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Cooking classes in Fez make tajines and pastillas accessible to travelers.
FEZ, Morocco — It wasn’t hard to follow Nabila, who was wearing a djellaba in shocking pink, as she wove through the crowds packing the R’cif food market in the heart of Fez medina.
We passed piles of olives, emerald, black and mauve; pyramids of powdered ginger, paprika and turmeric; a baffling variety of dates; and butchers’ stalls with their sides of beef and shelves of blankly staring goats' heads.
Not being someone who likes to watch my lunch getting slaughtered, I was grateful that Nabila picked out our chicken from the clucking, white-feathered mass pecking around at the back of the poultry store, then led us off to get the rest of our ingredients while the owner prepared his knife.
Cooking classes are increasingly popular among travelers to Morocco, offering a chance to work with local cooks on delicacies from one of the world's great cuisines, creating delicately spiced tajines, hearty couscous or perfumed date and honey pastries.
Thanks to a recent expansion of flights by low-cost airlines, several Moroccan cities have opened up as weekend destinations from Europe. The ancient Fez medina, filled with vibrant souks, ornate mosques and madrasas, and dozens of traditional patio homes turned into boutique hotels or holiday rentals, is now just three hours away from London, Frankfurt or Brussels.
Some companies offer complete cooking holidays that include trips up the Atlas mountains for a Berber barbeque and classes with a professional chef in the kitchen of restored riad — a traditional home built around an internal courtyard garden — complete with multicolored mosaics, hand-woven rugs and painted cedar-wood ceilings. Or you can book a course at the cookery school attached to the medina’s coolest cafe to make a menu that includes spiced fava bean soup with garlic and olive oil chutney; lamb, apricot and prune tajine; and orange, cinnamon and walnut salad.
An alternative is to book a whole vacation home. There are several beautifully restored dar houses (generally smaller than a riad and with a central patio, but no garden) that can be rented for a whole family or group of friends from as little as $90 a night. They all have their own kitchens and the owners will usually arrange for a woman from the neighborhood to rustle up home cooking that is better than what most of the restaurants in the medina can offer, and show you how to replicate the dishes when you get back home.
Nabila’s aunt Najia cooks wonderful food to order for guests at Dar Jnane, an 18th-century house with a patio flooded with natural light close to the R’cif souk.
Ginger- and saffron-flavored chicken tajine with olives and preserved lemon; lamb with quince; and fluffy couscous with seven vegetables are among her specialties, preceded by a selection of wonderfully fresh vegetable starters such as coriander-spiced carrots or zaalouk, a paste made with flame-cooked eggplants that fill the house with an intoxicating smoky aroma.
Najia was also happy to get us in the kitchen to help make harcha (pan-fried semolina flatbreads) or kneed the dough for meloui (multilayered pancakes). Both are central elements of breakfast, served with sweet mint tea, boiled eggs, soft white cheese and pastries on the dar’s roof terrace.
Working with Najia in the kitchen was a treat made more fun by the fact that our Arabic was non-existent and her English limited to a few words. It was judged necessary to draft her French-speaking niece Nabila to teach us how to prepare one of the more complex and delicate classics of Moroccan cuisine: pastilla, a sweet-and-savory pie usually made with pigeon or chicken.
Having collected our freshly plucked chicken, we headed out of the souk with several bags laden with goodies. Under Nabila’s guidance we spiced the bird with ginger, saffron and black pepper; doused it with olive oil and tossed it with red onion; fried and ground the almonds that were folded into a bowl of beaten eggs; then layered the mixture in a casing of warka, a thin phyllo type pastry, before locking it into the oven.
Dusted with cinnamon and confectioner’s sugar this refined, aromatic dish was a delight, and eating it on our sun-soaked rooftop was the perfect reward for all that toil in the kitchen.