Over the mountains we go – eating our way through the High Atlas in Morocco

Ha, I bet you thought I forgot about these posts. Never fear, I’m not stopping. I’m just slow!

We left Marrakech for a long trip through Morocco’s High Atlas mountains. After several hours driving on narrow, windy roads we stopped at a little town that I think was called Toufrine (I could be mistaken) for lunch.

Leaving Marrakech, Mark piled us into a car and we headed into the High Atlas Mountains. After windy roads and a long morning drive, we reached the small mountain town of Toufrine where we met our local guide, Mohamed.

Our gracious host and local guide was Mohamed, who started us off with a refreshing (and super sweet) cup of mint tea.

Mohamed pours mint tea

Mohamed pours mint tea

These almonds and pecans were from nearby trees. Don’t you wish we had this kind of local food in our backyards?

tea and snacks

tea and snacks

The main meal was a lamb tagine, with tender olives, tomatoes and potatoes piled high.

lamb tagine

lamb tagine

my plate

my plate

loaves of fresh khobz (bread)

loaves of fresh khobz (bread)

After stuffing ourselves, Mohamed took us to a nearby mountain town for some sightseeing. We were supposed to go to a town renowned for their waterfall, but the abnormal amount of rain in the area washed out the road and so instead we went to a totally different town called Tighfiste.

On our way there, after talking to someone on an old cell phone, he suddenly asked Mark, our regular guide, to stop the car and he climbed out. And then up. Straight up, in the pouring rain. Wearing only sandals. Trying to find him in the photo is like playing Where’s Waldo. Mohamed is the striped blur somewhere in the middle of the photo. I took this picture while sitting in the car and looking straight up.

Part mountain goat?

Part mountain goat?

He came back with reused water bottles and giant jugs of honey from someone who lives at the top of this cliff. And yes, he carried all of it down that same cliff.
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Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech

Sheep’s head, anise flavoured snails and cinnamon are three things that immediately flood my memory when I think about Djemaa el Fna and Marrakech.

Djemaa el Fna is the main square in Marrakech’s medina quarter. Bustling and filled with merchants and performers all day and night, this area inspired the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity UNESCO project, where they identify cultural history such as music and performances, rather than physical buildings and places.

Djemaa el Fna in the daytime

Djemaa el Fna in the daytime

During the day, stalls sell orange juice, dates and nuts. Performers wander around with poor Barbary apes on chains and snake charmers try to lure in tourists.

another shot of Djemaa el Fna in the daytime

another shot of Djemaa el Fna in the daytime

There are a number of cafés facing the square.

doughnut seller and cafe

doughnut seller and cafe

merchants

merchants

snake charmers

snake charmers

And then, before sunset, the snakes move out and the food carts start moving in.

food carts

food carts

To me, this is when Djemaa el Fna really comes alive. At night the square is filled with food stalls, hungry people, singers, drummers, dancers, storytellers, women doing tattoos with some dubious henna and people selling traditional medicines.

nuts and dried fruits

nuts and dried fruits

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Riad Elizabeth, Marrakech

Goodbye London! After a cramped flight on a discount airline, we landed in Marrakech, Morocco. Our guide, Mark from Mad About Morocco, arranged for a driver to pick us up and deliver us to our first stop where we would spend the next two nights, the Riad Elizabeth.

Before I go on I should explain a couple of terms that you will see me use quite often in my Moroccan posts.

A medina is a section in North African cities that is sometimes referred to as “old town.” It is the oldest or older part of the city, and was built by the Arabs as a walled town with many narrow streets. The streets are so narrow that some, if not all, streets must be accessed on foot and by donkey. Cars usually cannot access these streets, and in some cases they also can be too narrow for carts, bicycles and motorcycles (not that this stops anyone from roaring their motorcycle down a narrow medina street). Medinas often are like mazes, with many twists and turns, and contain many places of historical interest like palaces, mosques and fountains. They usually have multiple gates, and sectioned off quarters. This is where all the tourists want to go, and where many Moroccans want to move out of, as the newer sections of the city are more modern and middle-class.

Marrakech medina, just outside of Riad Elizabeth

Marrakech medina, just outside of Riad Elizabeth

A riad is a traditional Moroccan home that has a central open-air courtyard and/or garden in the middle. The rooms of the house surround the courtyard, which is traditionally open to the outdoors, although many modern renovations now have retractable roofing to cover the opening. Many renovated riads now serve as hotels and restaurants.

Located in Marrakech’s medina, the Riad Elizabeth is unique in that it is relatively easily accessible by car (although you still have to walk for a minute or so).

