Morocco: Sea, Spice, Souks and Sophistication

By Elyse Glickman
    IF YOU WERE TO PONDER WHY MOROCCO'S distinctive Franco-Arab culture has found its way into global popular culture, you can look to the iconic Yves Saint Laurent for the answer. His reinvention of Moroccan jellaba, jabador, burnous and tarbouch garments not only inspired some of his most influential 1970s fashion collections but also fashion designers around the world to this day. Given that I am nearly as passionate about fashion as I am about food, I was awed by the vibrant colours of Jardin Majorelle, his one-time place of residence in Marrakech and now, his final resting place.
   Laurent was hardly alone. Marrakech is also widely associated with Talitha Pol-Getty, a Laurent muse credited for defining the 'hippie chic' aesthetic now enjoying a comeback around the world. However, Marrakech's mystique goes back further in time. Canada can claim dance choreographer Édouard Lock, whose controversial work echoes his roots. The Hollywood Regency décor style with its definitive Moroccan influences has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in both private homes and boutique hotels and restaurants. Speaking of which, boutique hotel forerunner La Maison Arabe, home to a wildly popular and surprisingly userfriendly cooking school, has been a favourite escape for the likes of Winston Churchill and Jackie Kennedy since its 1946 opening.
   Marrakech's continued impact on fashion carries over to food - starting with the simple but enticing grilled foods sold in the old city's main square, leading on to trendy restaurants like La Selama and the exquisite Moroccan dining option and bar at King Mohammed VI's Le Royal Mansour Hotel (Marrakech's pinnacle of luxury, as well as one of the few redeeming elements of Sex and the City 2). Even individual spice markets have unique personalities. The spice shops in the old city's souk display their wares with artful abundance, everything literally piled up. Herboristerie Bab Aganou stocks its wares in an apothecary-like setting, and is staffed with people who explain the uses of spices and herbs as a pharmacist would.
   The small spice shop favoured by Mohammad Nahir, a local Marrakech guide and our cooking instructor at La Maison Arabe, is set up almost like an Asian tea shop with spice samples arranged in delicate boxes and bowls. Nahir's tutorial on spices and seasoning prior to our cooking lesson was enlightening, as were his explanations of the most authentic ways to prepare and enjoy the hearty cuisine associated with Marrakech.
   "The everyday food for Moroccans is tagine, which can be any number of stewed casserole dishes prepared with protein and vegetables inside a tagine pot and served with fresh hot and cold vegetable salads on the side," Nahir says. "Couscous is our national dish, but many people outside Morocco don't realize it is a special meal enjoyed primarily on Fridays, dictated by the Muslim religion. While you can see pastilla, a decadent concoction of chicken or pigeon tucked inside sweet flaky dough, on Moroccan restaurant menus around the world, it is a special occasion dish as it is prepared in three stages over two-and-a-half to three hours. It also has significance as it is associated with Moorish, Andalucian and urban Moroccan tradition, found more commonly in major cities."
   What struck me in preparing our lamb and dried fruit tagine, along with heated green pepper and eggplant 'salads' ("Anything made with vegetables is a salad," Nahir added) was that a dish devised with such care is everyday food. Though its presentation was simple, the overall effect was elegant. The irony became more pronounced with the elaborate array of salads, tagines and pastilla put before us at La Salama (a perfect 'date night' restaurant just outside the old city's souk), as well as contemporary renderings of those dishes served to us at the Royal Mansour. Their seffa sedfouna (chicken served inside gently seasoned vermicelli) overshadowed the excellent pastilla.
   My trip through Morocco's coastal cities provided an enlightening study in culinary contrasts. The dishes we enjoyed in Marrakech restaurants were hearty in texture, made with several ingredients and involved significant preparation time. The dishes we enjoyed in cities like Essaouira and Oualidia were dominated by grilled fish and seafood adorned only with a sprinkling of spice and a squeeze of lemon. Though the kitchens of several restaurants we visited, from local hangouts to fine hotel dining, stuck to the seasoning traditions Nahir described, the plating was simple and the preparation efficient.
   On our first night, for example, we stayed at the newly opened Mazagan Beach Resort outside El Jadida, a suitable place for family travellers, convention groups and others wanting to ease into the Moroccan experience, thanks to an overflowing offering of amenities and activities. The fare at its seafoodfocussed fine-dining establishment Sel De Mer takes wonderful advantage of locally sourced fish with recipes that, like the hotel's surroundings, are a fusion of Moroccan, Mediterranean and French influences. Our first taste of authentic Morocco, however, came the next morning when we impulsively bought a piping hot loaf of bread inside El Jadida's old fortress, and decided right then and there we should have bought two loaves.
   Younes Darif, our guide, assured us that the breakfast awaiting us at La Sultana in Oualidia was fit for a queen, and worth saving our calories for. In fact, members of the Moroccan royal family had taken over the property, and after a short tour through La Sultana and a massage in the hotel's spa, I could understand why. Thoroughly relaxed, we emerged from the spa to enjoy a simple but refined meal of eggs en tagine and beautifully arrayed Berber flatbreads, pancakes, jellies and amlou, an argan oil, honey and almond dip that made me forget my once-passionate affection for Nutella. After breakfast, we visited Oyster Farm #7 to see where the area's famed crustaceans were harvested and prepared for market.
   Essaouira, meanwhile, can best be described as a big little city, merging the charms of Marrakech with a breezy, laidback beach town feel. If you are seeking the freshest fish for a made-to-order meal, it is a good thing to have somebody like Younes leading the way as the only thing that divides the many seafood eateries leading up to the port are a few tents, tables and reputation. He has us making a beeline for Calvados 14, which looks promising as it has the largest number of local and foreign diners. Near the entrance, a fish monger presents us with our choice of shrimp, prawns and fish. Our selections are grilled and attired only with a dusting of ras el hanout spice mix and fresh lemon.
   While the town of Mirleft is at this stage a diamond in the rough, it is now finding its niche with surfers and Marrakech locals looking for a break from the city. Overlooking the emerging destination is Le Trois Chameaux, which at once reflects Morocco's storied history as well as the destination Mirleft can become in the future.
   Le Trois Chameaux is forged from the home of a former military family and sits in the shadow of the remains of a World War II fortification. The private rooms and public areas are peppered with fascinating twentieth-century memorabilia and local handcrafts. That authenticity, lovingly cultivated by on-site director Jean François Bouquillon, continues into the kitchen and dining room with historic posters, documents and family photos lining the walls.
   The aromas that waft from the kitchen are just as colourful and fascinating. They were generated by the painstaking preparation of the main course, a fresh local fish seasoned with ras el hanout and other secret ingredients and baked inside bread dough similar to that used to make the addictive bread we enjoyed while wandering around El Jadida on our first full day in country.
   Though about two dozen warm and cold 'salads' arrived at our table and could easily be the meal on their own, the cook - who no doubt has done her own family proud for decades - presents the nearly three-foot-long fish creation with our guide Younes giving her an assist. He explains that while you cannot eat the bread the fish is covered in, it ensures the fish itself will be perfectly cooked and melt-in-mouth delicious.
   The unusual fish dish serves as the perfect metaphor for Moroccan cuisine. Like the bread the fish is baked in, couscous and pastilla are fragrant and tempting. However, to get to the best and most interesting stuff, you have to take your chances and dig a little deeper.



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