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Marrakech

In the early 1970’s award-winning writer, Paula Wolfert published a book that familiarized a generation of food-loving bohemians to Moroccan gastronomy. The aromatic recipes and exciting photographs of Wolfert in brightly coloured caftans, with vendors in a dusty bazaar, placed a thousand tagines (earthenware pots with conical lids) onto Western tables. On her authority, Moroccan tagines and couscous dishes went from being unapproachably exotic to delightfully intriguing. Nowadays a tagine is found in the kitchens of even those who have never travelled to Morocco, since its cuisine is globally recognised and remains Morocco’s best ambassador.

According to Wolfert, there are four prerequisites for a nation to possess spectacular cuisine; firstly the abundance of great quality produce, next it’s history should be marked by a diversity of cultural influences including a supremacy by foreign powers and culinary influences brought back by it’s own imperial explorations. Thirdly, it should have been part of an influential civilisation; since ‘great food and great civilisation go together’ and lastly the prevalence of a distinguished palace; since without the royal kitchens fuelled by the pressures of a sophisticated court life; the ingenuities of a nation’s cooks will not be tested.

Morocco is lucky enough to tick all four boxes. It’s enviable geographical location, Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, lush green fertile belts, mountain ranges and vast desert areas provide for the finest ingredients; such as the oranges and lemons of Fez and Agadir, pomegranates of Marrakech, mint and olives from Meknes, almonds and lamb of Souss, figs of Casablanca, seafood of Essaouira, melons of Doukkala, and spices that for thousands of years were brought by the Arabs, French and Spanish cultures that left their mark on the country.

On arrival in Marrakesh, a city rich in colour; piercing blues and greens of its craftwork, the pale-pink-tinged walls of the medina, vibrant mountains of spices in the souks, the trendy shops of Guéliz, donkeys carrying bunches of fresh mint as Range Rovers idle outside luxury hotels; it is evident that this fascinating city of stark contrasts offers an extraordinary experience.

In 1918, on a visit to Marrakech, Edith Wharton stayed at the ‘Bahia Palace’, an ancient residence converted into a palace by the sultan’s vizier, which she described as ‘the loveliest and most fantastic of Moroccan palaces’, fashioned by ‘the last surviving artists of chiselled plaster and zellij (ceramic mosaics) and the honeycombing of gilded cedar’. Nowadays it’s open for public visits.

But opulence and splendour are not restricted to days gone by; modern Marrakech boasts some contemporary masterpieces of its own. Created from a vision to create an extraordinary masterpiece depicting the true essence of Moroccan tradition, worked on by 1,200 craftsmen for almost four years, the Royal Mansour, is a magnificently regal hotel, tucked away in palm-studded oasis within walking distance of the vibrant medina.

Its fine dining matches the exquisite tone set by the rest of the hotel, though the prices are comparable to Paris’s top restaurants. Under the stewardship of three Michelin-starred Chef Yannick Alléno, the Karim Ben Baba lead La Grande Table Marocaine, offers exceptional food. As we settle into the plush hand-woven silk upholstered chairs for dinner there is an unmistakable sense of occasion; there are lots of elements at play, a musician sits in the corner of the restaurant playing traditional Moroccan airs, as the white-gloved waiters attired in their ornate flowing djellabas (traditional robes) set the tone.

Highlights from our meal include a substantial mixed seafood pastille (Moroccan Pie). Alléno succeeds brilliantly with his pigeon and lamb main dishes, especially delicious when enhanced with black truffles from the nearby mountains, and Ben Baba offers a marvellous selection of briouates (sweet or savoury puff pastry) and Moroccan salad variations, all of which are paired to pleasingly refined local grape.

To continue our foray into Marrakech’s dining delights, the next evening we head to the legendary La Mamounia hotel. From the instant that we step into the gated grounds, you are taken by a timeless elegance and ambience reminiscent of the 1950’s; and was one of Winston Churchill’s favourite hotels.

