Tim and I spent a blissfully relaxing week in Morocco just before Christmas, a perfect and much needed break to recharge the batteries before the festive season. We were staying at a little hotel called La Gazelle dâ€™Or just outside Taroudant which is east of Agadir.
Iâ€™m rather drawn to Morocco, not just for the food which I love, but because it is the closest place where the culture and way of life are completely different â€“ just three and a half hours by plane. For us the climate too is wonderful â€“ two weeks before Christmas it was like our best summer weather and there were virtually no tourists.
The hotel where we stayed was set in the midst of a 200 hectare organic farm and orange groves. The 30 bedrooms in stone cottages were scattered through the gardens and each one covered with jasmine, bougainvillea, and lemon trees. Each had its own little veranda and an open fireplace, with lots of timber to light a fire when the evenings turned chilly â€“ bliss.
By about 9.30am it was warm enough to have breakfast on the veranda overlooking the gardens in view of the Atlas mountain. Habib or Rachid dressed in the long flowing Moroccan djellaba would bring in the tray laden with steaming hot coffee, freshly baked homemade breads, croissants and brioche. Mercifully none of the par baked frozen stuff here, home made jams and marmalade, fresh fruit and warm Moroccan honeycomb pancakes called Baghrir oozing with melted butter and honey. They came in little blue and white tagines hidden under the distinctive conical lid. There was of course freshly squeezed orange juice, large glasses of fruity juice pressed from oranges picked just minutes earlier â€“ bliss.
While we ate our breakfast in leisurely fashion, listening to the birds squabbling over the dates in the palm tree, we would flirt with the idea of doing something energetic, but apart from a few little forays into Taroudant and an expedition to Marrakech, we couldnâ€™t tear ourselves away from our oasis. We had many lovely walks through orange groves and fields of vegetables and herbs. We simply read for hours on end, relaxed , had occasional swims in the pool, the most stressful decisions we had to make were whether we would have lunch beside the pool or on the balcony or in the dining room and what kind of massage we would like â€“ what decadence!
Well, thatâ€™s not quite true, because both of us are actually writing books. Timâ€™s is on bread and needs to be in to the publishers Gill & Macmillan by the end of January, mine is a terrifying tome of over 500 recipes â€“ loosely entitled the Darina Allen Cookery Course, which, if I manage to keep to my new and final deadlines, should be in the shops by next Christmas. Not surprisingly everywhere we go weâ€™re always on the look out for new and delicious recipes. At Gazelle dâ€™Or we spent some very happy hours in the kitchen with the chefs and cooks learning how to make the delicious little Moroccan pancakes and the Berber breads we ate by the pool for lunch.
We ordered Pastilla, Couscous and various tagines for dinner. The pastilla was made with pigeon and paper thin sheets of warka. All of these extraordinary skills were passed on from mother to daughter and to the sons also.
Tagines take their name from the terracotta pot with the distinctive conical lid. Essentially they are stews of meat, vegetables or fish, often with the addition of nuts, fruit and olives. Traditionally they are cooked long and slowly in the clay tagine over a charcoal fire which of course impacts a particular flavour. Nowadays however, the stew is often cooked in a regular pot and served in the tagine.
We were in Morocco during the Ramadan which is the Muslim equivalent of the Christian Lent. The ninth month of the Islamic calendar, it commemorates the time in which the Koran was revealed to Muhammad. In contrast to the Christian West, though, the Muslim world observes the fast extremely rigorously â€“ indeed Moroccans are forbidden by law from â€˜public disrespectâ€™ of the fast, and a few are jailed for this each year. The Ramadan fast involves abstention from food, drink, smoking and sex during daylight hours throughout the month. With most local cafes and restaurants closed during the day, and people getting on edge towards the monthâ€™s end, it is in some respects a disastrous time to travel, although we didnâ€™t find it so. The staff were wonderfully courteous and although they must have been feeling weak and tetchy by sundown when they break their fast with the traditional bowl of Harira, they never showed it.
Dinner was served after eight, by then it was completely dark and the way to the candlelit dining room was lit by Moroccan lanterns â€“ so beautiful. La Gazelle dâ€™Or was quite a find â€“ rare to discover a gem like this and right in the centre of a bio-dynamic farm â€“ what more could we ask.
