I have just come back from a week in Marrakech with a tan and a head full of new recipe ideas and flavour combinations.
The thing that really impressed me about my hotels food was the presentation, it was stunning. Everything was served in a buffet style so you had to be quick if you wanted to see how beautiful the food was before it was destroyed by a gaggle of hungry tourists.
There were three main sections to lunch and dinner. The cold salads and breads, the main hot meal and the desserts. Every cold salad had some form of vegetable garnish but my personal favourite was the thin strips of cucumber that had been elegantly folded into pretty curves then placed so they were sticking out of the dish. There was also a mountain of various bread rolls at every meal and although not traditional bread for Marrakech they did look very appetising.
Although the main dishes did not have a garnish they more than made up for that in taste. As a general rule there would be a chicken dish, a fish dish, a vegetable dish and a dish using red meat. This would be served with rice or on Fridays you would serve them with couscous. The tagine style of cooking left all of the meats very tender and full of flavour.
Now for my favourite course… Dessert. I was not disappointed at all with the dessert at my hotel, everything looked and tasted stunning. For garnish you would get huge balls of spun sugar, coloured and curved white chocolate or occasionally poured sugar shards. You could tell that all the desserts were made fresh using good quality ingredients. At the dessert table you would find three sorts of dessert. The tart with deliciously crisp pastry, usually filled with some form of pastry cream and then fruit or chocolate pastry cream. Although there was always a lemon meringue tart that was snapped up by my dad as that is his all time favourite dessert. The second type of dessert you would find is the slices that would have a thin sponge on the bottom, then two to three different types of mousse layered on top of that that would be all topped off with a glaze to compliment the mousse. The third type of dessert that you would find would be a flavoured mousse served in a dish sprinkled with chopped nuts.
There are 9 main spices used in Moroccan cooking, used correctly they will give your cooking an authentic Moroccan taste. I am yet to experiment with a select few in my baking though.
Salt- This is used in exactly the same way that it would be used in the UK, that is to enhance existing flavours already present in the dish.
Cumin- This earthy tasting spice is often used alongside salt on Moroccan tables. It enhances most dishes made by the Moroccan people. The powder is the form of this spice that is most commonly used but it also comes in little seeds.
Turmeric- This is the first of the two roots that are commonly used in Moroccan cooking. Turmeric has quite a mellow earthy flavour but is mainly used for the brilliant yellow colour that it gives to its dishes. Although this is available to use when it is a fresh root it is most commonly used in powder form.
Ginger- This is the second of the roots that are used for cooking. During my trip I saw my first ginger plant and I can safely say that if my tour guide hadn’t pointed it out I would not have known what it was. It was a large bush of bright green leaves, when rubbed between your fingers they did smell very faintly of the spice that I am familiar with. Again the root is not that commonly used as the powder is a more popular alternative.
Sweet paprika- There are two sorts of paprika, smoky and sweet. The sort that is used in Moroccan cooking is only the sweet. I was surprised by how this spice even smells sweet.
Harissa- okay this is more of a paste of different spices than one specific one. Every recipe differs but you can count on one ingredient always being present and that’s chilli. Harissa is used to add heat to a dish.
Pepper- There are two sorts of pepper, white pepper and black pepper. White pepper is more expensive and more subtle and black pepper is cheaper and has a stronger flavour. For this reason, you will find white pepper used by chefs in Morocco and black pepper used by everybody else
Ras el hanout (head of the shop)- This is another blend of spices as opposed to a single spice. The literal translation is ‘head of the shop’ or ‘top of the shop’ basically meaning that this would be the best spice mix that the shopkeeper has to offer. It’s the Garam masala of the Moroccan world. There is no set recipe for this mix of spices as each family, shop will have their own variation. As a rule, the mixture contains twelve spices all in different proportions.
