A Tajine Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving we found ourselves perched upon camels as we strode across the Sahara desert, dined on tajine specialties under a tent, and gazed upon the millions of stars illuminating the vast Sahara sands.

Let me back up for a moment.

Thanksgiving is a purely American holiday.  The London grocers try to provide supplements for the American feast, but they seem rather paltry set aside on one special rack in the store.  Cans of cranberry and pumpkin, stuffing crumbs, and turkeys look a bit lost and forlorn among all the English Christmas goodies.

We decided to escape London all together.  Instead of traveling three hours to Florida this Thanksgiving, we spent the same amount of time heading to Morocco with my parents in tow.  Same crowd, different location!

Marrakech is a diverse city filled with ancient mosques, medinas, and mosaics. 

We explored gardens, tombs, and the famous Place Jemaa el-Fna, a marketplace  filled with souks that create a magnificent maze of silk tapestries, berber rugs, exotic spices, silver jewelry, decorative pottery, and other treasures. 

It is here that slithery snakes are charmed into dance and mischievous monkeys want to sit on your shoulder.

Jackie was persuaded to touch a snake, but it was the cats that really terrified her! In Morocco, cats are said to bring angels into a house.  Therefore, everywhere you go cats and kittens roam the streets, the restaurants, and the sites.  Jackie was paralyzed by terror that one might brush against her leg.  Yet a snake around her head was acceptable — go figure!

We were surprised at the juxtaposition of sophisticated cosmopolitan modernity and simple ancient traditions.  As my Dad  eloquently commented one night at dinner: “We are dining on gourmet fusion food in a chic nightclub with a DJ spinning cool tunes and there is a camel taking a crap outside on the street!”  That about sums it up.

Speaking of camels, after a long journey of planes, cars, and camels, we arrived at the Sahara desert on Thanksgiving day.

The sands were a rose gold color that is absolutely breathtaking.  Dunes the size of mountains surrounded us as we watched the sun go down and the winds pick up.  We dined beneath a tent on traditional tajine beef and a massive platter of couscous adorned with root vegetables.  The next morning, we watched the sun rise over the desert horizon, lending an even pinker hue to the rosy sandy mountains.  A rainbow even appeared, making it more magical!

The next day, we left the sand for firmer ground and found ourselves high in the Atlas mountains sharing mint tea with a Berber family in their mud-baked hovel.  Unlike the sandy Saharan dunes that were nearly impossible to climb, the Atlas mountains were a perfect place to hike and explore.

We began our journey at the Berber marketplace where people come from the hills once a week, traveling several hours on foot, to spend the entire day gathering supplies, joining relatives, and dining on tajine.  This marketplace was very different from the one in the center of Marrakech.  Here, exotic spices and ancient herbal remedies shared space with freshly slaughtered goats, sheep, and chickens.                             

We stepped over piles of bloody goat heads and hooves, viewed cow stomach linings and sheep brains on crude shelves, and watched chickens get beheaded and then plucked.  Despite the carnage around us, Jeff still thought it would have been great to eat at one of the many adjacent shacks filled with roasting tajine meats, couscous platters, and grilled skewers.

Thankfully, we dined instead at Sir Richard Branson’s beautifully restored Kasbah Tamadot for a late lunch.  It was an oasis of elaborate Moroccan design with breathtaking views of the snow capped mountains.  It felt as if we were situated in a perfect combination of Italy with the orderly cypress trees and Jackson Hole with the vast mountain vistas.

Back in Marrakech for one last night, we dined at Dar Yacout, which is, according to my guidebook, “more than just a restaurant. It is a legend”.  This is not hyperbole as the evening provided one last great adventure.

Yacout is a spectacular fantasy palace in the center of Marrakesh. In the 1990s, an American architect turned a cluster of mansions into a labyrinth of secret salons and patios with carved cedar ceilings, mosaic floors and fountains, exotic columns, and countless lanterns.

To get to this restaurant, we had to wind our way through the narrow Medina streets filled with people and donkeys to find a nondescript door at the end of a dim alley. Stepping across the threshold, we left squalor outside and entered opulence inside.

We were led to a rooftop terrace for an amazing view of the medina.  Then we were taken down several mosaic spiral staircases to have aperitfs next to a roaring fire.  We were offered red wine, house punch, or whiskey.  Given these limited choices, only my father would place an order for a “Manhattan“.  The waiter acted like the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld and sternly replied, “NO!”  My dad settled on red wine as Morocco is no place for a Manhattan!

Once seated, we were treated to a massive traditional Moroccan banquet of pickled and spiced vegetable salads, lemon and almond chicken tajine, tender shoulder of lamb, vegetable couscous, and finally sweet fried pastry, tiered trays of cookies, and mint tea.

A serenade of Andalusian music added to the ambiance — Jeff and I couldn’t help joining the fun!

Though the movie Ishtar was not a box office hit, our family’s Dishtar was a very successful adventure!


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Anne-Lie Kleeman November 30, 2011 at 6:55 pm

Cathy- you are such a wonderful writer! What an adventure your family had, how did you get all the info about Marrakesh and other surroundings?
Love to see you soon..


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