Escape the January frosts to spend a weekend in Marrakech? Yes please! We were lucky enough to have a last minute weekend in the red city to celebrate the birthday of one of our nearest and dearest. True to form, we managed to not only fit in some sightseeing and sunbathing but also to eat our way around the city. The weekend plans were hastily formed only a week before we headed off, so our trip was much more freeform than the result of careful planning. We did manage to find a few gems and definitely had several culinary firsts. Here is a little round up....
The guidebooks all tell you both to experience the food stalls that operate nightly in the Jemaa el Fna (the main square), and also to avoid them like the plague. It is an experience. It is fun. But it is also true that the food on offer might not have quite the finesse that you might hope for. On our first night we sampled the delights of one of the stalls selling pretty much all conceivable forms of Moroccan food, sticking to the rules of thumb of choosing a stall where there were locals, avoiding the seafood and opting for the grilled meats over the tagines. It was pretty good, particularly the pastilla, but mostly because it presented an opportunity to try a little bit of everything (or given the confusion over quantities, quite a lot of everything).
However, the following night we struck gold. The same location. The same type of stalls. But this time we went for more bizarre foodstuffs. Alongside the "all you can eat Moroccan buffet"-type stalls, there are stalls that specialise in sheep's heads and offal. Needless to say, these are less popular among tourists but those willing to brave it will definitely be rewarded. The sheep's heads were beautifully prepared and, with the meat removed from the skull, we were presented with flavour-packed meat and luscious fat topped with a sprinkle of cumin.
We felt quite brave going for the sheep's head so also ordered a plate of tongue and "cow's breast" to accompany it. We had figured that the "cow's breast" would be brisket or some sort of ribs. Not so. A whole round of charades, complete with quite graphic hand gestures, established that it was quite literally breast, in fact, udder. I would love to say it was "udderly delicious" but it didn't have much flavour and had the uniform, slightly spongey texture of liver or testicles that you either love or hate. I have to admit that we didn't quite make it through the whole plate.
The second discovery on the square were snails. Tiny little grey snails that taste like the best mushroom you have never eaten and a whole row of stalls devoted to them. Earthy, sweet, delicate morsels that we picked out of the shells and slurped down the juice. Please excuse the grubby fingernails in the photo below.
Although we hadn't done much pre-planning, I did come across some advice from MarocMama. We were already heading out to the Jardin Majorelle so took up her suggestion to make a detour to the Gueliz area in the new town and try Bejghueni (65 Rue Mohamed el Bekal, Gueliz). We were pretty glad we did. As MarocMama suggests, it is off the tourist track but, on Saturday lunchtime, there were lots of locals tucking into grilled meats, the ubiquitous Moroccan salad, and sides of tomato pulp and lentils.
The lamb chops were beautifully smoky and charred and the sausages - similar to Merguez - juicy and far superior to the ones on the square. The street-side setting didn't quite have the same charm but it certainly made up for it in terms of taste and value (we stuffed ourselves for around £12 total for three).
Now Saunders isn't a chap to leave taste boundaries untested and, sitting opposite the meat fridge, spied some lambs brains. There was a bit of confusion when they arrived, cooked in a tomato sauce with onions and we weren't at first sure they were actually the brains we had ordered. As we are hungry hippos, we didn't wait to question the waiter but assumed they were some version of shakshuka and tucked in, delighted with our bonus dish. Turns out they were the brains and the suggestion that brain does taste like scrambled egg is in fact very true. Also true is the fact that knowledge isn't necessarily power as a couple of our group went from eating them with gusto to either picking at them gingerly or declaring that they were "not nice at all".
We had hoped to head across to the much feted Amal Woman's Training Centre and Restaurant but, with the sun-filled roof terrace beckoning, we couldn't fit in another trip to the new town. A great alternative, and also a social enterprise, was the Henna Cafe in the medina. Saunders declared it the best tagine of the trip.
Feeling quite smug and adventurous, we wanted something at the other end of the spectrum for our second to last night. Somewhere closer to the riyad where we could linger on a rooftop and which, crucially, also served wine. Enter Nomad Cafe. The food was blimmin' sensational, the design of the restaurant stunning and, if you take a look at their instagram feed, it is definitely where the beautiful people hangout. Even in spite of our near constant hammaning, we don't quite class as beautiful people but were still given a very warm welcome. Starters ranged from cauliflower salads, possibly the best soused sardine tart, to lamb, turnip and egg brik (me neither but very good). We followed it up with lamb and prune tagines, mountains of fluffy couscous and their speciality warm date cake before rolling back down the stairs and off into the night. Granted, the prices are more expensive than elsewhere - although £20 per head with wine for a very generous feed are not quite London levels. But given the quality and sheer deliciousness of the food, the stunning setting, and the fact we had focussed on cheaper street eats until then, definitely worth it. I think the sardine tart photographed by moonlight looks quite romantic.
The final birthday meal of the trip was catered for by our riad. It was, we reckon, pretty close to home cooking and truly delicious. It kicked off with Moroccan salad (no surprise there), with fried and stuffed aubergines, and carrots cooked down with sugar and cinnamon. A word to the wise, if you don't like lamb, Morocco will be tricky. If you do, it is abundant and particularly good when roasted as mechoui. This came with vermicelli noodles dusted with cinnamon - the whole sweet/savoury/spicy/aromatic mix we had already come across with the pastilla. Again, delicious.
Recollecting it makes me think that a week of vegetarianism is in order as there was a lot of animal consumed. High end was as good and as interesting as more budget eats and we definitely got a taste for all things Marrakechi.