We are greeted by a pair of traditionally dressed doormen and guided in the direction of the restaurant. Crossing the exquisitely adorned lobby, admiring the plush décor and gilded halls we step down into the hotel’s exotically landscaped gardens. Amidst the shadows of the setting sun, we were captivated by rows of olive and orange trees lining the gravel paths, flanked by towering palm trees; guided by the soft glow of red Moroccan lanterns we wander through the expansive greenery to arrive at Le Marocain. Chef Rachid Agourey has been here for the past 29 years and focuses on developing lavish menus. He claims, ‘it’s the women who keep Morocco’s culinary traditions’ and his team of specially recruited females has fashioned some of Morocco’s most compelling cuisine.

Sat in a sheltered alcove, where tables are set around a central lily pond we inhale the flowery aroma of ras-el-hanout, the blend of 27 spices that often define Moroccan cuisine. Our meal starts with a traditional Moroccan salad. This dish encompasses fourteen ingredients, each bowl a visual delight; highlights include thin slices of cucumber sweetened with orange blossom water, confit of tomatoes with sesame, while local argan oil adds a touch of nuttiness to peppers mixed with a garlic and lemon.

To follow the most memorable dishes were king prawns and sardines from Essaouira marinated in chermoula (a cilantro-based herb sauce) and a lobster tagine served with crispy garden vegetables and chickpeas. The portions were pleasingly generous. The couscous is a superb complement to the fish, the fluffy grains with tender roasted vegetables. We ended our meal with a cinnamon fragranced orange salad, scattered with orange blossom water, followed by a tray of sweet, flaky French pastries.

The following evening we shifted our attention to one of Marrakech’s most exhilarating location: Jemaa el Fnaa; the main bustling square set within the medina. Each evening at dusk, it is seamlessly converted into one of the largest, and exciting open-air dining experience in the world.

Vendors, snake charmers, acrobats, fortune-tellers, musicians and henna artists all share the vast area with rows of numbered outdoor kitchen stalls. Underneath the twinkling light of oil lamps, fires are lit, charcoal grills glow, and fresh vegetables and meats are displayed for selection; and crowds of locals and visitors congregate for a feast worthy of an Arab sheikh.

Juicy grilled chicken and lamb, tagines, couscous, fried fish, beef cuts, root vegetables, fresh salads, steaming soups, local breads, unlimited mint tea and honey laden desserts beckon from the stalls. Before we realise it, we are settled on a bench with a plate of freshly made food before us. You can wander between the myriad of stalls for each course or stay seated and plate after plate is delivered upon demand. After dinner we opted for a horse-drawn carriage ride around the medina walls and latter drift into the animated souk for an evening stroll. By midnight, the cooking fires slowly peter out, sated customers wander away, and the cooks are packing up their kitchen stalls; visit the square the next morning and it’s as if the whole setting had been a flight of fancy. The lantern-lit stalls have been swapped for ones selling fresh orange juice, local fruits, nuts and ornaments.

Meanwhile there are a number of culinary gems hidden in the medina area; a growing number of young entrepreneurs are revolutionising the hospitality scene with stylish cafes with fearlessly modern menus. We head to Nomad Café; owned by Kamal Laftimi, considered one of the trendiest places to eat in the medina.

It has spectacular food, contemporary interiors, however my favourite was the roof terrace offering intoxicating vistas of the medina. The menu features twists on classics such as calamari roasted with cumin with a spoonful of spicy harissa (fiery red paste), modern lamb tagine served in a rectangular block with potatoes stacked in a cube and a divine saffron-scented date cake with salted caramel ice-cream. It’s also the first place in the medina to take the process of creating cocktails earnestly; offers refreshing cucumber martinis and delicious icy mint mojitos. And the best part is that the profits from the daily special are directed to a local charity.

Passing through a door in Morocco is often like stepping into another world. You enter through a nondescript entrance, but as soon as you cross the threshold a world of wonders is revealed; which is precisely how we felt as we entered La Maison Arabe: with enchanting courtyards, blossoming roses, elegant furnishings, oriental antiques, the most exquisite hand crafted metal chandeliers, the fragrance of mint tea lingering in the air, glittering water features, and waiting hosts who relished the chance to demonstrate their Moroccan hospitality.

