You’d be hard-pressed to beat a first night in Marrakech with dinner at Riad Farnatchi. As an introduction to the Riad lifestyle in general – these private Moroccan palaces converted to guest-houses, of which the city boasts over a thousand – Riad Farnatchi compels the senses with a full-blown whammy of exotic plushness. As per my request, the Chef also didn’t hold back with an assault on our taste-buds of Marrakchi classics, liberal with the spicing and rich on the best bits of the animals…
We entered a cool, clean central courtyard of crisp white, overlooked by a gallery three floors up, with here and there a dark turquoise balcony jutting out. A black marble tiled pool sits in the centre of the courtyard, its cooling waters providing respite from the searing dry heat. Tables are dotted around, but the real dining space is within a recessed room – home to only a few tables. In here, décor is opulent and colour-laden. Black, hand-carved tadelakt walls in intricate detail are lit by pink and blue glass lanterns from the ceilings. Alice-in-wonderland high-backed chairs, Egyptian cotton tablecloths and a rhythmic, discreet soundtrack of traditional Gnawa music pumping with trip-hop beats bring this room into the 21st century, without retaining the Moroccan charm.
We are poured glasses of Medaillion Syrah, a ruby red, ripe, jammy fruity wine with notes of liquorice, from the vineyards outside Meknes, Morocco’s biggest wine producing area. Canapes are brought, a little chargrilled aubergine with cumin in a puff pastry, cucumber in a light pickle, soft buns filled with a rich harissa tomato paste.
Then the “Quattro of offal” comes in, and the feast beings. A flamboyant display of modern Moroccan cooking, we are served silky soft sheep’s brains with preserved lemons and harissa and fresh parsley, ox heart in a thick cumin-laced jus, soft tripe in a punchy, herby tomato sauce – again with cumin and finally lamb’s kidneys – Berber-style with green olives, preserved lemon rind and a stock. We argue for a good half-hour over which one is best, and can’t decide. The flavours are overwhelming and the colours brilliant – I have never eaten brains, admit to being a bit funny about them generally, and here I am scooping them up like no tomorrow.
Next we are brought b’stilla – a delightful combination of sweet and savoury as one imagines Tudor cooking was – when the traders first brought exciting new spices to Britain and Kings were desperate to show off with them. B’stilla is a warqa-pastry (like filo) parcel, stuffed with minced, spiced pigeon traditionally, layered like a millefeuille then dusted with icing sugar and cinnamon, like French toast. It shouldn’t work, but it does – the sweet sugars contrasting well with the gamey meat.
A heady tagine of lamb follows, with cinnamon-poached apple and nigella seeds, walnut-stuffed apricots and stewed prunes coated with sesame seeds. The lamb melts away from my fork, the wine flows… I sink deeper and deeper into my chair, eyes rolling with pleasure as our delightful hostess bustles around us with brisk efficiency.
By the time dessert rolls in I have let three holes loose in my belt and succumbed to the inevitable fact that in ten days time, my Morocco belly will bring the demise to my entire summer wardrobe. And that I don’t give a stuff about it.
Dessert by the way, a yogurt vanilla ice-cream dusted with cinnamon and orange segments in orange blossom water is a welcome, light and effortless ending to a sumptuous meal. We retire, post-coffee to the softly lit reading area across the pool, a watery-green light bathing the courtyard with ornately carved stone archways twinkle from the lanterns behind them. You can barely here any evidence of the mad chaos of the souks beyond the heavy door to the Riad, the dust and dirt, noise and colour, magic and mayhem of Marrakech.
If you’re in need a break from it all– step inside this haven of gourmet gluttony and let Riad Farnatchi whisk you away to otherworldly pleasures.