Which Moroccan Cooking Class?
“People who love to eat are always the best people”, claimed Julia Childs, and I heartily agree. Most of my best friendships centre around a love of sharing good food and some of my happiest life decisions have been dictated by food. I studied French and Italian at university, because imagine the deliciousness of that year abroad (I was not disappointed), and a little over a year ago I helped establish a women’s empowerment project in Peru with baking at its heart (Las Dulcecitas in Huanchaco).
One of Morocco’s many appeals for me is its culture of food, hospitality and the significance of welcoming people with tea. So when preparing my first So Morocco trip in October 2017, I jumped at Linda’s suggestion to take a traditional Moroccan Cooking Class at a centre giving hope and skills to disadvantaged women, the Amal Centre. I then returned to Marrakech, and was lucky to attend two more superb cookery courses, at La Maison Arabe and Ourika Organic Kitchen & Gardens . So here are my impressions of all three . . . .
Moroccan Cooking Class 1
The not for profit Amal Centre’s aim to empower women through culinary skills is one which resonates strongly with me, and on arrival, I was struck by the sense of joy and hope pervading it. My parents and I were warmly welcomed and soon set to work identifying our ingredients, all arranged in mini brightly-coloured tajines. There were four small groups of us, each working on a different dish. My parents and I made a chicken tajine with preserved lemons and olives. Another two couples made beef tajine with prunes and one made chicken pastilla. We took it in turns (so that we could all see how to make each dish) to add the ingredients, instructed and encouraged by chef Fatiha.
I was very pleased to learn a sneaky saffron-squishing trick I’ve been using ever since, which has the double advantage of making your hands smell amazing and not pinging saffron around the kitchen, thus not wasting any precious threads! Once the tajines were prepared, we took them out to the garden where they grow herbs, fruit and vegetables. The outside space is super tranquil and here we cooked over traditional coals. While we waited, we had a marvellous time firstly watching the expert, then with our bare hands making our own filo pastry and a very pleasingly gloopy dough outside on a gas burner. This was not just a highlight of the day, but of the whole trip; not least because Fatiha’s English extends to enthusiastically exclaiming “very good!”, which is ever so gratifying.
We also made authentic Moroccan tea and learnt all about the history and ceremony behind it, then about the Centre itself – how it started, how it works, and how it is going from strength to strength, which I found inspirational (so much so that I have since been back to volunteer there, but that is another story).
Finally, having assembled and cooked our pastilla, we ate in the garden – all sharing everything, as is right in Morocco. The meat absolutely fell off the bone, the pastry was light and crispy – it was a delightful meal.
Moroccan Cooking Class 2
My second course was at La Maison Arabe. Although the setting was more formal and quite different from Amal – a grand hotel in traditional Moroccan architecture – the welcome was similarly warm and we also began by identifying our little tajines of spices. I was lucky to be in a tiny group for this course. Class sizes here can often reach 21 people, but there were only three of us – the other two girls were lovely and, it transpired, live not 5 minutes from me in Oxford… Our translator Hanna talked us through each ingredient, then giving us a quick history of Moroccan food and the fusion of cultures which has created it. Given the predominance of tea in everyday Moroccan life, it is unsurprising that it featured at La Maison Arabe as it had at Amal. We didn’t make it this time but watched it made and poured from great heights before sampling it as part of our traditional Moroccan breakfast. In hindsight, it might have been a good idea to skip breakfast at home that morning, although this is a hard concept for me to fathom.
We went outside on a little trip around the Marrakech medina to see a community oven in action, and then went up to the state-of-the-art kitchen to prepare A LOT of food with the guidance of smiley expert Fatiha (not the same one)! We made bread, chicken tajine with preserved lemon and olives, zaalouk and Moroccan salad, and milk custard which was later made into sweet pastilla with almonds, cinnamon and icing sugar.
The pace was faster than the previous course, to the extent that Fatiha made some elements into a (friendly) race, accompanied by lots of laughter and only mild panic at being the slowest at peeling my tomato without breaking the skin. I learnt how to make it into a little flower, as well as a sneaky garlic and salt technique to make my zaalouk as tasty as possible. We cooked our dishes on the gas rather than coals, and despite making the same tajine as at Amal, the preparation had varied and it tasted quite different.
We happily and unhurriedly ate as much of the feast as we could on the terrace to the peaceful sounds of the fountain and an unobtrusive kora player, and left very full and very content.
Moroccan Cooking Class 3
My trio of culinary courses was rounded off by a perfect Sunday at Ourika Organic Kitchen & Gardens. After a lovely drive towards the snow-capped Atlas mountains, I had my warmest welcome yet – a big hug from owner Amanda followed by a calm and delectable pot of tea made from rose, verbena, lemongrass, tea, olive and orange from her gardens.
I hesitate to call it a farm as it may conjure up the wrong image. Amanda does grow a lot of organic produce, but they are gardens in their tranquillity and homeliness. We shared the pot as she asked me about myself and we chatted comfortably, as though this wasn’t our first meeting. While there had definitely been no neglect of my cooking at Amal or La Maison Arabe, this was to be the most intimate and personal course, an afternoon spent with a genuine and deeply knowledgeable lover of Moroccan cuisine.
For the sake of comparison, I made chicken tajine with preserved lemon and olives with the expert help of Amanda and her friend Kieran. It was my first time at making harissa and charmoula (with an impressively imposing pestle and mortar), and like the previous day at La Maison Arabe, we also made salads – shakshouka (the Moroccan version), courgette zaalouk and aubergine caviar. We were ever so lucky that amidst a week of rain and unusually cold temperatures, the sun shone and we cooked outside on the open coals, with the olive trees glittering next to the pool, which was blissful.
I learnt a trick to make my vegetables extra tasty and shall be crossing my fingers for sunshine at home to recreate this cooking experience. Our tajine was prepared slightly differently again – for example, we added all the tajine ingredients before cooking, but omitted the preserved lemon pulp so that the end result wasn’t overwhelmingly salty-lemon-flavoured. It was given as long as possible on the coals before we tucked in. All the ingredients were freshly harvested from the gardens apart from the baby chicken, which nevertheless was local and ever so tender and full of flavour, and I was delighted that we had made enough salads for me to take some leftovers home and extend the joy.
You would be forgiven for thinking I might now have had enough chicken tajine with preserved lemon and olives (even the name is a mouthful), but on the contrary, these courses have whet my appetite and left me wanting more. When I get home I plan to develop my own version based on the aspects I like most from each class – luckily, they all gave me the recipes (plus some other goodies) so I can keep recreating to my tummy’s delight!
Huge thanks to Isabelle for writing about her experiences and we hope that it will be helpful to you when you are trying to decide which class to take on your SO Morocco cooking tour or even if you would just like to incorporate a Marrakech cooking lesson into your So Morocco Tour.