When I read Mediterranean Kitchens succinct motto, I knew I’d hit pay-dirt. As an experienced food, wine and travel writer, this has always been my fave way to travel but it takes an enormous amount of time, energy and trade contacts. Therefore, I am thrilled to give my Good Housekeeping Gourmet Seal of Approval to these well-organized culinary adventures perfect for any lover of fine food and wine. Owner Lindan Toole makes sure that all the details are taken care of, so you get all of the fun and none of the hassles.
Lindan built a career based on her love of travel. She founded The Travel & Leisure Show in Toronto in 1986. Forty countries later, she started Mediterranean Kitchens, which encompasses her passions for travel, fine food and wine, and the history and culture of the Mediterranean–although rumor has it that she’s offering a new itinerary to Jordan, and maybe one to India.
Regardless of which tour you select the basic format is the same. Morning cooking classes and market tours, afternoons spent visiting vineyards and food producers, then burning off a few calories during walking tours to historical archaeological sites. Evenings are for enjoying fine food and wine, either out at a wonderful restaurant that Lindan discovered or perhaps a family meal in your elegant yet comfy accommodations.
I had the pleasure of joining a small group for “A Feast for the Senses” in Fes, Morocco. This tour offered a kaleidoscope of exotic markets, spices, fascinating people, flavors and shopping. All your senses will be titillated by the smells of the orange and rose water masking the muskiness of the leather tanneries, the sounds of the giggling children as they dart around the donkeys on the narrow alleyways, the bubbling pots of tajines at the outdoor stands, the rainbow of multi-colored hand-died fabrics as they’re hung out to dry on stakes like prayer shawls, and joyful shouts from the vendors of, “Welcome, my friend—no charge for just looking.”
Home” for the week was at Dar Seffarine a magnificently restored 14th century palace in the heart of the medina. The exceedingly gracious owners, Kate, a designer from Norway, and her architect husband Alaa, have spent the last three years carefully renovating the Riad, a traditional Moroccan palace with an interior garden. From touring the hidden cellar, complete with the original tile and plaster work, which Alaa just recently discovered, he’s hoping to turn it into a wine cellar and tasting room, to any of the guest rooms complete with 20 ft. ceilings, intricate hand-carved wooden shutters, antique Persian carpets, copper and glass chandeliers, luxuriating in your feather bed with fine linens Kate imported from Norway, to the 4th…or was it 5th floor, where you can relax with a good book on the stunning rooftop terrace as you take in the 360% view of the Medina, this is one home you will never want to leave. (Side Bar: I’m not the only one who was impressed by their painstaking work. The morning we were leaving, Kate came running in to tell us that she had just received a phone call from Vogue and they wanted to feature Dar Seffarine in a story!)
The first morning, our compatible group of 5 foodies met over a typical Moroccan breakfast, served to us by the “brekkie-chef” Mohammed, an adorable young man who’s infectious smile always provided the perfect eye-opener. He took such pleasure in surprising us each morning with a different yogurt smoothie concoction and making us guess what the ingredients were, (the beet-orange was a big hit) followed by an endless assortment of local market pastries, ranging from buttery croissants with homemade fig jam to flakey multi-layered pancakes similar to Indian parathas.
Later Lindan would lead us thru Fes’s labyrinth of winding alleyways to a neighboring Riad for our hands-on cooking classes led by Chef Lahcen Beqqi. Just 30 years old, Lahcen has already been the guiding force behind many of Fes’s top restaurants. It must be genetic since his mother, the “Queen of Couscous,” is the mastermind behind an annual couscous festival held near the small mountain village where she raised Lahcen and a bunch of siblings.
Our hands-on classes ran the gamut from esoteric tips on using ouarka (the dough used in b’steeya,) to explaining the fascinating Jewish history behind the usage of preserved fruits and veggies. I picked up many useful tips that can translate to any cuisine, such as using a box grater for ripe tomatoes which easily leaves the skin behind, and the easiest way to get to the pomegranate seeds is underwater. While prepping artichokes for his Orange Carmelized Artichoke Hearts, Lahcen instructed us to save the thistle for drying, which he uses to flavor homemade yogurt. By the end of the week, I could turn out a mean Chicken Tajine in two versions, one sweet one with prunes, almonds and dried apricots, one savory with preserved lemons, olives and artichokes, which has since become my Go-To entertaining dish.
(Side Bar: when Lahcen learned that I was from California, he said that he had been talking to a woman from there about them possibly collaborating on his next cook-book, and, “Maybe I’ve heard of her? Her name is Alice…hmmmmm…Waters????”)
The days flew by in a whirlwind of cooking classes and shopping the souks for fresh ingredients under Lahcens expert tutelage. Outside the kitchen, we visited the famous leather tanneries, crafts markets, tile factories, ancient mosques, royal palace, and the mellah (Jewish Quarter). We left town one day for a full day tour of Volubilis, the most impressive Roman site in Morocco and Meknes, a spectacular capital with twenty gates, over fifty palaces and 45km of exterior walls. All this, and we still had plenty of time for shopping. Enthralled by the Moroccan Babouche, colorful hand-crafted shoes using the softest local leather, I bought about a dozen pair ranging from the generic beige super-comfy round slippers, to a jazzy hot pink and orange pair covered in sequins with turned-up toes.
The only hard part (after trying to find room in my closet for them all) is deciding which tour I want to join Lindan, my new best friend, on next year. But you’d better register fast because she purposefully keeps the groups small and intimate.
To check out all the choices go to: