I don’t quite remember how the idea of hosting a family reunion in Morocco came to me; I only recall that I wanted to take advantage of our proximity to Europe to spend as much time with Bruno’s family as possible. The idea of gathering the entire family in one place for a big family holiday must have naturally followed.
It was Bruno that chose Taroudant as the location of our family reunion. He’d read the bustling trading town was charming and authentic, and he knew the further south one went in Morocco the better the weather would be. Through Homelidays we found and booked Villa Mandarin, a huge 6-bedroom, 18-sleeper private villa with swimming pool and private staff, near enough to Taroudant but still in the countryside, with birds and donkeys, a view of the Atlas Mountains and the 5-times-a-day call to prayer.
It was the perfect setting for a family reunion.
Mom and dad were already with Bruno and me when we arrived at Villa Mandarin on Boxing Day. We’d brought loads of groceries with us from Agadir, and we spent the afternoon organizing the villa and coordinating with our three-person staff, Hafida and Atika, both cooks and cleaners, and Brahim, the gardener. In two waves, the rest of the family arrived from Marrakech, and with each wave came nods of approval and shrieks of excitement.
Getting Into the Flow of Things
Our family routine set in quickly. We’d wake and breakfast in trickles, and spend our days engaging in various activities. We’d do a lot of this:
A wee bit of this:
And oh-so-much of this:
Often, small groups of people would venture inside the old rampart walls of Taroudant and into its Arab or Berber souqs. The first afternoon, I guided a group of eight onto Taroudant’s grande place, where we watched Berber musicians play to a group of local men, tried out a bit of bargaining in the souq (Pierrot was particularly good), and sipped on a sunset mint tea. It was a totally new experience for me to be wandering around with such a large group of people – we certainly got a lot more attention from locals, and we wandered a whole lot more slowly than I’m used to – but it was amazing to be able to show my extended family a glimpse of what Bruno and my life of global wanderings is like.
No matter what everyone was doing, all fourteen of us would congregate at the long outdoor table for lunch, and later, in the dining room for apéro (a French tradition I learned last year) and dinner. It was at these meals that I learned the incredible value of our cooks, Hafida and Atika. When Bruno and I had booked Villa Mandarin, we’d not been keen on the idea of having staff. I’d deluded myself into believing we could cook ourselves for our large family. Once, on one of our final days in the villa, us women decided to cook a meal for everyone – including Hafida, Atika, and Brahim, as a thank-you of sorts – and it had been an organizational nightmare. We’d spent the better part of the morning deciding what to make, the afternoon shopping for ingredients, and a solid three hours to prepare our three-course meal. In the chaos, we’d forgotten to buy bread (the staple at our mainly-French table) and over-spiced the Thai curry. I can’t even imagine what our family reunion would have been like if we’d had to do this three times a day!
Yep, we really appreciated our staff. Every morning, I’d discuss the menu of the day with Hafida. She’d prepare a list of required ingredients, and Brahim would cycle into town and lug back kilos of fresh produce, even though this was way beyond his job description. The ladies would clean our rooms in the morning then spend most of the day in the kitchen, preparing amazing three-course meals for us twice a day. Oh man, did we eat well, and oh man, did our waistlines pay the price.
The extra pounds were totally worth Hafida’s spectacular Moroccan cuisine (for which I will need to devote an entire separate post). Getting to try such a plethora of perfectly-executed local dishes was not only a luxury, it was a window into Moroccan culture.
A Family Field Trip
Amid our ultra-relaxing and ultra-pleasurable routine, the extended family managed to organize a few special activities. The first was our family field trip to the Tiout Palmeraie. A palmeraie translates vaguely as oasis in English, but it’s not an oasis like you might think. Yes, a palmeraie refers to an area of abundant plants in an otherwise arid landscape, caused by a – generally underground – water source. But, in Morocco, palmeraies are also villages with plots of land on which families grow vegetables by diverting water from rudimentary irrigation channels. A palmeraie not only has lots of palm and date trees, it also has lots of donkeys, people, and gardens.
The fourteen of us spent a couple hours with a local guide exploring the workings of the palmeraie and learning about its plants. What I learned, in actuality, was that it’s impossible to learn anything from a guide when you’re with such a big group of family! Next, we took lunch at a restaurant inside the palmeraie where we all gained an even deeper appreciation for Hafida’s cooking. Then, we climbed up to a hilltop to get a birds’ eye view of the palmeraie and the distant rocky Atlas Mountains.
For me, the best part of the day was visiting the Tiout Women’s Argan Cooperative. The argan tree is a plant endemic to Morocco that grows amazingly well in its hot, arid climate. Because it can grow in poor soil, the tree is being touted as the solution to desertification. Its fruit also produces highly nutritious oil for both culinary and cosmetic uses. It is for this last reason that women’s cooperatives are popping up throughout southern Morocco. On our transit south to Taroudant, we saw no less than thirty of them on a 200-km section of route.
Producing argan oil is a fascinating, labor-intensive process. The fruit is composed of an outer peel over a pulp which covers a nut which contains a seed. Traditionally, goats, who learned to climb to the very top of this prickly tree, ate the fruit and pooped out the seeds, which were picked and sorted by hand before bring pressed into oil. Nowadays, however, the fruit is most-often collected by women, who remove the peel and pulp then crack open the nuts, all by hand.
At the Women’s Cooperative, we saw all parts of the process of argan oil production, and a few of us even tried our hand at cracking open an argan nut. It’s really – I mean, really – hard! You hold the nut in two fingers on a flat slab of rock and hit the nut (watch your fingers!) with a heavy stone in your other hand. The woman next to me could crack a nut with a single hit – so, every two seconds or so – but I cracked open a grand total of three in about ten minutes.
