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Published: August 3rd 2020
Yesterday our excursion exploring some of the Ourika Valley had begun early and ended late. We welcomed a somewhat later wake up call on Day 12 (Thursday, October 17, 2019) -- the only problem was the wake up call never came, or did we sleep through it? We’ll never know but we were glad that we had set our own phone alarm just for situations like this. We had to scramble to do some last minute packing to make sure our luggage got placed outside of our hotel room for pickup before breakfast. Thankfully we had taken our showers the night before so we felt reasonably presentable for the day!
We enjoyed our last breakfast at Hotel Opera Plaza’s La Rossini Restaurant where we managed to have time for omelets, fruit and coffee which was plenty to start the day with. We checked out, took a few last photos of the scenery around our hotel and were on the bus by 9 am. We didn’t have far to go and in 15 minutes or so we were already inside of Marrakesh’s medina.
Winding our way through the still cool narrow passageways of the medina, we found residents emerging from
their homes here which reminded me that the medina, while feeling like a living museum to visitors, is where many people still make their homes inside the protective honeycomb surrounded by 12th century walls. People still live, eat, shop, worship, study, work, run businesses and socialize here.
As for us, our tour company once again succeeded in planning what I thought was an exceptional experience for our group – a cooking class at the Lotus Chef Cooking School where we would learn the secrets of preparing a few of the best-known Moroccan dishes. Located on the Fhal Zefriti in the Ksour Quarter of the medina, everything about this school was exceptionally well thought out and I highly recommend this cooking school.
We gathered in a riad-like courtyard room for introductions to the large team of women chefs, bakers, tea ceremony hostess, and assistants who would be instructing us. The head chef is a “dada” chef, or a traditional Moroccan chef from a local restaurant. All extremely confidant, qualified and talented, I was impressed with these women, and the fact that they seemed to be holding prominent work place positions. Up until this particular day, I encountered few Moroccan
women who seemed to be part of the main stream workforce.
By this point in our trip, we had witnessed several tea ceremonies but I confess the one at Lotus Chef was my favorite. Dressed in a brightly colored traditional costume, the shy smile, humble demeanor and graciousness of the tea ceremony hostess here made an impression on me and all eyes in the group were undoubtedly cast her way. The hot mint tea she made was gladly welcomed as yet another instance of Moroccan hospitality, but it's also a very interesting ceremony to watch.
Next, a comprehensive cooking demonstration was given by the head Dada chef as another young woman emceed in English. The ingredients, preparation, cooking and plating were explained in detail as everything came together. The result was several dishes including a vegetable tajine with couscous, chicken tajine with olives and preserved lemon, and cooked salads made of zucchine/courgettes and eggplant/aubergine.
The fun part came when we were taken to a large brightly lit L-shaped kitchen with even more natural light streaming in from windows opening onto a rooftop terrace. Each and every member of the group had their own complete work station including
stainless steel sink & gas stove, cutting board, utensils, and towels as well as a closed-circuit TV. All the fresh ingredients and spices necessary to make our own chicken tajine and 2 cooked salads, which would become our lunch, were already nicely displayed at our workstation along with physical cooking tajines which we marked with our names. Even after 45 years of cooking for my family, I still wasn't sure I would be up to the task of preparing foreign dishes, but I was surprised at the immediate ease I felt in the kitchen.
To make it even easier for those who might not feel comfortable in any kitchen let alone this one, the young woman who had emceed in the main gathering room gave step by step audio instructions over a “whisper” while we simultaneously watched our individual closed-circuit TV screens as the head chef assembled the dishes along with us in case someone missed any steps shown by the head chef.
The time went quickly and with preparations complete for our individual chicken tajines, we placed them on the stove with a medium-high flame, then turned our attention to making 2 cooked salads -- as mentioned
previously, these being a salade de courgettes
/zucchini salad and salade zaalook
(eggplant/aubergine salad). I was very pleased/chuffed with my efforts and hubby's too. We then gathered around the head chef as she made baghrir/beghrir
, a spongy semolina Moroccan pancake which can be eaten hot or cold with honey and butter. Stepping out onto the roof where a clay oven was tucked into one corner, some of us watched as the baker showed us her method for baking the perfect khobz
Everything at the Lotus Chef Cooking School went off like clockwork. By the time we returned to the main room, our self-made meals were waiting for us at preset tables along with additional vegetable tajines, salads, bread and beverages. Enjoying the results of our own cooking made lunch so much more rewarding. The Lotus Chef School's staff made sure we left on a high note when we were applauded by the staff and awarded Dada Chef class certificates as well as a nice handful of large recipes printed in color on good card stock.
Sadly, this was our last morning in Marrakesh, but there is still a wealth of sights and experiences that await visitors who have
more than just 3 nights to spend in this city. That being said, I was truly looking forward to 2 nights at the charming oceanside town of Essaouira where we were headed immediately after leaving the cooking school. With a driving time of approximately 2 ½ hrs from Marrakesh (not counting stops along the way), we would arrive in plenty of time for some daylight exploring in that delightful town as well as arranging for dinner on our own.
About an 1 ½ hrs into our drive we made a much needed ‘technical stop’ at a good roadside café where they accepted Euros so we took advantage of buying some souvenirs for small gifts, and even got an ice cream here. We would make 2 more stops before arriving in Essaouira, both yielding some additional new experiences and an opportunity for photos which I looked forward to.
Our drive took us along roads where Argan trees grew in groves or were scattered sporadically and seemed to thrive regardless of the parched, rocky earth they were rooted in. These groves cover thousands of hectares of land roughly bordered by the High Atlas Mountains, the Sahara Desert and the Atlantic
Ocean. This expanse has been designated as, and is therefore protected as, a UNESCO biosphere reserve since 1998.
