Monday, 23 January 2012

Marrakech: a stroll in a local food souk

I've always wanted to visit Morocco. To me, it appeared to offer a full-on taste of a completely different world, yet barely further than southern Spain. In fact, southern Spain can be pretty exotic, too. Seville and Granada take your breath away with their Moorish architecture, especially the spectacular Alhambra. Morocco continued to beckon, though.

In November I finally fulfilled this desire, spending a few days in Marrakech with my mother. Based on reading several reassuring reviews we decided to stay at the Riad Al Massarah in the medina. Although helpfully located in the old centre, the riad is in the Bab Doukkala neighbourhood, which offered the chance to observe Marrakech on a local level, away from the touristy Jemaa el Fna square and main souks (about 20 minutes walk away). The new town and Majorelle Gardens were just a short taxi ride away. More about the riad will follow separately.

After breakfast on our first day, Abdelwahed, the chef at the riad, took us food shopping in the local souk. This helped us get our bearings and he gave us some useful practical tips about Marrakech (such as being discrete when taking photographs – if we hadn't been with a local and introduced to people, we wouldn't have been able to take so many pictures). Perhaps as a result of this, as the days went by, the local traders greeted us with a friendly "bonjour mesdames" whenever we passed.

It was thrilling being introduced to Marrakech in this way and it was at least as exotic as I'd expected. If mopeds hadn't kept whizzing through the narrow allies and if there hadn't been so many bicycles about, you could have been transported back several centuries. With this bounty on offer, it was easy to appreciate the significance of Marrakech's fertile location. All types of food were available, often in their freshest, most honest form. (However, if you prefer your chicken breasts skinless, boneless and shrink-wrapped, this post might not be for you.)

You always see the testicles on carcasses to prove the beast is male and the green stamp indicates the highest quality meat.

Herbs, but mainly mint.

Live chickens.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

January: easy on the alcohol

Firstly, let me wish you a happy and healthy 2012. Talking of health, we are taking it easy on the wine front this month. We are not entirely on the wagon, but avoiding it as much as we can to give our systems a bit of a break. If we have a drop of wine at the weekend, so be it, but weekdays are remaining dry, although I've been out and about tasting some glorious wines (and spitting, of course). Come February we'd like to maintain a level of restraint during the week, but we'll see how things unfold. I've only got the one liver and I'm prepared to give it a bit more respect.

Helping me along with this is my new favourite (alcohol-free) tipple. I have a bottle of orange bitters originally bought for marmalade cocktails. I was working on the Hawksmoor At Home cookery book and couldn't wait to try this 'eye opener' (and it was a good excuse to test the recipe). I don't want to admit how many we've enjoyed over the past year. It just so happens, though, that orange bitters make a great addition to tonic water. I do love a g & t and have always found tonic water with ice and lemon makes a decent grown-up tasting alcohol-free drink, but loose the lemon and shake in some orange bitters and you have something that tastes altogether more special. It suits this time of year perfectly: uplifting, refreshing, with a slightly exotic complexity. It's become a regular treat and I really look forward to sipping it while preparing dinner. What's more, it looks completely ambiguous.

At the end of the evening I turn to a particular favourite that I first discovered more than 20 years ago during my year in France as an English language assistant. The French may not be good with British style (black) tea with milk, but their tisanes are quite special. This blend of liquorice and mint is ideal late in the evening (as the name suggests). We often don't bother with desert or pudding and the comforting sweet flavours of this tea round off a meal perfectly. A bit healthier (and cheaper) than sipping some malt whisky – my other favourite post-prandial. Here's to your good health!