A few weeks ago I went to Morocco with my family. We stayed in a beautiful house in a quiet neighbourhood in Marrakesh, north of the Medina and close to the extraordinary Jardin Majorelle. The days were warm, the nights were cool, and the food was delicious. I spent much of my time poking around the local food markets and peering into the shops and stalls near our house, then rushing back to try things out.
It’s great to have the use of a kitchen on holiday; I would have hated to miss the chance to buy delicious bunches of wild asparagus or big bulbs of fennel because I had nowhere to cook them
Each neighbourhood of Marrakesh has a hammam or bath house, and the one closest to our house was particularly charming. What I loved was not the massage or mud scrub; not the steam or the beautifully tiled interior; but the huge wood-burning oven used to heat the water for the baths.
This oven also doubled as a community bakery. All morning a steady stream of people of all ages, from young children to grandmothers, brought wooden trays with flat loaves of bread covered with personalised tea towels. The loaves were baked by the hammam oven operator, left on racks with the tea towels on top and retrieved later by their owners.
French colonialism has left Morocco with a surprising number of bakeries, but one I was most fascinated by made warka pastry. It is an amazing feat of patience, not so much a pastry as a wet-yeasted dough, dubbed and spread onto a hotplate very thinly, and cooked briefly. It is then whipped off, creating a thinner-than-paper pastry, a little like filo, that forms the basis for the classic pastilla: pigeon and almond pie. In this bakery they used warka to make delicious baklava-like pastries, stuffed with mixtures of nuts, honey and orange flower water – they are really sweet but tasty with a bittersweet Moroccan tea.
In fact, Moroccan cooking is often on the sweet side. Meat is frequently cooked with dried fruit or preserved lemons, and the meze, such as Moroccan salads, are often seasoned with sugar and orange flower water. Pigeon pastilla is dusted with cinnamon and icing sugar. Main courses are generally slow-cooked meat and vegetables, usually in the famous conical tagine. It took time to get used to, but I soon started to love this delicate, fragrant, savoury-sweet cuisine.