Last month, my wife, Melissa, and I went to Morocco, mostly for the food but also for the people. (Years ago, I had taken a trip through the Sahara by foot and by camel—this was a bit more luxurious.) One of the best things we ate was simple enough—lamb kofte in Jemaa el-Fnaa (the main square in Marrakech). Just before sunset, grills, tables, and tents are set up, creating a makeshift food bazaar. The kofte were richly spiced and served with a tomato-pepper sauce. Excellent. We then drove out through the Atlas Mountains (about a 4-hour trip) to Skoura, a little town just east of Ouarzazate, the “Hollywood” of Morocco since it has desert sets used in many famous movies including Gladiator, the Asterix series, and Hidalgo. Skoura, however, is a small oasis town, and we stayed at a refurbished Kasbah, a large family home with the signature four towers. We cooked with the chef—the tagine and couscous were brilliant since he let the cumin, cinnamon, tarragon, and other herbs and spices stand on their own. Everything was light and fresh, a trick that doesn’t work well when you are buying ingredients at the typical American supermarket. The best meal we had was the simplest: grilled lamb kebabs, a potato salad flavored with a hint of mint and cumin, and a bottle of very cold Moroccan white wine. The local produce—oranges, yogurt, and almonds—is also revelatory. The orange juice has a full, perfumed fragrance and the almonds are light and toothsome instead of dense. Oh well, back to Stop & Shop!
The only problem with Marrakech is that the local economy is finely tuned to tourists which means, unfortunately, a simple snapshot is easily turned into a paid photo-op.
Marrakech lives in between knowable and exotic; you can find either experience if you look hard enough.
The main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa, is tourist central, lined with horses and buggies.
During the day, the square has a dozen different orange juice vendors and for good reason; the oranges have a sweet, perfumed juice, unlike what we are used to in the states.
Donkey carts are still used to move luggage and goods through the souk.
A typical view of the souk. Not as large as the souk in Fez, it is still quite labyrinthian and ranges from outdoor to almost indoors. You can find everything from lanterns to shoes to bags to jewelry to live rabbits and chickens.
Marrakech at night. The large tower in the background is the mosque. We arrived just before Ramadan.
The courtyard of a typical riad—this is a home with a central courtyard. The term comes from the Arabic meaning garden.
Jemaa el-Fnaa at night—during Ramadan, everyone other than young kids has to refrain from eating or drinking (including water) from early in the morning until sunset. At night, the square becomes a huge food court. The ban on food and drink also applies to pregnant women as long as they are healthy.
This cook made terrific kofte with a tomato/hot pepper sauce. Excellent. (The best food I had in Marrakech, to be honest.)
Grilling kebobs and other meat.
Locals we spoke to were a bit less adventurous due to concerns with food safety. The meat sits out in the heat. We were intrepid, however, unwilling to forego a taste of the local "fast food."
Inside the food tents, people were breaking their Ramadan fasts. It was the one place in Marrakech where you could sit down with locals and not feel like a complete tourist.
We stayed at an over-the-top hotel with exquisite gardens. On the first night, we did see a very, very large snake move across the path above between the trees. Just a reminder that we were not in Boston anymore.
The souk does sell anything and everything. These dolls were hanging across the top of one of the stalls.
A pastry merchant. Light filters through the roof of the souk which is a series of wooden slats, making a pleasant pattern on the food. I offered to provide a "petit cadeau" (a small gift) in exchange for taking a photo. He responded in the local French and after a couple of repeats I finally understood what he meant—he would sell me his pastries instead of taking a tip.
We drove across the Atlas Mountains to Skoura which is near Ourzazate, the hollywood of Morocco. (Movies such as Gladiator, Hidalgo, and the Asterix series have had scenes filmed there.) This is the kasbah (a large structure with towers) where we stayed. It was run by a French couple and was exquisite.
The grounds included herb and vegetables gardens and they used local grasses for landscaping as well.
This door is to an old kasbah nearby that was in disrepair.
Inside, it was a mess but a sign of the wealth that existed in Skoura when this was built over 150 years ago.
The chef at our kasbah was incredible—the kitchen itself was capable of baking all of the pastries and even had a state of the art ice cream machine. Everything was local, fresh, and perfumed using the local herbs and spices.
I learned many things from our time there. First, keep it simple (a chicken tagine had just potatoes in it; forget the rest of the vegetables). Second, don't meld the flavors of herbs and spices—use them sparingly and let each one have its own voice.
The kasbah at night.
Typical view of the oasis that our kasbah was located in. This small patch of green was surrounded by desert. It was well over 100 degrees but, oddly enough, quite bearable. You just get used to it.
These tiny shoes were hanging in a pottery workshop.
These are the types of pottery that is made locally in Skoura.
Years ago, I took a 3-day hike through the Sahara with camels. On this trip, we had a short excursion on two flea-bitten animals that were not well cared for. One thing about camels is that they never forget an injustice. They will wait for months, even years, to get back at anyone who mistreats them. For some reason, I find that rather appealing!
This potato salad is the perfect example of Moroccan cooking. It was seasoned with cumin and mint—that was it—and without too much of either item.
These lamb kebobs were grilled for lunch which was served in the desert next to a lake. The meat was extremely tender unlike most lamb that we buy here in the states.