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Reviews of Holidays and Hotels in Morocco - Talent Breaks

The Times, 2 Nov 2003

[Article edited to exclude parts not relevant to Morocco]

Talent breaks: Artist, yogi, chef or astronaut?

I want to be an astronaut. Can travel really broaden the mind? Yes, when you sign up for one of the world?s best learning holidays. Sunday Times travel writers head out in search of learning

The only thing some people want to learn on holiday is the fastest route between the pool and the bar. To these folks, the idea of devoting their hard-earned week in the sun to making wobbly pottery or studying the rudiments of Sanskrit is an outrage. Why take a break from work, then spend it reskilling?

This is flawed thinking, though. New research has revealed that people relax faster and better when their vacation time is spent tackling a new challenge. Beach hounds, it seems, just lie there getting frazzled about the boss and the mortgage: to free yourself from the everyday stresses of home, you need to engage your brain, not switch off. What?s more, if your chosen course of learning is a success, you will return not just a more relaxed person, but a more complete one ? ready to unleash a new talent on an unsuspecting universe.

With this in mind, we dispatched five writers to sign up for some holiday instruction in painting, yoga and more. One even trained to be an astronaut, so the unsuspecting universe is very much in his sights. But did they come back truly enriched? Any good holiday should change your mood, but these have the potential to change your life.

I WANT TO COOK

The skill: La Maison Arabe is a stylish riad in the medina in Marrakesh. Its workshops promise to teach ?the pleasures of Moroccan cooking and how to become familiar with one of the world?s great cuisines?.

The student: a veteran of several European courses, I?ve found it difficult to re-create dishes learnt in Italy or France because, back home, the basic ingredients often aren?t up to scratch. I hope for better luck in Morocco, because of the emphasis on spices. Cooks have such a high regard for them here that Ras El Hanout, the country?s unique blend of 27 spices, is called ?Moroccan Viagra?.

The school: La Maison Arabe has an impressive culinary reputation. It was a restaurant for more than 40 years, and the place to be seen in Marrakesh. It re-emerged in 1998 as a truly sensual boutique hotel wrapped around a cool central courtyard.

Decorated in warm reds and oranges, it has dozens of cosy nooks adorned with quirky antiques. The 13 bedrooms are sleek, and our high-tech classroom ? a short drive away in a kasbah on the city?s outskirts ? has wonderful views of the Atlas. You can dine out on your efforts in a shaded courtyard at lunchtime, or by candlelight in a luxurious Berber tent at night.

The course: you don?t sign up for a week?s instruction; just stroll along to reception and enrol as the mood takes you. The maximum group size is eight, and our head teacher is indeterminately ancient, small and spherical. She is accompanied by two younger versions of herself, who giggle every time I make eye contact, and a chef from the hotel?s kitchen. Our translator, Mohammed Nahir, talks us through the traditions of tagine and couscous. The latter is really only eaten at lunchtime, after the important midday prayers, because it is so heavy. And, contrary to European custom, couscous should never be served with a tagine.

We decide to try a chicken tagine with lemon and olives, and an aubergine side dish. Watching our teacher make short shrift of the onions, garlic and coriander, we copy her at our chopping boards and quickly pick up the rudiments. Our distinctive conical terracotta pots are simmering in no time ? to great effect, as the courtyard lunch proves just a couple of hours later.

The following day, our translator tries to dissuade us from attempting the lamb couscous with vegetables. It is a much more laborious dish than tagine, involving repeated steaming and rubbing of semolina to create the light consistency. We are not to be deterred. As before, the assistants ensure my name is attached to the dish I?ve cooked, but this time I elect to have it returned to the hotel.

As an amateur cook, it is deeply satisfying to have my couscous served that night in La Maison Arabe?s impressive restaurant by smiling waiters.

Extracurricular activities: hunt down new cooking pots and spices in the unforgettable souks; see wonderful Moorish architecture, including the city?s most important Islamic monument, the Ben Youssef Medersa; and take in the Jardin Majorelle, the designer Yves Saint Laurent?s landscaped gardens.

Pupil?s progress: I couldn?t have mastered the art of couscous without this course ... but it?s so laborious I haven?t been able to face making it at home. I?ve cooked the other dishes many times since, and although I could follow a recipe, learning in situ gives you confidence, for example, about what a pinch of saffron actually means.

Marks out of 10: 7. Evocative, but serious cooks might find it a little too laid-back at times.

The package: Susan d'Arcy travelled as a guest of Best of Morocco