Creating amongst intricately carved decor, Michael Edwards joins the Cookery Course at Riad Star Marrakech.
Food always tells the story of a country and a people. For centuries, Marrakech, perched on the shoulder of the vast expanses of the Saharan desert, has been on one of the world’s great trade routes.
Caravans of camels brought spices from afar whilst snow-melt water from the High Atlas Mountains irrigated the plains. Over the centuries Arabs, Berbers and the French have all brought their influences to Morocco. French colonialism is the reason why it is so hard to walk past a patisserie stall in Marrakech.
With its terracotta coloured medieval djerbs, they are winding narrow alleyways, shopping for food in Marrakech has changed little over the last millennium, save for the whine of mopeds treating pedestrians, donkeys and handcarts like a chicane. Before the days of refrigeration, in Marrakech’s baking climate, people shopped daily, counting up their Dirham to see what they could afford.
I met Khalifa who had trained for two years at the Marrakech Culinary Academy. He is an enthusiastic chef and patient Cookery School tutor, at the Riad Star in the heart of the Red City.
I flick through the Marrakech Riad Cookbook compiled by Mike Wood and Lucie Anderson-Wood, an English couple who have fallen in love with Moroccan architecture, cuisine, design, life, style and the whole vibrant package that is Marrakech.
On arrival at Riad Star, the evening before, I had enjoyed what is probably Morocco’s signature dish, a classic lamb tagine. I wanted to learn how to create a tagine but maybe another variation on the theme of lamb…
With the key spices of Moroccan cuisine already in the kitchen – black pepper, cumin, dried ginger, sweet red pepper and turmeric – Khalifa and I head for the souks for the fresh ingredients.
Note that chilli is not on the list. Moroccan cuisine avoids blazing heat preferring the gentler nite of coriander which is bought fresh as is the saffron.
“Saffron is better fresh,” explains Khalifa but it might be something to do with cash-flow management too. Saffron, the stomata of croci, is like gold dust. The merest pinch costs 10 Dirham, approaching £1. You would need a mortgage to buy a kilo.
Khalifa selects a couple of bulbs of garlic, carrots, courgettes, one large glossy red onion, green peppers and tomatoes far larger than their European cousins. The stall-holder places a large bunch of Morocco’s “sister herbs”, coriander and parsley, on top of the basket without Khalifa even asking. They are the fundamentals for most Moroccan dishes.
Leaving the Souk we stop at a dark hole in the earthy persimmon walls, framed by wooden shutters, home to the fishmonger. Not only is it Friday, the holy day of prayer, it is also the heart of Ramadan. The fishermen of Essaouria have not fished. Just a few sardines are left.
“When times are hard the people they make a sardine tagine,” Khalifa announces as if our dish of the day is God’s will.
Soon we are back in the kitchen skinning the garlic, chopping the veg and putting the sardines in a sandwich of herbs and spices. And what a kitchen it is. Brilliant sunlight shines through the atrium onto high white walls intricately hand-carved by chiselling craftsmen.
Suddenly, I get a worrying image of Masterchef’s Greg Wallace or John Torode looking inquisitively into the fast-filling tagine, “A sardine tagine? That’s brave.”
But the tagine is done and we move onto the accompanying briouats. Chopped carrots and courgettes bound together with egg and spices. Then folded into triangular parcels like samosa. Khalifa makes three for every one that I complete and his are perfect equilateral triangles. There’s no more I can do but wait whilst the tagine cooks. Eventually the tagine emerges. The Moroccan spices have worked their magic, mellowing the flavour of the sardines. Next day, I shop the souks again, this time to buy a classic tagine so that I can recreate the magic at home.
Classic Moroccan Lamb Tagine recipe
1 lamb stock cube, crumbled. 75 g dried apricots, halved. 1 tbsp clear honey. 1 tsp ground cumin. 1 tsp ground coriander. 1 tsp ground cinnamon. 1 tsp turmeric. 1 tbsp olive oil. 400 g lamb neck fillet, trimmed and cut into 3 cm pieces. 1 onion, finely chopped. 1 red pepper, chopped into 1 cm pieces. 400 g tin chickpeas. For the almond and coriander topping: 25 g flaked almonds. 1 garlic clove, crushed. 30 g pack coriander, finely chopped. For the couscous: 150 g couscous. 1 chicken stock cube. ½ tsp smoked paprika.
- Preheat the oven to gas 4, 180°C, fan 160°C. Put the stock cube, apricots, honey and ground spices in a jug and cover with 300 ml boiling water. Stir to combine.
- Heat the oil in a large frying pan over a high heat. Add half the lamb pieces and brown on all sides for 4-5 mins, then transfer to a large casserole dish (or tagine). Repeat with the remaining lamb.
- Keeping the pan on the heat, add the onion and cook for 8 mins until softened. Add the pepper and continue to fry for 2 mins. Transfer to the casserole dish with the lamb.
- Pour the stock mixture and the whole tin of chickpeas (including the liquid) into the casserole. Put on the heat, stir and then cover the dish and bring to the boil. Transfer to the oven and cook for 50 mins.
- Near the end of the cooking time, put a dry frying pan on a medium heat. Add the flaked almonds and toast for 2 mins until lightly golden, shaking the pan regularly. Tip into a small bowl and mix together with the crushed garlic and chopped coriander, set aside.
- Put the pan back on the heat and add the raw couscous. Toast for 2 mins, stirring the grains until lightly browned. Meanwhile, mix the chicken stock cube with 300 ml boiling water.
- Remove the couscous from the heat and pour over the hot stock. Stir and cover, then leave for 5 mins. Fluff up the grains with a fork and stir through the smoked paprika.
- Serve the tagine with the couscous and sprinkle over the almonds, garlic and coriander mix.
Tip: Toasting the couscous before soaking adds an extra nutty flavour and gives it a lovely golden brown colour.
(Article source: 50 Connect)