The foothills of the Middle Atlas, near Fez, are woven with silvery olive groves, fields of wheat and tiny village co-operatives intent on keeping the art of making traditional breads, pastries and couscous alive. Now, thanks to experiential travel specialists, Plan It Morocco, you can join the 20 or so women of the El Jaouda co-operative for
a day of chatter (language is never an obstacle here) and couscous rolling.
The group rolls 20-30kg of couscous per day, and while it provides the village with one of the best culinary products in the region, it also takes them a step closer to financial independence; they dream of a bigger space, enough money for proper packaging and a vehicle for making deliveries as far away as Fez. Welcoming tourists is one of the ways they hope to make it happen.
Toil It’s not complicated to make couscous or ‘seksu’ as it is known in the Amazigh dialect (‘couscous’ is Berber). Indeed there’s something almost meditative about sitting on the floor opposite Khadija, a rotund woman with a trademark leopard-skin headscarf, as she teaches you her craft. ‘Wash your hands’, she indicates with a broad smile, ‘take off your shoes, place a large plastic bowl between your knees’. Season semolina generously with salt and laughter and lightly scatter with water, then roll beneath the palm of your hand to form rough grains. Transfer these to a woven basket and roll again to make smaller grains. Shake through three different sized sieves and voilà: perfect grains of couscous ready for steaming.
Eat The smell of baked loaves and sweet brioche hits you on arrival and the first thing to happen is a traditional breakfast of baked goods and mint tea. Once the serious business of rolling couscous is complete, a quick outing to the local market kills time while the couscous steams three times over a stew of seven slow-cooked vegetables: the buttery taste and velvety feel of fragrant grains eaten from a shared tagine is life affirming.
Sleep Located about half way between Fez and the co-operative, eco lodge Terre de Traces has been farmed by the Sebti family for over 100 years. You can go horse riding, hiking or boating on a nearby lake, or just do nothing. 12 rooms and two suites share several lounges filled with sofas, chaises longues and Moroccan pillows, and there’s a pool overlooking terraced gardens bursting with lavender. Everything is grown or sourced on the farm, including the wheat they use to hand-roll their own couscous.
Return flights from Stansted to Fez cost from £50 (ryanair.com). Double rooms at Terre de Traces start from £210, full-board (terredetraces.com). Couscous rolling experiences cost from £100, including private transfers (plan-it morocco.com). More info: muchmorocco.com
Killiehuntly Farmhouse is hard to categorise. A refurbished 19th-century steading in the Cairngorms, it comes with all the trappings of a Highland lodge (meals cooked by the in-house chef and 4,000 acres of mountainous Scottish terrain to explore with the help of expert guides, whether you want to go wild swimming or eagle spotting) but it feels more like a luxury b&b. Check in for a night or two and you’ll also find it strikingly designed. Killiehuntly’s Danish owners have dubbed their style Scandi-Scot: clean and contemporary with a muted, grey-green colour palette and furniture that ranges from Scandinavian design icons to antique Scottish pieces.
Toil Sign-up for a catch-and-cook fishing experience and you’ll start by heading out with head stalker, Donnie, to Loch an t-Seilich. The setting is sublime, with sheer slopes rising up from the water and ospreys circling overhead. Cast the spinner, feel a tug on the line and, if you’re lucky, you should catch a few ‘brownies’ (brown trout). Back in the Farmhouse kitchen Duncan, the chef, will help you salt-bake your catch in the Aga – and rustle up a salad of purple basil, fresh peas, lemon, olive oil and sea salt while it cooks.
Eat This is a working farm and much of the produce comes from the estate and kitchen garden. At breakfast the eggs are from the estate’s hens and the granola and an apple and cinnamon compote are homemade. Dinners are served Wednesday to Sunday and are worth booking in for. Typical dishes include hot-smoked salmon salad with fresh peas, asparagus tops, baby beets, watercress and horseradish; roast guinea fowl with smoked tomato coulis; and roast venison, also from the estate.
Sleep There are four bedrooms in the Farmhouse plus two cottages. Each of them features handmade beds topped with Swedish mattresses, bespoke linen from Lithuania and breathtaking views.
Double rooms start from £240 per night, full-board. Fishing experiences £50pp (killiehuntly.scot). More info: visitscotland.com
Salute! Raise a glass of red to a sea of tanned faces and toast your efforts picking grapes in the vineyards of Il Borro Estate. The estate, in Tuscany’s rustic Valdarno valley, is also home to a luxury hotel and, every autumn, its guests are offered the chance to take part in the wine harvest – and feast, afterwards, alongside the workers and the estate’s owners (the glamorous Ferragamo family).
