Monday, 10 December 2012

Lakes of tears

There are few places in Morocco exempt for holding their own mystical local legends. Centuries old stories that blur the line of reality and fiction, intertwined with history, myth and folktales to create a narration of Moroccan national identity.

High in the Atlas mountains, as the soft delicate evening light washed over the harsh and rugged landscape surrounding a town called Imilchil, a local shepherd named Hassan was making his way down the mountain with a herd of goats and paused to tell us the story of how the lake, who's shore we stood on, was formed.

As the story goes.....there once were two young people who fell deeply in love but unfortunately they were from enemy tribes and their families wouldn't allow them to marry. Out of grief, they wept bitterly. They continued their crying day and night until they created two lakes made of their tears, lake Isli (his) and Tislit (hers). Their despair was so great, they committed suicide by drowning in those two lakes.

The families decided to establish a day on the anniversary of the lovers' death when members of local tribes could marry each other. Thus the Imilchil Marriage Festival was born. It is a time for some 30,000 people from the mountains to assemble under tents for three days with their flocks, their horses and camels. It is an occasion for the young girls to wear their finery, their sumptuous silver jewelry, and to dance for hours under the sun and under the stars. 

P.S. Hassan would like an Australian wife...

There must have been a lot of Tears. Lake Isli.

The dramatic backdrop of the Atlas Mountains.

A Moroccan and an Australian.

That's my wife not yours Hassan!

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Thursday, 15 November 2012

Most Moroccan's seem to hold the desert close to their hearts. Maybe it's because life out here is life in its most profound form. You need to be strong, not only physically to endure the harsh environment, but also mentally you need to be comfortable with yourself as there are very few superficial distractions.

I'm sure that these are only but a few of many reasons why an Aussie (originally a Pomme...) named Karen Hadfield had decided to set up her own desert camp. We had heard a story that Karen had spontaneously decided to set it up after just her first (and short) trip to Morocco and it wasn't until we arrived that we realised that we were also actually amongst her first group of guests. A single foreign woman running a business on her own in one of the most rugged environments in Morocco, actually the world. This seemed to be taking spontaneity to a new level. This couldn't possibly work could it?... Or could it?

Cafe Tissardmine, is set in a small oasis out near one of Morocco's most famous landmarks, the Erg Chebbi Dune. Karen's camp is set up as an artist's retreat and guesthouse giving you the choice of accommodation of either the traditional mud brick home or  Berber style tents both of which contain comfortable beds carefully made up in clean, crisp white linen. The solar power runs a small fridge in the camp's kitchen and pumps the water from a nearby well. You will only find one tap in the showers but the hot tap is not something you need out here! There's no internet and your phone probably won't work, but who cares, this really is a place that you come to relax and be still for a little while.

Conversation with Karen is easy and she is happy to share her story and the story of Cafe Tissardmine. As it turns out, while we may be her first official guests, Karen bought the camp in a state of ruin over a year ago and has been out here rebuilding since and there's nothing like building in a remote desert area to give you a real understanding of how a country works. I now have no doubt that Karen is well aware of what she's in for out here.

But she's not doing it all on her own as I originally thought, Karen has a business partner named Youssef. Youssef is a Berber who grew up locally in a nomadic family. When we head out to take camels to the top of the Erg Chebbi dune or visit the animal markets in the nearby town of Rissani, it is Youssef who guides the way across the unmarked hot and dusty plains. Youssef has also allowed Karen to form an amazing connection with the tiny village surrounding her camp. They know her well and enjoy her presence, appreciating her newly developed understanding and passion for the environment they share.

The more I spoke Karen and spent time with her, the more I began to realise how much admiration I had for this woman, buying the camp may have been a spontaneous decision but it was done only because she had the courage to realise she'd met her soulmate- Morocco.

Karen and Youssef.
Comfort in the desert.
Sophia slouching.
Rob and the boys.

Sophia and her new mate.

Karen and Sophia are both at home in the deserts of Morocco.

Helping the Princess up the dune.
The desert view.
What we all came for!
Road rules? I guess you need a road before you can have rules.

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Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Slaughter

I could see it in Karen's eyes, she was just as uncomfortable about the thought of a lamb being slaughtered.

