Wish You Were Here: Morocco

May 2007
In Morocco, three food editors follow their noses to a spice bazaar, hike into the High Atlas, and lose their hearts to a land where present and past are inseparable.

When you land in Morocco, the dry heat, intense light, and saturated colors assault you, but somehow in a gentle way. Before long, you begin to feel lost in time; you sense the need to slow down. Fortunately, Peggy Markel, the creator of the food tour that we came to Morocco to experience, understands this well. During our time with her, we cooked, ate, climbed, wandered, sweated, and still had time to relax.

Our home base, Jnane Tamsna, is located in the Palmerie section, outside Marrakech. Surrounded by an organic garden, it feels like paradise, an oasis of style and tranquility designed and run by Meryanne Loum-Martin. An added benefit is the fact that ethnobiologist Gary Martin, director of the Global Diversity Foundation, is the cohost of the hotel. One lazy afternoon, Gary led a deconstruction of the spice blend ras al hanout, breaking it down one spice at a time and mapping its way along the spice route. Another evening, he led a tasting of local wines. Bahjia Lafridi, the chef at Jnane Tamnsa, held small cooking classes that included tagines, b'stilla, and a couscous made with barley—a revelation, as we'd only had couscous made with wheat (semolina) before. You'll see how it affected Maggie when you taste her version in the May issue.

Looking back, it's fair to say that Maggie's menu was inspired by Morocco as a whole, and it was so intoxicating that it still hasn't worn off. Marrakech, for instance, is a visual and sensual delight, enchanting and overwhelming at the same time. Its geographic and psychic center is the colorful, bustling medina, where narrow streets crowded with endless small shops selling carpets, fabrics, and slippers suddenly open onto a vast plaza filled with snake charmers, storytellers, and street-food vendors. The smell of freshly baked bread leads you down an alley to a dark, stark space where you'll find the local bread baker. He sits alone in front of his oven with a long wooden paddle to retrieve loaves from the embers. We followed our noses into the spice market, piled high with mounds of spices, olives, mint, and lemons. We could have easily gotten lost there, both in body and in soul. The cinnamon in Maggie's glazed carrots, the cumin and mint in her beets, will take you there. The ground cumin she sprinkles on her lamb chops after they're grilled conjures the sight of restaurant tables everywhere, each with its own little pot of the spice.

Some of the small, hidden streets in the medina lead to riads (guesthouses), infamous for their anonymity on the outside but breathtaking inside. Riad Tzarra was our refuge of calm inside the mazelike medina.

One day, we took an excursion to the Jardin de Senteurs et Cultures, an organic garden of aromatic herbs in the market town of Tnine Ourika. After walking through alleys of oleander and inhaling aromas of sage and thyme, we watched a bread-baking demonstration in traditional Berber clay wattle ovens fired by dried rosemary branches, then lunched under a Berber tent.

We traveled to the Kasbah du Toubkal, a retreat in the High Atlas Mountains with an unmatched view—vast, serene, and majestic. We hiked the winding roads up to the Kasbah, surrounded by jagged peaks, while a donkey carried our baggage. Passing through walnut forests, we made our way up ancient winding stone stairs through a Berber village made of rock-hewn houses, then caught our breath over peanuts candied in rose water and sweet mint tea (more fuel for Maggie's imagination) on a rooftop high above a valley terraced with green. Later, at the casbah, a local cook showed us how he makes his buttery naanlike breads. This was a day of total peace, of breathing in the purest air, of sweating in the tiny hammam.

By contrast, we traveled several hours across arid expanses to the Atlantic coast. Along the way, we stopped to sample argan oil, made from the seeds of the argan tree. Its flavor is similar to that of hazelnut or walnut oil. As we watched women sitting on the ground rhythmically flick stones against the argon nuts, perfectly splitting them, one after another, we learned how the oil is mixed with honey and nuts to make the rich paste called amalou. It's also used in traditional Moroccan medicines. And yes, we did see the famous goats in the scrubby argan trees—and let's just say that goats are part of the process.

Farther along, we lunched outdoors at Le Kaouki, a small hotel near the beach in Sidi Kaouki, just south of Essarouria. There we feasted on Berber-style fish, eggs, and vegetables as shepherds herded their goats past. After lunch, during a walk on the beach, Paul was coerced onto a camel for an impromptu promenade.

We continued on to Essaouria, a coastal city with a Mediterranean feel, all white and blue, where, impossibly, the sun seems even brighter. Along the waterfront, tables filled with freshly caught fish and shellfish flanked the entrances of small restaurants. It was a great place to try a variety of fish, as you could pick out what you wanted and have it grilled to order. "The sardines were the best I've ever had," said Ruth. (Maggie wondered what they would be like embellished with aromatic fennel and preserved lemon.) We ogled the renowned artisanal thuya-wood crafts in the city's smaller, less-frenetic medina, then spent the night at the Dar Liouba after dinner at Ferdaoues. Even though the restaurant was dark and not visually arresting, the brik and tagines were delicious.

Saturated with sights, smells, and flavors, we returned to Marrakech and then reluctantly to New York. We often sit together and talk about how great it was and how we can't wait to return.

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