by Andy Lynes, The Telegraph, May 1, 2018
It’s every traveller’s rite of passage: getting lost in the Marrakech medina. I had set off from the Royal Mansour Hotel full of confidence.
The luxurious hotel, built by King Mohammed VI, is less than a third of a mile from the city’s famous market and I had a map printed out by the concierge with my intended route highlighted on it.
He assured me that the Kafe Fnaque Berbere bookshop (where I hoped to pick up some Moroccan cookbooks) and Le Trou au Mur restaurant (where I was to talk to British owner James Wix about his mission to revive traditional “grandmere” Moroccan dishes) are on the main routes through the market. I’d have no trouble finding them.
Earlier, I’d been given a guided food-themed tour of the medina, booked through the hotel. I discovered that the best place to buy high-quality saffron and ras el hanout – the North African blend of spices that helps define Moroccan cuisine – is not the famous spice souk, which my guide dismissed as being for tourists, but a tiny stall in the Bab Ftouh area of the medina.
Before midday, the narrow lanes had been relatively peaceful. By mid-afternoon, tourists had crowded in bartering for carpets, leather goods, intricate metal lanterns and other artifacts.
The bookshop was easy enough to find but the restaurant was a different matter. After 10 minutes I found myself back at Rue Sidi el Yamani, where I’d started. A second attempt got me closer but I was still hopelessly lost in the bewildering maze of identical dark alleys until an enterprising youth finally led me to my destination – for a tip, of course.
But a taste of the beguiling ras el hanout ice cream at Le Trou au Mur was worth the mild panic of the journey. Made with a secret blend of 36 different spices including ginger, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom and five different varieties of pepper, and sweetened with local honey, it was a taste of the medina itself.
What makes Le Trou au Mur special is its traditional Moroccan dishes such as tihane (intestine stuffed with spiced minced meat, chopped olives and preserved lemon) and cherchma (mixed beans and lentils in a Moroccan spiced sauce with couscous). “Most local chefs now are striving to be part of the growing trend of Italian and French cuisine here in Morocco,” said Wix, who also owns the nearby Riad Farnatchi boutique hotel and spa. “I’m lucky to have found someone who wants to do all the old grandmother-style Moroccan dishes.”
Hardly surprisingly, I took a taxi back to the Royal Mansour, where I arrived just in time for a cookery class with Yannick Alleno, the hotel’s French consultant chef. Despite holding six Michelin stars for his restaurants in Paris and Courchevel, Alleno cheerfully admits to having known nothing about Moroccan food before joining the hotel when it opened in 2010. “We asked everyone to bring a speciality from their house and from their mums and I went all over the country to see the specialities. Morocco’s food is so rich because there’s so much diversity, Mediterranean, Atlantic and inland.”
Alleno demonstrated a dish of carpet shell clams from Oualidia, on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, steamed in a tagine with m’hamsa (large-grain couscous), fish stock, garlic and shallots and finished with chopped wild garlic. We made our own versions which Alleno tasted and thankfully appreciated.
But Alleno saved the culinary fireworks for a meal served at the chef’s table overlooking the hotel’s kitchens, with delicate, refined dishes such as avocado and celeriac millefeuille and a king crab salad with pea cream, followed by two tagines – one made with prawns, the other with tender beef cheeks.
My final meal was a traditional breakfast on the rooftop terrace of my riad that included akhlii with fried eggs and khobz that took me right back to the sights and smells of the medina. I had just two nights in Marrakech, not nearly sufficient to get to know the place or its food properly – but just enough to get blissfully lost in its unique charms.
For a full review of the Royal Mansour and to book, see below.
Royal Mansour Marrakech Marrakech, Morocco
9Telegraph expert rating
The gold standard of luxury hotels in Marrakech, the Mansour was commissioned by King Mohammed VI, who often hosts his guests in its 53 private riads, which are situated in almost four hectares of fragrant Moorish gardens. Read expert review. From £934per night. Check availability. Rates provided by Booking.com.