Mangeant a Casablanca

We promised a foodies' blog, so here it is. If you're more interested in culture or history than food and attitude, read no more and rejoin us on Monday.

On Friday night we ate at La Bavaroise, a French brasserie on Boulevard Mohammed V. Why not Moroccan food, you may ask? By this point in most of our journeys, we have been officially introduced to the  flavors, ingredients, and scents of our destination's cuisine. Yet our guide Hisham had especially recommended that we steer clear of the official cuisine until we arrive in Fez tomorrow (implying we would have enough Moroccan food to make an impression). Based on a discussion with my dance and Moroccan guru friend (shout out to Paula), I think this might have been code for "you'll have your fill of tagine later."  So, for the third meal in a row, we had French food.

The dinner at La Bavaroise was superbe. They greeted us with crustily warm French bread and very fresh and rich butter (unfortunately, the bread is quite good here). This was followed by an amuse- bouche of whipped pate-- devoured by the liver lover between us (not this writer). Our next course (shared), was described as a "tarte de gambas avec legumes"  (shrimp quiche with vegetables) but it was much more artful than that. Six perfectly grilled langoustines were garnished with delicate dill fronds, red leaf lettuce morsels, and julienned peppers. These were sweetly perched on a bed of carmelized onions nestled atop a laced cracker. Delicieux!   

This brasserie purports to have the best beef in Morocco, so Wayne chose friccasse de boeuf (the special du jour), and, because I couldn't imagine a plateful of red meat, I chose the canard avec pommes carmelisees .  Again, the presentations were magnifiques. And the flavors fantastiques! 

We rarely get desserts without sharing them anymore but calories outside the States don't count-- so Wayne ordered a chocolate lava cake with passion fruit sorbet--tres Bon!  I thought mine would be a simple butter cookie with fresh raspberries and a taste of vanilla ice cream. Au contraire!  The meal was great and easily half the price we would have paid in the States (the 10 : 1 exchange rate for dirhams notwithstanding).

Saturday, Dec 19

On to the Marche Centrale prior to our cooking class on Saturday morning. We've been searching for adjectives to describe the Casablanca vibe so far-- perhaps earthy and boisterous with a French accent? We consider ourselves market connoisseurs (and now have the photos from 6 continents to prove it). This was a great market but perhaps what differentiated it most was the very wide variety of fish, including a box of turtles for sale as pets and a vendor selling horse meat (for tagine?).  Also fascinating were the cafe tables set up for "buy your fish in the market, bring it to us, and we will grill it for you here" opportunities. A very different vibe from the "choose your fish from the case" in Santorini!

By 10:00am, it was time to go to La Toque Blanche-- our cooking school, famous for training chefs in global fare with a wonderful emphasis on patisseries. We could have taken a rickety old elevator up, but instead we chose to climb four flights of winding stairs. There we discovered that we would be having a private class (great news!) conducted entirely in French (challenging news )--and I decided I was up for it and would translate for Wayne along the way. In all fairness to A&K, our wonderful guide offered to stay to translate but we told him that was unnecessary. My skills were adequate enough for the class. With a few "vous  pensez que nous pouvons manger le tout?   (roughly, you think we can eat all of that?), my French was fine.

But let me set the stage first.  Think a combination of our dumpling class in Beijing (local color
punctuated by many small flying creatures), Bangkok (local charm with excessive amounts of food), and Athens (outgoing, generalissimo proprietress), all in an industrial cooking classroom with Arabic labeled appliances and you get the idea.

And because life is short, eat dessert first (or more properly, that's where the owner of the school wanted to start), that's where we began-- after an extensive Moroccan tea ritual. The demonstrator (who spoke primarily Arabic) must have sterilized the tea cups three times before actually pouring our tea!  Then, they served us the Moroccan cookies-- which was the proper hosting tactic and absolutely worth the price of admission (you don't want to know).

We were served four types of cookies--two (fekkas--almonds, sesame and  raisins-- comparable to Mandel brot/ biscotti and bahla) were characterized as "simple". My translation of our
trainer's explanation was that these are simple because the ingredients are inexpensive, readily accessible, and meant for everyday eating. The other two cookies, keab ghzal  (both gazelle horns-- one rolled in toasted sesame seeds) are served at weddings and are more expensive, more labor-intensive and, in our humble opinions, more delicious. I explained that we were particularly enjoying these because our 41st wedding anniversary was imminent-- but it was unclear whether the French words I strung together expressed that sentiment accurately.

