A farm despite all odds.
2019. Quickly taking its place on my list of homes across the world, Marrakech has intrigued me for years for the magic that is often hiding in plain sight. Each visit finds me venturing further and further out of the creative hub of the Medina where you can find all kinds of inspiration in the artisans of the souks and the characters who frequent them.
Thankfully Marrakech is quite connected and it didn't take long for me to find the epicenter of all things farm-to-table by meeting the handful of organic farmers who host the Tuesday and Saturday markets at La Trattoria and the Ayaso Concept Store in Gueliz. Both are on the same streets next to Gaïa and +61, two restaurants who also serve bio produce in their menus and are worthy of a visit. This popular neighborhood is in the New Town of Marrakech not 10 minutes drive from the Medina.
Among this collection of community leaders and action takers, you can find Aziz of Sanctuary Slimane, which is a farm and art residency, Younes Boundir and his Seaweeds of Morocco project, La Ferme du Coquelicot making classic French style cheese, Gary Martin offering vegetables from his Jnane Tamsna Gardens (read on to learn more) and Souhail and Delphine of Domaine Sauvage.
“Without the tree, I cannot exist.”
- Souhail Tazi
With somewhat of a loose invitation, I accompanied famed travel writer and Morocco expert, Paula Hardy, by car somewhere about 50 minutes outside of the city on the route to Ouarzazate to reach the Domaine Sauvage. Dropped off to this remote farmhouse aside otherwise dry and barren land, we waited to meet our host whilst I eagerly snapped away at the tablescapes and pools of light that streamed onto the perfectly textured and simply styled rooms. With the gentleness of their dog accompanying us, the crisp quality of the autumn light, and the energy of the house and its rows of cultivated olive trees, we had a laugh as even if we didn't know exactly where were were, we knew we had arrived someplace quite special.
Not long after, Souhail's characteristic curly hair and charismatic smile greeted us for a deep dive into his story and how he and many others in Marrakech left the life of big jobs in urban spaces to start farm projects outside of Marrakech. He shared with us about the lack of regulation of farming practices in Morocco and how it is really hard to know and trust what we are consuming there. With his desire to grow food for himself and his family and with a deep connection for the land and our impact on the earth, Domaine Sauvage came to be. It wasn't so easy, however, as in the beginning sourcing the water for the plants took many years of concerted effort drilling millimeter by millimeter.
One day, Souhail explains, an old man known as the "Water Diviner" finally led him by pointing to a place in the earth (after 7 years of trying elsewhere) to the source of water that made his farm possible. Hurrah! In a region known for being scarce of water, it seems like a miracle that this farm came to be. Despite the travails, with gentle persistence and spiritual conviction for 10 years, Souhail and his wife Delphine now have enough water to fuel the farm at the scale they are comfortable with without the need for machines. Souhail admits that when he found the property, he had a feeling about the place...and he's been going off this feeling ever since.
Employing men and women from neighboring villages, he is also able to provide skills and income to those who may not get such opportunities for enrichment. Spending part of the week on the farm, Souhail and Delphine enjoy sharing the serenity of their farm space with guests, offering dinners that make you feel like you've entered into some kind of artist meets chef's table. We toured the stretch of the farm as the sun was beginning to set and popped fresh cherry tomatoes from the vines and tasted various greens. At the moment we walked to the end of the property, we caught the moment when his female staff mounted their donkeys to ride home and off into the sunset. It was one of those moments, as a photographer, that I'll certainly never forget.
Hopeful for the future of Morocco and the youth who are choosing to make more conscious decisions about how they eat, shop, travel, and generally consume, Souhail shares his optimism of the work his community is doing and for how it is growing. Despite the fact that the majority of produce in Morocco is grown without care, regulation or education to the damages of pesticide use on the topsoil and to our bodies when we consume them, he sees how his efforts have helped others have access to organic produce, which has developed a bio movement that even if it is a tiny percentage of the food that is being grown, it is the start of something much bigger in the changes and trends for Marrakech. For me personally, I had given up the idea of being able to eat organic when I was visiting in Marrakech, yet now due to the community that offers Tuesdays and Saturdays from 9am at La Trattoria in Gueliz and the restaurants they supply, I see the possibilities for the big shift that comes with the growth of a city.