It was the first anniversary of Cafe Tissardmine, Karen's desert camp and where we were staying. After a long hard year of work and building Sophia and I were part of Karen's first group of guests, Cafe Tissardmine was officially open for business. Celebrating a moment like this in Morocco is actually done in a very similar way to back home in Australia except, before you rush out and light the barbeque, you're going to have to confront the reality of where your meal actually originated from, and good luck finding a cold beer to ease your nerves beforehand!

Earlier in the day the boys had said that they would be slaughtering a lamb that evening but as the moment quickly approached there was doubt as to whether it would all go ahead. The local village, made up of about 8 sturdy mud brick homes scattered around the camp, certainly falls within the definition of poor. The locals live an extremely humble life, simply sleeping on matts directly on the hard earth floors of their homes. There is no electricity and all water needs to be carried by hand back from a near by water pump. Many of these local families once lived a nomadic life and this lamb will be a well received treat for each of them but there is no way the boys are going to sharpen the knife unless they are sure enough mouths have been invited so that not a single piece of the animal will go to waste, as the guest list is still fluctuating I hold out hope that I won't be enlisted for duty down at the sheep pen.

As the sun begins to set I can see the look of relief on Sophia's face. As a small child she made the mistake of considering one of her Father's young lambs as her pet but when the annual celebration of Eid al-Kabir, a festival that celebrates the prophet Abraham, Sophia quickly learned her first big life lesson.

"Rob, Rob, everyone is coming, they're going to do it!" I hear Karen nervously calling out to me, I think Sophia is about to relive that lesson!

In the modern society that many of us live in these days, it's easy to forget or ignore where much of our food and products originated from. The leather on our shoes, the stuffing in our pillows, the meat on our plates all required an animal to sacrifice its life. Out here in the deserts of Morocco the meat they need for their survival doesn't arrive on a refrigerator shelf already neatly wrapped in clear plastic, they have to get their hands dirty and confront the cycle of life themselves.
Are you ready?
The butcher has travelled in from a nearby town and is already mid-prayer as I arrive down the back of the desert compound with my camera, it's a peaceful moment and the lamb is calm and unknowing of the fate it's about to meet. I'm nervous. I only have a moment to gather my thoughts and organise my gear before the sharp blade is quickly and neatly whisked across the lamb's throat. Just like that, it's over almost before it even starts and the boys have the lamb hung and skinned. Every part of the lamb is carefully dissected and removed and washed, nothing is wasted. A young boy is running plates of meat and organs back up to the camp where the women are already deep into the preparation of the feast.

Quickly and skillfully.
As could be expect, multiple plates of couscous were being prepared with tender pieces of meat while fresh bread was being baked in the outdoor clay oven. The night had descended on us quickly and the kitchen was the only room with light, running off a battery charged by the sun's energy that day. I lay out under the stars in absolute darkness surrounded by the indecipherable chatter of the local men. The food started coming out hard and fast on big share plates, silence descended over the camp as bread was broken and used as a utensil retrieve food from the dishes. It was impossible to make out exactly what I was eating and my only hope for understanding a word of what was being described to me was Sophia who was eating with the other women on the other side of the camp. It really didn't matter, it was delicious and it was fresh.

Sophia was so excited as we went to bed that night. "You got to try some real Moroccan delicacies tonight" she said. "You know the first plate that came out, well that was actually pieces of lambs heart. Then we had boulfef, they were the kebabs".

"I ate about 6 of those, they were unreal!" I replied.

"Yeah, that is my favourite recipe from growing up. They are made of liver wrapped in the stomach fat".

I could see the remainder of the night taking one of two paths. A deep sleep nursed by a full belly of content, or many long restless hours fuelled by the knowledge of what I'd just eaten...

Organic food.

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One easily recognisable dish.

Bread baked Fresh.

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Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Beasts of burden

As we continue our journey out towards the far eastern border of Morocco and the much romanticised golden rolling seas of the Merzouga dunes, our lips begin to dry. The roads are beginning to get dustier and rougher and by the time we reach Rissani, one of the last towns before the endless sands of the Sahara, we can only pronounce half the letters in the alphabet (slight exaggeration).

