Friday, March 30, 2012

The Men of Morocco

One of my biggest surprises of the trip was how warm and protective the men of Morocco were.  Part of that stems from the relationships that Peggy, our trip organizer, has cultivated over the many years she's been going to Morocco and working with the same people.  I was really touched by the extreme toughtfulness of the men we encountered.  Here are a few of my favorites, and the one's I was actually able to capture on film.

Gary was the owner of Jnane Tamsna and creator of the vast gardens on the property.  He also has developed a kids education program where he's teaching them how to grow appropriate food.

He even invited us into his home on the final night for a farewell cocktail and olive tasting where we all voted on our favorites using a multi-color stickering system.  You can tell he's successful for a reason.

The whole staff at Jnane Tamsna was so helpful, and so friendly.  It's not often someone hugs me when I come back to my room.

There were many random, bit players that played a small role in our trip, but made a big impact, like Robin Hood.

Robin Hood
Robin Hood owned a small shop in the High Atlas mountains, but talked like a smooth city slicker, taking from the rich Berbers to give to us.  He was quite entertaining, and after meeting his dad who owned a tiny carpet shop next to his, we had to wonder where he developed his eccentricity.

Robin Hood's Dad

Mobrak, our trail guide, was also wonderful, and poured a good Moroccan tea.

The boys in the villages were also adorable, including these 2 little one's we found riding a mule into the village.

We were treated to a human beat box performance by Larby at Sidi Kaouki.  He was quiet by day, lighting candles and shuffling in the shadows, but by night, he comes into his own with a harmonica and Moroccan music, which in turn led to some belly dancing.

The men at the Kabah du Toubkal were also exceptional.  After a cooking demonstration and tea, we started learning more about a few of them.  Brahim is single with an infectious, belly laugh. 

Some of the guys joined us for dinner one night
Several recommendations were being thrown out for Brahim of some of the ladies who work in the other locations we traveled, and Brahim just laughed and said he can't have a city girl. 

He called them "zig zag" girls.  When he said he was looking for a European woman, one of the guys shot my hand in the air, but I had to confess to being a bit of a zig zag girl myself, which prompted a tete a tete with me and Brahim on the intricacies of zigging, zagging and European life.


One of the most special treats we received on this trip was a performance by many of the men from the Kasbah and town. 

They sang in a call and response way and their voices filled the room, along with their drums engaging your whole body.  They invited us to join them and dance, which we did.  It was a wonderful experience.

I'd be remiss not to mention how lovely all of the ladies were as well, but for me, that wasn't as much of a surprise.  The Sidi Kaouki Inn is nearly an all female run establishment, and we couldn't have been made to feel more welcome.

Peggy with the Kaouki Ladies

Baija, Meryanne, Peggy, Ashley, Nagette and all the ladies on the trip made for a most memorable experience.

Ashley and her herb bouquet

It was the combination of all the people, places, animals, food and experiences that made this a trip to remember.

Morocco - The Animals

I had many animal firsts on my trip to Morocco with the biggest spectacle being the goats in trees. 

I still feel like I was hallucinating when I saw 4 legged goats standing upright and still as if enjoying a beautiful pasture, except that they were 20' off the ground balancing on a tiny tree branch.

Later in the trip we drove by another goat tree forest, except this time we saw the goats climbing and some were even standing completely perpendicular to the tree.  I've never seen anything like it, and I only wish I was able to capture some action shots of these versatile creatures.

As if that's not entertaining enough, the goats climb these argan trees to eat the fruit.  They process the fruit, but are unable to utilize the nut inside so they "give it up" and some hardworking (and forward thinking) Moroccans collect it, press it, and out comes precious argan oil.  You have to wonder what kind of dare took place to find out this amazing oil is a product of that whole process.  Actually it was said that single woman first started this business as a way of earning their keep, and when it became popular, everyone wanted in.  You may never look at your aragan oil the same.

Women crushing the nuts to make the argan oil

After that, riding a camel seemed sort of anti-climatic.  Let's see a camel climb a tree, but a few of us did ride camels on the beautifully secluded beach  in Sidi Kaouki.

Because they're so large, they sit down so you can get on them, but then they lurch back and forth when trying to get up, which is why they have handlebars on them.

They ride itself was a lot more peaceful than I was expecting.  I was picturing a gait like an elephant, which wasn't one of my favorite, but the camel is near gazelle-like in comparison.