As to the actual preparation of these tasty treats, several ingredients and/ or techniques stood out. Almond paste was ubiquitous-- as was orange rose water (though only a few drops). Our demonstrator used lots of sesame seeds. Perhaps most different from what we're accustomed to-- no spoons or mixers were used to blend the flavors; everything a main (everything by hand)! Indeed, we each took a turn mixing and sweetly kneading. Wayne scored higher marks in this endeavor than I did which amused our Arabic-only speaking demonstrator greatly.  Hands only wasn't the only technique that stood out; no cutting  boards either-- everything directly on the marble counter. Note to self: this is Morocco and not the States-- OSHA and the Health Department's reach does not extend here. Get over it!

I cannot count how many of the sesame cookies I devoured (think cooked almond paste rolled in toasted sesame seeds). But wait: almonds are proteins right? And seeds are healthy?

Anyway, the next several items (in rapid succession) were two tagines and a couscous dish. The technique for the tagines was similar-- apply a spice rub to the meat (chicken or beef for us, but tagines can also be made with lamb or fish), brown the meat with some vegetables, then braise in liquid (in the tagine-- hence name of dish) for 30-45 minutes. Then, garnish with appropriate flavors.
For both preparations, the rubs were comparable and included (but were not necessarily limited to): turmeric, pepper, saffron, cinnamon, salt, ginger, garlic, parsley, cilantro, and a new ingredient for us-smen (fermented butter). Now, a very important caveat here as something may have literally "gotten lost in translation." But, I am fairly sure our trainer said that smen is fermented for one year and buried underground. Benefit of the doubt, only one teaspoon of smen  was used for 2 pounds of beef or 4 pounds of chicken (and you can substitute unsalted butter). But suffice it to say that the scent was on a par with the dead (for four days) rhino we encountered in our South African safari 12-1/2 years ago. That is not a scent one easily forgets and we will not be ferreting out any smen  if we duplicate these recipes back home. The garnish was prunes and caramelized onions for the beef, and candied lemons and green olives for the chicken.


The couscous was a far cry from what we eat back home-- prepared with chicken and vegetables (and comparable spices including the, by now,infamous smen ). Most notable about this preparation was that the semolina was washed, steamed, and dried (seemingly grain-by-grain) three times!

We noticed that the cook doing the demonstrating was not moving forward with the final recipe in our packet, Seffa, which was a very simple vermicelli (for dessert); a preparation with raisins, cinnamon, confectioner sugar and a crushed nuts garnish. She did prepare this for us-- upon special request.

So, with all of these dishes underway, our trainer informed us it was time to eat. (We were still stuffed from the wonderful cookies but we felt obliged to cooperate.) They whisked away the cooking preparation materials (per above, no spoons and only a very few bowls) and set the table/ counter (replacing our wrought iron cooking class chairs with padded dining room chairs). Then, they proceeded to parade in with huge servings of the two tagines, the couscous dish, bread, mandarins, fancy French desserts and chocolates from the patisserie class running concurrently with ours, our leftover cookies from earlier, and two bottles of water. The sheer amount of food was frightening and, remember, we were still quavering from the scent of our newest (and least favorite) condiment of all time, the smen,  If you've read our past blogs, you know we (e.g., queue up Peru or Japan blogs) are willing to try most anything and quantity is generally not a concern. But this was different and truly excessive . And our trainer was pretty much staring us down. So, we gulped for air and filled our plates. The food was OK-- not unbelievably incredible. The trickiest part was when she asked what we liked the most (at least that's how I translated it). I genuinely loved the Seffa (kind of a Moroccan kugel-- maybe the Moroccan Jews originated it?) and the beef was ok. All Wayne could come up with as favorites were the chickpeas on the couscous and the caramelized onions-- and, of course the chocolate in the French pastries.

Dear readers: we may be heading for a real culinary adventure here if Wayne only eats chick peas and onions for the next 10 days!

We ended our most adventurous cooking class ever with a big thank you, a gratuity, the obligatory nice words in the visitors' journal, certificates of completion, and a plate of leftover cookies-- and we were on our way.  Would we do it again? Absolutely-- the experience was an absolute kick. Hopefully we won't need our Cipro, and the tagine on the road will be more memorable!

In the meantime, the official tour starts tonight. We feel as if we've been on tour for a week already! Tomorrow, we will visit the Hassan II Grand Mosque, then off to Rabat and Fez. Looking forward to that!  

Until we write again with love (and Tums),


PS: Just as a point of reference, Casablanca is at the same latitude as Phoenix. But the proximity of the ocean mitigates some of the heat.

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