Riad Elizabeth

Riad Elizabeth

One of the owners, an ex-pat Brit named John, greeted us and immediately sat us down for some lovely homemade cookies and mint tea. Hospitality is a very important part of Moroccan life; as soon as you enter someone’s home you are offered mint tea and some sort of snack.

cookies

cookies

Mint tea is a traditional drink in Morocco, and it is served in small glasses. It is made by brewing green tea (sometimes jasmine or gunpowder) and adding large amounts of fresh mint. And lots and lots of sugar. Moroccans love adding copious amounts of sugar into their tea.

tea set

tea set

In my small cup I added one sugar cube and it was plenty for me. John told us that Moroccans would probably have added 4 or more cubes of sugar.

my first taste of mint tea

my first taste of mint tea

The entire riad has been renovated, which made for a nice, easy transition into the culture and atmosphere of Morocco.

our room

our room

flower close up

flower close up

Wait, who's that in the mirror?

Wait, who's that in the mirror?

view of the courtyard from above

view of the courtyard from above

This riad can arrange for dinner, or can help you with taxis to restaurants. Every room comes complete with a full breakfast, served on the riad’s rooftop patio. Clockwise, starting at 12 o’clock, are toasted baguettes, Moroccan bread (named khobz and pronounced hobs in Arabic), fluffy Moroccan pancakes (named beghrir in Arabic), and thin Moroccan crepes (named msemen in Arabic). The crepes reminded me of Malaysian roti. The jam was delicious, and the orange juice was freshly squeezed and sweet. Oh and the oranges! I fell in love with Morocco’s oranges. Almost every orange I ate during the trip was sweeter and tastier than any orange I’ve had in North America. And these oranges were winter oranges; in the summer they are even sweeter!

breakfast, day 1

breakfast, day 1

The breakfast we had before we left Marrakech consisted of French toast made from baguettes (top), more khobz bread, and semolina bread (named harsha in Arabic). And more fruit. I gobbled the oranges.

breakfast, day 2

breakfast, day 2

John, his wife Elizabeth, the riad’s manager Kamal, and all their staff went out of their way to make our stay a pleasant one. It was an auspicious (and delicious) start to the Morocco leg of our trip.

Riad Elizabeth
Derb El Baroud, Hart Essoura
Marrakech Medina 40000
Morocco
www.riadelizabeth.com

News and events

  • I recently stopped at Famoso for a meal (lots of photos over at my review from 2009). The pizza was great as usual, but they’ve recently changed their gelato supplier from Edmonton’s Bueno Gelato to Calgary’s Fiasco Gelato. I tried two flavours – the blood orange sorbet and the banana chocolate gelato, and was disappointed. The sorbet was a little too icy and grainy, and didn’t have much blood orange flavour. The gelato, while creamy and smooth, had no banana taste whatsoever and I wasn’t crazy about the chocolate flavouring. This really surprised me; while I haven’t tried them in any of their Calgary locations, Fiasco ordinarily gets pretty good reviews from what I can tell.
  • Superstore is now selling bread made with Red Fife. There’s a $1 coupon that you can get if you want to try it out (expires July 16). When you click on the link, just skip to page 4 of their baking booklet. There are also coupons for other breads and cinnamon buns on that same page.
  • Liane Faulder at the Edmonton Journal has a blog post about a food writer’s tour of Alberta.
  • Gary at travel blog Everything Everywhere has started up Project Pringles – his effort to document every flavour of Pringles from all over the world. If you have a picture of a Pringles flavour, you should send it his way. (And yes, he’s right. They are everywhere. I even found Pringles in Morocco, but unfortunately I didn’t take a photo of them.)
  • World Cup fever – did you know that the Dutch wear orange because of purple carrots?
  • And more on the World Cup – the “Oracle Octopus” could end up as dinner if German fans have any say.
  • Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko is in hot water after spending a lot of money on breakfasts during the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. Maybe he’s a hobbit who needs breakfast, second breakfast and elevenses?
  • Jeffrey Steingarten interviewed Gwyneth Paltrow for Vogue magazine – she’s coming out with a “cooking for families” cookbook later this year. The best line from the article has to be “Our conversation was not much different from what it would have been if Gwyneth were a longtime food friend, except that Gwyneth is nicer than most of my food friends.” You can see a bunch of photos of Gwyneth’s kitchen(s) and read an edited version of the article on the Vogue website.
  • Fast Company did a feature on innovative U.S. cities, and a couple of cities caught my eye – New York’s urban farms and Portland’s farm-fresh food.
  • And lastly, check out Beer and Butter Tarts, a Canadian food and drink blog aggregator. I recently added my blog to the list!