I’ve written briefly about our recent honeymoon, and today I wanted to post some highlights from Morocco for those of you interested in visiting someday. We were in Morocco for one week, and really should’ve planned to be there ten days (or more). We spent our time in two of the major cities, Marrakech and Fez, and then joined a very small tour heading out to the Sahara for a camel trek. During our brief time there, I feel like we saw a great deal of the contrasts the country has to offer — from bustling souks and markets to quiet, star-studded desert skies. Here’s a peek.
After talking with friends who had traveled there and flipping through guidebooks, there were many things I expected to encounter in Morocco: getting lost in the narrow, winding medina streets; the sweeping desert that’s unlike anything here in the States; the mint tea; the captivating city squares where tourists and locals collide in one big colorful flurry of activity. But then there were so many surprising bits that I didn’t expect to encounter: the lush countryside on the way out to the desert with palm, olive and orange trees; the colonial gardens; the level of safety and comfort I felt while walking the cities, even alone (I’d read quite the opposite). At one moment I felt like I had it kind of figured out, and the next moment I’d realize I was just scraping the surface of an understanding of the people, the geographic features, the culture.
In general, we stayed at riads in the major cities, and I wouldn’t have done it any other way. Riads are traditional Moroccan houses or palaces with an interior courtyard. They are often smack in the middle of the medina (the walled-off old city center) but because the courtyard is “protected,” so to speak, with the small structure of the building itself, they’re most incredible, quiet refuges. Riads are generally quite small (usually 5-12 rooms, on average) and, like your typical hotel, range in price and level of amenities. Breakfast is usually included at the riad and consists of some combination of strong coffee, fresh orange juice, pomegranate seeds, a not-too-sweet spice cake, and thick yeasty crepes with jam and butter.
We really found that the best way to get to know a city in Morocco is just to get out and walk. While we did visit a few museums, gardens and cultural attractions, we spent most of our time walking the medina, people watching, letting ourselves get lost. The souks — or the open-air markets — span what feels like miles in both Marrakech and Fez and could easily take up a few days of your time. There are different souks for different goods (leather, spices, wood work) and they all have their own little neighborhood, so to speak. We brought home a new tea pot, some spices, and a few gifts.
Riad Cinnamon, the perfect landing spot for our first few nights in Morocco. This small riad is right in the medina, an old merchant’s house with a beautiful little dipping pool and a large rooftop deck. Gracious service and lovely breakfast.
Madresa Ben Youssef, an old religious boy’s school that was renovated in 1999. Gorgeous Moroccan tile patterns and intricate wood-carved windows and doors. You can amble in and out of the old classrooms and hallways.
Maison de la Photographie: This small museum is in an old riad and exhibits photos from 1870-1960. There’s a great old 1907 photo of the main square in Marrakech, Djemaa el-Fna, and a sweet portrait of a couple in the 1920’s. Highlight here, too, is their terrace cafe where you can have an espresso and look out on the city’s rooftops.
Marrakech Museum: This tiny little museum is worth a go if convenient (it happened to be 2 minutes from our Riad). Remarkable tile floors.
Majorelle Gardens: Lush and manicured gardens designed by the French expat artist, Jacques Majorelle in the 1920’s and 30’s. I’d heard the cafe here serves a traditional Moroccan breakfast that’s not to be missed (we did miss it, sadly). Yves Saint Laurent bought the gardens in 1980 after becoming quite smitten with them.
Hammam Ziani: This traditional hammam (like a bathhouse or traditional spa) is located not far from the main square in Marrakech. Great steam/scrub/massage. Quite a different experience if you’ve never been — perhaps not for the modest or shy as you’re all in one large room (although they do separate men and women). When you start to fade or tire from walking around the city, this is an awesome, very reasonable fix.
Terraces des Espices: One of the better tagines we had while in Marrakech, but the real reason to go is the outdoor terrace and loungey booths.
Grande Cafe de la Poste: This cafe and restaurant in the Guliz neighborhood of Marrakech has a distinctly colonial feel and the perfect patio for cocktails or snacks (the restaurant inside is decidedly more formal). Guliz is very different from the majority of Marrakech (it has more metropolitan shops, restaurants, and newer construction).
