Morocco is mesmerising, the closest country where the culture is intriguingly different. So tempting for those craving a change after almost two years of isolation – barely 3 1/2 hours by plane and 1-hour time change…
Where to go? Castleblanca, Rabat, Fez, Essaouira, Tangiers…The latter though charming is still pretty nippy at this time of the year, so how about Marrakech with its date palms and cactus, souks and bazaars and the incomparable Jemaa el-Fnaa square in the heart of the medina, a magnet for both Moroccans and visitors flocking to be fed, watered and entertained. Drink freshly squeezed juices (no alcohol) and watch hypnotic musicians like swirling dervishes, swirling jugglers, snake charmers…Have a pic taken with a monkey on your shoulder or with colourful tea sellers who make more money from having photos taken than by selling tea. Donkeys weave in and out through the narrow lanes of the medina with carts full of oranges.
There are henna artists, soothsayers, a frenzy of merchants selling their wares from sparklers and balloons to little bowls of snails in broth and a selection of false teeth should you need them… At night, local cooks and chefs set up long tables on the side of the square selling steaming bowls of harira with fresh dates, grilled fish, tagines, every conceivable type of offal. A wonderfully convivial experience and the food overall is above average.
But my absolute favourite is mechoi, the meltingly tender milk-fed lamb, cooked slowly for hours in underground clay ovens until the succulent meat is virtually falling off the bones. You’ll find it from noon to about 4pm along Mechoi Alley – a little lane on the east side of the square. Look out for Haj Mustapha, he was the last Hassan’s (Kings) private chef who now owns Chez Lamine and several stalls selling not just mechoi but also goat’s heads, and tangia, a lamb stew in a clay pot, traditionally cooked in the ashes of the fire that heats the water for the hammans. I even tasted karaein – cow’s hooves with chickpeas. Been there, done that – don’t need to do it again…
The medieval city of Marrakech with its ten kilometres of ochre coloured adobe, ramparts and seven awe-inspiring ornamental gates has many landmarks. The minarat of the Koutoubia Mosque dominates the city. Like most mosques in Morocco, it’s closed to non-muslims but is still a mightily impressive building.
Marrakech was the destination for merchants, camel traders and caravans who had crossed the desert and the snow-capped Atlas mountains with their wares. It’s steeped in history…and if you only eat in one restaurant, it has to be Al Fassia, the women’s restaurant in Gueliz and how about Al Baraka, a petrol station on Rue de Fez, about 15 minutes outside Marrakech – inexpensive but delicious food.
The highlight of my trip was a morning food tour with Plan-It Morocco. And even though I’ve been to Marrakech many times, I discovered many new places with Bilal, my deeply knowledgeable guide. We started at the Kasbah, originally a posh neighbourhood close to the royal palace, now a commercial area with lots of little shops, bakeries and stalls. First stop – a little stall selling sfeng, the famous deep-fried breakfast doughnuts eaten plain or sometimes with an egg in the centre and a sprinkling of crunchy sea salt and cumin. Actually these doughnuts are served all day but are sprinkled with sugar in the afternoon. We wandered through the narrow alleys and watched women making a variety of different breads. Every neighbourhood has an underground wood-fired oven which doubles up as a community bakery. Women bake traditional round flat breads in their homes, lay them on a cloth covered board to rise. It’s bought through the streets to be baked in the oven when the baker has finished cooking his daily loaves. In Morocco, there are more than seven types of Moroccan bread – all delicious.
Stalls were piled high with beautiful fresh vegetables and fruit, I watched a beautiful old lady in a patterned black and white kaftan removing the fibres from long cardoon stalks. First with a knife and then a coarse nylon brush. I bought a bag back to Tarabel Riad and asked the cook to prepare them for my dinner in a delicious tagine of cardoons and potatoes.
In the Jewish quarter, we sat at a little tin table to have another traditional Moroccan breakfast – Bissara, a thick bean soup sprinkled with cumin and chilli pepper, drizzled with olive oil. It comes with a basket of bread for dipping.
I could write several columns on the bread alone.
On past the once famous Sugar Market to watch the warka makers working at the speed of knots, dabbing the dough onto hot saucepan lids over boiling water to make the paper-thin sheets of warka used for chicken and pigeon pastilla and a myriad of other pastries.
Next stop, Belkabir, the most famous pastry shop in the medina with 40 or more sticky sugar laden pastries from horns de gazelle to briwat (triangle shaped pastries filled with marzipan, deep-fried and dipped in honey).