The iconic La Maison Arabe enjoys a number of ‘firsts’; opened in the 1940’s as the city’s first traditional Moroccan restaurant, it soon became a favourite of many high-profile guests such as Winston Churchill and Jackie Kennedy. Additionally, it has the distinction of being the first Riad (traditional property with a courtyard) hotel in Marrakech. Italian aristocrat Fabrizio Ruspoli renovated the two adjacent courtyard houses into an elegant colonial style boutique hotel. Lastly, it started the first and currently touted to be the best culinary school in Marrakech. We had a delightful dinner at the charming Les Trois Saveurs, one of its culinary options, overlooking a glittering pool patio. The sophisticated orange and carrot soup using the signature mixture of sweet and savoury, and drawing on the citrus groves around Marrakech, was just sublime. Meanwhile, the chicken tagine with preserved lemons, olives and saffron pistils was one of the best we tasted.

To escape the bustle of Marrakech; there are a number of excursion opportunities. For the perfect end to our visit we decided to head out and spend the day at Kasbah Tamadot, Richard Branson’s awe-inspiring mountain retreat situated in the village of Asni at the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. On the way, guided by a local driver, we experienced a glimpse of traditional Berber life in the mountain villages framed by walnut groves and terraced gardens. Here they still make couscous, bread and cheese by hand.

‘Kasbah’ is an Islamic sanctuary that once offered a royal family refuge, and refuge is precisely what Kasbah Tamadot offers today. Through its intricate gates you step into vividly coloured rooms decorated by local artisans and verdant courtyards hidden within fortified walls. It is a haven of uniquely secluded comfort and tranquil luxury; stunning mountain panoramas, sweeping countryside vistas, long, lazy lunches, mint tea by the pool, and soothing local music.

Marrakech is an experience that delights and enthrals in equal measures. The country’s sights, exquisite cuisine and authentic culture blend seamlessly to provide an enduring allure.

What to see
In the early 1970’s award-winning writer, Paula Wolfert published a book that familiarized a generation of food-loving bohemians to Moroccan gastronomy. The aromatic recipes and exciting photographs of Wolfert in brightly coloured caftans, with vendors in a dusty bazaar, placed a thousand tagines (earthenware pots with conical lids) onto Western tables. On her authority, Moroccan tagines and couscous dishes went from being unapproachably exotic to delightfully intriguing. Nowadays a tagine is found in the kitchens of even those who have never travelled to Morocco, since its cuisine is globally recognised and remains Morocco’s best ambassador.

According to Wolfert, there are four prerequisites for a nation to possess spectacular cuisine; firstly the abundance of great quality produce, next it’s history should be marked by a diversity of cultural influences including a supremacy by foreign powers and culinary influences brought back by it’s own imperial explorations. Thirdly, it should have been part of an influential civilisation; since ‘great food and great civilisation go together’ and lastly the prevalence of a distinguished palace; since without the royal kitchens fuelled by the pressures of a sophisticated court life; the ingenuities of a nation’s cooks will not be tested.

Ben Youssef Medrasa This 14th century medrasa (religious school) is one of the most dazzling examples of Moorish architecture in the world, reminiscent of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Open daily 8am-5pm. Entrance $2.

El Badi Palace Located in the northeast Kasbah district, and built in the 16th century. Today, there remain only the ruins of the palace and a huge esplanade with gardens of orange trees. Open daily 8:30am-noon & 2:30pm-6pm. Entrance $1.

Maison de la photographie The photography museum is located in an old Saadian townhouse converted into a cultural site. It displays a collection of photographs taken in Morocco spanning 1870 to the 1970s. Do also check out the panoramic terrace café for a quick lunch. Open daily 9:30-7pm. Entrance $4.

Majorelle Gardens Majorelle Gardens is one of the most visited sites in Morocco. The building was designed by the French painter Jacques Majorelle in 1931 and was bought by Yves Saint Laurent in 1980. He brought the beautiful gardens back to life as a gift the city he loved. It also features a fascinating Berber museum, café, art gallery, bookstore and stylish boutique. Open daily 8am-5: 30pm (9am during Ramadan). Entrance to the gardens $7, museum and gardens $10.

Must visit
Riad El Fenn Head Chef Ahmad Elhardoum has been creating sensational food ever since they opening of Riad El Fenn in 2004. His food is simply divine offering contemporary, inventive, bright food; fashioned from organic fruit and vegetables sourced from the Ourika Valley, meat from local butchers and fish from Agadir; a delightful re-interpretation of traditional
Moroccan dishes.

PHOTOS BY JOANNA VESTEY & DAVID LOFTUS

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