The room was dark even though it was already 9:30am. The wooden shutters of Riad Star kept out any clue of the sunlight and we had to dress and leave since we were signed up for the 10:30am cooking class at Dar Les Cigognes and I’d been looking forward to this for weeks.
I found the Sanssouci Collection by seeking out businesses in Marrakech that actively give back to the local community as well as have a global mindset that looks towards the future. When I found that they support SPANA (protecting animals), The Nature Conservancy, Women in Hedge Funds and many more, I knew this was a place I wanted to review.
Though I knew this was an internationally acclaimed riad and school I was still charmed by the personality of their kind and attentive staff as well as the understated yet opulent beauty of the entire property.
The owner Eben greeted us and gave me the inspiring backstory on how he came to own the property as well as the others in their collection. It’s the dream of any world traveler come true.
One New Year’s Eve in 1999 he and his wife decided to take the trip to Morocco that would change their lives forever…
On an impulse, and likely with the temptation of warm, welcoming weather they bought an old building and worked with the infamous architect Charles Boccara to restore and enhance the building on Rue de Berrima to cultivate the grounds and polish this brilliant gem.
It is now one of the best places to seek refuge in Marrakech. Whether you’re looking for a place to lay your head, a spa and massage experience, or the world-renowned cooking class, this is the place you want to find yourself.
The Tour Begins With Our Guide, The Magnificent Pierre
Pierre floated into the room on a cloud of efficiency and grace. Having worked many years in hospitality and meeting thousands of people I was still able to be charmed by the one-and-only Pierre whose vibrant personality can only be described as movie star with a thoroughly French flair.
It was our great luck to be in his care and keeping, and as we walked through the market he was the star of the streets with all the local vendors coming over to greet him.
He took us to the public oven where the warm smell of freshly baked leavened bread made my knees weak. A small boy – maybe three years old – came in with his money to buy bread from the bakers and was off on his way; this is not an uncommon task for a child in Marrakech, Pierre explained.
Next we walked through the fresh food market where my vegan lifestyle was reconfirmed once again. Seeing the chickens in cages unable to even spread their wings made my heart break and my stomach turn. The smell of fresh fish permeated the air and I’m grateful that it is January and there is no heat in the air to make this more powerful.
How Do You Know if the Fish is Fresh?
Pierre walked us to the fish monger and asked him “is the fish fresh?”.
In answer the fish merchant picked up a fillet of fish and threw it at the wall. It stuck.
And THAT is how you tell if the fish is fresh in Marrakech. Apparently if it slides down the wall, it’s no good.
Around the corner there was refuge at last: vegetables, fruits, and flowers. Bins of white truffles for less than the cost of a cappuccino, carrots bigger than a baby’s arm, tomatoes so heavy it makes you question every other that you’ve bought. This is a real paradise for fresh veggie lovers like myself. The fava beans were big and crisp, the peas were bursting from their pods, and their owners were all lovely and ready with a smile.
All the reasons I love Morocco came flooding back… and then we hit the spice market. I was hardly unable to contain my excitement when the first stall owner took a big scoop of Ras El Hanout and ran it through the grinder, sending out a fragrant cloud of cumin, cloves, garlic, and over 30 other spices.
Next we tried the berber tea, sweetened with stevia leaves – it was incredible and even Maddy enjoyed it. I normally have to beg and barter to get him to have a cup of tea.
We tried the eucalyptus crystals — Moroccan Magic. These crystals open your nasal passages, clear your throat and instantly relieve a stuffy head. Imagine Vicks Vapor Rub multiplied by a million but in crystal form, and then you’re close to the power of this medicine.
Though I’d been to many Moroccan pharmacies this was one of my favorites, so I jotted down the info for you. His stall is at 184 Kissariat Jidda in Mellah – the Jewish quarter. Here you can find great products with fair prices and a smile.
Making Our Way To the Kitchen
After all the fun in the market I’d honestly forgotten that the best part was yet to come — cooking class! We cut through the hammam and made our way back to Dar Les Cigognes where we were introduced to the glowing and glorious chef Fouzia.
We washed our hands in the traditional manner, over an ornate silver tray while Pierre poured the warm water from a kettle. Then Fouzia tightly tied our aprons on us and we began working.
First stop: making couscous since this takes time and patience. None of this boxed garbage that we’re used to having done in five minutes flat– this is the real deal.