I don't want to paint a cliched picture of this country, you really can find modern cities, beautiful architecture, thriving businesses and all the modern accessories you'll ever need but man when you drive into a place like Rissani you know you're in Morocco. It's arid, rugged, grubby and raw. The streets are disorganised and noisy, motorbikes and bicycles duck in and out of the people, the animals and the old vans and trucks that have made the journey into town from the smaller villages scattered near by and deeper into the desert. Sophia and I can't stop smiling, this place is real!

Apart from being your last stop to buy a chapstick, Rissani is also famous for its animal markets. In usual Sophia fashion, within 5 minutes of getting out of the car she has made a friend. In we go to the fresh produce markets first. If you've ever been amazed by the colours of piled spices in a Moroccan city souk, they're even more impressive set amongst the monochromatic backgrounds of the dusty desert markets. Trying to not be even bigger tourists than we already look like we made a conscious effort to not walk around with cameras glued to our eyes, instead waiting for the right moments which usually followed some sort of spontaneous and unpredictable exchange.

I could hear Sophia and our new mate deep in a conversation I couldn't understand until Sophia turned to me and said that we were off to see the animals. As we wandered through and she patted, kissed and talked to every animal in the market, even I could see that Sophia had obviously missed a bit of  the last conversation, to her it was heaven, she was in a giant pet shop. 

In Morocco animals are beasts of burden, they are necessary for transport, for farming, for eating and most importantly for survival but it's still hard to look tonight's tagine straight in the eye instead of through the tight thin plastic wrapping of a supermarket. So that's what it's like round here and the meat is fresh, as fresh as you can get.


Soph tries a new spice mix.

Look at those colours!

The neutral palette.

Our new mate and local legend.

Couscous or tagine?

The blow-ins.

Tweaking it.

Patting it.

Parking it.

Chopping it.

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Sunday, 9 September 2012


There are no shortcuts to the deserts that run down eastern Morocco along the Algerian border. I believe there is a small airport in a remote town called Errachidia but you certainly aren't going to find a low-cost airline that flies there which basically leaves you with two options, a full days drive from Fez or an even longer drive from Marrakech.

We felt that a driver/guide was the right way to go on our desert trip so that we could make best possible use of our time and see the most during our visit but it wasn't too far into our journey that we realised that, as that map had shown, there really was only one road all the way out there, pretty hard to get lost!

While our driver cranked out a selection of music from different regions of Morocco (and continually turned the air conditioning off each time he though we weren't looking) we passed through beautiful ever changing landscapes and towns. Ifrane was a town that caught our eye a few hours out of Fez. Also known as Little Switzerland, Ifrane is a summer resort/winter ski town filled with red-roofed, Swiss-style chalets laid out amongst gardens and tree lined streets, not a common sight in this country.

 A few more hours down the (same) road and it was the scatter of dark nomadic tents that captured our attention. Sophia was determined to go in for a closer inspection but I must admit that as we strolled out across the grassy plain I was a bit nervous, apart from the fact that neither one of us could speak Berber, how were we going to explain what we were doing knocking on their tent flaps?

Halfway out with 200 metres to go we were spotted, my pace slowed. I could now see the other family members beginning to gather out the front of the tent, I could feel my speed slowing again. A line of waving hands quickly went up, a spring was instantly injected back into my step. 

What an amazing family. Being there wasn't at all awkward or uncomfortable. We spent an hour with them simply hanging out and trading smiles before they walked us back to the road and we were again on our way desert bound.

The Nomadic plains.

Sophia with her new friends.

Smiles all round.
And Soph met a monkey...

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Thursday, 30 August 2012

Cornes des Gazelles

I can't wait to have the recipe for this one typed and finished and ready to share with you all. Cornes des Gazelles are a sweet pastry with an almond paste filling found all over Morocco. I've eaten them in every town and village we've been to but the ones Fusia prepared for us at Riad Kaiss have by far been the best, they just had something more rugged and homely about them, something special that separated them from the rest making them perfect for our book.

One tray is never enough.
Oh, and Riad Kaiss also has a pretty special courtyard.

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Monday, 27 August 2012

The Moroccan way or the highway

It's important to stay alert in Morocco, a lapse in concentration can have you backed into a tight corner at any moment. You never know when you are going to come across a police speed camera or check point, they love a good roadblock.

The same goes for any good Moroccan kitchen, beware the roadblock. You can sit for hours and talk about the cooking technique and ingredients of a single recipe until a point is reached where everyone is happy and in agreement. We have agreed on the origin of the recipe, where it has taken its influence from, how it should be cooked and exactly what ingredients and ratios are needed and that the traditional regional requirements have been fullfilled. 

