Sunday, April 30, 2017

MOROCCAN COOKING SCHOOL FOR A DAY: Part Two - the cooking

Lightly searing the lamb with the rub applied
After shopping and for two and a half hours, Lahcen taught me to cook the ingredients for many dishes. They are simple and superb, especially the soup. We prepared:

  • Harira soup, a staple in all Moroccan kitchens
  • Rubs
  • Lamb stew
  • Stock
  • Tomato sauce
  • Vegetable tajine
  • Six spreads or dips as accompaniments
  • Goat cheese canapés wrapped in workah
  • Fava bean salad
  • Dessert escaped us due to lack of time, but it was to be seared apples with cinnamon and sugar, dates, dried grapes on the vine, and a light cucumber salad to cleanse the palate.
First of all, he sat me down with cups of mint tea for a rest as he washed everything and set out our mise en place. The quantities were overwhelming to me, who was used to cooking for one and two. "This will feed four," Lahcen said. More like ten, I thought!

Not all our ingredients!

The riad's kitchen was very basic in comparison to a North American commercial kitchen with eight gas burners in a line and an oven that Lahcen said was too slow and useless. No dish pit and no dishwasher. It was small, about 12x7 feet. Knives were not great and I wished I'd brought my own, and Lahcen laughed at me. Fatima and her helper bustled around us as making lunch for twenty from a tour due to arrive at about 3pm.

First to get going was the lamb, which I trimmed and made a rub with flour and the Moroccan spices. Well coated, I lightly seared it as I chopped onions and sweated them in a pressure cooker. In went the lamb.

Stock pot, with no seasoning



Lahcen was grating the 1.5 kilos of tomatoes for the soup, marinades, and salad dressings, and dropping many things into the stock pot simmering away.

I chopped onions, the herbs, roasted egg plants and peppers over the open gas flame, stirred the soup, swirled the dressings. Lahcen kept saying,"Yallah, yallah!" which meant ""Quick, quick!" He was a typical chef in his kitchen, giving orders and cooking at high speed.




The Harira soup, right, was underway, and I made sure the onions didn't brown, before the stock was added. We made the marinade/sauce for the tajine, poured it over, and popped both over a burner to steam.




The marinade/sauce for the veggie tajine
The fava beans steamed and were dressed with the tomato sauce, lemon, and OO. Delicious, I ate two before Lahcen stopped me!! "Tasting's good, but only one!"

At about 3:30pm we were plating everything but the lamb and tajine. Fatima hugged and kissed me, then up we went to the courtyard to enjoy all our hard work. Lunch was served!

Harira soup and dips/spreads

It truly was a highpoint as the taste was so much better than anything I'd eaten in Morocco. My taste buds were in heaven with all the flavours bursting from every dish.  Not spicy hot but so tasty. I had to pace myself because there was so much to eat and I wanted to savour everything. Soon a server brought up the lamb and the tajine and placed it on the table with a flourish along with some fresh flatbread.

Lamb on left and the veggie tajine
Just after 4:00pm, I couldn't eat another mouthful and sat like a Buddha unable to move.

Lahcen reminded me that everything would taste better tomorrow when the flavours had more time to meld.

What an incredible day!!

.....

For more details about The Fez Cooking and Cultural Tours, visit www.fezcooking.com and do your damnedest to visit Fez to partake of Lahcen's offerings for visitors. He's a gem!

ALL IMAGES: © Photos by Pharos 2017
All rights reserved

MOROCCAN COOKING SCHOOL FOR A DAY: Part one - shopping

The food souk in Fes's medina
After three weeks of eating in Moroccan restos, cafés, and holes in the wall, it was time to learn how to do it. I had found Fez Cooking and Cultural Tours during a Google search months before I left Canada and booked with them. I wanted a company that had a chef teaching the cooking class, rather than a family, and I totally lucked out. Lahcen, the owner of Fez Cooking, operated out of the riad next door to where I stayed in Fes. He also runs an excellent tour company that includes tours of wineries near Meknes which are a legacy of the French protectorate. I wish I had time to do this tour with him.

