Travel bites: Marrakesh & Essaouira weekend
After a long break, finally something foodie to write about, after a week’s holiday in Morocco which should offer enough ‘food for thought’ for a blog post.
Armed with a 4 year old copy of the Lonely Planet guide and my food writer sister’s article, I prepared some gourmet stops along the various routes we had planned for our moroccan adventure.
Arriving at lunchtime, we headed straight for the centre and the souk and had a nice kofte sandwich at the trendy and popular Cafe’ des Epices. A good introduction to local food. The first night, we realised we were too far from the booked Dar Moha so we followed our Riad’s owner’s suggestion and went to le Foundouk.
This turned out to be possibly the best dinner of the week – maybe because it was our first night there but we did enjoy the food, myself particularly. I chose a pleasant starter of aubergine, which were almost prepared the Italian way (not mashed up but sliced and fried) followed up by a classic, preserved lemon and olives chicken tagine.
This was to be the first of many to come, but the best – succulent, moist chicken with subtle lemon flavour rather than chunks of preserved lemon (which I do like anyway). Cooked to perfection, coming off the bone, I thoroughly enjoyed the dish. My husband loved his turkey skewer starter but did not enjoy his beef tagine main, as the beef was not very flavoursome. Overall, we enjoyed le Fondouk – very good service, wine (Semillon, our choice for the week), and we loved the venue, it’s indeed beautiful, although not that cheap (nearly 800DH for two with wine).
The Atlas mountains
The next day, after trying berber pancakes for breakfast and loving the novelty (which soon wore off for me though), we started our tour in the mountains. Our first lunch stop was in the berber town of Telouet, where we had a sunny outdoor lunch at Le Lion D’or – not that we had much choice, it was still a pleasant lunch, with ‘moroccan salad’ (a mix of cooked vegetables, potatoes, boiled egg, tomatoes) followed by a chicken tagine which had strong colours, lots of spices, walnuts, figs but lacked in flavour, and the chicken was the driest ever. Shame, as it did look the part! This was swiftly followed by ‘dessert’ which we learned was the only dessert they would bring after a lunch ‘meal deal’. Slices of oranges with cinnamon sprinkles – nice and refreshing and a low calories dessert for sure.
Dinner that day was pretty bland – we were the only ones in the Riad at Ait Bennhadou, and the restaurant room was dull and dark. We had a nice ‘moroccan soup’, which I did like but the following preserved lemon chicken tagine was by this point, boring. And it was followed by yet more orange and cinnamon.
After berber pancakes and bread for breakfast we had a long break before our driver finally decided to stop for lunch. Passing many restaurants with flaming grills on the way back to Marrakesh, we were starving and in need of something other than tagine.
After 2pm, we stopped on Col du Tichka at a road side restaurant (Restaurant Argane Tichka). Plastic tables, plastic table covers, and a few more tourists didn’t bode well however a very friendly young waiter served us what for me was possibly the best kofte of the week. The rice was bland and tasteless but the little ‘mini burgers’ were well cooked and subtly flavoured with cumin and I think saffron. I really enjoyed their simplicity.
Back in Marrakesh, our Riad host recommended us another restaurant within walking distance, Le Tanjia. Another beautiful venue, again foreign only clientele, this was not bad. The moroccan salad we shared was quite good, particularly the lentils and the sweet pumpkin. I had caramelised onion and plum lamb cous cous but sadly I couldn’t finish – it was nice, but I felt too full. Our meal was interrupted by a loud and too long belly dancing show – we did not expect it and was a novelty for a few minutes but eating calorific cous cous while watching skinny ladies shaking their bellies and boobs right next to me kind of put me off my food!
The following day we made our way to seaside town and famous destination Essaouira. Foodwise, we had been told not to eat any raw vegetables to avoid belly problems; we had also been told of the wonderful seafood aplenty in the town’s grills and food stalls. So we made our way to the port where a L shaped area of food stalls sell their fresh fish by weight, grill it and serve it on sun drenched tables with uncooked salad and a drink. We chose some fish, despite my reservations about eating fish of course.
120DH bought us a white fish (dorade) a bunch of shrimps and a couple of baby squids. The fish was decent but completely charcoal so that barely any flesh was left; the shrimps had absolutely no flavour – had I not been by the fishing boats unloading their catch, Id have thought them frozen. The squids were grilled with their insides so not a nice eat. needless to say, we were still hungry and went for a quite good italian ice cream (Dolce Freddo) right by the square.
