Home cooking in the High Atlas, Morocco
Many travellers journey to Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains for adventure. The terrain is custom-made for hiking and mountain biking, whilst the panoramic landscapes provide a superb backdrop for photography. But on a recent work visit to Morocco, I discovered that a visit to the High Atlas Mountains has another highlight: the food.
Intrepid Travel specialises in taking travellers off the beaten track and our itineraries often include homestays with local families. A big advantage of this is the opportunity to see the way families live and to be treated to some authentic, home-cooked food. During my stay with a host family, I was treated to homemade pastries smothered in locally-sourced honey, just-baked bread complemented by freshly-churned butter, preserved olives, juicy cherries straight from the front yard and zesty oranges dusted with cinnamon. It was all incredible.
Unsure whether this taste sensation was due to the clean mountain air, my desperate need for fuel after a hard hike, or the result of my tastebuds taking on a holiday glow, I started asking more about the produce and its supply chain. I learned that most food is sourced locally, grown organically, not interfered with and eaten in season. Little is imported - except for the ever-popular ‘Laughing Cow’ cheese. Quite simply, the food is honest.
Coming from Australia, where food is pre-prepared, packaged, ready-to-go and often from unknown or dubious origins, my experience in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains was a reminder that good food can be achieved easily. At home, the provenance of most of what we put in our mouths is a mystery – we have no idea where it has come from, how long it’s been on the shelf or how far it has travelled.
Throughout my stay, I found myself salivating at the thought of my next meal. My gracious hosts didn’t let me down, providing a daily cornucopia of carefully arranged fresh salads, flavoursome tajines, and of course endless refills of mint tea.
They were amazed - and probably horrified - at the concept of the microwavable instant couscous I eat at home, which they said was "simply not couscous.”
Having tasted the traditional Moroccan version, which takes three hours to prepare, I can verify that statement.
Morocco on a plate
Spicy, aromatic and bold, Morocco’s cuisine excites your senses. Wander souks and medinas and you'll see towers of spices colouring shopfronts and smell aromatic herbs sweetening the air. Morocco is known for its prized tagines, fragrant cous cous and delicate mint tea, but other specialities that will make your mouth water include:
- Pigeon pastilla - flavoured with garlic, parsley, coriander, turmeric, saffron, ginger, cinnamon
- Kefta magawara - spicy meatballs with tomatoes and eggs
- Beghrir - a semolina crepe
- Ferakh maamer - chicken stuffed with sweetened couscous
- Harira - a hearty chickpea soup often eaten during Ramadan to break a fast
- Mechoui - marinated lamb slow roasted over a spit
- M’qualli - chicken tajine with preserved lemon and olives
- Grilled sardines with preserved lemon
Recipe for Pigeon Pastilla - serves 6
4 x 500g whole squab pigeons (try a specialist poultry and game supplier, or use 1.2kg chicken marylands)
4 garlic cloves, crushed
2 small red onions, grated
1 cup flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
½ cup coriander leaves, roughly chopped
½ tsp ground turmeric
1 pinch of saffron threads
1 tsp ground ginger
1 cinnamon quill
2 tbsp lemon juice
8 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tbsp icing sugar, plus extra to dust
1 tsp ground cinnamon, plus extra to dust
200g blanched almonds, roasted and roughly chopped
100g ghee (clarified butter), melted
150g packet brik pastry (or 10 x 30cm round sheets)
30g ground almonds
Rinse the pigeons and place them breast-side up in a single layer in a large, saucepan. Rub with garlic and onion, and season. Add the parsley, coriander, turmeric, saffron, ginger, cinnamon quill and butter to a pan, then fill with enough water to just cover the pigeons. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and cover with a round parchment of greaseproof paper, then a lid. Cook for 40 minutes, then remove the pigeons and set aside in a colander.
Increase the heat and bring the cooking liquid to a boil. Cook uncovered until the liquid has reduced to about 375ml. Remove and discard the cinnamon quill. Reduce heat to medium, stir in the lemon juice, and then add the eggs while stirring briskly. Stir until the eggs are cooked; they will look scrambled and curd-like. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve, squeezing out as much liquid as possible; this ensures the filling does not cause the pastry to be soggy.
Preheat your oven to 180°C/350°F. Combine the icing sugar, ground cinnamon and almonds in a bowl and set aside. Once the pigeons are cool enough, shred the meat and discard skin and bones. Combine the pigeon and egg mixture and season with salt and pepper. Cool completely.
Brush a 28cm heavy-based ovenproof frying pan or springform pan with ghee. Place a sheet of brik pastry over the base of the pan and brush it with ghee. Working around the edge of the pan, repeat with another four sheets of pastry, slightly overlapping the sheets, brushing each sheet with ghee and leaving 10cm hanging over the edge; there should be a 10cm overhang around the whole rim.
Spread the cinnamon and almond mixture over the pastry shell, then top with another two sheets of pastry, slightly overlapping the sheets, brushing each sheet with ghee and leaving a 10cm overhang. Spread over the pigeon mixture, then top with another sheet of pastry (with overhang) and brush with ghee. Scatter over the ground almonds, then layer with the remaining two sheets of pastry (with overhang), brushing each sheet with ghee. Fold in the overhanging pastry towards the centre of the pan and then cover with a small, ovenproof plate to lightly compress the pie.
Bake for 10 minutes, then carefully remove the plate and bake for a further 10 minutes. Carefully invert the pastilla onto an oven tray and return to the oven for a further 20 minutes or until the top is golden and crisp. Transfer the pastilla to a plate and cool slightly before dusting it with icing sugar and cinnamon.
Jo Stewart of Intrepid Travel
- Intrepid Travel offers a range of trips in Morocco and the Middle East, including the 15 day 'Morocco Experience' which travels from Casablanca to Marrakech, visiting Volubilis, Chefchaouen, Fes, the Sahara, Todra Gorge and Ait Benhaddou. The itinerary includes a Moroccan cooking class. www.intrepidtravel.com (0844 499 8487)