Travel tales

Tagines and tea: A Moroccan cookery class at L’Atelier Madada, Essaouira

Cooking class at L'Atelier Madada in Essaouira

One of my reasons for wanting to come back to Morocco was the country’s food. Memories of tagines, almond pastries, fresh herb salads and mint tea have stayed with me over the eight years since my last trip. And although I’ve tried recreating the flavours back at home, they’ve never been quite the same. So as soon as I decided to come back I knew I had to learn to do it properly this time. The L’Atelier Madada cookery school in Essaouira came highly recommended, so we signed up for a half-day class. Attached to the swanky Madada Mogador hotel, classes take place under the arches of a former almond factory, converted into a modern kitchen where groups of up to eight people learn to cook a two-course Moroccan meal.

Mint tea at L'Atelier Madada cookery school, Essaouira, Morocco

Mona showing us how mint tea should be made

Classes are run by Mona, the latest in a long lineage of dadas – female chefs who worked as private cooks for rich families in the past and run the kitchens in many of the best riads today. She was assisted by Alison, a Brit who married a Berber man and moved out to Morocco, and now acts as a translator for the bilingual cookery school. Normally whoever books onto the class first gets to choose the menu, so as we left it a bit late we were beaten to it by our classmates, a French family. Luckily they had excellent taste and went for a classic tagine – and one of my favourites – chicken with preserved lemon and olives.

Mint tea in the spice souks, Essaouira, Morocco

Piles of mint tea in the spice souks

But before we got to the food, the class started off with a lesson in how to make the most Moroccan of drinks – mint tea. Now I love mint tea and drink litres of it, but have never managed to get it to taste quite right, so I was watching intently. It turns out it’s all in the tea – and the sugar. Mona started off by adding a spoonful of gunpowder green tea (rather than normal black tea) to the teapot. This is boiled up and then the first glass is poured away to get rid of any dust and dirt. Then you add a bunch of fresh mint leaves and more water and boil it up again, adding as much sugar as you like (which is a lot if you’re Moroccan). Once it’s brewed you pour the tea into small glasses, lifting the teapot up high so the tea aerates as it pours.

Tagines cooking, L'Atelier Madada cookery school, Essaouira, Morocco

Tagines cooking (on the hob not in the oven!)

Fortified with a few glasses of tea, we set to work. As well as the tagine we were also making briouats – triangular parcels made with thin pastry and filled with meat or cheese and vegetables. We started by finely grating courgette and carrots and chopping onions for the filling. I cook a lot and think I’m pretty competent with a kitchen knife, but Mona’s got strict standards. She had us chopping those onions until they were almost like a paste. And that was only the start of the chopping – next up was the marinade for the tagine, a mixture of onion, garlic, parsley and coriander. This was rubbed all into chicken legs and wings, along with a blend of spices and a good glug of olive oil, and the tagine was ready to cook.

Making briouats, L'Atelier Madada cookery school, Essaouira, Morocco

Folding the briouats up tightly

In many recipes tagines get cooked in the oven, but this isn’t the Moroccan way to do it. Mona explained they should be cooked on the hob, using a plain earthenware tagine (those pretty painted ones are more for decoration than cooking) and a thin sheet of metal to diffuse the heat. This way the heat comes from below and the steam rises up to cook the food inside. While the tagines cooked we mixed up the fillings for the briouats, one with the vegetables and the other with goats cheese and mint. The pastry used to wrap them is called brick or warqa and is paper-thin, like filo or a spring roll wrapper. The pastry is cut into long strips, a dollop of filling is added and they are folded corner-to-corner to make a triangle – under Mona’s watchful eye to make sure they are tight enough that the filling won’t ooze out as they cook.

Spice blends in the souks of Essaouira, Morocco

Said’s special ras el-hanout blends

With the brouiats ready for the oven, Alison took us out into the spice souks where we met stallholder Said. He filled us in on the secrets of the herbs and spices used in Moroccan cookery – over tea of course. This was different to the usual mint though, instead we tried his ‘Royal Tea’, made with 15 different herbs and spices. He also told us all about ras el-hanout – the spice blend that makes up the heart of a tagine. I always thought this was a particular mix of spices, but actually it just means ‘head of the shop’ and every stallholder has their own individual recipe. There can be over 30 different spices included, though those rose petals you sometimes get in the versions back home are definitely not part of it. Said had separate blends for chicken, red meat, fish and couscous dishes, each with a different vivid colour and smell.

Making briouats, L'Atelier Madada cookery school, Essaouira, Morocco

My finished (only slightly leaky) briouats

Back at L’Atelier, Mona had added the finishing touches to our tagines while we were away – a handful of green olives and slices of preserved lemon. In the luxurious dining room our brouiats were served up first, only slightly leaky (sorry Mona) but crispy and light. Then came the grand tagine unveiling, with the domed lid whipped off to reveal a bubbling dish steaming with delicious smells. The tender chicken fell off the bone and the herbs had formed a crust, thanks to all that fine chopping, to be mopped up with fresh bread (never couscous, which is a separate dish rather than an accompaniment). It was as good as any tagine I’d had in a restaurant. And armed with L’Atelier’s recipes and Said’s spice blends, back home it tastes just as great.

