Marrakech is a great place for a cook to live and work as the gods who decide on such things have produced a perfectly balanced script from which the mortals work from. The produce is great, the clientele and local people, who you’ll be relying upon, equally so. There is a wonderful food culture in the country that spans and accommodates the old Berber influences through the French colonial era to the modern day. The climate is glorious, I think the tourist authority boasted of 300 days of blue sky each year, so many of the most enjoyable addresses will open air to take advantage of the clement days and evenings.
Where to start. We used to spend the days at the Beldi Day club. A super setting, with pool, day beds and good local food for a light lunch. The best places effortlessly integrated the local plants and flora, with mandatory bougainvillea draped across the walls and palm trees that stand erectly at the doorways. Softly coloured tadelakt walls affirmed the comfort of a place, the arches and trellising spoke of its heritage.
The old Medina is a UNESCO protected town, where a thousand old stone Riads cluster around the venerable Place Jemaa El Fna, the beating heart of the city. At any hour of the day, you can come here to shop and barter in the souks, eat, or listen to the music or story tellers. The evenings are particularly magical as fires light up the sky and incense burns and perfumes the warm evening air. Just off the square is Riad El Fenn. One of the best hotels I’ve ever stayed in. A confession, the managers were great friends and we spent many memorable days here whilst we lived in the town, and went back years later to stay for a proper holiday. Every space is beautiful decorated, every moment wonderfully curated.
Fred is French, a partner in the business and also managed the place. He cared deeply about food and made their restaurant one of the top addresses in the town. We’d have excellent breakfasts on the roof terrace, where they served us Moroccan breads and pancakes with honey or homemade preserves, accompanied with freshly squeezed orange juice and Moroccan coffee.
No visit to Marrakech is complete without a drive into the Atlas Mountains, beneath which the old Titan apparently sleeps. We had a friend with a house in Ouarzazate, the town nicknamed ‘the doorway to the desert’ where many famous movies have been shot, including scenes from my favourite, Lawrence of Arabia. One year, this friend and his wife invited us to celebrate the festival of Eid al-Adha when Ibrahim was ordered to sacrifice his son Ismail, though at the last minute Allah replaced Abraham’s son with a sheep that was sacrificed in his place, and thereafter this is how the event is commemorated. Anyway, we loaded the cars, ours with our beloved Boxer in the back, Rachid and Fouzia with a trailer that carried the live sheep.
We drove across the stunning snow-covered mountains stopping half a dozen times for refreshments and to let the sheep and Oliver the Boxer stretch their paws and hooves. The two of them seemed to get on famously, chasing and jumping on each other. Hours later we arrived at Rachid’s house in Ouarzazate where his guard took the sheep away as we installed ourselves. An hour later we were eating the fried liver of the sheep and Oliver the Boxer was happily chewing on one of the bones of his erstwhile pal. Over the coming week we ate our way through the animal, culminating with the last meal before our return of Sheep’s Head Couscous. Absolutely delicious.
Soon after we opened Casa Lalla, our own Riad, with eight rooms and a dining area on the terrace that sat sixteen. I had a great time making five course menu degustations, that changed daily allowing me to shop for ingredients every morning, with new combinations in mind. The quality of the products were excellent, so it was pleasure to cook here. There was a French farmer who cultivated his own ducks and Foie Gras, super fish from the Atlantic and the tastiest vegetables and fruits. I drew inspiration from the local cuisine and created my own interpretations of their dishes. Some particular favourites were the (individual) Tagine of Quail, where I inserted a half a Date beneath the skin on the breast. Dusted them with cinnamon, saffron powder, caramelized them and then stewed them with sliced onions, preserved lemon and a little water that became a delicious jus. Another dish was my Monkfish Pastilla. The original Moroccan recipe is Pigeon, or Chicken, wrapped in filo pastry and baked. It is absolutely delicious and when I am on death-row in the US, this will definitely be my last dinner. Anyway, I did my version with Monkfish tail, caramelized with saffron, then wrapped in Savoy Cabbage leaves. The filling also included sliced, fried onions, coriander, cinnamon, and the subsequent liquid is added to a lightly scrambled egg. Everything is placed inside the cabbage leaves, sealed and baked. I sat the pastilla’s on an acidic apple purée and decorated it with lines of cinnamon and icing sugar. I thought it was delicious, though in the words of Mary Rice-Davies, “he would say that, wouldn’t he?” We also served a Red Mullet with couscous, spicy vegetables and parsley sauce, where the fish with decorated with the traditional confited onion and sultanas, flavored with cinnamon.
Owning the Riad was one of the best experiences of my life, as I had a house that was continuously full of people, people who weren’t working the next day and were happy to sit up until the early hours and were forced to listen to my monologues as they had paid for a whole week and we didn’t give refunds. I suppose we are all expected to accumulate as many life experiences as possible so that in our dotage we are never alone, as we can revisit our memories, even better, our shared memories, ones that might bring colour or happiness to an otherwise sad or rainy day. My years in Marrakech would definitely be amongst them.