There are pomegranates growing outside our door. Behind the high, terracotta coloured walls and date groves of the Palmeraie district lie the houses of princes and potentates (I think an actual real-life prince lives next door to our hotel, the glamorous Mosaic Palais Aziza). We’re drinking chilled wine beside the pool, but half an hour ago, in a dusty alleyway off a vast square teeming with bewildering life, a man in a djellaba was fishing out a sheep’s head from a deep, smouldering pit and shredding it for our delectation.
Marrakech is full of extremes. Extreme luxury – the mother-of-pearl inlaid bar at King Mohammed VI’s Royal Mansour hotel, its Yannick Alléno-headed restaurants with its eye-watering prices. Or the myriad, lavishly decorated, zillij-tiled, rose-petal strewn riads behind blank walls in the Medina (old town). Extreme challenges: trying to negotiate the souk with a shoal of fourteen-year-old boys deliberately trying to lead you towards their pet vendors (we give up and take refuge in a patisserie, gorging on sticky, honeyed cornes de gazelle and halwa chebbakia).
And extreme eating: the blind faces of the animals on the street food stalls, vats full of oily, earthy snails, the pile of brown sludge that even our local translator doesn’t recognise (it turns out to be sellou, a pudding made from almonds and every spice from galangal to nutmeg). That sheep’s head was from ‘mechoui alley’, just off massive Djemaa el-Fna square where snake charmers, street food stalls and storytellers make you feel like you’ve been transported onto the set of Indiana Jones. Fortunately the slow-cooked lamb mechoui with freshly-baked khobz (bread) is glorious.
I always try to unearth where locals eat, but it’s proving tricky. Marrakshis maintain that the best food is to be found in the home, so if you see them out, it’s mostly at street food stalls. Rich natives love vast, club-like ‘trendy’ dance spaces like Bo et Zin, the kind of place that brings me out in hives. The closest we get is at Rue Ibn Aicha – ‘meat street’ – in new town Gueliz, dedicated to carnivorous pursuits. Newbies at ordering by weight, we end up with what appears to be an entire barbecued lamb, cubed or chopped, minced or sausaged, with acres of salad, floppy chips and harissa.
So after one too many encounters with animal heads or innards, we go with the tourist-expat flow. We eat at Maroliano – so called because the food is a mix of Italian and Morrocan – in our hotel, run by chef Daniele Turco, ex-Venice’s Gritti Palace, loving his sophisticated takes on tagines and fish soup rich with saffron. And we go French: years of occupation have given many restaurants a Gallic flavour, like Café Rouge-ish Bagatelle, full of expat French smoking like crazy. And rather lovely colonial-styled Grand Café de la Poste (00 212 2443 3038) in Gueliz, for steak tartare among the pillars and ceiling fans.
All the sleek hotels have started offering cookery courses, but one of the earliest to do so was Maison Arabe, another swankpot hidden behind high old town walls. In a high-tech kitchen just in sight of the glittering pool, we learn how to make tagines with preserved lemon and musky dried peaches; round loaves of khobz; briouats stuffed with fragrant spiced lamb or delicate vegetables wrapped in the lightest, delicate warqa pastry (mine are perfect little pillows, D’s more like corner shop samosas). The highlight for me is being taken next door to a communal bakery where a grizzled chap in his subterranean, tiled lair cooks the raw loaves brought by the locals. ‘You can tell who’s marriage-worthy by the quality of their bread,’ confides the dada (cook) who guides us. It’s the kind of scene that hasn’t changed for centuries.
Traditionally, women rule all the kitchens. At Al Fassia all staff are female, cosseting their customers in a typically no-nonsense way. Sure, the clientele is still foreign, but as you lounge on the velvet covered banquettes eating lamb tagine with plums, sweet, sticky onions and fluffy couscous laced with loads of smen (preserved butter), you sense that this is the food of tradition, not a sanitised version. They make a b’stilla – the Andalucian-scented pie of warqa pastry stuffed with pigeon, spices, eggs and dusted with icing sugar – of the gods. I tell our smiling server as we’re sprinkled with orange flower water that everyone told us to come here. She’s unsurprised: ‘Of course. We’ve been here for 26 years’.
We have a high time in Marrakech, basking in the luxury of the Royal Mansour on one hand, getting almightily lost in the souks on the other. But I feel I haven’t quite got to the heart of the place, although I’ve enough argan oil to keep me supple for a lifetime. Maybe the dada at Maison Arabe is right: maybe we do need to eat in private homes. But hey ho – pass me another chilled Medallion sauvignon blanc and peel me a pomegranate. I’ll live with it.
By Marina O’Loughlin (@MarinaOLoughlin)
Written March 2013
Main image taken by David Thomas