Morocco – the final leg

La Villa des Orangers is a sanctuary in a hot, bustling city pulsating with flavour, and we were privileged to call it home for our last three nights in Marrakech.

It was time to tick off the tourist sites.  The lure of belly dancers and bright lights of the newer part of the city took us to popular Comptoir Darna restaurant for dinner and a show. Michelle ordered the lamb and prune tagine, I the seafood tagine, with local Moroccan wine. The next morning, we headed to the city’s famous garden, Jardin Majorelle, to admire the memorial of French fashion icon Yves St Laurent, and then sought the solace of our ‘home’ for lunch – a delectable bean salad for Michelle, and the winter salad of beetroot, celeriac, apple and watercress for me, followed by Chef’s delectable mandarin tart. The afternoon allowed time for a traditional hammam in the spa, and a massage. We were transported into stillness and serenity, the perfect preparation for what we knew would be a special night at La Villa. Dinner in the courtyard was surreal. The sounds of the tricking fountain, the aroma of citrus, and we settled in for a culinary night to remember.

 

The cuisine here, under talented Chef Jean-Claude Olry combines heritage, home cooking and innovation. The modern touch on the menu comes from his French gourmet presentation style. The sophisticated and adventurous traveller makes their booking for reputation (it is one of the top five restaurants in the city) not knowing what to expect, but that it will be good! Here 80% of the ingredients are locally sourced to adhere to the manifesto of Relais & Châteaux – making the most of the terroir.  Every mouthful, from start to finish, was sublime – from the amuse bouche of whitefish with salsa and olives, the starters of the tomato tatin and a crab salad, to the mains of sea bass for me and Chef’s signature dish, the tenderloin of beef, for Michelle. Desserts of the choc pots and pear tart and we knew had dined to more than an elegant sufficiency.

 

We were determined to make our last night last as long as possible. A carriage ride around the red city to see the night lights started with a heated haggle about the price, and finished off at the famous Jemaa el Fnaa Square. By day you make your way through the hive of activity with snake charmers and hawkers selling anything from false teeth to fresh juice, into the souks. By night it is the locals who come to eat here. The square comes alive with an urgency and vibrancy that is palpable. Throngs of people prevented us from seeing snakes but we knew they were still there! Hawkers approached us with a level of ferocity as competition is fierce. Shouts of “bring your sister here, she must eat, she is too skinny” eventually drove Michelle over the edge and she matched the men’s persistence in her replies. Sights of sheep heads and other offal being cooked over open fires and the beckoning cries of “come here for no diarrhea” drove us back (in a tuk-tuk) to our quiet, beautiful ‘home’.

 

Here, cushioned from chaos of the city, we could catch our breath over mint and chamomile tea, to settle for our last night in our beautiful suite. We awoke to the sounds of tweeting birds and the muezzin’s call to prayer, then shared memories and our reluctance to leave on our balcony overlooking the city. So much had wound its way into our hearts – the smell of the spices, the warmth and friendliness of the people, and the genuine generosity of spirit shown by the Relais & Châteaux team who had hosted us, ensuring that no request was ever too much trouble. My final pleasure, whilst Michelle was dashing back to the souks to buy not one, but two tagines, was my last pot of Moroccan mint tea with Maître de Maison, Jean-Paul Compagnon. He, with his team, ensure that guests feel like part of their family, and take the time to talk to get to know them so that they find out what they wish to know about the city, country and culture. Staff, he believes, are the best ambassadors of Morocco. I wholeheartedly agree.

MOROCCAN COOKERY DEMO’S

What a delight it was to return home, armed with spices, ideas, recipes and tableware, and to share these with some of the regulars who attend our monthly Gourmet Guide cookery classes. Show and tell works well – I showed them how to make lamb and seafood pastillas with a harissa dip, lemon couscous, a chickpea and red onion salad, a chicken tagine with preserved lemon and olives, and an orange, Amlou and cinnamon dessert.

We tasted and used Moroccan herbs and spices, and I gave each guest their own jar of Ras El Hanout (meaning ‘top of the house’, it is a chef’s own blend of spices). They were relieved that they could use our very own South African Rio Largo olive oil to replace the Moroccan’s favoured argan oil and we all shared culinary secrets over a three-course lunch. The morning started and finished with Freixenet sparkling wines – fitting, as Morocco is a neighbour of Spain, and as we had flown from Madrid we saw just how close these countries are.

Freixenet the leading producer of Spanish sparkling wines, known as cava, is created in the methode champenoise tradition. Their philosophy? To join them in the celebration of life. For that we rose to the challenge!

For the full story and some fabulous photographs that are sure to make you want to book your trip to Morocco, watch out for a future edition of Food & Home Entertaining magazine.