Food always tells the story of a country and a people. For centuries, Marrakech, perched on the shoulder of the vast expanses of the Saharan desert, has been on one of the world’s great trade routes. Caravans of camels brought spices from afar whilst snow-melt water from the High Atlas Mountains irrigated the plains. Over the centuries Arabs, Berbers and the French have all brought their influences to Morocco. French colonialism is the reason why it is so hard to walk past a patisserie stall in Marrakech.
With its terracotta coloured medieval djerbs, they are winding narrow alleyways, shopping for food in Marrakech has changed little over the last millennium, save for the whine of mopeds treating pedestrians, donkeys and handcarts like a chicane. Before the days of refrigeration, in Marrakech’s baking climate, people shopped daily, counting up their Dirham to see what they could afford.
I met Khalifa who had trained for two years at the Marrakech Culinary Academy. He is an enthusiastic chef and patient Cookery School tutor, at the Riad Star in the heart of the Red City. I flick through the Marrakech Riad Cookbook compiled by Mike Wood and Lucie Anderson-Wood, an English couple who have fallen in love with Moroccan architecture, cuisine, design, life, style and the whole vibrant package that is Marrakech.
On arrival at Riad Star, the evening before, I had enjoyed what is probably Morocco’s signature dish, a classic lamb tagine. I wanted to learn how to create a tagine but maybe another variation on the theme of lamb …
With the key spices of Moroccan cuisine already in the kitchen – black pepper, cumin, dried ginger, sweet red pepper and turmeric – Khalifa and I head for the souks for the fresh ingredients.
Note that chilli is not on the list. Moroccan cuisine avoids blazing heat preferring the gentler nite of coriander which is brought fresh as is the saffron.
“Saffron is better fresh,” explains Khalifa but it might be something to do with cash-flow management too. Saffron, the stomata of croci, is like gold dust. The merest pinch costs 10 Dirham, approaching £1. You would need a mortgage to buy a kilo.
Khalifa selects a couple of bulbs of garlic, carrots, courgettes, one large glossy red onion, green peppers and tomatoes far larger than their European cousins. The stall-holder places a large bunch of Morocco’s “sister herbs”, coriander and parsley, on top of the basket without Khalifa even asking. They are the fundamentals for most Moroccan dishes.
Leaving the Souk we stop at a dark hole in the earthy persimmon walls, framed by wooden shutters, home to the fishmonger. Not only is it Friday, the holy day of prayer, it is also the heart of Ramadan. The fishermen of Essaouria have not fished. Just a few sardines are left.
“When times are hard the people they make a sardine tagine,” Khalifa announces as if our dish of the day is God’s will.
Soon we are back in the kitchen skinning the garlic, chopping the veg and putting the sardines in a sandwich of herbs and spices. And what a kitchen it is. Brilliant sunlight shines through the atrium onto high white walls intricately hand-carved by chiselling craftsmen.
Suddenly, I get a worrying image of Masterchef’s Greg Wallace or John Torode looking inquisitively into the fast-filling tagine, “A sardine tagine? That’s brave.”
But the tagine is done and we move onto the accompanying briouats. Chopped carrots and courgettes bound together with egg and spices. Then folded into triangular parcels like samosa. Khalifa makes three for every one that I complete and his are perfect equilateral triangles.
There’s no more I can do but wait whilst the tagine cooks.
Eventually the tagine emerges. The Moroccan spices have worked their magic, mellowing the flavour of the sardines. Next day, I shop the souks again, this time to buy a classic tagine so that I can recreate the magic at home.
Download the free Marrakech Riad App to learn more about the Moroccan Cookery Course or visit Marrakech-riad.co.uk.Last modified: April 7, 2021