During our stay in Marrakech, my husband Steve and I were invited to take part in a cookery class with The Sanssouci Collection at Les Cigognes Hotel, which has been the leading Moroccan cookery school for the last 15 years. The Sanssouci Collection have also acted as food consultants for The Hairy Bikers and were the location for Ottolenghi's Mediterranean Feast, so we were excited to be learning about Moroccan cuisine with them.
We arrived at small boutique hotel Les Cigognes, which is opposite Palais El Badiî, and were given a fresh mint tea whilst we were seated in the central courtyard. We were then introduced to our host for the day, culinary expert and general manager Pierre, who we immediately found to be warm, interesting and fun. Pierre asked us what we would particularly like to learn about on the course and I mentioned I would like to learn how to make couscous and some of the Morroccan Salads I'd been ordering each night and Steve had enjoyed the Pastilla's he had eaten so asked to know how to make those.
After showing us the kitchen and introducing us to their cook and kitchen assistant, Pierre told us he would be taking us around the local markets to show us where they source their food and spices and also to get some ingredients for our dishes. He jokily advised us that he is a bit of a celebrity around the markets so not to be surprised if his name was called a lot. He wasn't joking - a local culinary celebrity was exactly what he was, with locals calling his name, shaking his hand and happily chatting away to him.
Firstly Pierre took us down a little alley, which led into a small room where we found three people making local bread. Pierre told us this bread only sells for pence and that it is the best local bread and also where he buys the bread for the hotel and cookery class. We tried the bread later that night and it was delicious.
Next we went into the local food market, which is somewhere we would never have discovered without Pierre, and here there were chickens, fish, vegetables, fruit, flowers and much more. It was a visual feast for the eyes and I particularly liked a stall that was full of food goods, such as jars of preserved lemons and olives, that looked so delicious and so much better (and cheaper) than a lot of similar products in the UK.
Finally we visited the spice shop where Pierre buys all of his spices. We were informed that spices should always be bought whole and ground in front of you so you see exactly what goes in them. It was a good fact to learn and we took his advice and chose some Ras el hanout, Moroccan Cumin and Moroccan Chicken Spice and the smells from each of them were just fantastic. Spices aren't cheap in Morocco but you're probably not going to get as good quality back home or need to buy such spices again so we thought they were worth the money and I was already excited to get home and cook with them!
We then headed back to Les Cigognes and into the kitchen - it was time to don our aprons and cook!
First off we were learning how to make the Pastilla. This was in three parts; making our meat mixture, which was done in a pan, our nut filling, which we made in a bowl after blanching and frying almonds, and then our pastry, which was the final and tricky part! The pastry mixture had to be ladeled into a large frying pan and immediately pushed right to the edges as soon as went in and we had to brush the mixture with a wide pastry brush so there were no gaps and it was the same thickness all over. Then we had to slowly peel the mixture away from the edges of the pan and lift it up quickly onto a plate. I was actually not bad at this but Steve's was more holes than pastry!
Since it was mid-afternoon, Pierre asked us if we'd like some Moroccan wine whilst cooking - of course we didn't refuse! It was a Gris wine, which I'd come to know and enjoy over my time in Morocco, and it was delicious. He joined us for a tipple and made us laugh when his glass was almost empty and he shouted "Emergency!" in his wonderful French accent!
We then got onto making Couscous with Seven Vegetables and the Moroccan Salads. I was intrigued to make couscous and it is made from scratch simply with cracked barley, salt, butter and water but is not as simple as getting it out of a packet and adding some water as we do at home though. Moroccan couscous is a long process of steaming the grains three times, each for 20 minutes, and forking the grains with your fingers each time to prevent clumping - which was tricky work when it was steaming hot! This was like second nature to our fantastic cook however and she didn't even seem to notice the heat. It tasted better than any couscous I'd ever eaten and it made me want to never use packet couscous again!
For the Moroccan salads we were trying an Aubergine salad, a Pepper salad and a Carrot Salad, which we'd particularly asked to make as it was so delicious when we'd tried it in restaurants. It was simply made with cooked carrots, orange blossom, cinnamon, ras el hanout, lemon, olive oil and sesame seeds and it didn't disappoint!
After finishing our final salad, we were taken through to a private dining area to a table for two which was lit with candles and adorned with petals. Here we were to enjoy the fruits of our labor and it was nice eating the meal we'd spent the day learning how to cook. The pastilla was so big that we took some away with us as it was too good to leave!
During our stay in Marrakech it was Ramadan and whilst we were having our meal, the sun set and the daily fast broke meaning locals could enjoy their first meal of the day. We took our wine to the hotel's roof terrace and looked out onto the palace as we saw the kitchen assistant we'd spent the day with carry trays of food out to the guards. Here they all sat, chatted and enjoyed an array of delicious Moroccan food whilst the sun continued to set above and there was an air of complete calmness while people all over the city enjoyed their meal. It was an incredible sight to see and something truly memorable.
We had a fantastic day taking part in the cookery course and the team at Les Cigognes are talented, friendly and true experts. It's a very personal cookery course that is hands on whilst being taught throughout and a special thanks has to go to Pierre who is a burst of fun, energy and knowledge and spending a day with him really was something to remember. Make this a must do on your list when visiting Marrakech.
*This blog was originally published on Dotty Dishes, for which they took part in the cookery class as a guest of The Sanssouci Collection.*