A Royal Feast: sample Morocco’s melting pot of culinary flavours at Royal Mansour Marrakech
Words Hannah Hopkins
Welcome to the Royal Mansour
If you were booking a holiday just for the food, where would you choose to go? Thailand, Greece, Italy or Spain are some of the places that spring to mind. But Morocco, a mere three and a half hours from London, is often glossed over. While we all know that tagines and couscous are utterly delicious, Morocco’s melting pot of flavours – a combination of Arabic, Andalusian, Berber and Mediterranean cuisines – harbour so many more exceptional and underrated dishes that this flavourful cuisine is bound to leave an impression on every visitor.
Whether its aubergines glistening with oil, tender lamb coated with local herbs, snails overflowing from buckets (trust us), local olives from the Atlas mountains or rich, fragrant stews, Morocco – and in particular – Marrakech, is the destination that foodies in-the-know go gaga for.
Nowhere is this more evident than at the Royal Mansour, the gold standard of luxury hotels in Marrakech, which sits on the eastern edge of the city’s medina. Commissioned by King Mohammed VI, there are 53 individual riads for guests to stay in, dotted among four hectares of fragrant Moorish gardens. There are also four stellar restaurants that are destinations in themselves: French haute cuisine, traditional Moroccan, international ‘La Table’ and the outdoor ‘Le Jardin’, all of which are under the consultancy of Michelin-starred chef Yannick Alléno. In fact, so amazing is the hotel and its culinary exploits, that it was one of just six chosen to star in the first series of the BBC’s Amazing Hotels programme, fronted by food critic Giles Coren and MasterChef judge Monica Galetti.
The foundation of almost every meal (and basically life) in Morocco is bread and mint tea. It’s no surprise then, that both items kick off an arrival dinner at La Grande Table Marocaine, the hotel’s gastronomic centrepiece, which serves time-honoured recipes from the region. I delve into platters of unfamiliar dishes, from Sh’hiwates, a medley of salads including aubergine zaalouk, mallow (a wild plant) and pumpkin with medjool dates, to Briouates, triangular puff pastries filled with spinach and cheese or chicken and honey. The killer dish though, is the mouthwatering pigeon pastilla, an elaborate meat pie that melts in the mouth. Lamb shoulder, cooked Méchoui-style (spit-roasted) is equally good, with couscous perfumed with verbena to soak up the juices.
One things for sure, at the Royal Mansour, you’ll never go hungry. Back at my riad, a three-floor house with its own private roof terrace and plunge pool, my complimentary snacks had already been replenished by a ninja-like butler, who had accessed my room while I was out via the warren of tunnels beneath the hotel, guaranteeing the utmost privacy. After what can only be described as the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had at a hotel, it was spa o’clock. I followed the palm-lined path to a temple of filigreed serenity where a therapist wafted me through high ceilinged, screened vestibules where white rose petals floated in a vast bowl. I had the ceremonial massage, a relaxing treatment using argan oil and monoi butter. It wasn’t long before I drifted off to sleep.
A few steps away from the spa are the beautifully landscaped gardens of the hotels’ new hub – Le Jardin. Crafted by celebrated landscape gardener Luis Vallejo, the gardens and pool area take notes from the traditional agrarian landscapes of Morocco with olive trees, palms, shady zones and sun-dappled clearings, perfumed daturas, orange flowers and night-blooming jasmine. There are poolside pavilions that you can rent for the day and naturally, yet another restaurant, serving up Asian-inspired plates and slow-cooked sharing dishes, inspired by the writing of 14th Century voyager Ibn Battuta, who brought coal back from Morocco.
If you can tear yourself away from the hotel, the main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa and the souks, are quite literally on the other side of the hotel wall. The hotly anticipated YSL Museum is nearby, which can be followed by a stroll around the Jardin Majorelle and at the lesser know Nectarome Gardens, you can see how argan oil is made. Of course, if you’re a more adventurous type the hotel is on hand to organise everything from day visits to the Atlas Mountains and Bedouin tented dinners under the stars to camel rides on the sand dunes or seeing the sun rise over the Sahara from a hot air balloon.
But, back to the food. Our final night is a multiple course feast at La Table du Chef, a private dining area where you can view the chefs at work, and where the kitchen team wow with high-end French cuisine. Memorable dishes include an almost-too-pretty-to-eat avocado and celeriac mille feuille with grated coconut and chia (sounds weird, but it works) and king crab salad with pea, cream and onion emulsion. Desserts are decidedly dreamy, ranging from the coconut surprise in a meringue shell to a light and fluffy hazelnut souffle.
It’s a fitting end to what has proved to be a truly gluttonous and very enjoyable trip. From the moment you arrive until you depart, Royal Mansour Marrakech takes exclusivity, luxury and privacy to a whole new level in the heart of one of the world’s most exotic cities. Not to mention, taking your taste buds to a whole new world of flavour.