (and the care & attention she has lovingly bestowed on it is obvious), and has been running it as a riad for the last 5 years. Edwina works alongside her Moroccan husband, Taoufik and locals Mohammed and Kaltoum. These people with whom Edwina has surrounded herself are very special, and you don't feel like you're staying in a house with "staff", but rather a tight knit family, who all share the same intention of making your stay there memorable. Taoufik & Mohammed are the kindest, most charming gentlemen anyone could wish for - a far cry from the men offering you 20,000 camels in the souks.
Edwina loves Morocco, so much so that she desperately wants her guests to love it too. To achieve this she will go to any lengths to ensure your visit is special in every way. Unlike other riads, Edwina won't send you off with a guide she's hired, or off on a "cooking course" to watch the maids at another riad whip up a tagine, or into the desert with a driver, or following a dodgy map in your Lonely Planet guide. No, no, no - Edwina & Taoufik will drive you into the Atlas Mountains themselves, they'll make a picnic and enjoy it with you by the banks of the river in the desert before having a quick chat with the caretaker of the Tin Mal mosque and showing you the best spot inside from which to take a photo. Edwina will lead you through the streets of Marrakech, showing you the best place to make purchases, the hidden away cafes, and the way to the Badii Palace. Edwina will arrange for your hammam in her house, so when you've been scrubbed by Kaltoum to within an inch of your life and had a relaxing massage or facial, you need only stagger to the nearest plush couch in your robe and drink one of Edwina's legendary mohitos, rather than braving the hustle & bustle of the streets.
We're planning to return to stay with Edwina & Taoufik, and they are going to take us further into the desert, to cook with Mohammed's Aunts in their village, to cook & stay in the village Taoufik's family is from, to take a cooking class with a French couple they have found who grow their own vegetables and to take any other opportunity to cook and eat.
Now, back to the cooking class. Y researched and planned this trip for my 30th birthday, and she found House of Fusion on the internet. Y was attracted to this riad because of their intensive, hands on cooking classes, which leave all others (which are mainly demonstrations) for dead. When Y showed me this review by guests who had had to take a break from the fast paced cooking, I knew it would be just what I wanted.
The day of the cooking class was one of the best, food related days I can remember. We started at 8.30am discussing the dishes, writing shopping lists and learning Arabic over breakfast. Armed with this new knowledge we were then able to visit the market and interact with the sellers and see all the produce. We walked home through the streets carrying all our provisions, feeling like locals. Most of the remainder of the day was spent cooking with Edwina, Taoufik, Mohammed and Kaltoum.
Mohammed taught us to make sweet mint tea (above). We made a gorgeous spice paste for our sardines and aubergines and then took them to the community oven with Mohammed so that they could be cooked in the wood fire oven with the local people's bread (below, heading to the oven). We made this gorgeous tomato jam which was the base of our Berber omelette (below).
We sat down to a delicious lunch to enjoy the berber omelette, aubergines & sardines, We then kept cooking in the afternoon. Here's some of what we did:
(rolling couscous, which was then steamed over slow cooked lamb shanks)
(beetroot parcels with orange, cumin, honey and more)
(iced cucumber salad)
(Kaltoum taught us to make m'smnm, Moroccan pancakes, which we ate drizzled with honey)
(orange blossom meringes with mandarin and almonds hidden inside)
(wakha pastry rolled with a mix of peanuts, sultanas, coconut, orange flower water and cinnamon)
(saffron custards, served chilled) In the late afternoon we visited the spice souk, succumbing to the expert salesmanship of Rida (a personable young man who was able to convince us that we needed special clay face masks which would make us look 10 years younger) and purchasing saffron (£17 for 10g anyone!), lemon anise, specially blended ras al hanout, a cardamom based mix of spices to add to ground coffee, argan oil, orange flower water, rose water, ginseng, and mace. Finally we sat down to an incredible dinner with Edwina & Taoufik. (seared calamari above, lamb shanks & couscous below)
What a day - there was nothing I would change or improve upon, other than the capacity of our bellies to hold more food (well actually mine expanded fairly easily, but Y struggled). Perfect heaven. I can't recommend it enough.
(pigeon b'stilla above in the foreground, chicken tagine to the left, lamb & couscous to the right, and greedy guts to the far right)
After you've eaten Edwina's food, the restaurants in Marrakech will hold little interest. We quite liked Terrasse des epices (below) and Clu Dejeuner a Marrakech - which have good food and are nice for a tranquil escape from the (sometimes exhausting) pace of the souks.
You can eat very cheaply at any of the stalls at night in the Place Jemaa El-Fna - we enjoyed kebabs of meat and salads here on our first night, and spicy tea on another night (see the stall with the tea urn below). The other advantage of sitting here is that, once you're installed on a table, the incessant hassling stops and you can people watch and take photos to your heart's content. Edwina can cook dinner if you let her know in the morning. She is also very keen to start up a supper club in her riad so, even if you're unable to stay, you should definitely get in touch if you're going to Morocco so that you can taste her food and experience the hospitality of House of Fusion. On our first day, after being driven through the mid-Atlas mountains and to the Tin Mal mosque (above), Y & I spent a luxurious night at L'Oliveraie de Marigha. The setting here is divine - with cabins set amongst an olive grove.The resort is owned and run by a lovely young French couple - they greet everyone personally, as though they were a long lost friend. The surrounds are perfect for relaxing. (This was our breakfast table below) The food is well executed, although the food was more French than Moroccan, however during the day I suspect lunch may be more Moroccan style food as we saw the tagines cooking outside.
On the drive out to the Atlas Mountains we ransacked a pink peppercorn tree on the side of the road. We had such an incredible experience. I had to restrain myself from approaching other tourists to tell them of our amazing time when I overheard them talking about their disappointing riad or having spent 4 days walking endlessly around the souks. I urge you to get to Marrakech, but if you can't stay at the House of Fusion, and you can't go into the mountains and you can't do the cooking course, then don't go at all. I assure you, if you hook up with Edwina, you'll leave the Lonely Planet guide buried deep in your suitcase & a smile firmly plastered on your face.
(With thanks to photographer extraordinaire Y)


