Hustle, bustle, surf & turf

What can I say about Morocco that hasn’t been said already?  ‘Discovered’ in the 1960s by the beautiful and the damned, it now forms part of most modern travellers’ repertoires, keen to soak up some north African sun and immerse themselves in an exotic culture.
Fishing boat in Essaouira
Having spent the summer in Cornwall and with five months in the Swiss Alps ahead of us, we wanted a holiday with plenty of sunshine, bright blue skies, enough waves for surfing and a different way of life – but without the expense or jet lag of a long-haul flight.  Choosing to go to Morocco on the hunt for sunshine in November was always a gamble, but thankfully the weather gods were smiling on us (for all but 2 days of our trip) and we did indeed come back bronzed and refreshed, content to be back in Verbier and ready to start the winter season.
Just three of Morocco’s many, many waifs and strays

We started our trip in Essaouira, which lies about three hours’ drive west of Marrakech on the Atlantic coast.  A city by the sea, it is made up of the Medina (old walled town) by the harbour, with the new town stretching (and growing at quite a rate) away from it.  We stayed in a small riad in the Medina, an extremely lucky find, where we were looked after beautifully whilst being given many fascinating insights into the local scene, customs, mentality and way of life by the English/Moroccan couple who run the place.  They were very relaxed and more than happy for us to use the kitchen… but with only five days and hundreds of places to eat out, I was happy to hang up my chef’s whites and be indulged and titillated by what Essaouira’s food scene had to offer.  With only a couple of duds (one being the over-priced fish stalls on the harbour, hell-bent on fleecing tourists), we ate like kings – but at paupers’  prices – during our stay.  Having got into our stride on the Cornish coast, we continued our seafood love affair and ate fish for almost every lunch and dinner – bream, sardines, mackerel, red mullet and other species that I couldn’t even recognise.  The local style is to butterfly the fish, grill over a hot fire and serve with local bread and a salad of tomatoes, herbs, green peppers & red onions – simple, delicious and the kind of thing we long for whilst living in the mountains.  But we deviated from fish one lunchtime, following a hot tip from our host: the ‘couscous lady’ in the little side street of Berber cafés, who only opens on Friday lunchtime – we were warned that she usually runs out early, such is her popularity with the locals, so we were excited to find that she had some left when we arrived: a bowl of perfectly-cooked couscous with chicken and vegetables, all for 20MAD (less than 2€) each.

Side street where we at lunch from the couscous lady of Essaouira 

The rain came the day before we left Essaouira and followed us as we headed down the coast to Imssouane, a tiny fishing village beloved by surfers for its long, rolling waves and laid-back vibe.  Our arrival was inauspicious: torrential rain making its way through every nook and cranny in our auberge, which made Fawlty Towers look like a slick, professional operation.  The morning after our first night, woken by the sounds of screaming drills and hollering builders, we headed out in search of improved (and completed) accommodation – spying some rather smart houses on the hill, we met Saïd, who seemed to be Imssouane’s local fixer: the man with a plan, everybody’s friend and our saviour.  He led us to a simple but spacious and clean one-bedroom apartment on the second floor with a huge terrace and panoramic views of the bay.  And, to make things even better, the rain had gone (for good) and the sun was out in force.  We settled in and things were looking up – after a storm out at sea, the waves were settling down into something quite surfable, I had a big (and, quite importantly, private) space for sunbathing and we had found our way around the village (it took us all of 10 minutes).  We didn’t need a big selection of restaurants – we found our favourite café and, besides, I had some cooking to get down to… with two fresh bream bought from the fishermen that morning, we picked up olive oil, spices, vegetables and herbs and headed home to cook and eat our first ever fish tagine.  Following the suggested method of the young chef at Imssouane Café, we put our faith in impeccably fresh fish and a tried and tested Moroccan classic.  We weren’t disappointed – it was delicious, thanks partly to our efforts and largely down to the quality of what was at hand.  Luckily, we’d been warned that Imssouane doesn’t have any alcohol shops, so we had bought a bottle of Domaine de Sahari gris (like a light rosé) with us from Essaouira – the perfect match for the delicate fish, spices and veg.

Swell lines coming into the bay, Imssouane

High street, Imssouane

Fish tagine in the making…

… and the end result

My favourite stray pup outside Momo’s surf shack, Imssouane

We were sad to leave Imssouane, but felt excited about our visit to Marrakech, tinged with a sensation that we were about to get a rude awakening – after 10 days of laid-back living surrounded by the ocean, we were heading into the lion’s den.  Gorgeous, dirty, manic, exotic, relentless… Marrakech is a lot to take in, but what a feast for the senses it is.  We weren’t there to shop, yet within 24 hours we were on a mission to find the ideal Moroccan teapot (having already purchased a wonderful backgammon and chess set made from tuya wood and lemon tree in Essouira), which we continued until we fell up “the one” on our penultimate day.  But even if you don’t intend to buy, the Marrakchi stall holders will find a way to draw you in – with mind games and cunning ploys that should earn them high-ranking positions in politics, the young men of Marrakech were playing a game that everyone was involved in, but only they knew the rules.  Our song for the Marrakech leg of our trip became “I’m a hustler, baby” – and with good reason.  But it’s all part of the rich experience… isn’t it?  The mopeds, however, we could really do without – no matter how tiny (or seemingly pedestrianised) the street (even inside the souks), we were constantly jumping out of the way of two-wheeled vehicles bearing anything up to five people, weaving and tooting their way around the pedestrians and each other.  Amazingly, we didn’t see one crash or accident the whole time we were there.

Our Moroccan teapot at sunset on our riad’s roof terrace, Marrakech
Patisserie stall, Marrakech souk

Marrakech is famed for its diversity of restaurants – there seem to be a vast amount of places serving European and south-east Asian cuisine, but if you spend long enough in Morocco, you’d be forgiven for hankering after something other than tagine, couscous, harira and brochettes… wouldn’t you?  Ah, but you’d be (partly) wrong as there are so many other Moroccan delicacies to seek out, such as briouates (parcels of vegetables, meat or seafood wrapped in filo pastry), pastillas (with a variety of fillings, but arguably the best is pigeon and almonds) and wonderful patisseries filled with almond paste (like marzipan) or peanut butter (much coarser and darker than what you find at home) and scented with orange blossom, rosewater and spices.  There are some restaurants, usually to be found in riads, that combine European touches, techniques and standards with a Moroccan team and style, resulting in a seriously special evening – we were recommended a French riad near Place Djaama el Fna (the epicentre of Marrakchi nightlife and craziness) that really blew us away – four elegant, delicious courses served to us by a friendly, charming team in the most beautiful poolside setting.

Place Djaama el Fna, Marrakech

Spices and stuff, Marrakech

But, inspired by our wonderful bargain couscous lunch in Essaouira, when we walked past a tiny opening in a small side-street with a row of tagines bubbling away on the pavement and enticing smells beckoning us, we were instantly curious – we were seated at a long, narrow table and, within minutes, were joined by a bunch of locals in their blue workman’s overalls.  Language instantly became redundant as we all got stuck into delicious lamb or chicken tagine – our smiles were saying it all, with occasional tears & laughter when one of us (Moroccans included, I was comforted to see) got a mouthful with a particularly hot chilli.  Utterly inspired, now we just have to figure out how we’re going to introduce tagines and couscous to the slopes of Verbier…

Tagines cooking for lunch, Marrakech

Koutoubia Mosque and the Atlas Mountains
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