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Culinary whizz John Gregory Smith became fascinated with Middle Eastern flavours after a food-filled father and son trip to Fez. The hospitality of the locals opened John up to a culture that is centred on family and food, two of his own prominent influences.
After the success of three other Middle Eastern cookbooks, countless recipes gracing the pages of The Times, GQ and Men’s Health, and a TV presenting stint for The Telegraph’s Fabulous Foodies, his new book Orange Blossom and Honey deconstructs authentic, Moroccan family recipes and brings them into the British home. Here he takes us on a journey through Morocco with tantalising stops at bustling markets, hidden seafood spots and, surprisingly, petrol station food trucks.
What first brought you to Morocco?
I read a magazine feature about Fez when I was in my early twenties. The stories of the ancient medina, with its winding alleyways, rooftop tanneries and sizzling street food did it for me. I went soon after with my dad and it was just incredible. Not a tourist in sight as we explored the city, taking it all in and eating so much fragrant food on the way.
What do you love about Morocco?
Morocco was my first taste of Middle Eastern culture, and I bloody loved it. It was so exotic and intriguing. I love the art, architecture and food, and the people are amazing; they are so hospitable and friendly.
And about Moroccan cuisine?
It’s so diverse. What we know, and often are given as tourists, is just not the real deal; the magic happens at home. I love the use of subtle spices, adding layers of flavour, the addition of punchy harissa or chermoula, and their sweet tooth – the mille-feuille at the cafés in Marrakech are so good. It’s also about having an abundant table, brimming with different dishes to try. I love eating like that.
Do you have any special memories?
So many! Barbecuing lamb on the side of the Atlas Mountains in Tacheddirt, a tiny village with only a few families living there. Hanging out with Berbers in the desert, cooking whole cow legs with beans, and marvelling over the view of the date palm oasis. Discovering the Moorish-Spanish influence in the north, and doing the road trip to shoot my new book with my photographer Alan Keohane.
When is the best time to visit?
Later summer through to early autumn, and spring is fantastic.
How do we spend the perfect day in Marrakech?
There’s only one answer: eating and walking. Wander through the medina early in the morning; it’s so lovely and peaceful before the crowds arrive. Grab breakfast at one of the bread stalls – they sell egg rolls with cream cheese and thick black coffee. The new YSL museum is a must. You can wander around it after exploring the Majorelle Gardens. And then grab lunch at the Amal Woman’s Training Centre, a charity for brave women who have left their husbands. They are trained in the hospitality industry and found local jobs. For evening drinks, there are some wicked bars in Gueliz, the new town.
Tell us about Marrakech’s best-kept secret.
Truck stops – they sell the best food, although you can’t beat a home-cooked meal in Morocco, but it can be hard to get access. So do what the locals do when they need a feed, and head to one of the petrol stations that surround the city centre. They have little restaurants serving delicious dishes like lamb kefta, tagines, couscous, kebabs and salads. My favourite is called Bladna. It’s so good and extremely cheap.
Where is your favourite place to wake up?
Opening the doors onto the terrace at my friends’ chic mud-built house in Skoura. It’s on the edge of an oasis in the desert. You can see the lush green foliage, pomegranate trees and wild mint, all framed by the majestic mountains. It’s heaven.
The best place for breakfast?
Tuck into omelette khliaâ at Cafe Nzaha, another petrol station sensation on the road from Marrakech into the Atlas Mountains. This is dry-cured beef with fried eggs.
Mechoui Aly in Marrakesh, a small street dedicated to lamb. Take a seat at Chez Lamine and tuck into hunks of barbecue lamb with cumin, salt and paprika. You dive in with your hands, sipping mint tea at the same time.
The sizzling seafood in Asilah is brilliant. This colonial town just south of Tangier, is a hot mess of faded grandeur buildings, bustling fish markets and old souks. You can head to the port, pick up some seafood from the market and take it to one of the many stalls that line the streets. They’ll cook it for you and serve it with bread and dips.
For street food?
Fez nails it for me. When the sun starts to set, wander the narrow streets, heading south to the markets of Najjarine. Graze on everything from kefta to chickpea baguettes with cream cheese, bowls of thick bissara soup, sizzling lamb liver kebabs and whole steamed cow heads with noodles. Which, by the way, is delicious.
Best place to buy local ingredients to bring home?
Le Marché couvert du Mellah – the covered market next to the Mellah, or Jewish quarter in Marrakech. You can pick up everything from freshly cut flowers, to scented saffron and perfumed rose water. They have beautiful olives and oils from across the country and some of the best preserved lemons in town.
Where would you take your friends if they are visiting for the first time?
To Riad Les Yeux Bleus, a little boutique hotel right by the medina walls, down a very windy, non-descript alleyway. You go through a tiny door, which opens out onto a beautiful art-deco tilled courtyard with a pool. It’s the perfect place to escape the madness of the medina. They only have a few rooms, all beautifully decorated in bold colours and with gorgeous art everywhere.
Tell us a bit about your new book
Orange Blossom and Honey is all about showing an undiscovered side of Morocco – things you don’t know or expect. I travelled all over the country staying with local families from the desert to the mountains and the sea to get under the skin of the place. The book is a window into a country that I love to bits.
Can you give us a sneak-peak recipe?
It doesn’t get more Marrakech than lamb tangia. The meat is cooked in a conical-shaped pot (a tangia) with spices, butter and preserved lemons. It is perfumed to perfection and falls off the bone. The pots are hard to get in the UK, so I have adapted the recipe to make it easier, but so it still delivers on taste.
Which is the best Moroccan restaurant in London?
Mine! I am doing a two-week pop-up at Great Guns Social in Borough. The old pub has been beautifully renovated into a rock ‘n’ roll chic, chilled-out bar and kitchen. I am doing a feasting journey around Morocco with some of my favourite dishes, like smoked aubergine zaalouk, lamb mechoui, chargrilled squid with a preserved lemon dressing, and an amazing smoky lamb tagine, slow cooked with ras el hanout, paprika and almonds. (6-19 November, buy tickets here).
What’s in your suitcase for a trip to Morocco?
Trainers, a couple of pairs of Ray-Ban’s, my Cannon EOS 600, loads of L’Avenue SPF 50, my MacBook Air, a notebook for recipes, and a smart jacket – you never know where you will end up in Morocco.
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