I’m not sure whose idea it was (though I have a sneaking suspicion it was my dad’s), but in exchange for us signing a song (very, very badly) the local women sang us a traditional Berber chant, complete with drum rhythms. Mom started to dance with a Moroccan lady and we all clapped along to the rhythm. That there – the cultural exchange we had with these women that required no common language – was the highlight of the outing.
Our New Year’s Celebration
The women’s song was only runner-up to my personal highlight of the family reunion, however. I’d organized a few secret events to ring in the New Year, the first of which was a giant success and the second of which was a hilarious failure.
The giant success was the traditional musicians we invited to our villa for a private New Year’s Eve concert. That day, a few of us went to the souq to buy decorations, and our staff garnished our dinner table with flower petals. Our family decided on a themed dress-up party – each person would wear one detail that didn’t fit with the rest of the outfit. I wore a skirt as a shirt, others wore socks with flip flops or hangers in their shirts. Dad, of course, decided to wear nothing but details that didn’t fit – a belt as a tie, long underwear over pants, and underwear over long underwear.
The musicians came with their traditional banjos, reed flutes, and hand drums. Two very old and ugly women dressed in colorful outfits with dangly mirrored decorations belly-danced. Hafida’s husband and three children came, and soon enough, we were all up and dancing Berber-style. Pierrot, who’d rung in 2015 quietly at home with his wife, remarked how this was the way one ought to ring in every new year.
The following evening, to celebrate four family birthdays in January – including Micheline’s, which was that very day – I’d organized a big dinner at the best restaurant in Taroudant, Riad Maryam. Of course, at the time I didn’t know how amazing Hafida’s cooking would be, but it was nice to bring everyone to a traditional riad and to mark Micheline’s special day. I’d pre-organized the menu, and the owner had added an extra dish to it, to be sure there’d be enough food. No one ever leaves hungry, he’d prided himself. You haven’t met my father, replied Bruno.
The owner must have taken Bruno’s retort to heart because he presented enough food to feed us twice and then some. First came fish soup, a reasonably-sized first course. Next came eleven different salads on twenty-two plates. Carrots, beets, fennel, eggplant, potato, zucchini, tomato, all flavoured with fresh herbs and vinaigrette. Then came two different tagines on five giant tagine platters.
By this point, everyone around me was looking unpleasantly stuffed, but I knew there was still more on its way. Out came chicken pastilla, a flaky millefeuille pie. I worried the owner was going to bring out the vegetarian couscous, the dish we had discussed for the vegetarians (none of the tagines were meat-free), but I was infinitely grateful that he forgot it, and simply brought out our dessert, a sweet almond pastilla. We had to roll almost every single person out of the restaurant, and that after sending more than half the food back uneaten. Riad Maryam’s owner was right – no one ever leaves his restaurant hungry.
Taroudant is the regional capital and has long been the meeting point for the buying and selling of goods for villagers. On the outskirts of town is a giant weekly souq where everything from livestock to fresh produce is sold. A bunch of us visited one Sunday morning and it was an awesome cultural experience. People and goods were everywhere, chaos and dust reigned. In one section you could buy goats, chickens and donkeys; in another you could eat or drink on rugs inside tents; one section sold cheap Chinese goods, another new and used clothes.
After wandering around taking in the very different atmosphere from any French or Swiss weekend market, we headed with purpose to the food section. As a group, we bought the things Hafida needed for the day. I had the master list and knew the prices per kilo, so I sent couples off in various directions to buy items. They all did splendidly, and I think it was fun for them to haggle with vendors. Meanwhile, Pierrot, who’s a fresh produce grocer back in France, walked swiftly around, surveying and commenting on the quality of each product for sale.
That was, unfortunately, the last time we saw Pierrot well. Since the beginning of the family reunion, illnesses had plagued our group – first my parents, then me, then Bruno and Patrice, and finally, Pierrot and Romane. My mom and Patrice were particularly ill, but by the end of the trip, Pierrot had it worse – a pneumonia diagnosis and an overnight at the local hospital.
The illness created a cloud over our final days in the villa. On Bruno’s birthday, so many people were sick and without appetite that the special meal I’d planned and Hafida and Atika had cooked went mostly uneaten. Thankfully Lucile’s handmade galette des rois saved the day. Bruno’s birthday is the same day as Epiphany, and in France they have a tradition of eating this cake, which always has a bead hidden inside. The person who gets the bean in their piece gets to be king for the day. Micheline had a variation on this tradition whereby two beans (or rings, in our case) would be hidden in the cake, thereby naming a king and a queen, who would then feed each other chocolate mousse blindfolded.
I was named the king and dad was named the queen. That evening, we had a major chocolate mousse party.
Couple by couple, our group size dwindled, and we felt the void. On our final morning, we were a small group of nine, and the clouds and spatter of rain made me feel glum. The family reunion had been a lot of organization and hard work for Bruno and me, but it had been amazing. I was able to introduce my parents to members of the family they hadn’t met yet. I was able to finally befriend little Léo, whose chants of Tata Britt (Aunt Britt) warmed my heart. We’d created a meaningful contact with Hafida, Atika, and Brahim that would give us a firsthand experience of Moroccan hospitality.
And best of all, we were able to spend quality time as a family and create an incredible variety of amazing, unforgettable family memories. That had been the goal when I’d first thought up the idea of having a family reunion in Morocco. Between the delicious meals, the mix of fun and sun at the villa, and our Moroccan adventures, it’s safe to say our family reunion in Taroudant was a resounding success!