Kavey said...

Oh what a lovely lovely lovely post. One of my favourites, such a lovely writeup of a lovely trip. Lovely!

I have been to Marrakech twice, once as a teen and once with my family more recently.

I've been planning to organise an informal group trips for friends, a photography one but may have to combine it with cookery.

And thanks so much for recommending this place, both teh place and hosts sound terrific. (You thought I was going to say lovely, didn't you)

Melissa said...

So worth the wait darling! Xo

Sue said...

What a wonderful experience you've had - you two certainly have a knack for finding the unusual and living it to the full!! Love the photos xx

Nordic Nibbler said...

I totally second what Kavey said: a fascinating (and lovely) post! I was in Marrakesh a few years back for a wedding and was bowled over by the place. Your post brought back happy memories.

Edwina and Taoufik said...

Well our hearts are truly singing after reading your divine reminiscence! It was joyful beyond telling having you both come to roam, cook, loll, swoon and swill with us and we can not wait another nanno second for you to come back! There are stones heating in the desert for you to cook upon, kitchen fires to be set in the Atlas kitchens of the aunts and of course piglets to be claimed from their pens in the oasis de Chantal...
We are beside ourselves planning our first of nine million supper club nights and are even thinking of a supper club long weekend!
We need Lensette Front of House and you of course bopping to the chopping in the kitchen!
oooooooo eeeeeeee x

The Shed said...

Oooooooof! I will put aside my extreme jealousy for a sec and say I'm delighted that your birthday trip was so amazing. Teach me skills please!
(I also spotted some spice jars with hats...I hope you brought me one of those).

Jo said...

I've been thinking about going to Marrakech for a while...and now having read this I REALLY want to go.
I think I'll get on the internet and do some daydreaming to block out the gloomy, grey London weather!

nibblescribbler said...

I blimmin' love Marrakech, and am hoping to pootle back there around mid-December. Looks like you had an extremely culinarily productive few days full of scrumptious surprises, beautiful markets and delectable treats - what fun!

Raluca said...

Aaaaaahhhh this sounds greaaaat!! Will haaave to go there! Great Bday Lex! Great idea Y! ;)

Edwina Golombek said...

the new will be on line in mere days!
Trying to keep it under one million pages..we are in enthusiasm overload and mental with excitement with all that now IS! Someone just has to make a flying fox from everywhere in the world into the courtyard..the mojitos are wizzed and waiting! x

Dan said...

Epic post Lex! - I Loved, Loved, Loved Marrakech and can't wait to go back. It really is another world, blew me away.

Paul said...

Congrats you two on superb writing & photos... once more!

Greedy Diva said...

I loved Marrakech too and looks like you got the absolute best of it!

Gail said...

Have never been to Marrakech and have long wanted to go - now this is almost like a command to do so!

Lex said...

Thanks for your lovely comment Kavey! Marrakech would be a perfect photography destination!

Thanks Mel!

Thanks Sue - this is the way we want to travel from now on - finding the "unusual" experience, rather than just ticking off cities.

So glad it brought back memories for you Nordic Nibbler!

Hi Edwina & Taoufik - thanks for visiting the blog! We miss you too and can't wait to come back!

Thanks Shed - damn it, I should have brought the jars with hats!

I agree Raluca - Y did very well with this one!

Hi Dan - Marrakech does seem to be a fave destination for lots of foodies! I can see why!

Many thanks for the comment Paul!

I definitely think we did get the best out of it Greedy Diva.

Yes Gail, you MUST get there!

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