Lahcen picked me up with a smile at 9:30am and I realized I was his only student. Magic! We drove to the food souk in Fes's medina. On the way he questioned me about the dishes I wanted to cook, what I liked and did not in the way of spices, and my skill level in the kitchen.




The previous downpours were over, and shopping with Lahcen was fun and full of info. He brought along a huge basket like any housewife's and proceeded to overfill it.

For the next hour I was shown how to choose the best ingredients in spice shops, butchers, vegetable and herb stalls. We surveyed the whole souk first and then made our way back buying the food.




"Spices and herbs are the most important ingredients in Moroccan Cuisine," Lahcen said. "Buy fresh spices everyday!"

The basic spices are turmeric, cumin, black pepper, dried ginger, salt, and a mixture of 30-40 spices created by each spice vendor. Their aroma was tantalizing and nothing like their cousins in jars in Canada.






Next came the freshest herbs, hopefully picked that morning in the fields around Fes— parsley, cilantro, and mint in bunches the size of bouquets and two of oregano in posies. And, yes, we used them all. "Use three times more plus, than North American recipes call for," Lahcen advised. He turned out to be correct — it's all about heightened flavour.





In the souk, I saw live chickens, roosters, ducks, pigeons, rabbits, and snails that had been collected in the rain the day before, for sale. Buyers could take the birds home live or have them killed while they watched. (I've refrained from showing you!) Five types of Moroccan bread were on show, as well as workah, a crunchy Moroccan phyllo for pastilla, a chicken pie for special occasions. This was cooked in front of us on a hot stone from a lump of dough spread tissue thin.




Chickens for the pot
Breads made from semolina flour and yeast. Some
had eggs added - top left and right. Roll them up
with goat cheese and/or honey for a delicious breakfast.
Tissue-thin workah that's used like phyllo
Lahcen decided these were the best chickpeas for the soup




Lahcen tasted everything he bought but the lamb. He discarded a couple of offerings from the owner of the cleanest butcher shop in the souk, before buying a lamb shoulder he liked and having it chopped up for the pot.

Laden with our purchases, off we went to his kitchen in a traditional riad to start cooking. See Part Two of the story.

Friday, April 28, 2017

FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF MOROCCO

The Air France 737 banked onto final approach into Casablanca, and I was surprised how green Morocco was.

Twenty-two degrees hotter than Vancouver two days ago, and in an airport with no AC, I was soon dripping. About 45 minutes after I retrieved my bags, my driver showed up and drove me into the heart of this big city amid gridlock and no AC. I was not nice to know on arrival and immediately met two fellow tour members. I scurried off to shower thinking about Morocco.

I vividly recalled the red earth of Africa and here it was again welcoming me back. A rich, deep orange that colours Morocco in buildings, art, pottery, and interior design.




Many fields surround Casablanca, the largest city in Morocco of over 5 million. The north is agricultural and the crops here feed the country. Beans, mint, the sweetest tomatoes I've ever tasted, barley, onions, and more. winter is the rainy season.

The smell of the heat, sweat, and animals could not be missed either, and in certain areas dust and dirt covered everything. Some small towns looked as if they'd been sprayed with garbage, while others were spotless.



An untidy Stork's nest, Rabat

I'd forgotten that storks breed in North Africa. Their untidy nests were all over the place on poles, towers and minarets, and because it was breeding season, the birds were busy clacking their beaks to attract a mate.


Traffic followed no rules. Three lanes were always four, vehicles drove straddling the lane markers and, on narrow roads, they occupied the middle, playing chicken with oncoming traffic. Roundabouts abound in Morocco and, as far as I could see, no-one and everyone had right of way. Drivers were out to beat others and win! Cities were slow-going in a vehicle. Pedestrians crossed roads with extreme caution. It was chaotic and terrifying for an orderly Canadian.

