We hesitated when an elderly gentleman, dressed in dusty robes, asked us to follow him down into what resembled far too closely a dark, decrepit and disused mineshaft. Following strangers into shadowy caves is pretty much a major no no in itself, but in Marrakech, with every other person desperate to help show the way to this place or that, one must be doubly vigilant. Mercifully, at the mouth of the murky passage, our guide then lit a gas lantern he had found, thus enabling us to see down the pass and descry Dar Marjana’s front door. We decided that this fellow was kosher after all…and followed.
We continued to trail our makeshift escort through endless doors and corridors right to the heart, the inner sanctum, straight to the belly of the building. Once there, initial surprise over the sheer space of the open-air courtyard that exists hidden within, soon gave way to an appreciation of the area’s beauty. One corner of the quad was dominated by a tremendous palm tree with a thick trunk and long, overhanging branches – that’s correct; there was a tree inside this building! A small fountain sat in the centre of the court surrounded on one side by colourful couches and small tables at which guests can sample aperitifs, such as the homemade mahia (fig liqueur) house cocktail that we tried. On the other side, local musicians play traditional Moroccan melodies upon exotic instruments.
Once our guests arrived – W and I were dining with cousins of mine – we chit chatted, nibbled on olive and nut nibbles and sipped on pre-dinner drinks as groups of diners were ushered to their seats one by one. Soon it is our turn to be led into the narrow, but long dining room that was filled with large, comfy divans around large, ovular tables. The walls were dark oak, but the seating and napery shimmered of metallic gold. Our initials had been spelt out with shiny pebbles upon our table, which had also been strewn with rose petals; both lovely little touches. The wait was not a long one before three waiters arrived to dish out the thirteen dishes that were just the first course; we all silently concurred that there was already enough here to constitute a full meal.
I will now attempt to recount the specific details of this meal, but please bear in mind, I write this one month post-event without having been able to take any notes at the time.
Entrée: Mosaïque de salades variées sucrées et salées. A sumptuous selection of sweet and savoury dishes were served: carrot sautéed with cumin; lamb’s brain; pan-fried liver; green olive; black olive; tomato jam; green pepper; candied carrot purée; tomato; cucumber; briouat (mincemeat-filled and fried triangular pastry parcels); roasted aubergine mash; spicy tomato and herb purée; and warm, homemade khubz (traditional bread). It was very much like a Turkish meze. All the ingredients were fresh, full of flavour and prepared well. For me, what stood out most was the offal which, outside North Cyprus, I do not really find the opportunity to eat; the candied carrot purée that had surprising sweetness; the meaty, earthy aubergine; and, my favourite of all, the thick tomato jam infused with cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and rose water that had a sweet heat to it.
Plat Principal 1: Pastilla aux pigeons; galette aux pigeons; et tajine de poulet souiri. The second course was just as abundant as the first with three distinct dishes arriving: a sweet pigeon pie, a pigeon ‘pancake’ and a chicken and omelette tagine. The large pastilla (pie) of plate-sized proportions was an unusual, but delightful new taste; meaty, nutty and so sweet altogether. A crispy, crackly shell of warka pastry encased slow-cooked, finely-shredded, spice-suffused pigeon, crunchy toasted and ground almonds, cinnamon and sugar. Some thought it a little too sugary, but I relished this combination of flavours and crumbly, croquant textures. The savoury galette, again with pigeon, was nice too featuring tender pieces of pigeon wrapped in folds of delicate, thin pasta. The bird had been cooked very well, retaining its gamey flavour. I was a little worried about a tagine of chicken; I thought that the long, slow cooking may have dried out the poor poulet. I was wrong. This was a lesson in cooking poultry; the meat literally droped off the bone. The juicy chicken was accompanied by small onions, a thin omelette coverlet and furnished with an excellent garlic-ginger-turmeric-saffron seasoning.
Plat Principal 2: Tagine d’agneau aux pruneaux, figues et amandes. We were full, so full. We expected dessert. We got lamb tagine with prunes, figs and almonds. We ate it all. Such succulent, splendidly-seasoned lamb could not go uneaten. It was cooked perfectly, not only falling of the bone, but willing itself onto my fork. I have, almost passively, eschewed red meat lately, but this dish reminded me of all that is great about it. The ingredients also worked well together; the rich meat was not overpowered with fruity sweetness, instead the molten figs and prunes, alongside the nutty almond, provided a great textural contrast with the soft flesh. Only once we had devoured all the lamb, I discovered the sauce leftover in the tagine; it was so flavourful that I could have, would have, gladly drunk it as soup.
Plat Principal 3: Couscous aux légumes et oignons sucrés. We all began laughing when yet another course came; couscous with vegetables and sweet onions. The legumes included carrot, courgette, potato and chickpea, whilst the semolina was spiced with chilli and studded with raison. I did try a little, but decided to forgo these carbs and wait for dessert. What I tasted was nice, with fluffy grains complemented by sweet, plump raisons. Fellow diners liked it, but were a little disappointed that the couscous had not come together with the lamb; however, I believe this is simply the Moroccan façon.
Dessert: Pastilla au lait et aux amandes; salade d’orange à la cannelle; et pâtisseries marocaines. Finally, desserts arrived and yet again the dishes were numerous, yet again the portions generous and yet again we cleaned our plates. A pastilla, this time of the supposed-to-be more acceptably sweet sort, consisted of several sheets of super-thin pastry with layers of cinnamon, almond and sugar in between. After setting this down, the serveur proceeded to gently crush the pastry a little and then pour warm milk over it. Wow! This was delicious. It was crunchy and crackly, warm and nutty, sweet and light. We all agreed it was like eating warm Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut cornflakes and it was well worth the wait.
The accompanying cinnamon-spiced oranges were fresh and zesty, whilst the biscuits were well made; one variety was especially notable, which though firm, upon biting, crumbled and dissolved immediately upon the tongue.
Digestifs et thé: At the end of the meal we were offered a variety of digestives including a strong crème de menthe and a much more agreeable fig-flavoured liqueur. The customary Moroccan mint tea was also served with a choice between sweetened and unsweetened.
The food may have finished, but the entertainment was just beginning. The Gnaoua musicians who had remained in the background throughout the meal, gently strumming away on their instruments, now came to the fore, picking up the pace and turning up the volume. They were joined by a couple of dancers and all began to sing along to music. The dancers were actually rather impressive and the songs pleasing to the ear. Having the live entertainment in that intimate space helped create a convivial, jolly atmosphere and soon enough some of the guests were up on their feet, dancing with the professionals, whilst the rest of us clapped along. After the dancers came a not-so-successful belly dancer, who though not technically adept, was still appreciated by most of the gentlemen in attendance.
Service was excellent. There was a clear language barrier as no one else in my party spoke French, but the staff made light of this indeed. They were friendly, efficient and charmed us with playful antics and infectious laughs. It was also amusing to watch them take part in the music and dance.
The food was great; the entertainment, enjoyable; the service, delightful. What we liked most was that it was just so different to anything one might experience in London, but I did feel a wee pang of nostalgia for North Cyprus, where I have spent many evenings in such fashion. Nevertheless, it was a truly memorable evening and one I strongly recommend to anyone heading to Marrakech.