The flavours of Marrakech: five essential tastes
Author: Pat Nourse
Marrakech engages the senses like few other places, whether it's the eye-bending complexity of the patterns on the walls of the Medersa Ben Youssef, the smooth coolness of tile and tadelakt plaster under your feet and fingertips or the cries of the muezzin at dawn. But it's the powerfully contrasting scents and flavours of the city, Morocco's culture capital, that are perhaps most memorable - the subtle and the striking, the sacred and the profane. Smoke pouring from the grills on the famed Djemaa el Fna Square, frankincense and myrrh smouldering on braziers unseen in dim alleys, the richness of musk and ambergris on the apothecaries' shelves vying with the orris root, Ceylon cinnamon, mace and wild cardamom hawked by spice traders.
And to eat? As with the hue and cry of the souk, the choices can be overwhelming. Here's a handful of tried and true tastes to get you started.
Pronouncing it "mesh-wee" is the only hard work your mouth has to do with this particular Berber specialty. The man tending the fire overnight has already done the hard yards, rubbing down a whole lamb with spice, then roasting it low and slow in a deep cylindrical oven a bit like a tandoor till the meat is pale and perfectly giving under bronzed crackling. Try it with a sprinkle of cumin salt, eating it with your fingers local-style in Mechoui Alley in the medina, or take it uptown with the mechoui-style lamb shoulder served in luxurious surrounds by top Parisian chef Yannick Alléno at La Grand Table Marocaine at the Royal Mansour, with or without a glass of Saint-Emilion.
Broad bean and turnip tagine cooked at Atelier de Cuisine
Pastilla is to pie as a Porsche is to a pushcart. Both will get you there, but only one happens to have been lavished with exquisite care by generations of skills craftspeople. Considered the greatest feat of the Moroccan kitchen, and the ultimate in the nation's celebratory dishes, it's a flaky, golden pastry, sometimes more than a foot wide, stuffed with a spicy mixture of braised pigeon or chicken and dusted with icing sugar. Just about every serious Marrakech restaurant worth its salt offers one, though the version at La Grand Table Marocaine is a tough act to follow. You'll sometimes see it spelled "bastilla" on menus or in the more phonetically friendly "bisteeya" rendering - the double-L here is pronounced like a Y. Its flavour is like few other savoury dishes. Savoury isn't really the word, in fact, because it's very sweet, even by Moroccan standards, a bit like the love-child of a chicken pie and a baklava. A little bit goes a long way, so it's definitely a dish best shared among friends.
Trid is thought to be a precursor to pastilla. The Moroccan version, a true local favourite, is chicken or squab cooked with saffron, ginger, cinnamon, garlic, pepper, coriander, lentils, broad beans and a fair whack of butter, served on a heap of crêpes, the crêpes left whole or, as at The Selman Hotel's Moroccan restaurant, Assyl, torn into small pieces. It's a dish that came to Morocco with Arab rule, and is said to have been a favourite of the Prophet. It's famously demanding to make, and will usually need to be ordered a day or two in advance, but its mere mention rarely fails to bring a gleam to the eye of any lover of Moroccan classics.
Bissara at a shop near the Bab Khemis, for under 10
While pastilla is the definition of culinary luxury, and mechoui and trid have their glam incarnations in the city's palaces, bissara is food of the street. Typically eaten in the morning (though good at any time of the day), this workingman's soup is an earthy mix of little more than dried broad beans, water, garlic and cumin, yet its texture is full and velvety and, as served at 100 holes-in-the-wall throughout the city, it comes alive with a healthy slosh of emerald-green Moroccan olive oil, a pinch of chilli powder and a round of barley-rich bread.
Morocco is a Muslim country, but alcohol is not unavailable in its borders, let alone unknown. Some of the nation's grenache, merlot and cabernet vines, many of them in the high country around Meknes, are more than 80 years old, while Jewish Moroccans have been distilling boukha, a fiery white spirit, from figs for generations. But the nation's passion in the glass lies elsewhere. Mint tea has been nicknamed Berber whisky, and no one brews the national drink better. It's almost impossible to avoid being offered mint tea pretty much anywhere you go in Morocco, but head half an hour out of the country to Atelier Chef Tarik, the country's first biodynamic kitchen-garden cooking school for a true masterclass. To take a glass sitting on rugs under the shade of the olive trees, the kettle simmering on the coals, the fresh spearmint, sage, verbena, rose geranium, wormwood and cured tea leaves spread before you, is to really understand its true appeal
This article is presented by AERIN