Juliet Shield

Restaurant Consultant

Villa Maroc, Essaouira

Essaouira in Morocco has a special resonance for me. Within an hour’s drive of the town from the heat of Marrakech, the air temperature suddenly falls by about 10 degrees, with the accompanying smell of the sea. There is something affecting about the light for about an hour in the evening when the women and children parade across the Moulay Hassan square by the sea wall, while the sun sets against the sound of wheeling seagulls over the ramparts replete after their scavenging.

Every afternoon the fishing boats return and sales begin immediately on the quay side. It is difficult to imagine a town in which to eat fresher fish.

Villa Maroc in the old part just by the sea was the first boutique, or hotel de charme in Morocco. In 1990 four adjacent Portuguese townhouses were converted into a hotel, and five years later, bought and refurbished by Cornelia Hendry and Abderrahim Ezzaher. The term boutique doesn’t seem to fit somehow because here is no “designer” aspect to the fit out. It is their own unique taste, combining the original 18th century Portuguese features in some parts, with an eclectic mix of colour, warmth and light in others. The original blue and white colour combination which characterises the Portuguese colonial style, and is reflected in the house china plates stacked in open trunks around the dining areas.

Breakfast on the roof terrace overlooking the sea is sheer delight. The flat wholemeal Moroccan bread is served alongside pancakes, orange juice, fruit, homemade yoghourt and jams made from the fruit from the owners’ estate nearby. The two partners also produce their own olive and argan oil and many of the vegetables used every evening for dinner. The set menu consists of a limited selection which changes every day, and consists of a meat, a fish and a vegetarian choice, in a homely Moroccan style. It has been 200 dhs (about £17) for as long as I can remember. Guests eat on low chairs and tables in cosy nooks and crannies, next to wood fires.

The hotel is run with love and personal care and attention. Cornelia was very much in evidence during my recent stay, supplemented by Mia an excellent young front-of-house who had come originally for 6 months on a placement during hospitality training and stayed on. Many of the other staff had been there for years. The cook, keen for feedback, did the rounds of the tables each night to check that we had liked our dinner. On my second night, she had cooked a delicious plum crumble. We laughed about this English pudding which now seems to finding its way into every cuisine on the planet. How about adding a few crushed coriander seeds and chopped walnuts to the topping? I suggested. She beamed “Excellent. La cuisine est pour partager”. Absolutely. Sharing ideas is what cooking is all about.

Villa Maroc is purposely devoid of technology, which creates a feeling of calm. There are no televisions, or telephones in the bedrooms, and although no notices about not using mobile phones, I never heard anyone use one. Those few of us addicts to the internet could find little pockets of WiFi throughout the hotel, or there was a laptop in the reception for guest use. There is an atmosphere of being part of a relaxed country house party, but one where you can do what you like. You can even take away a bit of it when you go, from their shop which sells the crockery, their olive and argan oil and clothes specially made by hand for the hotel.

It’s a perfect hotel to stay for a while; to write a book perhaps, or simply to relax and dream.

Villa Maroc in the Kasbah quarter

Hotel Villa Maroc
Tel: 00212 5 24 47 61 47
Twitter: @VillaMaroc

21 rooms
Special stay packages