Cuisine de Mona: Heidi told me about this Lebanese restaurant in the Gueliz neighborhood and while it was incredibly hard to find, the food was really fresh and delicious and Mona, the owner, sat down with us to chat about Morocco for the good part of an hour. We liked the vegetarian dishes here the best: great fattoush, hummus and tabbouli.
Panna: Right across the street from Cuisine de Mona, this gelateria was opened by an Italian man who moved to Morocco. Very special flavors, bright, modern atmosphere (unusual for Morocco). They have a flavor called “Italian cake:” get it.
Mamounia: When you can’t afford to stay at the fanciest hotel in town? You go and have a drink — which I would highly recommend here. The grounds of this hotel are stunning (we spent a good hour just ambling about) and they have a handful of different bars to choose from. Deluxe people watching.
Dar Bensouda: I cannot say enough about this riad (pictured in the three photos above), and I can’t wait to return someday. It used to be the Iman’s palace, and was then a madrasa (school); five years ago it was converted into this rather majestic, very special riad with two sweeping tile courtyards, a beautiful pool with old palms, and a rooftop deck that overlooks the entire city and proved to be a very peaceful reading spot.
Peeping at the Kairaouine Mosque
Madrasa Bou: Intricate, quiet, beautiful tile work. We got here at a magical time right before the tourists swept in, and had a good half an hour to sit and enjoy the craftsmanship.
The Medina of Fes el-Bali (Old Fez): Tough to miss if you’re staying in the city center, I couldn’t stop marveling at how the medina and souks in Fez were noticeably different than in Marrakech and I couldn’t quite place why. The streets in Fez seemed wider, perhaps, and somehow more spacious and walkable (or maybe I was just used to the pace by that point). I believe vehicles aren’t allowed within the Fez medina streets, so it did feel calmer. If you pay attention, you’ll see craftsmen everywhere tucked away in corners and alleys working on leather and wood crafts or sewing clothing.
Cafe Clock: I’m not sure I’d seek out Cafe Clock on a future trip. It’s really largely geared towards tourists and expats, but it is in a central location right in the medina and does provide a nice break from the tagine, couscous and kebabs we eventually tired of. We had sandwiches, french fries and shared a milkshake and it all tasted pretty memorable at the time.
Dar Bensouda: We stayed in one night and had chicken tagine with olives, herbs and citrus at the Riad. We ate in the quiet courtyard sipping mint tea. They have really nice, traditional sweets for dessert, too.
THE DRIVE TO ERG CHEBBI (SAHARA): HIGHLIGHTS
Erg Chebbi is one of the large dunes in the Sahara. The company we chose for our camel excursion was Camel Trekking, and owner Omar made it really simple and stress-free to coordinate logistics from afar. I will say that while the description of the three day trip online sounds packed and eventful, it is a really, really long drive to the desert. We’re talking about two very full, long days in the van. I hadn’t realized this for some reason, and would consider this when weighing how much time you have on your trip. That being said, the countryside was gorgeous and the Sahara was unlike anything I’ve ever seen — the perfect antidote to the bustle of the cities.
Dades Gorges Valley: This was some of the most beautiful countryside in Morocco, and my favorite part of the drive. One moment typical desert scenery and another surprisingly lush palm trees and rivers. The remarkable rock formations there are called “monkey fingers,” and all of the homes and structures are in muted shades of taupe or light pink.
Ait-Benhaddou: This old ksar is on the former caravan route and is, today, the home to many films set in the desert.
Ouarzazarte: From my understanding, this is akin to Morocco’s Hollywood, noted filmmaking location and the home of Atlas Studios.
The photo above is of Sam and I on our first day in the Sahara (Sam bought that cheche in Marrakech, and a few of the guys on our trip taught him how to wrap it. I called him ‘my desert Sam.’). Now that we’re settled back in with work and “real life,” I’m excited to start cooking and featuring some fall recipes on the site and there are some incredible new cookbooks out there for inspiration (like this one, or this one, or this one). At some point, I’d love to write about some highlights from our time in Italy, too (if you’re interested?). I hope you all have a wonderful week ahead (November!)
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.