So, we’re back to the ‘new thing per day’ blog posts and I obviously have a lot to catch up on. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday. Agh.
I also HAVE to do Thu, Fri and Sat individually because the new things on these days were really excellent and they deserve their own blog posts and even if I tried to shove them into one post, it would get so long, no one would ever read it. Sun, Mon, Tue I’m going to shove altogether into one post and I’m going to have to do it all before tomorrow because tomorrow I am going to a ball at Cambridge and OBVIOUSLY that is a new thing that deserves its very own blog post too.
AGH AGH AGH.
So, on Thursday in Marrakech, we had decided to do a half-day pastry course at our hotel. We were terribly excited about the idea. Not that I really do any cooking at home these days (I’m too busy and it’s too hard cooking for one every night) and not that I have EVER displayed ANY interest in cooking pastry (IT’S TOO FREAKING FIDDLY), but something about this really appealed. I was all, ‘hells yes, let’s get my stereotypically Stepford Wife femininity on, I don’t do that enough.’
I pulled on a white, lacy dress that morning, which left half of my brain thinking, ‘Really? A white dress? For a COOKING class? This is just courting disaster…’ and the other half of my brain thinking, ‘Oh, look how lovely and pretty and delicate I look! JUST LIKE ALL THE LOVELY LITTLE PASTRIES WE ARE GOING TO MAKE! Besides, all chefs wear white!’
We started the morning off with a tour of the local spice and food market with our hotel manager, which was probably one of my favourite things we did all trip. He took us round to all his suppliers and explained a great deal about the local culture, cuisine and various other things. He showed us the public ovens, where the poorest people in Marrakech come to bake their bread (because they don’t have an oven to do it themselves). He told us the history of the Jewish people in Marrakech (surprisingly long and peaceful, at least until the French arrived) and showed us how, in the old city, if a building has windows facing onto the street, we know it’s a Jewish area (traditional Moroccan buildings only had windows facing onto their private courtyard). He showed us the public hammam, where the Moroccans go every week with their families to scrub themselves down properly – a very different experience to the luxurious Hammams set up to cater to us Western tourists. His fish supplier showed us how to check if the fish is fresh (important in a desert city like Marrakech) – by throwing it against the tiles on the wall and seeing if it would stick. He offered us a fresh and uncooked prawn, which neither of us were game enough to try, so one of the local ladies had it instead. We got a rose each from the flower supplier and we were shown the difference between caged hens and free-range hens (as well as the difference between their egg colours). We saw chickens being plucked and traditional wafer-thin bread being cooked (so difficult it takes several months of practice for each new apprentice to make it correctly – some very famous chef had tried to do it recently and failed miserably). The spice merchant was probably my favourite. He offered us special Berber tea, made with no sugar, but miraculously sweet and full of flavour anyway. He then dropped the tiniest amount of eucalyptus crystals into the tea, which did such a good job of clearing out our sinuses, throat and eyes that we were left with tears streaming down our faces and coughing uncontrollably. We went through most of his stall, being shown dried ginger, unground cumin, proper sandalwood and frankenscene (it’s a rock! A rock that you burn! And then you can smell it! SO AMAZED). He gave us a little terracotta pot of lipstick made from dried poppy flowers – you put some water onto it and then transfer the colour to your lips, which looks more like a stain you get from eating too many berries than the paste from lipsticks we are used to. We constantly showed ourselves up to be naïve little city girls, used to everything being in jars at the supermarket, pre-prepared and labelled, which our hotel manager found very amusing. We could hardly identify anything. He teased us endlessly.
After the tour, we headed back to the hotel kitchen. Our manager explained that the cook we would be learning from had begun learning how to make these pastries at the age of 5. This was because she had come from a very poor family and they would have intended to sell her off as a cook to a rich family around the age of 12. So, she was very happy to be working in the hotel and to have a salary and regular working hours. The only thing we had to keep in mind was that she spoke very little English. And we spoke no French or Arabic. So, it was going to be a very interesting cooking session.