"Excellent, seeing as we are all in concurrence, lets cook it!" 

Fusia begins to heat a pan of milk, the first step in the preparation of Mehelbiya, a classic Moroccan milk pudding. In goes a cup of corn flower, things are going smoothly so it's time for me to put my feet up for a few minutes until the next dish is ready to shoot. I haven't even reached the door before I hear a heated Arabic/French/English debate firing up in the kitchen between Fusia, Sophia and Jane, our food stylist. By the time I make it back the kitchen has descended into silence. Jane is still and looking confused, Sophia paces the room in frustration and Fusia stands victoriously in front of the simmering pot of milk slowly stirring in what looks to be a second cup of corn flower.

"I thought we'd agreed that one cup was the correct ratio for this recipe?" I asked.

"Yes, we did" Sophia blasted back at me. "Fusia said that was traditionally how it was done and that it should never be done any differently".

"What's the problem then?"

"Well apparently that's not the way Fusia does it".


Sophia gets blocked.

The girls celebrate their victory.

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Yotam's Army

It was never going to be a fair fight. Yotam Ottolenghi (the famous London based chef and restaurant owner) and his army had arrived in Marrakech to shoot part of his upcoming tv series that follows him across eastern countries as he experiences the local food and culture. Not only were they in Marrakech but they were staying right here with us a riad Dar Les Cigognes, a food media turf war was being waged under the one roof. 

Each morning two mini buses would come to pick up Yotam and his team while our little band of soldiers would struggle out the door ladened like donkeys as we all raced off to stake our rights on the nearby locations for the day.

We managed to capture this one image of Yotam (second from the left) and our team before Sophia and Jane turned on him like wild animals and ripped one of his arms off.

Apparently grey is a very cool colour.

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Friday, 17 August 2012

Bachelor's stew

We've spent a few days cooking and photographing recipes for our book at Riad Dar Les Cigognes in Marrakech with Fatna and her team so when we heard our next recipe, one of the great traditional Moroccan dishes called the tangia, was to be cooked down the road in the hammam (public bath house) we were intrigued. I could already visualise it. Soph, me.... and Fatna were going to nude up and explore the origins of traditional Moroccan cuisine.

Fatna sat at a low table with her tangia pot (the same word refers to the meat dish) which looked like a Grecian urn with a wide belly, narrow neck and handles on both sides, stuffing it full of a variety of cuts of lamb, casually sprinkling in a pinch of Saffron threads and two of cumin, some sea salt and pepper, a load of garlic, a few large swigs of olive oil and finally throwing in a whole preserved lemon. She wrapped the top of the pot in baking paper and announced in arabic that it was time to head off down the road. I grabbed my camera and my towel.

As I stood clutching my towel behind Steve and his video camera at what looked more like the back door of the hammam I was beginning to wonder how well this was all going to play out on film, I'd been struck by a moment of self-consciousness. Fatna knocked, the door was quickly opened by a slim, smiling man named Abdelhak who ushered us down some old crumbling stairs to a dark dirty room coated in charcoal, hmmmm not the hedonistic vision of endless food, splashing water and overflowing bath foam that I was imagining but then again we were in Morocco and not Ancient Greece I guess.

Abdelhak took the tangia from Fatna and buried it in a pile of hot ashes next to a fire that was burning in the corner of the room and told us to come back at the end of the day. What? That was it??

Walking back to our riad in a state of disappointment mixed with mild relief, Fatna explained to me that this was really one-pot cooking at its best. They called it 'bachelor's stew' as it was popular with single hard working men as they would go to the markets in the morning, have their tangia filled with the ingredients of their choice and drop it under the hammam where the hot fires heated the baths directly overhead. At the end of the day they would return to the hammam to wash and relax before picking up their perfectly cooked tangia and heading home for a delicious meal for one.

This story didn't end in the steamy way I had imagined but single guys if you cook this on your next date, I guarantee you won't be cooking for one for too much longer!

Fatna fills her pot.

Sophia, Abdelhak, random biker, Fatna and Steve. Clothes on.

Just add ashes.

A delicious meal for one, or two if you're lucky.

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