Toil Grapes are harvested entirely by hand at Il Borro, which also produces its own olive oil and a unique, slightly spicy, honey. During the grape harvest, you can get as involved as you like, from picking a token bunch to spending an hour or two’s hard graft among the vines.
The really fun part comes afterwards, when bottles of the estate’s wines are plonked on makeshift banqueting tables, bottoms are perched on hay bales with views across the vineyards and, in a wine, food and sun-soaked bliss, plates are piled with porchetta, cheese and a concoction of tomatoes, olive oil and garlic soaked up by whole loaves of bread and then mashed into pappa al pomodori – proper comforting ‘cocina toscana’. The post-harvest feast ends with a refreshing slice of watermelon and glasses of crisp Lamelle chardonnay.
Eat The estate also supplies the kitchens at the hotel’s three restaurants – Osteria del Borro, VinCafe and Tuscan Bistro. Standout dishes at the last of those include tomatoes five ways – a plate of quince-textured romano tomato jelly, basil-infused camino and an intense purée, garnished with fresh tomato slices.
Sleep Hotel bedrooms and suites are scattered around the higgledy-piggledy remains of a medieval village (there are also some self-catering cottages on the estate – a good excuse for a trip to nearby Arezzo’s food-packed market). And, while their wooden-shuttered windows and stone floors add character, it’s the modern, free-standing bath tubs and separate rain showers that feel like real luxuries after helping out in the vineyards. Or go one step further and book yourself into the spa, then sit with a glass of Il Borro’s signature merlot blend overlooking the vineyards.
Return flights from Heathrow to Bologna cost from around £100 (britishairways.com). Double rooms at Il Borro start from €320, room only (ilborro.it). More info: italia.it
With medieval walled towns and villages, and countryside speckled with almond and olive groves, Matarraña is a rustic, off-the-beaten-track area of northeast Spain that’s reminiscent of Tuscany as it was 20 years ago. Inland between Valencia and Tarragona, but just across the border in Aragon, it’s home to the Sistema Ibérico mountains. Here, bordering the Els Ports natural park, is boutique hotel Mas de la Serra.
A Mas is a fortified farmhouse, a once common way to live in this secluded area, and this one was originally a medieval lookout tower but has been added to over the years. It’s been beautifully refurbished by owner Alasdair Grant, a documentary cameraman (whose eye hasn’t failed him) and member of the Grant whisky family (makers of Glenfiddich, among others – hence the honesty bar with one of the largest selections of malt whisky in Spain).
Toil Mas de la Serra is within one of the most important truffle regions in Europe and the hotel runs dedicated truffling weekends. Sign up for one and you’ll be guided around the grounds of the hotel by local expert, José Manuel, and his lovely Lagotto Romagnolo dog, Paco. On our visit, despite it being late in the season, Paco sniffed out bagfuls of the beauties, starting not 50 yards from the hotel. Back at the hotel, guests and truffles washed, Alasdair gives lessons on making truffled mushroom risotto.
Eat Meals are served in a small, cheerful dining room next to the kitchen, where you can join chef Jenny Fabiàn to learn how to make a variety of Aragonese, and her native Peruvian, dishes, including an amazing rabbit with almond sauce and an unusual, delicious ajo blanco with red pepper, topped with shaved truffle. Her husband Luis, also Peruvian, makes a killer pisco sour, and you can muck in with him in stoking the hotel’s immense outdoor oven and roasting suckling pig.
The area is rich in produce, and a great deal of it comes to the table at Mas de la Serra, including cheese from nearby Peñarroya, olive oil from the state of the art Mas de Flandi (masdeflandi.com), producer of some of the best olive oil in the world – to which visits can be arranged. And don’t miss out on a trip to themauthentic Restaurante Matarraña in nearby La Fresneda – try the local black pudding with chickpeas, or the venison marinated with apples (+34 978 85 45 03).
Sleep Mas de la Serra has seven double bedrooms, two suites and a solar-heated infinity pool. All of the bedrooms are named after local towns and villages, and come with luxurious beds, a mixture of stone walls and Moroccan plastering, and exposed beam ceilings. They also have glorious views across the orchards (wild ibex often come to graze in the almond orchard, which is littered with fossilised trilobites) and the oak and pine forested mountains beyond.
Return flights from Stansted to Castellón de la Plana cost from £84 (ryanair.com). Double rooms at Mas de la Serra start at €165, b&b. Truffling weekends cost €180 per person, including two nights b&b and one dinner (masdelaserra.com). More info: comarcamatarranya.es
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