With experiential travel on the up, learning to cook in Marrakech has become big business as of late. There is no shortage of excellent cookery schools where you can work your tagine and couscous magic or create a Moroccan diffa (feast) from scratch, but how do you choose which one is right for you?
First of all, decide what you want to get out of a local cooking course. If it is techniques and recipes, look for schools with individual work stations, hands-on instruction and a full morning or afternoon spent at the stove. If is a mixture of souk (market) shopping with a little cooking on the side, focus your attention on the residential cookery classes in the medina's riads (traditional guesthouses centred on inner courtyards). Bigger group sizes make for a more sociable experience at independent schools, whereas the atmosphere can be more intimate in a riad, many of which offer one-on-one courses. Quality, as always, boils down to price. Expect to pay between 450 Moroccan dirham and 600 Moroccan dirham for a half-day course including lunch.
Hands down one of the best independent schools in Marrakesh is Faim d’Epices. Parisian-born owner Michel Paillet peppers his half-day courses with humour, boundless enthusiasm and invaluable cookery tips. His modern, well-equipped school is a 20-minute drive from Marrakech, set on a sustainable farm nestled among olive and citrus groves (transfers are included). Group sizes here are kept small -- around six to 10 people -- to ensure everyone receives individual attention.
Classes begin with Paillet's 'guess-the-spice' workshop to lighten the mood, sharpen the senses and provide the confidence needed for shopping in the souks. Then it is on to preparing Moroccan staples like flatbread, which requires a knack for kneading.
Main courses change daily and usually include types of tagine (Moroccan casserole), from chicken with preserved lemons and olives to beef, pears and candied oranges. Paillet and the patient dada (cook) on staff guides the class on how to layer the tagine, using the onions as a base and tapering vegetables towards the centre of the conical dish so they cook uniformly, then adding the sauce little by little. A demo on how to prepare the msemen pancakes that appear on most riad breakfast tables rounds out the morning's instruction.
If you would prefer to cook in the medina rather than at an independent school, there are several first-rate riad courses to choose from, many of which are open to non-residents and all of which require advance booking.
Already much-lauded for its restaurant, Maison MK has two of the best riad cookery courses in the city, supervised by head chef Omar El Ouahssoussi, who put Jamie Oliver through his paces in the television programme, Jamie does... Marrakesh. The morning courses are for two people and include a visit to a souk in Mellah, Marrakech's old Jewish neighbourhood, preparation of Moroccan salads, tagines and mint tea, and end with lunch on the roof terrace perched above the medina. You can also opt for a cookery only class to maximise your time spent in the kitchen. All raw ingredients are provided and you will also learn how to make bread and couscous, later served at lunch.
Highly praised, too, is La Maison Arabe Ateliers Cuisine at that most venerable of 1940s riads, La Maison Arabe. Shopping for ingredients and a visit to a furan (communal oven) is the prelude to a busy morning's cooking and mint tea making. Lunch is served beside the pool.
Run by Dutch expat Gemma van de Burgt, Souk Cuisine’s courses kick off with a morning walk through the souks to find (and haggle for) spices, bread and other ingredients. Back in the riad courtyard, dishes such as vegetable briouates (filo pastry pockets), sardines with spicy chermoula sauce and almond paste-filled m'hancha are prepared for lunch on the terrace.
On the edge of Mellah, Riad Kaїss and Dar Les Cigognes tailor their cookery courses to suit guests' needs. Generally for two people, these range from simple one-hour, learn-one-dish classes to half-day pastry-making workshops and, on request, courses to make more complex dishes like sea urchin soufflé and tagine of cow's foot with chickpeas.
This article was published on 30th May 2012 and updated on 20th September 2012