by Xanthe Clay, The Telegraph, November 21, 2017
Guide books are great for monuments, audio guides are helpful in museums and an app works admirably for finding one’s way around town. But when it comes to food, nothing beats travelling with a real expert. They are the ones who can explain the difference between the almost identical green leaves on the market stall, point you to the right café for the most fragrant dishes, explain why the local women make the bread just so, warn you when the quality of the spices isn’t right or reassure you that the price for them is fair. With a good guide, you can really get the flavour of a country.
This came home to me on a recent trip to Morocco with Carolyn and Chris Caldicott. A cook and photographer respectively, the Caldicotts ran the World Food Café in London’s Covent Garden for 20 years and now lead groups around countries as diverse as Burma and Brazil, mostly through The Ultimate Travel Company. I joined their latest Morocco trip, for the last couple of days, to find the group buoyant and full of stories about their action-packed itinerary. The meals they were still talking about included a goat tagine in the old caravan trading port Tiznit (home of the oldest mud mosque in the country) and a dinner in Essaouira of seafood grilled on the harbourside, fresh from the boat, which included plate after plate of chargrilled prawns, sea urchins, spider crab, sea bass and sole. “The crab was the sweetest you’ll ever eat,” recalled Chris.
Not that the experience was solely about food. There had been a trip to a Berber silver market, not well known to tourists, with an introduction to one of the sellers from a local hotelier. One of our party had bought a solid silver tea pot for around £50 – the same price that steel ones were selling for in the hotel shop.
The Caldicotts inspire great loyalty. Of our group of 14, which included a hotelier, a former military attaché and a successful entrepreneur, all but two had travelled with both the Caldicotts before, and the remaining couple had done a trip with just Chris. Clearly there is some magic that brings people back to these Pied Pipers of the road.
The group revelled in Chris’s skills as a raconteur and his booming voice, regaling us with a never-ending supply of anecdotes about his world travels, was the soundtrack of the trip. Relentlessly enthusiastic, a Labrador of a man with a floppy grey fringe and enormous smile, Chris gave impromptu photography classes to anyone who asked, and happily opened his laptop in the evenings to show us exquisite photographs of previous trips, while others chipped in with their memories of the journeys.
Slender, thoughtful Carolyn, meanwhile, is the real food expert, gently explaining the ingredients, techniques and recipes, but also flitting from traveller to traveller chatting and soothing, ensuring that everyone was involved and happy.
There’s no doubt about the couple’s credentials as guides. The Caldicotts are the kind of people who think no more of riding a motorbike through the Atlas mountains than jumping on a London No 73 bus. They’ve travelled to more countries than you can shake a passport at, and generally several times. India alone has merited 85 trips.
When planning each itinerary, Chris explained, “we think hard about the flow, what will work.” Where meals are organised in advance, Carolyn discusses them with each of the chefs, to make sure that during the trip the full gamut of local dishes is covered. And there is no question of sticking to the well-trodden tourist route. “We want to take people off the beaten track, to places where they wouldn’t normally go.”
This was abundantly clear from my first morning with the group. We drove from our hotel, the elegant Kasbah Bab Ourika in the Atlas mountains, along narrow roads looping through a red rock landscape, edged with buildings in the same terracotta earth, past men riding side-saddle on donkeys, panniers laden with produce.
We were heading for the Ourika valley and the weekly Berber market at Tnine Ourika. Our Berber guide, Abdul, accompanied us and in excellent English explained that, while the market was focused on buying and selling, it had a far more important function as the social event of the week for the men – women on the whole did not visit the market. The men travel for hours on their donkeys, or “Berber 4x4s” as Abdul called them, from the isolated villages, to meet their friends, exchange news, eat, and gather supplies for their families.
Arriving at Tnine Ourika, we were met with a bewildering maze of canvas and pole shelters, whole makeshift streets specialising in dates or spices or vegetables or (not for the faint-hearted) meat. Abdul and Carolyn guided and clarified, helping us buy with the locals (in my case a newspaper-wrapped bundle of fragrant cassia bark) and showing us the “restaurants” where market-goers bring their own meat and veg to be cooked.
To one side was the “donkey park” where the beasts of burden patiently awaited their masters’ return, next to stalls selling the traditional wooden Berber locks and an alleyway dedicated to barbers, who would also pull a bad tooth out for you. Abdul beckoned me, to point out a discreet hut where a Berber doctor was massaging a dislocated shoulder back into place, while in the distance we could hear the medicine man touting his patent cures. Then, just as it was all feeling like a medieval time warp, a hawker offered a selection of sim cards.
It was, indeed, time to re-enter the 21st century, and we climbed back into the (air-conditioned!) Jeeps and drove high up into the hills above the town, each bump in the dirt road accompanied by the gentle clinking of 14 pottery tagines – terracotta pots with conical lids that had been a gift to each of the group after a class in the hi-tech cookery school at the luxury La Maison Arabe hotel in Marrakech, clearly another highlight of the trip.
But we were about to experience an entirely different kind of cookery skill. In a simple house in a tiny Berber village, two dadas – traditional female cooks – were preparing us lunch. Through an arched entrance, one dada crouched by a domed wood-burning oven, deftly rolling dough and flicking the discs on to the hot clay base, to make the bread for our meal. It was a mesmerising sight, and only the lure of tea persuaded me to move on.
In the simple kitchen, with a sink but no cooker, the other dada, with a solemn baby boy strapped to her back, was making a tomato salad, while next door we sat on rugs and cushions around the low tables. Carolyn set about tea-making, explaining the ritual: an initial steeping of the gunpowder green tea leaves, before the liquid is drained off and kept to one side, and more boiling water added to the pot.
“The second brew will be murky and bitter,” Carolyn assured us – and so it was, and duly discarded. Then came a final filling of the pot with hot water, along with great rocks of sugar broken from a cone (straight out of Mrs Beeton) and handfuls of fresh mint. This was placed on the charcoal burner for five minutes, before being poured from a height to aerate it, into the little tea glasses.
The tagines arrived, placed ceremonially in the centre of the tables. “Berber food at home is far more focused on vegetables than the food of the city, and with fewer spices,” Carolyn explained, as we sipped the sweetly refreshing hot tea. “But because we are guests, they have bought us some chicken. The etiquette is to take a small amount at a time, and always leave a little on your plate at the end.”
Abdul joined us, explaining how the generally small amount of meat would be lifted out of the dish by the male head of the family, and stored in the upturned lid. “Only once everyone has had their fill of vegetables will the meat be divided up.”
We ate the delicate steamed squash, potato and courgette, with the lightest of spice crusts, and the deeply flavoured chicken beneath, then scraped at the sticky savoury juices on the base of the dish, ripping at the soft fresh bread and thinking of the long donkey ride to collect the ingredients, and the work of the dadas to make the feast without electricity or kitchen gadgets. Did we enjoy it better for understanding the journey? Of course we did.
Xanthe Clay travelled with The Ultimate Travel Company (020 3811 3491; theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk) on a Colours and Flavours of Morocco tour. The company’s next gourmet getaway, led by Chris and Carolyn Caldicott, is a 14-day Colours and Flavours of Brazil tour, which takes in Rio de Janeiro, Salvador de Bahia, Trancoso, Sao Paulo and Paraty. It starts from £6,195 and includes accommodation, most meals, entrance fees, excursions and flights, departing March 6 2018.