We mixed the freshly ground semolina with water until it was a crumbly texture that forms small clumps, we then add in a few tosses of flour and blend it with our palms, waiting for the smooth grainy feel of sand running through your fingers. Now it was ready to be steamed for the first of three times.
The trick here is getting the steam just right to create light and fluffy couscous that blows every other you’ve had out of the water. No wonder the food in Morocco is so delicious – it must be prepared with love, time, and attention.
Have You Ever Squeezed a Carrot?
While the couscous was steaming we started on the tagine. Since Maddy and I are both vegans we had a tagine layered with red onions, tomatoes, carrots, peas, fava beans, potatoes, turnips, and olives.
We learned how to squeeze carrots, because they don’t eat the inside of the carrot. In order to carve the inside out you must use a paring knife and a little bravery to scoop the inside out while squeezing.
Fouzia does it in a swift motion and I am left feeling a little daft as it takes me a few tries to get the hang of it.
Then we are ready to add the eggplant to the boiling soup. Meanwhile Pierre tells me the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard in the kitchen — we’re going to eat the stem of the eggplant. Say what?
We all know the stem to be prickly and bitter, much like a concentrated artichoke. Not here. The stem and cap are smooth and supple, and we quarter the small eggplant and toss it in the water which is still furiously bubbling.
Now it’s time to keep our momentum going by having a glass of Guerrouane Gris, a very light salmon colored wine that pairs perfectly with standing in a Marrakech kitchen inhaling the most wonderful aromas and learning the secrets of Moroccan expat life.
I thought with these two dishes we would be done but we were just about to start with preparing the appetizers.
Their take on vegan caviar: an amazing aubergine (eggplant) and tomato salad called Zalouk is made by frying eggplant, tomato, garlic, lemon, parsley, paprika, cumin, salt, pepper, and a few other secrets you’ll just have to learn for yourself at the class.
Matecha M’aasla, Delicious On Anything and Everything
For this versatile and enticing warm “salad” we grated and fried two tomatoes (no peel, please).
To that we added 1 tsp cinnamon, salt, sugar, and oil while frying for 5 minutes.
Just a very light splash of orange blossom water sprinkled on at the end added the extra pizzaz that only Dar Les Cigognes brings to the table.
To be sure this has turned into a jam, you should be able to see the bottom of the pan when you run your spatula through it. It has notes reminiscent of warm applesauce and begs to be spread on anything with carbohydrates or eaten straight from the spoon as a real treat.
Finally the vegan version of TakTouka.
1 yellow pepper
1 red pepper
1 slice of lemon (skin on)
2 cloves of garlic
and 2 tablespoons of fresh parsley.
We add this to the pan and fry it until the peppers softened a bit but still retain some crunch.
Though I am drastically oversimplifying the recipe it is simple and ubiquitous.
It could easily be served over greens for a light lunch or tossed with some bucatini for an easy Italian-Moroccan main dish.
The best part is still to come — now we get to eat our wonderful creations on the rooftop of the riad!
We had a lovely cabana where we absolutely feasted ourselves on the truly delicious yet simple cuisine that we’d prepared.
A glass of sparkling water and wine left me in a pleasant stupor that I never wanted to leave. It was a sad thing to say goodbye to Dar Les Cigognes, Eben, Pierre, and their lovely staff but this is a place I will certainly be visiting again and am already missing.
In the days to come Maddy and I were hosted by some truly outstanding hotels, resorts, and restaurants but I can say with complete sincerity that nothing we’ve eaten in Morocco since has touched this.
Dar Les Cigognes has ruined Morocco for me, for nothing has been a fraction as delicious as the amazing food we prepared and feasted on.
Many of the charms of this country cannot be planned, however one thing you can plan for is to take this cooking class, and I couldn’t recommend it more. Personality, hospitality, and generosity abound at Dar Les Cigognes.
I’m serious: if you are coming to Marrakech, it doesn’t matter what your itinerary or budget, find a way to do this course. This is a souvenir that will last a lifetime and a gift that you can give to yourself as well as bring home to family and friends for years to come.
As a disclaimer, we were guests of Dar Les Cigognes but were not compensated in any way for the post nor will I receive any money from your booking, I just want you to enrich your life the way ours was by this experience.