Hundreds of donkeys, mules, and small horses pulled carts laden with produce headed for the markets and souks. Mint, fava beans, nuts, even plastic chairs. Some animals were obviously well cared for but others were not. Donkeys without carts carried heavy panniers and sometimes a farmer rode sideways.

Outside the cities, every flock of sheep or goats, however small or large, had a shepherd. Mainly teen boys, but the odd female too. My Explore guides told us that they had all done this — "It builds responsibility and self-reliance," I was assured.

Date palms in Tinghir
Further south the land rose into high mountains with oasis valleys. These are spectacular; the roads are not!! Narrow switchbacks with no guard rails. Green fields morphed into scrubby plains between mountain ranges, and later into a sandy yellow desert with grey gravel and little vegetation. As we slid down the south side of the High Atlas, the main crop changed to dates in the many palmeries around the rivers that rushed along the valleys.

Abandoned fort near Merzouga

The days grew hotter and drier until we reached the edge of the Sahara. The buildings changed too — now built of red sandstone adobe and very ancient. This was the Morocco I'd been expecting and I loved it. Our guide explained, "The buildings come from the desert and, once abandoned, crumble back into it, leaving no trace."

Here hotels were built like red forts and rooms were arranged around lush courtyards full of birdsong and flowers. Windows were tiny and often the AC didn't work. Hospitality became more obvious and more friendly — we were met with mint tea in the reception areas and had willing help with baggage to our rooms.

Tajines in the Meknes market

Food was cheap and, if you stuck to tajines, quintessentially Moroccan. Tajines are the conical pottery in which lamb, beef or chicken stews are cooked. Delicious fare. Pizzas are prevalent in all cafes and are often dismal. Burgers likewise, but they were not for me. Almost everyone on our tour suffered from tummy trouble and our leader handed out Imodium like candy! Tap water is not for drinking, so soon we all learned to buy about three litres of bottled water every day — under $2.

My penultimate impression about travel in Morocco is that it is a cash country. The currency is Dirhams, 7.45dh to CAD$1.00. I was glad I carried more than one bank's debit card as my RBC card didn't work that well here. Tipping is a way of life too. So is haggling over price, except in pharmacies and supermarkets.

And then there are the camels — hundreds of them around the towns on the edge of the Sahara. But actually they are dromedaries with one hump....

Dusk falls on a caravan in the Sahara

ALL IMAGES: © Photos by Pharos 2017
All rights reserved

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

MOROCCO IN TWO WEEKS

The red dunes of the Sahara

Today is four days after the whirlwind tour of Morocco that lasted two weeks. It was non-stop places, info, and a new hotel almost every night. Internet was unreliable, rarely available in my room, and sometimes non-existent, so blogging was impossible.

I was wise enough to book four days in a Marrakech hotel at the end so I could breathe freely again and process all that I'd seen and done. I was overloaded with info, had 2000 images in the can, and was fatigued. Thanks to many SPG points, I chose Le Meridien N'Fis to recover. It has been a perfect resort and oasis for my downtime.

Tomorrow I catch the train back to Fes for five nights where I hope to see what I missed in the earlier one-day stop on the tour, and will take in a full day cooking class at the house next door. I may or may not hire a private guide for a morning.

Morocco is the type of country where a solo traveller is better off with a small-group tour. It really is the best way to see everything because, not only do you have a trained tour leader/guide, but also local guides everywhere you stop. I enjoyed my fellow travellers — most were from Britain, one from Australia, three from the US, and me from Canada. All were middle-aged or older, three couples and the rest of us were singles. All were well-educated and very well travelled. Made for great conversations throughout. Many had toured with www.explore.co.uk before — one twenty times and another, fifteen. This speaks volumes for Explore's tours and organization.

We stayed mostly in standard hotels, not luxury properties. This meant being tolerant of deficiencies and no kleenex, facecloths, soap or shampoo. Beds were often like concrete, but no one complained. We had been warned. Our 15-seat bus, was the exception. It was a new Mercedes Sprinter with huge clean windows and AC. We needed the latter when temps rose to 36C inland and in the Sahara. Our driver was cautious and safe in the chaos that are Moroccan roads.

