The enticing aroma of spices spills onto the streets of the Marrakesh medina. Food is a vital part of any travel experience, yet is easily overlooked when eager sightseers plan overseas adventures.
“What does this smell like?” Pierre, our market guide, quizzes as he hands me a sample on a spoon, “ok, now try this one?” It’s a trick question – they’re both cumin, ascent that is as Moroccan to me as the High Atlas Mountains. Yet there’s a distinct difference. “The second one is stronger” my partner remarks, falling in line with Pierre’s culinary game. The spice vendor grins as Pierre spells out their secret. Lesson #1: spices are best purchased whole and ground just before use.
Pierre gestures for us to move fromthe spice store to a hidden laneway. It’s another narrow Marrakesh maze. Ancient streets deliberately designed to slow down and confuse invaders.Now,the pedestrian puzzle makes it easy for foreign visitors to lose themselves, along with their sense of direction. This winding street leads to a food market selling lamb, fish, prunes, olives,beetrootand more. All the fresh ingredients we need for our cooking class. There are no other travellers in this market, yet – with my camera remaining respectfully in my bag – I’m not the one who seems most out of place.
Dressed in a dapper blue jacket, crisp white trousers and silk handkerchief, Pierre looks like he’s just stepped out of a Parisian boutique. Bargaining withafishmonger in blood stained rubber bootsaccentuateshis suave style. But throw in a warm demeanour and dash of mutual respect, and this Frenchman blendsmarvellously with the market stallholders who seem to know him well. Pierre introduces us to his preferred vendors and shares one of the reasons he’s made this North African city his home, “the French, they don’t use spices the right way, the Moroccan way.”
Our final stop before entering the Dar Les Cigogneskitchen is through a small door, shut firmly until Pierre’s tap-tap-tap. The door creaks open to reveal a dark and smoky cave-like room. It’s a communal wood-fired oven. Locals can bring their bread dough to have it baked for 1-3 dirhamper loaf, saving on the space, cost and health risks of having an oven in their homes.
Ingredients collected, Pierre hands us over to Saida, our cheerful chef.She speaks only a little English, but sure knows how to tempt the tastebuds. Through the assistance of a far-from-fluent translator, I learn that Saida began cooking alongside her mother when she was five.Her kitchen today hasa simple gas stove and more tagines than bench space.The rustic charm and Saida’s reassurance makes me want to repeat these dishes back home.So I grind, chop, grate, stir, learn and wait.
My patience is rewarded with tender tagines, scrumptious warm salads and copious amounts of couscous, all spiced with that recently ground cumin. It’s a feast fit for a king and queen. And for two hungry travellers, whodiscover that the best way to experience the local cuisine,and spice up a trip,is through an authentic and aromatic cooking class. Bon appétit.