08 MAY 2017: Here I am in Morocco getting emails about new places opening up in North American focusing on Moroccan flavours. Chef Doug Penfold of Cava and Chabrol fame just launched Atlas in Toronto with dishes inspired from Marrakesh and other parts of the country. In New York the new bar at the Lowell Hotel, Jacques, is serving up Moroccan inspired cocktails. Lucky me to be where the trendy spicing for this year originated.  

North America has paid attention to the wonderful, complex and subtle spicing of Moroccan cuisine in the past. Notably Paula Wolfert’s books Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco published in 1973 and updated in 2011 as Food of Morocco with 100 new recipes, turned America onto Morocco’s cuisine.

Now it seems we are once again tuning our taste buds to the likes of cumin, argon oil, braised tagine dishes, couscous and preserved lemon. Each part of the country has different specialties and I am covering as much as I can in two weeks.

My first stop is Marrakesh at the gorgeous La Sultana. The hotel is located in the historical medina, ten minutes walk from the famous, chaotic and bustling Jemaa El Fna square. Every night at that square street food stalls serve up their specialties such as grilled meats, savoury pastry pies (bastilla), spicy snails (said to have restorative and digestive benefits), sheep heads and tagines (dishes braised in clay pots with conical lids).

Booth 114 was recommended to me as safe for the delicate stomachs of foreigners as well as having tasty food. Apparently a member of the Moroccan royal family ate there. I started with a fresh tomato salad and an assortment of cooked vegetable dishes such as carrots, eggplant, green beans and squash all individually spiced and served at room temperature. Then on came the grilled items: lamb, shrimp, calamari, beef skewers and more. The grilled foods were overcooked for me but the veggies were good and I had no stomach issues after. The experience was priceless.

I took many of my meals at La Sultana. The place is made up of five riads (houses with interior courtyards) that were combined and converted to a hotel without losing their individual character and beauty. Their rooftop patio was a perfect spot for drinks at sunset. The restaurant in a courtyard surrounding a pool with the ancient riad walls strategically lit, was pure romance.

It was here that I went for the Moroccan tasting menu: 14 specialty dishes served in small enough portions to get the taste without being too filling to continue. It started with harira soup, made with tomatoes, lentils, chickpeas and spices, and stirred constantly while cooking so it comes out silky smooth. During the holy month of Ramadan, the fast is broken at sunset each day with a steaming bowl of it. (Chicken, lamb or other meats can be added to it.)

Next, a small cinnamon scented pigeon pie (bastilla), followed by taktouka of tomatoes and peppers, caramelized pumpkin and eggplant quenelles. (Moroccans always start a dinner with an assortment of cooked vegetables.) The fish courses were medallions of monkfish Rabat style with raisons, prawns with preserved lemon, and chermoula sauce (coriander, chilli, lemon, garlic, cumin and olive oil), and tagine of Oualidia mussels.

The meat courses were other traditional dishes, namely tagine of beef M’rosia with toasted almonds and chicken makfoul (with sweet onions) served with couscous (an ultra-fine tiny ball shaped wheat pasta) with onions and chickpeas.

For dessert came milk and almond bastilla, homemade ice cream and Moroccan pastries served with traditional mint tea. Mint tea often jokingly called ‘Moroccan whisky’ or ‘Berber whisky’ is the common drink throughout the country. It can be heavily sweetened with sugar chipped off a sugar cone, but today good restaurants ask how sweet you want it. Gunpowder tea is steeped with mint stuffed into the teapot and then poured into a tea glass from a height to create a froth called the crown. The pouring is quite an art and a show at some places.

I urge anyone who visits Marrakesh to go for this meal to get a full introduction into Moroccan cuisine in a beautiful setting. Cost was 620 Moroccan Dirham – a well spent Canadian $85 per person.

Elsewhere I had tasty chicken, green olive and preserved lemon tagine at Café Arabe in the heart of the souk area in the medina and classic French cuisine at Grand Café de la Poste, a favourite place for the French tourists and ex-pats to congregate in Marrakesh Guéliz, in the new city.

My next stop is the Dar Ahlam in Skoura, about a five-hour drive through the snow-capped high Atlas Mountains towards the desert. What awaits has me salivating already.

 

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Margaret Swaine

Margaret is a nationally published wine, spirits, food and travel writer, who has authored thousands of articles on these subjects for magazines and newspapers.

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