Richard H Turner’s column: on the evolution and allure of Marrakech

Keen to escape the UK winter, and intrigued by tales of a city that’s changing, Richard H Turner heads for the intoxicating sights, scents and flavours of Marrakech

Moroccan tagines – sweet and sour braises of meat, vegetable, fruit and nut cooked in special cone-shaped pots – can be found all over Marrakech

Fifteen years have passed since the last time I visited Marrakech, and my memories of it have softened – and the city has changed. I’m told it’s still a Marmite place – where delicious cooking smells mingle with the telltale signs of an ancient drainage system, and where street hawkers will place snakes, monkeys and most anything else that crawls, walks, flies or slithers on your shoulders if you let them – but that it’s been cleaned up.

With 2018 in the final throes of a slow and lingering death, I decided to get the hell out of Dodge and head to Marrakech in search of warmth, and maybe a meal or two. This time around I stayed in Marrakech’s famous medina, the walled heart of the city with its many narrow, maze-like streets (free of cars, but not necessarily free of speeding mopeds, bicycles, and the occasional donkey) and my base was Vanessa Branson’s fancy 28-bedroom riad, El Fenn.

Riad means garden in Arabic, but it’s applied to town houses built around a central courtyard, and while El Fenn has all this you can’t help feeling it’s stretching the term somewhat. It actually encompasses a sprawling complex of five interconnected riads with photogenic vistas of colonnaded balconies, sun-dappled patios and striking contemporary Moroccan art. Each courtyard is dedicated to a different function: one to the spa; another to a 12-metre heated pool; a third acting as an open-air reception; a fourth enclosing a well curated, if somewhat expensive, shop; and a fifth deeply tranquil space shaded by orange trees. Up above, another world of roof terraces exists replete with plunge pool, a grassy yoga deck and secluded lounging areas with views of the Koutoubia, the city’s largest mosque.

On my first morning in Marrakech, the staff at El Fenn hook me up with an impromptu lesson on pastilla making. Pastilla is a sumptuous and elaborate pigeon pie traditionally made from bone-in squab (fledgling pigeon) and warqa pastry (similar to filo), enriched with eggs then decorated with ground almonds, sugar, and cinnamon, and is typically served at Moroccan weddings and festive occasions.

The head chef takes me to the market to buy the ingredients and I watch in awe as three young chaps make the pastry on steaming metal drums, then pile up the delicate layers ready to sell. Next door the pigeons are ready to be bought fresh – perhaps a little too fresh for some; they watch me with beady eyes from their cages – and we head back to El Fenn armed with recently dispatched pigeons and freshly made pastry. The chef takes me through a step by step on pastilla making and we dine on the delicious results for lunch – sweet-savoury and sticky, with crispy, millefeuille-like pastry.

I watch in awe as three young chaps make pastry on steaming metal drums

That evening we head out in search of couscous. In Morocco, making couscous is a long, labour-intensive process. Much like Sunday lunch’s post-church service origins in Britain, Moroccan families traditionally gather around the table to share a massive platter of couscous on a Friday following midday prayers. It all starts by heading to the souks to pick up the seven vegetables required: cabbage, courgette, aubergine, pumpkin, carrots, parsnips, and tomato. Then a pack of freshly prepared couscous, plus ingredients to make tfaya, a blend of caramelised onions, cinnamon, raisins and parsley.

The vegetables, along with water and spices, are placed in the first pot of a double-chambered couscoussier and brought to a boil – the second pot is filled with couscous and steamed by the boiling vegetables below. Every 15 minutes or so the couscous is removed to fluff, roll with olive oil, add more water and salt, then returned to sit atop the vegetables. An hour or so later, the vegetables should be tender and the couscous cooked to perfection, ready to dive into (usually with the hands). We get our couscous fix from a local restaurant, where we also order a tagine for a meaty protein hit.

Moroccan tagines are sweet and sour braises of meat, vegetable, fruit and nut, typically spiced with cumin, turmeric, ginger, cinnamon and saffron. Because the cone-shaped lid of the pot they’re cooked in – also called a tagine – traps steam and returns the water to the pot, very little liquid is needed.

At the weekend, I’m press-ganged into the inevitable shopping trip to the city’s famously intense souks, where I window-shop olives, herbs and spices, baby tortoises and chameleons while studiously avoiding the 10,000-odd shops selling woven and leather goods, clothes, jewellery and just about anything else you can imagine. I loathe shopping, almost as much as Christmas, but eventually we find ourselves in Mechoui Alley, which is a different story altogether…

Moroccan tagines are sweet and sour braises of meat, vegetable, fruit and nut

Many of the shops on this street, which attracts food lovers all over the world, are family owned, have been in operation for generations and each one sells both mechoui and tangia, a Marrakech speciality not to be confused with tagine. Inside mechoui shops, there’s a round vertical hole in the centre of the floor, one metre wide and two metres deep. Open the hatch and you’ll discover a dozen or more whole lamb roasting around smouldering wood embers. The wood is burned for five or six hours, and then, when the earth surrounding the hole is smoking and the wood is transformed into embers and ashes, most of it is removed to avoid flare-ups.

The prepared lamb is added to the oven vertically and sealed with a lid covered with clay, mud, or wet sand. Cooking lasts four to five hours, and when the lamb is ready, the hardened cover is broken to remove it from the oven. The tools of the mechoui trade are clearly displayed – sharp knives, a scale with weights, and a cutting block upon which the whole cooked carcass is cleaved into manageable pieces. These are weighed before being served on paper with cumin and salt, and then eaten with bread and mint tea.

Later that night I make my way back to El Fenn, with its 50-cover restaurant, three pools, a spa, yoga lawn and a shop carrying cutting edge, luxury Moroccan brands. En route I pass through the Jemaa el Fna, the main square in the medina, where locals encourage you to buy myriad goods and pay for taking photos of their monkey or cobra. Marrakech may have changed but some things, you suspect, will always be the same.

For more of Richard’s adventures, follow him on Instagram at @richardhturner