We continued to meander through the souks, with its stalls piled high with everything from Moroccan slippers, fake bags and ‘designer’ clothes, metal work, hand carved wooden spoons and boards, brassy trinkets, hand blown glass…and finally into a little secret corner called Talaa, to Chez Rashid, a favourite haunt of the locals. I loved their sardine ‘meat balls’ with cumin and coriander – so delicious with chopped raw onion or with tomato sauce.
We continued to walk through the souk – then back to the beautiful Tarabel Riad where Kahil picked oranges from the trees in the inner courtyard to make some freshly squeezed orange juice to quench my thirst…Sure where would you get it but in lovely Morocco.
Rory O’Connell’s Moroccan Harira Soup
In Morocco this soup is traditionally served with dates to break the fast during the holy month of Ramadan which starts on the 2nd April 2022. There are thousands of different recipes for the soup, with each household adding their own particular twist to suit tastes and preferences. Chickpeas, lentils and sometimes beans, meat, either beef or lamb, vegetables, herbs and spices are the basic ingredients.
100g (3 1/2oz) dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in cold water
110g (4oz) Puy lentils
450g (1lb) lamb, trimmed of all fat and cut into 1cm (1/2 inch) cubes
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon each of ground ginger, saffron strands and paprika
salt and pepper
50g (2oz) butter
100g (3 1/2oz) long grain rice
4 large ripe tomatoes, skinned, seeded and chopped
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander
4 tablespoons chopped flat leaved parsley
lemon wedges to serve with the soup
Drain the chickpeas and discard the soaking water. Place in a saucepan with the lentils. Add the lamb, onion, turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, saffron and paprika. Cover with 1.5 litres (2 1/2 pints) of water and stir gently to mix. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Bring to the boil and skim off any froth that rises to the surface. Add in half of the butter.
Turn the heat down and simmer the soup covered, for 1 – 1 1/2 hours until the chickpeas are tender. Keep an eye on the level of liquid in the pan and add a little more water if necessary.
Towards the end of cooking time, prepare the rice. Bring 850ml (scant 1 1/2 pints) water to the boil in a saucepan. Add the rice, stir gently and cook until tender. Drain the rice, reserving the cooking liquid.
Cook the chopped tomatoes in 3 tablespoons of the rice cooking water. Season with salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar. The tomatoes should have a “melted” appearance. Add the cooked rice, tomatoes and the remainder of the butter to the soup and simmer for a further 5 minutes. Taste and correct seasoning, if necessary, adding some of the reserved rice cooking water to thin out the soup a little. Add the chopped herbs and serve with lemon wedges on the side.
Moroccan Semolina Bread
A traditional disc-shaped flat bread can be white or have some wholemeal added. I use Raglan Irish organic semolina flour from Monaghan and get delicious results. www.irishorganicmill.ie
This version was given to me by Eric Treuille and Ursula Ferrigno from their cookbook ‘Bread’.
Makes 2 loaves
2 teaspoons dried yeast
175ml (6fl oz) water
250g (9oz) semolina
250g (9oz) strong white flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
125ml (4 1/2fl oz) extra virgin olive oil
egg glaze, beat 1 egg yolk with 1 tablespoon (of water and a pinch of salt
4 tablespoons sesame seeds
Sprinkle the yeast into 100ml (3 1/2fl oz) of the water in a bowl. Leave for 5 minutes; stir to dissolve. Mix the semolina, flour and salt together in a large bowl. Make a well in the centre and pour in the yeasted liquid and the olive oil.
Mix in the flour. Stir in the remaining water, as needed to form a stiff, sticky dough.
Turn out onto a floured work surface. Knead the dough until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes.
Put the dough in a clean, oiled bowl and cover with a tea towel. Leave to rise until doubled in size, about 1 – 1 1/2 hours. Knock back, then leave to rest for 10 minutes.
Divide the dough into two pieces. On a lightly floured work surface, shape each piece into a flattened round, 18cm (7 inch) across and 2.5cm (1 inch) thick.
Place the dough rounds onto oiled baking trays, then cover with a tea towel. Leave to rise until doubled in size, about 30-45 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/Gas Mark 6.
Brush the top of the dough rounds with the egg glaze and sprinkle evenly with sesame seeds. Prick gently all over with a skewer to prevent air bubbles.
Bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes until golden brown – it should
sound hollow when tapped underneath.
Cool on a wire rack.
Lamb Tagine with Cardoons, Lemon and Olives
Taken from The Food of Morocco by Paula Wolfert published by Bloomsbury
Cardoons are domesticated thistles found in markets all over Marrakech, Italy and other parts of Europe. We grow them here in our garden in Shanagarry. They have a taste similar to globe artichokes and an appearance similar to that of celery.
