Through traditional bathing rituals, mastering Moroccan cuisine, and the ancient art of storytelling, Sherelle Jacobs goes in search of the authentic side of Marrakech...
Arriving in Marrakech one balmy evening in May, I dived straight into North Africa’s sensory world. My first night was spent at Lodge K, a small hotel with luxury tents for rooms nestled in Palmeraie, an outpost populated with high-end resorts away from the city centre. Having barely taken the time to unpack my bags, I made my way to the hotel’s hammam. Lodge K is known for taking the traditional North African bathing ritual extremely seriously. The hammam attendant threw a bucket of warm water on me and the experience commenced. I was lathered with black olive soap, a traditional favourite in Morocco, before being scrubbed vigorously with a glove to remove dead skin cells, an exfoliation process known as gommage. Then there was another bucket rinse followed by a treatment of argan oil, taken from the kernels of the argan tree. It is a key Moroccan beauty ingredient which softens the skin. The last stage of the hammam is not for the faint-hearted. The hammam attendant proceeded to hold me upside down, my head inches from the ground, as part of a ritual that is intended to improve circulation. The invigorating hammam experience – which pushed me out of my comfort zone but left my skin impossibly soft and my spirits energised after a long journey – was a fitting start to an authentic and thrilling city break in Marrakech. The next morning, after a traditional Moroccan breakfast of pancakes done three ways with home-made jams and honey, and mint tea at Lodge K, and one final look at the accommodation’s handsome grounds and white billowing tents, I set off in search of more urban pastures in the medina of Marrakech.
I was warned before arriving in the medina that getting lost was inevitable. This became a reality even before I actually arrived in the medina. The taxi that had taken me from Lodge K dropped me at a curious taxi rank of “small taxis”– compact enough to drive through the narrow cracks and crevices of the medina. My “small taxi” driver responded with a confident “no problem” when I told him I was heading for Riad Farnatchi, where I would be staying for two nights. Within a couple of minutes, it was clear that he had no idea where it was. After winding down the window to ask passers-by, a failed attempt to find it on Google maps with his battered iPhone and a more successful call to the taxi firm’s head office, he finally dropped me off on a narrow road with high, crumbling dusky red walls on either side.
At the end of the road was a tall archway with the words Riad Farnatchi engraved on the top. I breathed a sigh of relief; I had arrived. Down the alley was Riad Farnatchi’s formidable, black arch-shaped door, a feature of Moroccan riads, traditional Moroccan houses with interior courtyards or gardens in the middle.
Inside, the Riad is true to Moroccan traditions, with a tiled courtyard featuring a pool, various lounges and a dining area with the best of Moroccan furnishings. The rooms were equally lavish; a mint green wrought iron balcony on which to eat breakfast, hand-made beds and Egyptian cotton sheets.
After checking in and meeting up with a friend who had just flown in from London that morning to explore Marrakech with me, I plunged back into the medina. Marrakech’s medina is probably the most famous in the world. A sprawling area with carpenters, jewellers, grocers and leather stall holders selling their wares, it is also a challenging place to navigate. With rows of market traders targeting tourists with mass-produced items from keyrings to slippers, it can also feel slightly fake.
Entangled in the mass of indistinguishable retailers are a few hidden gems. We loved rifling through the hand-made in Morocco items at the boutique Kif Kif (8 derb Laksour) – from delicate hand-made cuffs to storage boxes cleverly made out of reused materials. La Maison du Kaftan (Rue Sidi el Yamani) is the place to go for luxurious kaftans, whether in velvet or cotton or silk, or modern or traditional and Hollywood celebrities have been known to shop there. The Assouss Co-operative d’Argane (94 Rue el-Mouassine) was also a great place to stop off and buy authentic beauty and cooking products, as we were unconvinced that the cheaper equivalents being sold by market sellers everywhere in the medina were necessarily the real deal. After sampling several flavours of argan oil, including amber and sandalwood, I decided on vanilla-scented argan oil and a small tub of saffron – although the extremely friendly shop assistant also insisted I try some of the home-made honey and almond paste also on offer, both were delicious.
I was told that a jaunt around the medina and downtown had to include at least a once around the Jemaa el Fna square. The square is famous for many things but not particularly for being a genuine window into Moroccan culture. There were snake-charmers waiting for a tourist to flash them the most fleeting of glances so they could wrap their tamed beasts around the unsuspecting visitors shoulders, and then ask for a few dirhams for the pleasure. Women hollered at us offering henna tattoos, young waiters tried to block our path to channel us into their market restaurants.
Luckily, however, the establishments targeting locals rather than tourists were a pleasure to amble past. There were spice sellers with hundreds of powders and roots on display, creating an interesting orchestra of smells, from saffron to ginger. I drank in the rows of stalls bursting with oranges the size of boulders, their attendants selling freshly squeezed juice. Traditional water-sellers roaming the square were dressed in an orange just as vivid and ready to quench the thirst of passers by for a few dirhams.