The tour pace was fast so we could see everything Morocco has to offer and to include all kinds of activities and walking tours. We visited all the Imperial Cities, medinas, souks, three mountain ranges (stunning), the Atlantic coast, and the Sahara where we rode camels, met Berber nomads, and listened to a concert.

I shall post more on the individual places later when I have time to better collect my thoughts and sort out the photos.

In the meantime, here are a few images to get you interested:

The third largest mosque in the world at Casablanca — Hassan II. It holds 25,000 of the faithful inside, and 80,000 outside. It is the only mosque in Morocco that is open to non-Muslims and juts out into the Atlantic. Inside, it is even more spectacular than outside.

In the souks, donkey carts and some tuk-tuks are the only way to move goods in and out. This one carries fava beans into Meknes.

Tajines are always for sale in the weekly markets held in most towns and villages throughout Morocco

 The very well-preserved Roman ruins of Volubilis have astonishing mosaics. This is the basilica with the forum in front.

 The huge medina of Fez where there are over 9,400 alleys. Visitors must have a guide here or become hopelessly lost even with a map!

 A butchers in a Fez souk.

 Ilyas, our intrepid tour leader, on the right with Ali, our marvellous local guide in Rassini, near the desert.

 Looking inside a small mosque from a beautiful courtyard.

 Our camels await in Merzouga

Ait Ben Haddou an ancient Berber hill fort where Gladiator was filmed.

At the top of the pass in the High Atlas Mountains, an ancient caravan route for Timbuktu to Marrakech with a long oasis in the valley. About 8,000 feet.

Essasouira on the Atlantic coast. Fishing port and most attractive.

Our hotel in Marrakech was stunning


ALL IMAGES: © Photos by Pharos 2017. All rights reserved.



Sunday, April 2, 2017

MY FIRST OVERSEAS TRIP IN OVER TWO YEARS....

In four more sleeps, I take off on my adventures again after a two-and-a-half year hiatus. This past stretch has been difficult for someone who has itchy feet like mine. First my husband was in poor health and was unable to travel, then he passed away, and I devoted most of 2016 sorting out his estate.

Last September I started planning my travel again with much joy and excitement, and one shock.(See http://stampsinmypassport.blogspot.ca/2016/10/solo-travel-is-now-for-me.html)

This is not my first solo travel by any means, but it does feel different with no one to talk to about my upcoming explorations and no one to come home to. One thing I am interested in experiencing is more of my fellow travelers and meeting more locals — couples tend to be left alone and singles are more approachable.

Today, my camera gear sits ready in a corner of my office. The mail is on hold, the newspapers cancelled, and my phone is unlocked. My hot weather clothes are laid out on the spare bed.

Fez, Morocco
I'm flying to Paris and thence to Morocco for a month. I have chosen to start with a small-group tour of the whole country with Explore, a British company. A good friend whose judgement I trust recommended Explore to me and I have been delighted with their customer service so far. The low British pound and reasonable solo supplement are a bonus.

The tour takes a busy two weeks but once it's over, I'll not be done with Morocco. I have built in a rest in a resort in Marrakech for four days, during which I shall also see what I missed with the tour.

Fes is next for a week, but here I will be staying in a traditional riad — a large house surrounding an inner courtyard with a fountain that has been converted into a small hotel in the medina or old quarter of the city. I will have spent 36 hours here already but have plans for a day in a cooking school and a private guide for another day to show me what I've missed.

Prado (Wikimedia CC)
I will be spending my final week in Madrid. I've visited a lot of Spain
already but I want to focus on the famous art here, especially in the Prado. I thought it was silly to fly back to Paris overtop of Madrid without taking the opportunity to stopover.

I may not have internet everywhere I'm going but I plan to post when I can, both impressions and images. Stand by!!