Chicken tagine, L'Atelier Madada cookery school, Essaouira, Morocco

Delicious chicken tagine with preserved lemons and olives

The details

L’Atelier Madada run cookery workshops each day from 10.30am–3pm, costing 500 MAD (approx £36) per person. They also run afternoon pastry workshops from 3.30pm–5pm for 220 MAD/£16. It’s a good idea to book in advance (not least so you get to choose the menu).

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Learning to Moroccan style at L'Atelier Madada cookery school in Essaouira – from mint tea to a chicken tagine with olives and preserved lemons – ontheluce.com

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49 Comments

  • Reply
    Jennifer Grainger
    April 10, 2014 at 10:32 am

    Hi Lucy are you in Morocco now? Cheers Jenn

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 10, 2014 at 10:37 am

      Hi Jenn, no I am back home now – was there a couple of weeks ago and just catching up on all the posts about the trip now.

  • Reply
    Tricia A. Mitchell
    April 10, 2014 at 11:19 am

    Lucy, looks as though you had a fantastic day with fellow foodies, and you’ve given me incentive to dust off my tajines and whip something up. Having been to Fes & Marrakech, I loved watching the art of making Moroccan Mint Tea, especially how the server lifted the silver teapot high above the colorful glasses to pour it. How long were you in Morocco, and what other spots did you visit?

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 10, 2014 at 11:42 am

      Thanks Tricia, it was a really interesting day – the tea pouring is very impressive, you do need a steady hand though! We were in Morocco for a week this time, mainly Essaouira but with a couple of days in Marrakech. I was there a bit longer last time so travelled more widely (Fes, Atlas Mountains, Ourzazate, Meknes, Asilah). Lovely to be back though, very much enjoyed Essaouira so won’t leave it so long next time.

      • Reply
        Tricia A. Mitchell
        April 10, 2014 at 12:01 pm

        Sounds like you’ve travelled far and wide in Morocco. In addition to seeing Essaouira and Ourzazate, I’d love to do an overnight stay in the Sahara. Such an exotic country with a rich culture.

  • Reply
    wakeorsleep
    April 10, 2014 at 11:33 am

    I’m so in love with briouats, and it’s so hard to find decent Moroccan food now that I’m back home! Very jealous of your cookery class, the food looks amazing.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 10, 2014 at 11:44 am

      It was great – I’d have happily spent a few days there learning to make lots of different dishes. It’s been lovely to be able to recreate at least a few of the flavours though.

  • Reply
    Jacqueline
    April 10, 2014 at 12:49 pm

    That sounds wonderful. I love cooking and love the Moroccan food I have had in the UK. Never been to Morocco but would love to go.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 10, 2014 at 1:03 pm

      Thanks Jacqueline, Moroccan food is great – and it’s a good place for a short break from the UK as it’s not too long a flight.

  • Reply
    Dinner Bank
    April 10, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    Thanks for a great post! 🙂 I also love the moroccon kitchen soooo much and Im greatful as I have my husband is from there 🙂 And here we cook a lot pure moroccon dishes, so take a moment and visite my blogg and find out 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 11, 2014 at 10:26 am

      Sounds great – I will definitely check out some of your recipes and try out some more Moroccan dishes!

  • Reply
    Darlene
    April 10, 2014 at 2:32 pm

    My favourite food as well. What a great experience to learn to cook it by the locals!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 11, 2014 at 10:26 am

      Thanks Darlene, it was a really good day, very informative but lots of fun too.

  • Reply
    Tim
    April 10, 2014 at 5:44 pm

    I have always wondered how a tangine actually worked to create such delicious dishes. Obviously, me, not a big cooking expert but do love to eat and have been known to take a class or two.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 11, 2014 at 10:27 am

      I’ve always cooked them in the oven when I’ve tried it at home so was doing it totally wrong! I’ve done cooking classes in Thailand and Vietnam too and it’s a fab way of bringing home a bit of the holiday.

  • Reply
    Laura
    April 10, 2014 at 8:13 pm

    I have been mildly obsessed with Moroccan mint tea ever since I visited a few years ago – I think it would be so cool to learn how to make it! Sounds like a great experience.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 11, 2014 at 10:28 am

      I just love the mint tea – though having seen how much sugar goes in it’s probably not the best thing to be drinking tons of every day!

  • Reply
    Suzanne Courtney
    April 11, 2014 at 1:04 am

    I love Moroccan food and the menu you prepared looks delicious. Must be hard getting that mint tea into those tiny glasses from such a great height – a steady hand required!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 11, 2014 at 10:29 am

      That’s what I thought too – don’t think my hand would be steady enough!

