Three wonderfully gastronomic days with talented chef Vítor Sobral.
First, a cold soup of watermelon and tomato with olives and dates. Then lamb with aubergine sauce, sautéed mushrooms and vegetables with toasted almonds. Finally, a green tea pudding, spiced with lime, carrot syrup, ginger and orange blossom water. What could be more deliciously Moroccan? Location? The Kasbah Hotel Tombouctou in Merzouga, with food created by Vítor Sobral, TAP consultant chef, and his assistant Sofia Oriana. Culinary magic in the Sahara Desert.
The day before, we flew direct from Lisbon to Casablanca, setting off for Errachidia, about 500 kilometres west of Marrakech, where we were welcomed by a high moon. After a brief rest, a hearty breakfast and a morning at the Rissani market, where we stocked up on fresh produce for the regionally inspired dishes, we were raring to go. (Some of the group did more shopping, of course! – we were in Morocco after all – while others went in search of an expresso, in true Portuguese style). On the road towards the Tisserdmine oasis – Did I mention the temperature? By the end of the morning, it was 40 degrees centigrade, attenuated only by the jeeps’ air conditioning – our young driver Hassan got us into travel mode with Moroccan music, a perfect aperitif for a first meal in Tisserdmine, on this itinerary designed by Morocco Tourism and the hotel group Xaluca with TAP.
I was telling you about Merzouga. That fine meal was good preparation for the next day. We set off for the desert again and learned in a fossil quarry in Arfoud that, thousands of years ago, it was once sea. We saw Lake Merzouga and flamingos, before visiting the Berber community allotments, each family with its own plot of land, and the palm groves – it’s late September, early October, and date harvest season. We enjoyed a moment of contemplation with green tea and dried fruit, before joining the dromedary caravan that transported us to Erg Chebbi’s highest dune (the largest are up to 150 metres tall) to see the sunset, close to Algeria. Unfortunately, the sun hid behind clouds, but the balancing act on the camels, which are very slow and docile, was well worth it.
And where to spend the night? In tents belonging to Bivouacs Xaluca (Erg Chebbi), which seemed rather surreal as they have a proper bathroom, king-size beds, lamps and tons of carpets, both inside and out. And it was outside where all the action was. Next to the bonfire, there was a barbecue and a huge counter, where, once again, Vítor and Sofia prepared a showcooking version of our dinner. Some folk helping, others talking, others dancing. The table was laden with chicken and lamb, salads, couscous with mushrooms, aubergine, and chickpeas with cauliflower and almonds. And the evening’s stars? What a sky!
Ouarzazate is also known as the gateway to the desert. We left Erg Chebbi behind and travelled 350 kilometres along the imposing Atlas Mountains. There was time for detours, which are highly recommended. The famous Dadès Gorges, with their reddish arid landscapes contrasting with the riverside fruit trees, is one of the loveliest landscapes I’ve ever seen. We also visited the Skoura Oasis, which we crossed to visit the Kasbah Amridil.
The natural – and manufactured – scenery of Ouarzazate is famous. And you’ve probably seen it, albeit unknowingly, in films like The Jewel of the Nile (1985) and Gladiator (2000), or in scenes in the city of Pentos, from the Game of Thrones series, among so many other things shot at the gargantuan Atlas Studios, a company founded in 1983 (inspired by Lawrence of Arabia, which was shot in 1962 in the same area). This fun was followed by lunch at Dar Rita, the boutique guest house created by siblings Rita and João Leitão, who swapped Portugal for Morocco over a decade ago. João takes on the role of guide and is one of the best travel companions, a walking encyclopaedia of Moroccan culture. In the late afternoon, the sunset was enjoyed at Aït-Ben-Haddou ksar (fortified village) – but this time without the clouds! The perfect ending.
text and photos Rita Cardoso
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