Morocco conjures up images of souks, a melding of cultures against a backdrop of the Sahara, camels and aromatic spices. It was the honeymoon destination of choice, chosen for this air of mystery and intrigue but also because of the promise of vibrant strong flavours and colourful spices adorning our food. This didn’t prove exactly so for us, we found the food a little bland to our taste, the famous tagines just as tender as promised but not quite as punchy and flavoursome as one had hoped for.
Indeed the best meal on honeymoon proved not to be the famous tagine, it was actually courtesy of a tiny seafood shack in port of Essaouira. As the fishing boats come back into town, seafood shacks pop up by the port, serving the fisherman’s catch direct to you. You point at the freshest of fresh seafood and take a seat at a makeshift table and in no time at all, a plate of grilled seafood will appear, served with a bit of salad, a bit of bread and a soft drink of choice. Entirely simple and the best meal of our trip!
But I was convinced I was doing something wrong, perhaps we frequented the more touristy establishments and simply weren’t getting the traditional flavours we were after. So on a long weekend break to Agadir and on a cookery expedition to Atlas Kasbah, I had the chance to see how they did it!
Atlas Kasbah is an ecolodge located up in the Atlas mountains right on the very edge of Agadir making it an easy half an hour journey to experience a different world from the resorts and beaches of this seaside town. Owner Hassan and his team could not be more welcoming, teaching us first of all about the tea that is so incredibly important to the Moroccans and the ceremony and traditions that go hand in hand with this ritual. One thing is clear, there’s no such thing as too much sugar, Hassan liberally adds sugar cubes into the frothy mint mixture and only stops when the group implore him to save our teeth. Despite putting in only half of what he thinks acceptable, it’s much too sweet for us and nowhere near sweet enough for him! I’ve learnt one thing, the Moroccans have an incredibly sweet tooth!
Lunch is Vegetable Briwates, Chicken Tagine with preserved lemon and olives and for dessert, pastilla with almonds. But we have to work for our lunch, so we get to work. Since chicken takes the longest to cook, we begin here. Chicken thighs are marinated with garlic, paprika, pepper and salt and then piled into a tagine dish to cook. I notice that our instructor is keen for us to temper down the amount of garlic and paprika we put into the dish and I think this may be why I had felt the food bland previously – they seem to favour simpler flavours or perhaps think that the British prefer something with less of a kick? In any case, we double the volumes of the spices and after leaving it too cook for some time, we add in potatoes, onions, raisins, olives and preserved lemon to continue flavouring the chicken while it cooks for another hour and a half. It seems simple enough and anticipation is in the air.
Next up, Pastilla with almonds. Pastilla is a sort of pastry available to buy in sheets and can be found in Middle Eastern supermarkets, best of all it’s easy to freeze so you can just keep some handy for when you need it! We start off making some custard and having learnt our lesson with the tea, add in only half the prescribed quantity of sugar much to our poor instructor’s horror – we keep ignoring his instructions and you can sense his panic! Once cooled, the custard is then sandwiched in between and liberally sprinkled with almonds and voila – a crispy pastry custard sandwich!
Briwates are little pockets of pastilla stuffed and fried with a spicy combination of potato and carrots and are a simple addition to the menu! Good thing too as tummies are rumbling and nothing is safe from peckish hands while we wait for the chicken to cook.
And finally, VOILA. The chicken tagine is ready – I’m glad we had a bit of a rebellious group who went off-piste with our flavourings as this is a touch above those who followed instructions, ours simply has more oomph to it and all agree that it wouldn’t suffer from a bit more in the way of a chilli or two added to kick it up a notch. But the tagine way of cooking ensures that the chicken is melt in your mouth tender and the potatoes and onions all have softened to make this a very hearty and filling dish!
The pastilla is delicious and so simple to make that a number of us are also plotting copycat recipes at home, perhaps with filo pastry instead of pastilla sheets and other fruit and nut to make up these little sandwiches of goodness.
Morocco is a fabulous destination for some winter sun and although I still won’t rate Tagines as a favourite, I have learnt that there are other dishes and tastes I can try and enjoy when I go!