1kg (2 1/4lbs) boneless lamb shoulder chops, trimmed of excess fat
2 garlic cloves, peeled
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 tablespoons saffron water * (see note at end of recipe)
115g (generous 4oz) grated red onion
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
20g (3/4oz) flat-leaf parsley leaves, chopped
3 bundles cardoons (about 15-18 tender stalks)
juice of 2 lemons
1 1/2 preserved lemon, pulp removed, rind rinsed and divided into 6 wedges
12 green-ripe, midway or red olives, rinsed and pitted
About 5 hours before serving, rinse the lamb chops, cut each into six pieces and place in a 28 – 30cm (11 – 12 inch) tagine. Crush the garlic to a paste with 1 teaspoon salt. Add the ginger, turmeric, saffron water, grated onion and oil and turn to coat the lamb on all sides. Leave to marinate for 2 hours.
Set the tagine on a heat diffuser over a medium-low heat and slowly cook the meat for about 15 minutes or until it turns golden brown. Add 180ml (generous 6fl oz) hot water and the parsley, raise the heat to medium and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low again, cover and simmer for 2 hours, turning the lamb often in the sauce.
Meanwhile, separate the cardoon stalks and cut away the tough bottom parts and the leaves. Wash the inner stalks well. With a paring knife or a vegetable peeler, remove the strings. Cut the stalks into 7.5cm (3 inch) lengths and keep in acidulated water (with vinegar or lemon juice) to prevent discolouration.
After the lamb has cooked for 2 hours, push the meat to one side and slide in the rinsed and drained cardoons. Add enough hot water to cover them. (For the first 15-20 minutes of cooking, the cardoons must be covered by liquid). Place the lamb pieces side by side on top of the cardoons and cook for a further 40 minutes.
Add 4 tablespoons of the lemon juice to the sauce. Then continue adding the lemon juice by the tablespoon, tasting before adding more each time. Simmer gently, uncovered, to allow the sauce to reduce and the flavours to blend. If there’s a lot of liquid left when the meat is cooked, tilt the tagine, spoon the liquid into a saucepan and boil rapidly to reduce the liquid to a sauce with a coating consistency.
Rearrange the pieces of lamb and cardoons in the tagine so the meat is completely covered with the cardoons. Garnish with the preserved lemon rind wedges and the olives. Taste the sauce for seasoning and add more lemon juice, if you like. Serve at once.
Dry 1/2 teaspoon crumbled saffron strands in a
warm (not hot) pan. Crush again, then
soak in 240ml hot water and store in a small jar in the refrigerator. This will keep for up to a week.
Deglet Noor Date, Almond and Goat Cheese Salad
One of the many delicious salads from L’Hôtel Marrakech – a favourite Riad on the edge of the medina.
50g (2oz) toasted hazelnuts, very coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
salt and freshly ground black pepper
110g (4oz) Delget Noor dates, chopped
4 handfuls of mixture of fresh leaves – rocket, spinach, flat-parsley
75-110g (3-4oz) soft goat’s cheese – St. Tola
First toast the unskinned almonds in a preheated oven 180˚C/350˚F/Gas Mark 4 for 10-15 minutes and chop coarsely lengthwise.
Whisk the extra virgin olive oil together with the pomegranate molasses, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Stone the dates and cut each in three so the pieces are still chunky.
Put the fresh leaves into a bowl, drizzle with dressing, toss to coat the leaves. Add the dates to the leaves with the almonds and toss again gently.
Divide between 4 wide salad bowls. Put a few blobs of goat cheese on each one. Drizzle a little more dressing on top. Taste, sprinkle with a few grains of flaky sea salt and enjoy.
One of the glories of Moroccan confectionery, great for a party. Individual “snakes” can be made with a single sheet of filo.
Serves 10-15 people
1 packet best quality filo pastry
75-110g (3-4oz) melted butter
450g (1lb) ground almonds
325g (11oz) castor sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
75-110ml (3-4fl oz) orange flower water
Mix all the filling ingredients together in a bowl to form a paste.
Lay one sheet of filo on the work top, brush with melted butter. Take a fist full of the paste and make into a snake about 2.5cm (1 inch) thick. Lay this along the long side of the sheet of filo, about 2.5cm (1 inch) in from the edge. Roll up and bend into an accordion shape and then roll up into a ‘snail’. Put a sheet of tin foil on a baking sheet and lay the snail on top, continue with the rest of the filo and paste. Press the ends together to seal the joining and continue to make the snake. Brush with egg wash and then with melted butter. Bake in a preheated moderate oven 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4 for approx. 30 minutes or until crisp and golden. Cool.
Dust with icing sugar and perhaps a little sweet cinnamon.