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Arabian bites

Published 26 September 1999
Style Magazine
324th article

Out of Africa: Michael Winner at Diaffa, with Mustapha Hssaine and Brahim Rmili (Vanessa Perry)

This time of year you should think about Morocco. In Marrakesh you could lounge by the pool of the hotel La Mamounia, facing the orange and grapefruit groves. Before I get to the nitty-gritty, which would be a change because I've never got to it before, I wish to protest about the Fanta orange drink. I became extremely attached to it, poolside, at La Mamounia. Recently I decided to relive those sunshine moments and dispatched a staff member to buy some in Kensington High Street. The can came back labelled "Fanta orange" with pictures of open-cut oranges. The ingredients were listed in French and other foreign languages but not English. I poured it, high with expectation. It was dreadful, nothing like the drink I'd had in La Mamounia. It didn't even look like it. The Marrakesh version was a proper orange colour, the UK crippled sister was akin to liquid I wouldn't mention in the pages of a sophisticated newspaper. Anyone want to buy six 0,33Le (whatever that means) cans of second-hand Fanta, expiry date July 30, 00?

I'm concerned about Marrakesh. Hundreds of bed-and-breakfast joints and new hotels are springing up. These are signs of terminal decay. I shall return, but nervously. The food there is sensational. The most romantic dining room ever is at Yacout. It was once the open courtyard of an old house. Now arches and carved lanterns with candles, bowls of rose petals, lute players, are all marshalled by Mohammed Zkhiri, our British consul there. When I first went I saw a lovely Arab garden with a pool, lanterns, palm trees and exotic bushes around it. That's now tarted up to make another restaurant. The romantic room had been taken over by American tourists, so I was shown a small table in the now-phoney garden. The table was changed, the setting remained. On the roof of Yacout they serve predinner drinks, degraded by the sight of American tourists photographing each other against the dim lights of the old-town background, none of which will come out when the photos are developed.

The restaurant Diaffa, owned by Brahim Rmili, was recommended by my guide, Mustapha Hssaine. Mustapha is the superb greeter for the Casino at La Mamounia, owned by my friend Willy de Bruyn, the only amusing Belgian in the world. Willy recently sold the excellent hotel Royal Riviera in St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat to an American group, so that will probably slide. But Willy gave me Mustapha and we sat at a large round table, soon joined by the chief of police of Marrakesh, who spoke in confidential tones to Mr Rmili. It was like a scene out of Casablanca: the movie, not the town. I expected the police chiefs eyes to flicker and I'd find Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet eating sheep's eyes in the corner. Diaffa does a set six-course meal, which is superb. Moroccan salad, savoury pastries, lamb tagine with prunes and almonds, Marrakesh tangia meat stewed in a rich sauce . . . in the meantime, two musicians play and do a tap dance. Oh, I've got another main course now, meat and chicken done in herbs. Then the musicians changed and one of them, in red, dances round the room as if stoned. Finally, in comes the belly dancer and a good time is had by all.

You drive to these restaurants down tiny alleys where you almost need to demolish buildings to get through. Groups of robed Moroccans talk in dark doorways. It's like something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark. There's even a pilot with a tiny, one-engine plane, who looks exactly like Harrison Ford. Another good restaurant is Dar Marjana, where the owner-host, Chaouqui Dhaler, walks around in a green robe with a hood, and a marvellously chiselled face. It offered the best service I've encountered anywhere, a miraculous pigeon pie and a group of Swedes somewhat overjoyed after drinking the local wine.

Le Tobsil, recently reopened by Christine Rios, is another of these old villas turned into film-set restaurants. It could be the best. Add to all that the souk, the snake charmers, the water carriers in red baggy trousers, and it's real delight under the sun. A day trip to Fes is beyond belief. If you're rich, you can rent a plane and fly overthe Atlas Mountains to Taroudannt to visit La Gazelle d'Or; or to Ouarzazate. This is surrounded by historic hill villages and much used by film companies. A group of actors sat round the pool at the Berber Palace Hotel, where I had an indifferent lunch. They were in a TV version of Cleopatra. "Who's playing Cleopatra?" I called cut. "Some Italian," was the reply. That's show business.


I was more than a little unhappy with your treatment of Yes in Glasgow (Style, September 12). Ferrier Richardson's restaurant has provided excellent food, service, and ambience to me many times since it opened. They coped brilliantly when their kitchen was flash-flooded in a thunderstorm a few years ago, though had you been present, you would doubtless have written up the incident as a rival to the sinking of the Titanic. In all my trips to Yes, I have never felt that I was "surrounded by gawkers" - although this may simply be because my personal aspect is not flamboyant enough to invite such attention. Nor can I comment on the abundance of local colour as discovered by you, as I tend to concentrate on my companions rather than eavesdropping on any fellow patrons.
Eleanor Brownlee, Glasgow

How refreshing to read about Marco Pierre White's daughter Letticia expressing disgust at a "great wine, Chateau Margaux 1961" (Style, September 5). Mr Winner should acquaint himself with Boswell's Life of Johnson, in which the good doctor says: "Intoxication is the good of wine, sir; for children and savages do not like the taste." Innocence is bliss.
J Sowden, Mirfield, W Yorks

Congratulations on your award for "impact on the food industry" (Style, September 12) - although one might view it in the same light as the impact ice had on the Titanic, or the impact BSE had on the beef trade.
Chris Greenwell, by e-mail

I've never thought of myself as one of those "cruise-ship people" who make the Hotel Splendido in Portofino look untidy. But I have to hand it to the wonderfully dismissive staff for their refreshing insouciance and their simply effortless ability to make a non- resident feel that he has something rather unpleasant on the sole of his shoe. We got the last laugh, however. The hotel's courtesy bus took us back to Portofino. The driver thought we looked quite smart.
Kevin Coyne, Aughton, Lancs

A few weeks ago we followed up your account of a delicious and reasonable meal at Frederick's in Highcliffe (Style, June 27). My friend was worried that your idea of "reasonable" might differ from ours. But the meal was indeed very reasonable, as well as delicious, and the service was excellent. We now await a lottery win or an astronomical rise in pensions so that we can sample that other recommendation of yours: Chewton Glen.
Vera Bull, Seven Kings, Essex

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