On our list of places to visit was Cafe Clock II, a new hangout in the medina, which is unknown by most tourists but offers some great cultural options, including cooking and calligraphy classes. Having opted for the latter, we sipped on fruit smoothies made fresh in the cafe while our calligraphy master explained to us that there are six basic styles of Arabic calligraphy and mastering them can take a lifetime. Having supplied us with some paper, a calligraphy stick carved out of bamboo each and some ink, we tried to mimic our master’s elegant sweeps and flicks of the brush to write Arabic letters, and then eventually our own names. Although inky hands and some interesting but inaccurate shapes on the page seemed to be largely the result at first, I started to get warmed up an hour into the class. After mastering how to write our names in a few sweeps of the bamboo stick, our master then wrote them with far more skill on special calligraphy paper for us to keep as a memento.
As soon as our calligraphy session finished, we turned around to notice the cafe filling up with seasoned-looking expats and young Moroccans. A traditional poetry storytelling session, known as a hikayat, was just about to take place. This ancient form of entertainment used to be widespread in Morocco but the number of trained storytellers is shrinking in the country. Cafe Clock is offering a new place where Moroccans can practise this old art form. The first poem was read and acted out in English by a young Moroccan before an older, practised storyteller acted it out vivaciously in Arabic.
Very fine dining
Sampling authentic Moroccan cuisine was next on the list of aims. It was with this in mind that we headed to Riad Kniza for dinner, which does impeccable traditional Moroccan dishes in an opulent traditional dining room. In the hall, a trio of musicians were playing Moroccan music, setting the scene and adding to our anticipation of having an authentic North African dining experience. The dining room had low chairs and berber-style sofas set around round tables, in typical Moroccan style.
The tables were laden with intricately decorated plates and cutlery. It filled us with optimism about the food.
The meal was gut-busting, delicious and uncompromisingly authentic. A wide range of starter salads were presented to us, which featured, amongst other ingredients, beetroot, squash, carrot and aubergine. There were also bastillas, a pie dish inherited from Andalucia which traditionally contains pigeon but is sometimes stuffed with chicken or fish. It was followed by a lamb tagine cooked with precision that we could not fault. We watered it down with a popular Moroccan white wine Cap Blanc, which I found pleasing and refreshing with its taste of honeysuckle and grapefruit.
The next morning, we set ourselves the task of learning how to cook traditional Moroccan food. To discover more about traditional Moroccan cooking and learn a few recipes, we headed out of the medina to a country club about 15 minutes drive away. It is owned by La Maison Arabe, a riad in the medina. We were greeted in the garden of the country club with an authentic Moroccan breakfast, composed of mint tea and bread fresh from an old-fashioned fire oven. We got the chance to help to knead some of the bread beforehand and then toss it in the oven. Out in the garden, our host educated us on the herbs that often go into Moroccan cooking, from rosemary to chocolate mint, and directed us to heavenly smelling patches where they were growing.
We were then ushered into the kitchen where our host introduced us to some of the staple spices in Moroccan cooking, including saffron, tarragon and paprika. We all had workstations with our ingredients laid out to make an aubergine and tomato salad and a chicken tagine. At the top of the room stood the female head cook, which in Morocco is known as the dada. With the help of a large screen which showed a close-up of the dada’s cooking, we were able to closely follow every stage for making each dish – from dicing the aubergine to mixing the right amount of spices to make the tagine, to even carving delicate roses out of tomato peel. I am a slow cook but there were other kitchen staff on hand to help when I fell behind, and bring me a new tomato when my first attempt at making a rose proved disastrous. It was therefore, an almost fool-proof cooking class, which was very easy to follow. Everyone in the group succeeded at producing appetising dishes. We then watched the dada demonstrate how to make a popular Moroccan sweet, coconut cookies, and were able to help her roll the pastry into balls before they were put in the oven. The session ended with us able to eat our salad and tagine outside in the garden, and our host even presented us with certificates before we were driven back to the medina.
One final hammam experience sealed our trip. It was at Spa MK, a wellness centre that also forms part of the Maison MK riad. Although the hammam experience was true to the normal formula: black olive soap, buckets of water and argan oil, there were some luxury insertions, such as a scrub with sugar and green tea, and a clay mask. The attendant introduced each product and talked me through each stage of the hammam, which was helpful for actually understanding the ritual rather than just blazing through it. The gommage was thorough and I was given a choice of whether to have a medium or soft scrub. The steam room itself was luxurious, with dimmed lighting and candles. A few added touches were also appreciated by both me and my companion – offerings of mint tea, fresh juice and water and fluffy robes. We were also given our scrubbing kits at the end of the session to take home as they would only be thrown away afterwards anyway. I followed my hammam with a 45-minute massage, which was a nice way to unwind after the vigours of a hammam, albeit with some high-end frills.
Beforehand, my masseuse brought out a tray of scents and asked me to select one for my massage oil. As the intention of the trip was to have as “authentic” a cultural experience as possible, and I wanted to end the trip in the same spirit that I had maintained throughout, I unsurprisingly opted for the argan-scented oil.