Set out in the Palmaraie of Marrakech, next to a town named Tamsena, you will find the desert oasis of Jnane Tamsna, the stylish estate that blends Meryanne Loum-Martin’s interior design expertise and Gary Martin’s serene nine-acre botanical gardens. Jnane Tamsna has 24 rooms, five swimming pools, a clay surface tennis court, and a garden with olive trees that supply them with all the cold-pressed olive oil they could need. Ethnobotanica is the name of the new on-site shop that also offers locally sourced heirloom grains, natural skin-care products, home goods, and other kitchen items like salts and spices. As an effort of "solidarity commerce", all the items in the shop are tried and tested, have a story and serve a purpose. It is refreshing to see shops like this one pop up as it can be a challenge in Marrakech to find good quality natural products.
When I had visited the farmers market the first morning I arrived in Marrakech, Gary warmly welcomed me and filled my bags for my yoga retreat group with things like mustard frills, rocket, rainbow chard, heirloom carrots, and herbs to allow us to have some fresh salads at the Riad. His eagerness to explain each vegetable showed he was really proud to be able to grow such an abundance. Being as interested in spicey greens and hard to source okra, Gary and I got into a chat and he invited me to come to visit the property to experience his farm-to-table cooking course they offer, where I was able to learn how to make the freshest vegan tagine I have ever experienced with his lovely chef, Bahija. The trick is really quality ingredients, potent cumin, and some chiles since I like the spice!
With expertise in botany, Gary was able to identify the potential of the land when he and Merryanne were looking to expand beyond their initial foray into the hotel business, which was operating the famed Riad Tamsna. This Riad was one of the first more high-end spaces within the Medina and due to its popularity has been accredited to helping start the movement of renovating Riads for guests inside the Medina.
While working as a lawyer in Paris, Merryanne would often take time to escape to Marrakech and her trips became more and more frequent (like mine have!) In 1986 she bought land to create her first house of Dar Tamsna and thus began her journey into being a self-taught interior designer whose achievements have now been celebrated in Architectural Digest, Harpers and Queen, The New York Times, Town and Country, and Vogue and many more. She has had an eye on Marrakech and saw that it was one of the few places people consistently returned to from Europe yet there were very few luxury properties for people to stay in. She has been filling that niche beautifully since.
Gary has a vision to expand the farmers market to be able to offer a social enterprise in the form of a solidarity market within the medina, making organic produce accessible and at a fair price point to those within the walls, encouraging people to use ingredients that are of heirloom varieties and a return to how Moroccan food used to be.
Romain Michel Ménière
"The reason why our food is so fresh is that we don't use a refrigerator."
About 45 minutes outside of Marrakech, nestled next to a town called Oumnass and by the Kasbah Oumness, is home to a quaint 6-room farm property called the Berber Lodge. Having recently spent time at one of the other farm-to-table projects Romain Michel Ménière has worked on called the Kasbah Bab Ouirka in the Atlas Mountains, I knew I had to visit the Berber Lodge as apparently it fit my vibe. As a collaboration with architect friends from Studio KO, Karl Fournier and Olivier Marty, and Landscape designer Arnaud Casaus, Romain opened this place to be his own. Using locally sourced and crafted natural materials, the approach to the lodge is natural and minimal, affording the perfect "Rural Retreat" experience with a wabi sabi feel that reminded me of La Granja in Ibiza.