We were taken straight into the hotel’s kitchen – no separate, sanitised cooking area for us. Some of the other staff were standing around too – maybe to help us, maybe just for the entertainment value. And there was guaranteed to be entertainment value. We were given crisp, white cooking aprons (I KNEW it was a good colour to cook in!) and taken to the sink to wash our hands. Then, it was straight to work. Liz took notes whilst I got to put my hands into the egg and sugar and flour. I mixed it all up in a large, flat cooking bowl, rolling the pastry around and around. It felt like being a kid again. Some of the other staff would translate directions for us, but a lot of the time they would simply watch and laugh. We spent a lot of time giggling. In fact, we had to be told to hurry up several times.
We made one batch of cookies called ‘Cow’s Eyes’, which had a drop of orange jam in the middle of them (hence the ‘eye’) and covered, alternatively, in coconut and sesame seeds. When these were in the oven, we started on the next cookies, which I don’t remember the name of, but they are covered in Orange Blossom essence and icing sugar and are particularly delicate and heavenly.
At some point, our hotel manager came in and offered us a glass of wine each, which we refused (it was 11:45am and we had eaten SUCH a large breakfast only 2 hours previously), but he was so shocked (he IS from Bordeaux) that we quickly changed our minds. I don’t know if the wine helped the pastry making, but it certainly helped the giggling.
As we moved through the pastries, they got more and more complicated. The next challenge was baklava – but a Moroccan twist on the version that I am most familiar with. It used almonds and peanuts as opposed to pistachios and whatever else is in the Greek baklava (I’m such a connosieur). This was hard, yet oddly pleasurable work. Instead of just opening a packet of unsalted, skinned roasted peanuts, we did it ourselves. We roasted them in the oven for 5 minutes, then broke them in half with our hands and fingers, and popped them out of their skins. It took ages and our hands ached. We then flipped the tray to get all the skins away from the peanuts and blew them into the rubbish. These were then ground up in the food processor (something we WERE familiar with!) Meanwhile, a large amount of almonds were being blanched on the stove. After they were suitably soft, we took them out of the water and popped them out of their skins (an incredibly satisfying experience, even better than popping pimples). There was something nice about doing these jobs, which would normally be avoided (even when cooking) through the purchasing of prepared goods at the store. If I was in a rush, I may not have enjoyed it so much, but when we had the whole day ahead of us, well, it was just calming and pleasant. It was also pretty funny, especially when you squeezed an almond too hard and it went flying.
Almonds were very important in all of the pastries – apparently they are a real luxury in Morocco and you only get them for special occasions. Our hotel manager said that at weddings and other special occasions you can always see a large pile of pastries on the table and one or two women filling up their handbags surreptiously with the delicate little things.
Our final pastry was the hardest – the Horn of Gazelle. It involved making what appeared, to us, to be tiny little turds (rather unfortunate – but they were the right consistency and colour), wrapping them in wafer thin pastry and then shaping them into a a kind of half-moon wall thing (I’ll see if I can find photos).
Then we stood around the kitchen and admired our handy work, as the horns cooked. Our hotel manager asked the cook if we were good cooks and she very kindly said yes. He, however, told us that if we wanted to get married in Morocco, we would have to cook a full 10 course meal whilst being watched by our future mother-in-law (including pastries) and he felt that we probably needed a bit more practice before we would have been welcomed happily into a Moroccan family…. Meanwhile, some of the other staff had started cooking dinner (for the staff and for the guests) and they kept giving us bits to try. Our hotel manager explained that in Morocco you only don’t eat meat if you are very poor (hence their confusion over my vegetarianism), but it was still very expensive for some people. So, he tried to make sure he gave all his staff a meal including meat when they were working.
We finished up, thanked our cook (kisses on both cheeks) and headed back to our room. The final delightful touch was receiving a box of the pastries we had made, wrapped in ribbon and decorated with a rose. We then proceeded to attempt to eat a box of pastries each over the course of 4 days (and not all of them looked terrible and they all tasted pretty darn good, even if the horns were a little undercooked), by replacing most meals with pastries and then having desserts of pastries after every meal. I attempted to rationalise this by having the ‘least sugary’ pastries for meals and the ‘more sugary pastries’ as dessert. The upshot is I think I’ve probably eaten enough pastry to last me a lifetime and I never, ever want to see those delicate little things, or almonds, or honey or anything sweet ever, ever again. Hooray for vegetables!