La Gazelle dâ€™Or, Taroudant, Morocco Tel. (212.4) 8.85 20 48/20 39
Fax (212.4) 8.85 27 37.Â
From Madhur Jaffreyâ€™s World Vegetarian published by Ebury Press
These soft, spongy Moroccan pancakes have the airy holes of a muffin but a texture that is much more satiny and pliable. They are perfect for absorbing butter and honey at breakfast, when they are eaten as sweet pancakes, and equally good at lunchtime when they can be wrapped around beans and vegetables and eaten as a bread.
1Â½ teaspoons active dry yeast
Â½ teaspoon sugar
200g (7oz) semolina flour
200g (7oz) plain flour
Â½ teasp. salt
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
250ml (8 fl.oz) honey plus 4 tablespoons unsalted butter (for pouring over the pancakes)
9-10 tablespoons unsalted butter for serving the pancakes
Combine the yeast, sugar and 2 tablespoons warm water 40-46C (105-115F) in a small bowl. Stir to dissolve the yeast completely. Set aside for 5 minutes, or until the yeast begins to bubble up.Â Meanwhile, put the flour, semolina flour, salt, egg and yeast mixture in a blender. Add 600ml (20 fl.oz) warm water 40-46C (105-115F). Blend until smooth and free of lumps. You may need to push down with a rubber spatula several times. Empty into a bowl, cover and set aside in a warm place for 2Â½-3 hours.Â Get everything ready to make the pancakes. You need a medium-sized, non-stick frying pan, a plate with a large tea towel on it to hold the pancakes as they get cooked, a ladle with a round bottom in which you have measured 85ml (3 fl.ozs) so that you know how much batter to pick up each time, and a spatula to pick up the pancakes.
Set the frying pan on medium heat. Grease the pan lightly with the teaspoon of oil (you will only need to grease the pan once). Let the pan get very hot. Ladle in 85ml (3 fl.oz) of batter into the pan. Using the rounded underside of the ladle and a very light touch, quickly spread the batter into a 15cm (6 inch) round. Cover and cook on a medium heat for 1 minute. Uncover and continue cooking for another minute, or until the bottom has turned golden and top is not only filled with airy holes, but is also cooked through (you might find that the pancakes take less time to cook during the uncovered period as the pan gets hotter. Lift it up with a spatula and place on the tea towel. Fold the four corners of the tea towel over the pancake and keep it covered. Make all the pancakes in this way, stacking them on top of each other, and covering them each time. You can keep the pancakes like this for a couple of hours.Â To serve, put the combined honey-butter mixture into a small pot and heat until both the honey and butter have liquefied and mixed. Stir once or twice. Keep warm.Â For each pancake, melt about 2 teaspoons butter into a non-stick pan on medium-low heat. Place one pancake, the bubbly surface side down, gently into the pan. Heat for 15-20 seconds. Put on to a plate, bubbly side up. Pour some of the honey-butter mixture over the top and serve hot. Makes about 12-13 pancakes.
From Mediterranean Cookery by Claudia Roden, published by BBC books
The most popular Moroccan pastries are best known abroad by their French name cornes de gazelles. They are stuffed with almond paste and curved into horn-shaped crescents
Makes about 16.
For the filling:
200g (7oz) ground almonds
100g (3Â½ oz) castor sugar
Â½ teaspoon cinnamon
3 tablespoons orange blossom water
For the pastry:
200g (7oz) flour
pinch of salt
2 tablespoons sunflower oil
Scant 175ml (6 fl.oz) orange blossom water
Icing sugar for dusting.
Pre-heat the oven to 180C (350F, gas mark 4)
Mix the ground almonds, sugar, cinnamon and orange blossom water and knead with your hands into a stiff paste. It will seem dry at first but will soon stick well together as the almonds give out their oil.Â To make the pastry, mix the flour and salt with the oil and add just enough orange blossom water to make it hold together in a soft dough. Knead vigorously for about 15 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic. Roll the dough out with a floured rolling pin as thinly as possible on a floured board and cut into long strips about 8cm (3 in) wide.
Take lumps out of the almond paste filling about the size of a large walnut and roll them into thin sausages about 8cm (3in) long and with tapering ends. Place them end to end in a row along one side of each strip of pastry about 3cm (1Â¼ in) apart. Wet the pastry edges slightly with water, then fold the pastry over to cover the almond paste and press the edges together to enclose the â€˜sausagesâ€™ completely.
Cut round the â€˜sausagesâ€™ with a pastry wheel or a sharp knife and pinch the edges firmly together. Curve the pastries gently into a crescent or horn shapes. Prick the tops with a fork or make a design with a sharp knife. Put the pastries on a greased baking tray and bake for about 20-35 minutes or until lightly coloured. Let them cool, then dust with icing sugar.