Mixing it up in Marrakech
Outside, the stalls of the Marrakech Medina overflow with all things food. The vivid colors of the spices are piled high like the nearby Atlas Mountain peaks in crimson, burnt orange, bright green, and deep yellow and accompany the aroma of cumin, ginger and cinnamon. Oranges, lemons, strawberries, peppers, carrots, cabbages and eggplant beckon you into color-rich souks unless, that is, you'd rather be in the kitchen. In that case you will want to find Mohammad at the new La Maison Arabe Cooking School.
The magnificent mêlée, madness, and mayhem that is the Marrakech Medina is left behind as you wind your way through a narrow street flanked by small olive trees to enter the tranquil La Maison Arabe. Originally opening its doors as a restaurant in 1946, La Maison Arabe's reputation for creating perfect pastillas and the time-honored tagine is now revealing the secrets to novices and pros at the recently expanded hotel and purpose built demonstration and teaching kitchen.
The morning begins in the authentically decorated ginger walled courtyard, poolside with an overview of Moroccan cooking by Mohammad. Mohammad effortlessly glides between French and English, as he explains the traditional dishes in Morocco, their heritage, and primary ingredients. Our mouths water as he describes pastilla (phyllo pastry wrapped around pigeon or chicken, onions and spices) and Mechoui (roast lamb or chicken) both served at marriage, baby naming, and circumcision celebrations.
A traditional Moroccan lunch, the most important meal of the day, is a history lesson. The Berbers, the original inhabitants of the Northwest corner of Africa favored the tagine and couscous for their daily sustenance. The Moorish influence offers the pastilla. The conquest of the Muslim Arabs in the eight-century brought nuts and fruits to the table and a sweet addition to the savory tastes. The Jewish people introduced the region to Chakchouka (baked vegetables and eggs). The Ottoman Empire gave the area barbequed kebabs. Finally the French Protectorate brought a love of cafes.
The five students (the maximum number is eight) move to the masterfully designed kitchen--a long granite countertop with eight separate workstations, each with sink, gas stove, and every utensil a chef would desire. It is completely modern but perfectly compliments the authentic décor, a delightful place to cook with large open doors that front the courtyard surrounding the pool.
Should you choose to vacation with La Maison Arabe, you will also want to visit their Country Club and Casbah location where cookery classes are sometimes held. Just 15 minutes away by complimentary shuttle, you'll find a garden setting with a splendid restaurant and an even larger pool in a peaceful quiet area surrounded by three golf courses.
It's time to meet our Dada (traditional Moroccan cook) who demonstrates the proper techniques for preparing lunch. First we prepare our Taktuka Salad. A salad may be either cooked or raw. This one is comprised of grilled peppers, tomatoes and spices. As the vegetables begin to soften and the spices mingle, the idea of a cooked salad is becoming more appealing than at first blush.
Then we turn our attention to the main course, Chicken Tagine with preserved lemons and olives, a classic Berber dish. Many of the ingredients are raised in La Maison Arabe's organic garden. We use all the traditional spices spied at the souks and more. The chicken scents the air right away.
Moroccan cooking is an act of patience. The preserved lemons need two months to marinate. Some dishes require overnight preparation. Mohammed remarks the pastillas are, "Three hours in the making, five minutes in the eating."
While the heat melds the flavors the students return poolside to hear more about Marrakech. Not only is Mohammed an English Teacher and Sous Chef. He also is an expert with Trip Advisor providing a wealth of information for the traveler.
When we return to the family style table we are presented with our masterpieces. The cooked salad is topped off with the tiny rose the Dada taught us to make with our tomato peels. The still sizzling tagine smells and tastes both exotic and comforting, wonderful flat bread for scooping and a chilled glass of wine make for a most delightful al fresco lunch. Breaking bread together works its magic and former strangers are now friends. Diana, as it turns out is a Swiss executive who married into a Moroccan family and is learning how to cook her husband's favorite dishes. The British newlyweds on their honeymoon also charm us. Moroccan pastries and the sweet mint tea are served for a perfect finish to the meal.
For more information on La Maison Arabe's guesthouse, restaurants and cooking school visit: http://www.lamaisonarabe.com/