And of course the beach at sunset makes everything peaceful and beautiful.

After all of that, riding the mule up the rainy, muddy hill to the Kasbah du Toubkal was like a merry-go-round ride, even despite my lack of rain gear and white linen pants.  I was amazed at the load these mules could carry.  We saw them carrying heavy, oversized duffel bags full of supplies to the villages, and then of course there was all of our luggage they had to cart up the steep inclines.  They're bred for this and don't seem to mind (I hope).

And then there were sheep and goats walking everywhere.  Sometimes they'd stop traffic as they walked down the middle of the road. 

Sometimes they'd walk with you on your hikes, and the little ones would energetically try to keep up, even as they stumbled and fell to keep pace.

We saw a decent amount of turtles during our stay as well. They'd usually just eat and run...or slowly amble.

And of course there always needs to be a garden dog.  This is Diva, appropriately named for her wonderful life at Jnane Tamsna.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Morocco - The Food

Can you believe I've waited this long to go into detail on the fabulous food of Morocco?  I wanted to establish the sense of place first, and now that you know where we are, it's time to dive into the world of gastronomy.

Just about every day we had a cooking class wherever we were with the local chef, which gave a nice comparison of different styles and techniques. The star attraction has to be the tagine.  They cook everything in it - chicken, lamb, vegetables, eggs, you name it.

On our first day in Marrakech, the lovely Baija from Jnane Tamsna, helped us make chicken tagine with many different variations on spices and vegetables according to taste. 

I made a spice filled chicken, artichoke and brussels sprout tagine with notes of ginger, turmeric, garlic, and cumin.  The beauty of all of our cooking classes was that we'd get to eat our hard work for lunch or dinner afterwards.  I was quite pleased with my chicken tagine.

In Marrakech, we put all the ingredients with the raw chicken in the tagine, and then on the fire outside to cook.  At the Kasbah du Toubkal in Imlil, chef Omar cooked everything inside and browned the lamb before adding the rest of the ingredients like fresh figs and walnuts, which also made for a tasty, and more browned, meat.

At Sidi Kaouki, we totally switched things up and made Berber Omelets in the tagine using a base of tomatoes and spices, and then cooked the eggs right on top, resulting in a perfect breakfast dish for guests or yourself with some bread.

On our drive from Imlil back to Marrakech, we made the best of stops at Nectarome Gardens.  Not only can they tell you about the healing properties of every herb in their garden, they also have fabulous oils, soaps, and lotions.  As if that's not enough, they gave us a bread making lesson, with olive oil tasting and a wonderful afternoon.


Back in Marrakech, Baija patiently and energetically led us through many afternoons of cooking.  We learned about different types of couscous, and how to cook it when it doesn't come in a box with boil and go instructions. 

It requires much hand holding and caressing, and while it may be a sensual experience, I'm not 100% sure I noticed a great enough difference to give up my afternoon in exchange for the instant box variety.

I do have to say that it made for some lovely one plate presentations.

We also did a day playing with the similar flavors of Spain and Morocco by cooking a Spanish tortilla and a wonderful tapenade with figs, walnuts, olives and balsamic vinegar.

All of our cooking prepped us for a trip to the Spice Market in the Medina.  You smell it before you see it, but the spices are all so fresh and fragrant that most of us ended up taking quite a few home.  My little Parisian apartment (and my neighbors) have never smelled such things coming from my place.

Everywhere we went, we were treated to traditional Moroccan tea.  The mint tea has about 25 pounds of sugar in it so naturally it's sinfully delicious.  I tried to opt for the fresh Verbena tea when possible, which was lighter and still refreshing.  There is much ceremony that goes into the making of the tea with multiple washings and specific pourings.  Girls at the age of 12 are supposed to be able to make bread and perform the tea ritual, which then decides her fate as a wife.  I did see some Lipton tea bags in a few locations, so not sure if that's what happens once you land the man.

Our final day we made kefta, spice filled meat balls, cooked in a bed of tomatoes and those were delicious and definitely something I will try to repeat again. 


Unfortunately the painstaking pastilla was the least favorite dish, but it certainly looked pretty and a lot of love went into the making.  I suppose it was a fitting ending to prepare us for the transition of cooking unsupervised.

It was a fluke though as every meal we had was really outstanding, and it was always served in a lovely location, usually under the stars with beautiful local greenery around us.