Upon arriving, the staff was able to accommodate me to sit in the garden and have lunch. Sifting through a coffee table book called Gypset Travel by Julia Chaplin while watching the staff harvest the olives from the trees by the pool, I made my way through a bowl of fresh leaves with roasted tomatoes and potatoes. Simple and yet surprisingly fresh. I eagerly requested to have dinner later after the sun had set and slipped off to roam the grounds with my camera. Each little nook and cranny felt somehow photographable due to the way the light wrapped around the natural materials. I lazed by the pool and enjoyed a siesta in lingering sunshine as fall was in full swing and the days had started to get short with cooler afternoons turning into colder evenings.
I waited to be served for dinner by the fireplace in the main kitchen. A feast of vegetables in a tagine with a whole dish of potatoes gratin came to my table since I was one of the few who ordered as a vegetarian. The ingredients felt light despite the heaviness of the gratin in the Moroccan meets Mediterranean approach. Apparently each night is slightly different and I had arrived on the day that had more French influences. I said yes to them preparing me a fire in my room while I was served a gluten-free orange cake and mint tea for dessert. It was the perfect way to wrap up my time in Morocco, dozing off by the crackling fire after a farm-fresh meal in an intimate dining room with only the other hotel guests. It was here that I could really slow down enough to feel the season shift.
In the morning, I caught up with the owner of the property, French-Swiss Interior Designer, Romain Michel Ménière, to understand how this place came to be. His idea was to create his own place that felt relaxing, with comfort in simplicity and natural materials, and with straight-forward farm food that could be adapted to the needs of the guests. Since the kitchen always knows who and how many are eating at any given meal, it's quite easy to shop for the day and to make sure the produce is sourced fresh. While some ingredients come from their on-site garden, the majority of the produce is sourced from farmer friends close by. "The reason why our food is so fresh is that we don't use the refrigerator," Romain shares with me. "The refrigerator kills the food the moment it goes in. It will never be the same". I reflected on the ways in which the ladies cooked for us in Guatemala at the Yoga Forest earlier this year on Lake Atitlan and came to the realization that this was indeed something to consider. How different it tastes when you eat something freshly harvested and before it ever sees the refrigerator. How leftovers will never be the same...So simple. As a sucker for minimalism, this place really got me and even just one night was the perfect way to retreat from the chaos I adore inside the bustling Medina.
Each traveler has their own style and preference for how they like to eat while traveling. For me, there is something so refreshing about coming across a place like La Famille because it exists as a hideaway to allow those who need it as desperately as I did while living in the Medina for a few weeks back in October of 2018. It is one of those few places where traditional ingredients take the center stage. Mint and preserved lemons compliment pomegranate seeds on salads like you won't find elsewhere due to the fresh approach to their food similar to the Berber Lodge. I do adore cooked vegetarian tagines, and Moroccan salads, however, I am the kind of person who has several times argued my way for a fresh salad at this restaurant likely to the point of being annoying! I`d wait longer for a salad there than I would for sushi at Tsukiji in Tokyo...but maybe that's just me or maybe co-owner Stéphanie Giribone has found her niche in me.
As one of those hard to find or easy to miss locations in the Medina, it feels so rewarding to step into its gardens and enter an entirely different world. One of the things I love about Marrakech is the French influence that has historically been infused into the culture and this restaurant feels like a gift of contemporary french farm-to-table food with local ingredients serving the discerning tourist or ex-pat who longs for a reprieve from the traditional dishes.
Already I am looking forward to my return to Marrakech, a city that has captured my attention for 11 years now. Feel to return with me in 2020? I will be hosting another Marrakech Yoga Escape based in the stylish Riad Be and their private riad, The Soul on October 25-31st. Until then, happy travels!
More on La Famille and Stéphanie Giribone in this great article here.
More on bio shops and farms in Marrakech area here.
Another great farm-to-table cooking experience: www.farmtotablemarrakech.com
Slow Concept Store and Cafe in Gueliz: https://www.facebook.com/someslowconcept
Rooftop restaurant Nomad serves tasty fresh dishes worthy of a reservation. https://nomadmarrakech.com