Known as “The Tree of Life,” Argan trees are endemic to Morocco and produce a valuable cash crop. Argan oil, sometimes referred to as ‘liquid gold’ in Morocco because of its value, is extracted from the Argan tree’s nut kernels and is widely touted for its beneficial properties and is used in cosmetics, as well for cooking and medicinal purposes which we would learn about shortly.
Scanning the scenery as our bus rolled along at a steady speed, soon and happily for us some us, the now famous Argan tree-climbing goats came into view and the owner and a relative approached us as we got off the bus. It’s a sight you can’t quite believe until you see it for yourself. Perched like birds on branches in the sparsely green Argan tree, about a dozen goats occupied this particular tree looking for the fleshy Argan fruit to eat. While perhaps an odd behavior for normal goats (though mountain goats are skilled climbers too), these seem to have adapted to it due to the short supply of ground forage.
The goats play an important role in the ecology chain as well as in local economics. Their's seems to be a symbiotic relationship benefiting both the goats themselves and their owner. The goats eat the fruit of the Argan tree after which they digest the edible portion but expel the remains which are the fruit pits or nuts. The goats owners collect the remains, in this case like a crop, and sell them to local cooperatives or even larger Argan oil producers presumably. The nuts’ kernels containing the valuable oil are extracted either by hand in cooperatives or mechanically by larger producers.
As we took photos, one man brought a kid goat for anyone who wanted to hold it and take photos which many of us did -- I surely did. Although this particular goat most probably had already been weaned, the mother goat was probably close by or I hoped so. Nearby too was a mother camel and her calf which was a adorable.
The owner with his cute little daughter in tow, welcomed us to have a closer look and take as many photos as we liked. The little girl kept happily posing for photos,
and at first I thought she was just enjoying having her photo taken as she never indicated she was asking for money for it. On second thought, I wished I had realized it sooner as I’m sure she was hoping to earn a few Dirham no doubt; some in our group, including Rick, happily obliged with some Dirham – she was so proud that she showed her father what she had collected. Situations like these make it a good practice to have coins or small paper notes on hand – offering them doesn’t necessarily encourage bad behavior on the recipient’s part, and while it makes little difference to our pockets, it may make a happy occurrence in a child’s life.
To make a nice tie in to learning about Argan trees and their precious oil, we visited the Cooperative Marjana Pour L’Extraction d’Huile d’Argan located near of Essaouira. This is a womens’ cooperative, and like other womens’ craft cooperatives in Morocco, the workers share in the ownership, control production, sales, and participate in making business decisions on a collaborative basis. Generally a cooperative’s profits from a business provides an income and benefits; but, also hopefully one of its main
missions is to promote empowerment for these women who it appears otherwise lead a traditional way of life. However, not all cooperatives function in the same way.
We were given a tour and commentary on how Argan oil is derived as we watched women at work. These mostly middle age to older women sit, often in pairs, along the walls with baskets full of Argan nuts. Placing a nut on a large stone, they use a smaller stone to crack the nut and remove the kernel inside. This is followed by mashing the kernels into a pulp and then extracting the oil by grinding. It’s not an easy job – I’m sure I would have more than my fair share of bruised fingers if I tried this!
Before leaving we had the opportunity to look over a wide range of Marjana Cooperative’s Argan products from facial creams to soaps, shampoos and hair conditioners, and oil for use in the kitchen. The best of these would be made from 100% pure Argan oil. Many of the products here were available for sampling, and after trying several, I made my selections for Christmas presents for my family with the thought
that these products would be something unique from Morocco. I also liked supporting the womens' cooperative as well. Since pure Argan oil products may be more difficult to find at home, and as the prices here seemed reasonable, I also slipped in a purchase or two for myself! Before we left, a fellow travel group member and I came across the spot where heaps and heaps of the cracked Argan nut shells were deposited after extraction of the kernel. Because of their appearance they seemed like they could make for an interesting craft project, so both of us took a few.
It was time to board our bus for the final destination of the day, Essaouira. Our guide, Larbi, had so often mentioned Essaouira in glowing terms that my anticipation of seeing it had been growing. It wasn't a far drive and soon we were at the outer limits of the city. Located right on the Atlantic Ocean, it's a popular place for Moroccans to vacation, and is an excellent place to shop for handmade wood products, rugs, and silver jewelry. Fishing is a major commercial activity here and since 1998, Essaouira has been home of the Gnaoua/Gnawa World
Festival of Music held here each year in early summer.
We stopped at an overlook for a view of the ocean and the sprawling new residential areas of Essaouira which have grown up around the old walled city medina. We could also see the once very important “Purple Islands” (Iles Purpuraires)
where the Phoenicians and later the Romans made purple dye from seashells.
Known as Mogador
during the years of French Protectorate rule (1912 – 1956), the town’s name was changed to Essaouira when Morocco gained its independence. The main island of the Iles Purpuraires is also known as Mogador. As we would see the following day, Mogador was a major coast trading center until the mid-19th century. The city's ancient port as well as Essaouira’s medina, itself formerly known as Mogador, still show the signs of its early life surprisingly through certain remaining pieces of architecture. Essaouira's medina gained UNESCO listing in 2001, and visiting this gem meant that at this point in our travels around Morocco, we had now visited 7 of the 9 UNESCO listed sites.
Arriving just near the medina, we took a drive along a portion of the road next to an
expansive beach. I could quickly see that because of its beautiful coastal setting, and its colorful and historic medina, Essaouira would quickly become a contender for my favorite place in Morocco.
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