While international travel is not currently on the table, we can still dream about our favourite destinations and Morocco is at the top of our list as one of the world's most beguiling destinations. Fez, Morocco’s second largest city, is quite rightly emerging as a top foodie destination, and it's on our list as one of the first places we want to visit when travel is given the green light.
Set within Palais Amani, a gorgeous boutique hotel in Fez, the Fez Cooking School is one of the leading cookery schools in the area. Here all foodies start with a guided foodie tour of the medina with a chef from Palais Amani followed by a cookery class on the rooftop of the Fez Cooking School. After the session, participants can indulge in lunch while taking in the gorgeous views of the city.
This year, the Fez Cooking School at Palais Amani celebrates its 10th anniversary and has also launched a new Healthy Moroccan Eating Workshop to introduce guests to some of the dishes and ingredients that are prevalent in traditional Moroccan cuisine. The menu choices have been prepared to allow guests to learn how to create dishes passed down through family traditions and to understand some of the properties that can lead to a healthier lifestyle.
We caught up with Jemima to gain some insights into what inspired her to start Palais Amani and the Fez Cooking School and to learn about her plans for the future.
What inspired you to set up Palais Amani and the Fez Cooking School?
The dream started in 2006 when we found our incredible building for sale in the medina in Fez. Having spent nearly a year looking for a project in Morocco to throw ourselves into, we came across the former house of the Lahlou family; a glorious, abandoned, dilapidated palace just inside the ancient city walls and in need of a large dollop of TLC. Four and half years later, we opened as the largest working riad in the medina in Fez and we rapidly became known as one of the ‘must visit ‘places in Morocco.
We want to allow travellers to experience all that is Moroccan, and a visit to Morocco wouldn’t be complete with out a journey to its culinary heart: couscous, tagine, pastilla - the very names of the dishes conjure up saffron and ginger, garlic and coriander, marinades and steaming pyramids of slow cooked vegetables and rich sauces.
It became rapidly apparent that our guests wanted more than to just eat the delicious dishes, they also wanted to learn more about the country’s culinary wealth. As the demand grew to learn how to make Moroccan food we started giving classes to guests that had requested them. As time went by we also took them out to the markets so they could see how the daily routines in Morocco are organised around the fresh seasonal produce arriving in the souks. The creation of the Fez Cooking School was a natural extension of our hotel project. By 2015, our casual cooking workshop had turned into a business in itself and by 2018 was officially opened by Anissa Helou, herself a great writer on Islamic cuisine.
Do most of your guests book the hotel specifically because they are foodies who want to participate in the cookery courses?
Most of our guests book because they want to get under the skin of this fascinating country by experiencing life in a traditional way. They are well-travelled, curious people and yes many of them are foodies.
How does the experience you offer differ from other cookery classes in the area?
Cooking classes are a big thing in Morocco. And there certainly isn’t a shortage of classes on offer. But ours are different for a number of reasons. Our young and vibrant team take the guests out into the souks so guests learn so much more about what it is like to be growing up in a medieval city in the 21st century. This alone is an experience in itself, as it goes far deeper than a traditional guide. The visit starts off with a tasting tour in the local shops and areas where the working people of the medina will have their breakfast or lunch. This authentic cross-cultural sharing is well off the tourist paths. Then they will go and buy the best of the local produce with the chef, be inspired by the market and bring the ingredients back to the Palais to start cooking. Our cooking school overlooks the medina as it is on the roof of Palais Amani, is has the most incredible view. A feast for the eyes whilst preparing a feast for the palate! And each person cooks along side the chef on their own cooking station that we have designed for this purpose. It is a real hands-on experience. The class is run by our guest relations officers who are fluent in both English, French and of course Moroccan so they translate for the guests and at times throw in a bit of music and Moroccan dancing too!
What dish do you think most defines the region?
Fez is known as the culinary capital of Morocco, so the variety of dishes is huge, but one of the most famous one is the Chicken pastille. Fine layers of pastry that are made on a hot dome in the medina, are filled with a chicken tagine mix, with cinnamon, eggs, almonds and coriander. The moist sort of pie is then cooked, often in the local public bread oven and just before being served is dusted in icing sugar and cinnamon for a delicious sweet and savoury delicacy.
What makes Moroccan breads and pastries unique? Do you have a favourite?
The variety of Moroccan breads very often made with only flour and water, are astounding, from the thousand hole thick pancakes that are similar to crumpets known as Bgrrir, to Meloui, layered unleven bread that are served at breakfast, and can be stuffed like some sort of calzone pizza. And then the pastries, the moon shaped almond ‘cornes de gazelle’ Gazelle horns, or light Gribba with coconut, they are all very difficult to resist. My absolute favourite are Chebbakia that are served during Ramadan, a saffron flavoured pastry with orange flower water, that are cut and plaited into flowers, deep-fried and dipped in honey, and sprinkled with sesame seeds. You mustn’t even start to think of the calories or the effect will be ruined, and more than one is definitely too many, but I find myself eating three or four!
What was the inspiration behind the Sephardic cooking workshop?
The history of the Jews that settled in Morocco after being chased out of Spain at the end of the 15th century is a long and rich one and can be discovered through the extent of their influence in Moroccan cuisine today. Bringing spices and techniques with them, a number of dishes that are regularly eaten today have Sephardic roots. The inspiration was to be able to show centuries of believers living side by side and sharing common values through the daily rituals, and for our guests to learn more about the history of this fascinating city.
I think a lot of people would be surprised to learn that Morocco produces some great wines, which they can try during your wine tasting experience. Can you provide a bit more detail? Which wines do they do best in Morocco?
From the grape picking scenes on the mosaics at the incredible Roman ruins Volubilis that are less than an hour away from Fez it is clear that the making of wine is not a recent activity in Morocco. And indeed some of the really good wines in Morocco come from the region around Volubilis today. We showcase over 20 delicious Moroccan wines on our wine list. There is nothing shy about a wine from Morocco. They are full of sunshine, are robust and powerful, and go very well with typical Moroccan dishes. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have the complexity of some sophisticated wines from the world. They do and are definitely worth trying. My favourite are the Epicuria range from the Domaine de la Zouina near Meknes. The white Epicuria is yellow and buttery similar to some of the very good French Viognier wines, and the Red Syrah is deep and velvety, perfect with couscous.
What exciting plans do you have in store for the future of the business?
I don’t think anyone would have imagined a couple of months ago, how tourism was going to be transformed with the Covid lockdown. And whilst a lot of the future is uncertain for international travel, this situation is maybe forcing us to be a bit more creative. We are really excited to be starting online cooking workshops from the Fez cooking School. We are showcasing a number of live classes for free so that although people may not be travelling now, they can travel a bit with us through cooking. We send out the list of ingredients and utensils a few days before the live class, and a link to join the class. All you have to do is to sign up, buy the ingredients and show up to be able to lift the lid on some of the secrets of making the best Moroccan dishes.
To sign up for a free cooking workshop visit: https://forms.gle/vmrpYm8rYkD86g1VA
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