Saffron- King of the spices, the flavour of saffron is a very complex one and therefore is difficult to describe, the closest people have come to describing it is that it has subtle notes of honey personally I can’t pick up on that but I have come no closer to coming up with my own way of describing it. One thing that everybody does know about saffron however is that it is very expensive. In England saffron is more expensive than gold when going by weight, there is a good reason for this though. Saffron can only grow in one place up in the mountains of Morocco so that immediately limits the amount that can be harvested and sold. The second reason is that saffron is the middle of the flower, each flower will only have three to four little strands of saffron growing from the middle. It takes about 560 strands to make one gram this spice so you need a lot. How saffron is harvested also contributes to the price. The saffron flower is only open during the day when the sun is hottest so that is when harvesting must take place, each strand of saffron then has to be individually picked out by hand so the cost of labour is expensive.
Olive oil- Olive oil is regularly used in Moroccan cooking because of how easily available and cheap it is over there. During my visit I saw countless olive trees on the streets as well as fields of them when we went further out of Marrakech.
Argon oil- argon oil comes from the south of Morocco and is also known as goat oil because of how the argon seeds are harvested. Any argon oil used for cosmetic purposes will be cold pressed but if you are looking to cook with this oil then you must find the hot pressed variety. Now for how the argon seeds are obtained, you might have already seen goats up in trees on the Internet, well they aren’t just up there for fun. The goats are going after their favourite thing to eat, the argon fruit. When the goat has eaten the fruit it will spit out the seed which will be collected then made into oil.
I learned about all the spices and oils on a one day cooking course where I learned to make preserved lemon and chicken tagine along with a aubergine… I don’t know exactly what.
Tagine is the name of the special pots used to cook as well as anything that is cooked inside them.
Tagine pots consist of a shallow bowl and a tall lid that gets narrower as it reaches the top. There are three main types of tagine pots:
Unglazed- this tagine pot is terracotta in colour and lacks a shine because it has not been glazed. Once you cook one type of meal in the pot it retains the smell even after it has been washed with soap and water. For that reason, unglazed tagines will only have one type of dish cooked in them.
Glazed- This tagine pot is also terracotta in colour but unlike the unglazed pot it has a shine and is smooth to the touch. You can cook anything in this pot then wash with soap and water afterwards to use again.
Well decorated- this tagine pot is beautifully decorated then used to serve dishes in. You would not cook in this pot.
Traditional Moroccan bread is made with an equal mix of white flour and semolina flower along with some yeast and water then shaped into a flat loaf that is cooked in a bread oven. The result is a somewhat tough texture that becomes softer when dipped in your tagine. When we were walking around the souks we wandered into a Moroccan bakery. It was stiflingly hot inside and one wall was dedicated to an oven which went back into the wall, somewhat like a fireplace. The rest of the walls were shelved and had cooked and uncooked bread stacked up on the shelves. The idea is that you would make the dough at your own home then bring in the uncooked loaf and pay a small fee to get your bread cooked ready for the next day.
This is a very traditional drink in Moroccan culture, it is also very sweet and is believed to have contributed towards the rising cases of type two diabetes in Morocco. Mint tea can be a delicious drink when done correctly, out of the three cups of Moroccan tea that I had on my holiday I only enjoyed one cup which was made in front of me while the lady making it was explaining exactly what she was doing and why.
Here’s how to make mint tea
-First grab yourself two heaped teaspoons of Chinese green tea and pop into a Moroccan tea pot, if you don’t have a Moroccan tea pot then use a teapot that can go on the stove.
-Fill up one of the cups you dare going to be drinking out of with boiling water and add it to the teapot then pour it back out into the cup again, making sure you use a strainer to catch all the loose tea.
-Pop any escaped loose tea back into the pot and add another cup of boiling water. Swirl this round then tip out into a separate cup, you will notice that this has a much darker colour. You can pour this cup down the sink.
-Put the first cup back into the teapot then fill the rest of the way with boiling water, put onto the heat and allow to boil.
-Take off the heat and stuff a big handful of mint into the top of the teapot.
-Pour this from a height into a clean glass then pop back into the teapot with a big lump of rock sugar or about 7-8 tbsp of sugar. Alternatively leave it and sweeten each glass to taste
-Pour into the glass then put back into the pot one final time before finally pouring from a height into individual cups to create a foam on the top of the tea.
Some other appropriate herbs to use are: Mint, geranium rose, parsley, and Rosemary.