  • Reply
    Mani (A New Life Wandering)
    April 11, 2014 at 2:44 am

    yum!

  • Reply
    Lauren @ Peaks and Passports
    April 11, 2014 at 2:58 am

    Now I’m hungry 🙂 This sounds like a blast!

  • Reply
    Aggy (@dewtraveller)
    April 11, 2014 at 2:06 pm

    I am drooling as I’m reading this post. Food is an amazing way to connect with a place, learning to cook it with a local however will probably give you a much stronger bond to the place. I’m a huge fan of mint tea by the way, should probably pop over to Morocco to have the “real deal”

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 16, 2014 at 2:28 pm

      You should! Mint tea in Morocco is definitely different to anywhere else I have ever tasted it.

  • Reply
    Agness
    April 12, 2014 at 2:56 am

    Someone said fresh salad and almond pastries? I love this place already!! 😀

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 16, 2014 at 2:29 pm

      Those almond pastries are so delicious – if I go back I’ll do the patisserie afternoon course for sure!

  • Reply
    Heather on her travels
    April 12, 2014 at 9:02 pm

    I can almost smell the aromas coming off that chicken with lemons – a dish we also tried in Marrakech

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 16, 2014 at 2:29 pm

      I think that’s one of my favourite Moroccan dishes, such a classic.

  • Reply
    Pacha
    April 15, 2014 at 8:07 am

    Thank you Lucy and Congratulations for this well written article.
    We’re glad you enjoyed the time you spent with us in Essaouira.

    Pacha, from l’Atelier Madada.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 16, 2014 at 2:30 pm

      Thanks so much Pacha, we had a really great day and hope to be back again someday!

  • Reply
    swo8
    April 16, 2014 at 1:11 am

    Hi Lucy,
    Any chance you would put out a recipe or two? The food looks so good.
    Leslie

  • Reply
    Cathy Sweeneyc
    April 16, 2014 at 9:38 pm

    Looks like an awesome experience from start to finish. It’s probably a safe bet that the French will choose a wonderful menu. 🙂 I’ve not tried Moroccan dishes anywhere, but am totally motivated to so now.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 17, 2014 at 10:30 pm

      Thanks, it was interesting to learn about the background to the dishes as well as how to make them, definitely a highlight of my Morocco trip!

  • Reply
    A Crafty Traveler
    April 18, 2014 at 11:01 am

    That looks amazing!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 18, 2014 at 7:53 pm

      It was great – I’ve been wanting to do a Moroccan cookery class for years and so glad to do it finally!

  • Reply
    Monica Suma (@MonicaSuma)
    April 18, 2014 at 10:28 pm

    Love tagines. One of my favorite cuisines in the world!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 20, 2014 at 8:49 pm

      Mine too – they’re usually so simple to cook back home too!

  • Reply
    restlessjo
    April 25, 2014 at 8:11 am

    That’s it then, Lucy! I’m inviting myself for tea 🙂
    Have a happy weekend!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      April 25, 2014 at 10:57 am

      If you’re ever in Cheltenham Jo, you’re very welcome! Have a lovely weekend too.

  • Reply
    shannon smith
    May 6, 2014 at 5:35 pm

    I just returned from a cooking adventure in Morocco. The cooking class at L’Atelier Madada, Essaouira was a highlight! Thank you for writing about the experience in such an eloquent manner. I could not have expressed it better myself. I look forward to enjoying more from your blog in the future!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 7, 2014 at 10:02 am

      That’s great – glad you enjoyed the article and the class, I’ve made my tagine at least once a week since I got back I loved it so much! Hope to get back there sometime and do another class.

  • Reply
    Pola (JettingAround) (@jettingaround)
    May 10, 2014 at 1:03 am

    Taking cooking classes while traveling is one of my favorite activities! You can have a great time, learn so much, and often eat better stuff than at some restaurants.

    Good job on the briouats! Your post makes me want to find a Moroccan restaurant in Chicago, there must be one…

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 13, 2014 at 9:22 pm

      I love cookery classes too, it’s such a good way of bringing your travels home with you – we don’t have a Moroccan restaurant close by so it’s as close as I’ll get!

  • Reply
    The Vagabond Baker
    May 5, 2015 at 11:15 am

    Ooo, I want to make briouats, they sound delicious! Think I’d have to get my little choppy machine out for the onions though: like a paste? my eyes would be streaming by then!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      May 6, 2015 at 8:44 pm

      The briouats were a bit wasted on me because of the gluten but everyone else said they were lovely (and the filling without the pastry was very tasty!). Still make the tagine though – chef Mona said the onions get a bit bruised in a chopper but they still tasted ok to me and a lot less pain!

      • Reply
        The Vagabond Baker
        May 7, 2015 at 10:13 am

        yum! I’ve got a hand chopper that’s a bit like a tiny food processor, it’s really cool! I don’t care if the onion gets bruised! 😉

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