I actually enjoyed this meal. My starter of goat’s cheese rolls was crispy and not greasy with fresh goat’s cheese centres. Definitely amongst my favourite dishes of the week. I had kofte to follow and these were very delicate, with saffron sauce and artichoke hearts, and an absolutely delicious side rice, with fresh parsley and herbs.
For just over 500DH with wine, this was way below Marrakesh prices but just as good food and service.
The next day’s lunch was spent well away from the fish stalls and a quick look at the fish market made me realise how little sustainability there is – baby cat sharks, rays, moorays dead on the sellers’ banks. Unpleasant. We walked right across to the small enclosed colonnade square where argain oil shops and cafes greet tourists and locals alike.
The first day we were lucky – we sat at one of the 5 cafes right next to each other, Chez Ahmed. Very friendly and quick service, I had possibly my favourite dish of the whole week, tabbouleh with goat’s cheese. The tabbouleh was lovely although not what we have in England, which is mainly chopped parsley. This was cous cous, with herbs, tomatoes, onions. The goat’s cheese was a huge slab of fresh cheese, with yellow sultanas, sesame seeds and a nice dressing of argan oil. This is the moment I fell in love with the stuff.
The nutty flavour complemented the fresh cheese perfectly – a match made in heaven! I loved every bite of it. Rob had a gently herbed brochette of turkey, with salad and the usual stuff: olives, moroccan bread followed by orange and cinnamon. A bargain at 140DH, including freshly squeezed fruit juices. The next day we made the mistake of choosing another one of these cafes and our experience was the opposite, sadly. Not even worth mentioning any of it.
Nor the final dinner in Essaouira, for which we followed the LP advice again and opted for Les Chandeliers. My tagine of shrimps ‘a milles et une epices’ left me confused. The sauce flavour was nice, almost like a fish soup, but there was nothing in it apart from a bunch of tasteless shrimps and two carrots. Rob tried a beef curry which came in a tiny portion and was ok but did not even taste of beef nor curry. Our cheapest evening meal (335DH with wine) but our most forgettable too.<
Back to Marrakesh
Finally we returned to Marrakesh for one last night. We had booked a posh place, recommended by books and by my sister. La Maison Arabe is a luxury riad with restaurant, bar and cooking school.
Beautiful but since our first few minutes we felt something wasn’t quite right. They asked us if we wanted a aperitif on the terrace, then left us there for 20 minutes with the drinks menu and forgot us. We then got back to the table and found out that there was no a la carte, only a very expensive tasting menu (550DH per person).
At the end of a week of tagine, cous cous and olives, we really did not need a feast in Moroccan cuisine but unfortunately we were there, and we went for it. The starter was ok, better than La Tanjia’s except for one of two dishes such as very greasy and dry goat’s cheese mini rolls. The pastillas, which I still had had no chance to try, was disappointing – the fillings were flavoursome but the pastry was dry and greasy.
The four tagines were 50/50. The preserved lemon and olive chicken was very good, just as moist and well cooked as Le Fondouk’s; the berber tagine was very good too with a nice variety of vegetables; I also found the beef and quince very good, cooked to perfection although Rob found it too sweet; the lamb tagine was as hard as a leather sole; in fact, when we told the waiter, we then got a complimentary half bottle of wine to apologise for it. Not bad, then again, we’re paying top dollars here.
Following was Cous Cous Royale which was very good but by now we were completely full and left most of it, again a huge shame considering how much this dinner cost. Finally we had a ‘trio’ of Moroccan dessert – not sure what was Moroccan about a mini lemon custard tartlette, a raspberry sorbet (not in season, not in the country) and something else I actually forgot, which makes me think it wasn’t that good.
I had a brief mint tea and wrapped the Moroccan pastries in paper, and we made a dash for our Riad, full and not exactly satisfied.So for our last meal in Morocco, the next day before flying home, we went back to our very first lunch stop – Cafe’ des Epices – for another kofte sandwich and one last glimpse at the Marrakesh gourmet panorama.Spices, mint tea, cous cous and tagine.
Yet I came home dreaming of a pizza and a bacon sarnie.