I discovered Moroccan food via one of my fav cookbooks – Claudia Roden’s “Mediterranean Cookery”, while in Spain. My cooks fingers and senses demanded to use the abundance of fresh quality produce in other dishes. The spices in the Moroccan recipes appealed to my taste and I had a go at my own preserved lemons and harissa. Over the years, I developed my own style of tagines, lamb, chicken and I loved the ones with fish. My first trip to Morocco had to include a food tour; I did two.
Part of my tour of Marrakesh was lunch at a traditional Moroccan restaurant. The starter was salad; a rainbow array of vegetables, each one on their own small plate, on a very large tray. Some raw, some cooked, with the range of textures from crunchy to melt in your mouth was sublime. Peppers, tomatoes, carrots, okra, cauliflower were served with flavoured oils and harissa, to tailor to your own taste; this is what I love about this spicy chilli condiment.
The main course was the classic tagine of Marrakesh; chicken with preserved lemons and olives. Dessert was fresh oranges and mandarins. I loved the generosity of the platter, lots of fruit and with the leaves still on, it was simple yet stunning. I know from my years in Spain fresh fruit from its native land is so much better, as indeed are Scottish berries. Followed by the delightful tradition of mint tea and pastries.
On my trip to Essaouria I saw a lot of agricultural produce. I admit I hadn’t expected Morocco to be so fertile, high mountains and the Sahara come to mind not rows of olive and Argan trees and fields replete with crops. At lunch, I ordered seafood tagine, having seen the marvellous fresh catch in the market fish had to be tasted. I opted for seafood instead of white fish; as I am rather proud of my fish tagine see “Fish from North Sea to Med” on this blog. With a prawn and avocado starter , deliciously fresh, the pastel blends a natural pairing of taste and colour. I loved my tagine of mussels, prawns, and squid.
Dessert was a delightful pyramid of fresh citrus fruit.
Day three was food tour day. I arrived at Café de France, located in the Jemma al Fna just before 9 am, where I met my fellow students, Jake and Alex(andria) for the tagine cooking class. Karima our teacher arrived; we waited a while but the other people didn’t turn up so we went to buy the ingredients for our tagine at the food stalls inside the medina. The green grocer stalls were a bright tapestry of fruit and vegetables, gleaming and glinting with freshness, not a plastic tray or piece of cling film in sight. A great appetiser for keen foodies ready to cook the produce. The mint sellers, sold several varieties,
however, I wasn’t too keen on the chicken stall. The hens are kept in cages then taken out slaughtered, plucked, and cleaned, fresh without a doubt. A final stop at the spice shop and then to Karima’s home.
Located in a small riad inside the medina, our class took place in the atrium area. We began with mint tea, one of my favourite teas. My first discovery of the morning was that the basis is green tea, once infused, the tea leaves thrown out, the mint added to the green tea and cooked for five mins. It is very refreshing though I find over sweet, but it was never a problem to have it made without sugar.
Them the serious business began, the tagine. I have been making preserved lemons, basically lemons conserved in salt and whole spices, for many years and they transform Moroccan food. However, what was one of the revelations of the class was instead of adding salt to the dish you use the salted flesh to cover the chicken. The rinds are kept and added at the end. I had been discarding the flesh and cutting up the rind. I love it when I find a way to improve a beloved dish. Tagine preparation is therapeutic; the ingredients are added in layers, slowly building up the chicken, chopped onions, the spices then the olive oil.
My cook’s instincts had always made me cook tagines on the hob, I had got the lemon wrong but the method right. The traditional way of cooking is to place the tagine over coals in a tagine burner. They are tripods with a bowl like area to hold the charcoal so the tagine is placed directly over the embers. The cook then ramps up the heat by using bellows.
Tagines are primarily used to cook savoury stews and vegetable dishes. The domed or cone-shaped lid of the tagine traps steam and returns the condensed liquid to the pot, a minimal amount of water is needed to cook meats and vegetables to buttery-tenderness. This method of cooking is very practical in areas where water supplies are limited and it helps tenderise inexpensive cuts of meat. They are the heart and soul of Moroccan cuisine one pot food, used to cook, to serve and to encourage sharing as the tagine bases are placed in the centre of the diners.
When the tagines had settled on their burners, we learnt how to make Moroccan salad. Tomatoes are peeled, halved; I cut mine the wrong way and was left in doubt about it! The seeds are removed and it is diced. Roasted green peppers were put into a plastic bag to let them sweat to make skin removal easier. Skin and seeds removed; the peppers were also diced. Mixed with the tomatoes and dressed with olive oil, salt, and cumin. The Moroccans use cumin as a condiment like salt and pepper and was one of those delicious unexpected discoveries that trying food abroad brings.
The chicken tagine I had cooked I found too dry for my taste and Karima was worried I hadn’t enjoyed it, but I had leaned far too much too worry. Dessert was another traditional one, fresh oranges, peeled, sliced, and lightly dusted with cinnamon and a tiny sprig of mint, refreshing and mouth cleansing, simple and satisfying.
It was almost 1.30 pm and we all had plans for later, we made our way through the medina, to the main square were we took motorised rickshaws to move on. Jake and Alex, who I have to thank for taking such great photos to the Majorelle Gardens. I returned to the hotel to have a siesta and get ready for food trip two, the street food tour. I was only half way through day three but Moroccan magic was still working.