Auberge Dardara, Chefchaouen

 

We stayed at the Auberge Dardara for four nights. Here are a few photos and thoughts that we made whilst there, and at the bottom of this review you can find a video that’ll give you a further idea of the hotel

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If you ever hear of the Auberge Dardara on TripAdvisor or the Lonely Planet/etc guidebooks they always mention the quality of the food and that you should treat yourself to a meal here if you’re ever in Chefchaouen. In the listings, it’s the number one recommended restaurant in the area.

Having stayed at the Dardara for 4 days, however, I think that information is misleading. The fact is that the the food is simple, makes good use of the local produce and wild herbs and is very acceptable in a homely way but what’s really good is the commitment of Jaber, the owner, to producing the food organically, including the cheese that’s made from his own goats.

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Here’s Jaber and I looking at some wild oregano that we’d just picked.

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You’d call the food rustic and it suits the country style of the Auberge perfectly but it’s got to be said that if you’re looking for a really good tagine, b’stilla or a full range of traditional Moroccan starters then this isn’t the place to find it.

However if you’re looking for organically provided food, then alongside Dar Attajalli in Fez this is quite possibly the best place to eat in Morocco.

Sadly the quality of service deteriorated day by day and after the first meal our waitress completely refused to give us a menu and instead told us that we could have soup for starters and nothing more and a llimited choice of non authentic tagines for main. It was almost like it was all her own personal food and she didn’t want to give any of it away. Either that or she completely detested westerners or people in a mixed race relationship, such was the venom in her eyes when she served us.

Regarding dessert, we looked at the menu the first day and there looked like a great range of desserts on offer but really all they wanted to give us was yogurt and fruit. It would’ve been nice to have fruit or yogurt for breakfast but not for dessert after dinner. We had a real battle to get lemon tart and cream caramel, which were the first items listed on the menu. It’s a great shame because they tasted lovely; if only they were served with a smile, or at least not a look of complete contempt.

Not all the staff were as rude as our was waitress though. In fact the guy who tends to the gardens always waved at us as did the lady who milked the goats and also showed us how to properly milk a goat with a kind smile on her face the entire time even though I had done a poor job indeed (sorry mama goat).

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Outside of those two members of staff and Jaber though, we didn’t feel welcome here during breakfast and dinner times. It really took away from our eating experience which is really a shame as it should’ve really been a highlight of our stay at the Auberge.

So, to recap, the Auberge Dardara has a pretty big reputation for being a really good place to eat in Chefchaouen. It certainly gets top marks for it’s wholesome ingredients and it’s relative kindness towards the animals but there are some things we have experienced that we feel should be highlighted most strongly so you’re not disappointed like we were, and they are:

  • The waiting staff who appear unfriendly, uncaring and racist and refuse to offer a menu after the first meal.
  • The menu is totally in French and the staff are unable/unwilling to translate into English. There are so many British tourists who travel to Morocco now there’s really no excuse not to have a menu in English. On top of this, Chefchaouen is really a Spanish tourist town so if the menu was going to be in any language apart from Arabic, it should be Spanish, not French. With the amount of work that’s clearly gone into making the Aurberge Dardara and it’s gardens, we can’t imagine that having a menu only in French is an oversight. It’s clearly intentional, but goodness only knows why.
  • We tried to Google search the French items on the menu and that brings us to the wifi problem. It might as well be non existent. We’d been staying at Riad Baraka 9km away in central Chefchaouen (read our review of this brilliant hotel here) where the wifi was as good as at home in Canada and England so there’s really no excuse. We’ve stayed in quite a few Moroccan run places where the wifi has been not very good, including some fancy 5 star places, whereas at the Riad Baraka at Chefchaouen (which is run by Englishman) it was fantastic. Draw your own conclusions from that fact but don’t come to the Auberge Dardara expecting to have any wifi beyond sending a simple email (and that only if you’re very lucky).
  • The final very noticeable problem was the TV in our room. Not that we wanted to watch much TV when staying in the midst of such beautiful countryside but on the night of the World Cup Final we flicked through over 1000 channels and not one of them had it. Pretty unbelievable, and confusing, considering that Moroccans are generally very keen on watching football. Most of our channels were religious inspired or had footage of camels running in the desert accompanied by romantic music. So, if you’re after watching any sort of western TV in your downtime, don’t expect to do it here. Not a big point but we feel one worth mentioning.

Ok, time for some positivity. Jaber grows a lot of the food used in the Auberge in nearby gardens. He doesn’t use any pesticides or chemicals and believes that the natural world has an equilibrium. When farming is natural, he says, then the insects that might eat your crop are in turn kept under control by larger animals. Of course this is accepted knowledge among many people but in commercial farming communities it does seem to be ignored so it’s nice to see it being practiced in earnest.

The courgettes, onions, tomatoes, beans and cabbage that he showed us growing may not have looked as perfect as chemically grown ones but they’re not full of poison either, and they taste way better!

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On one walk we did with Jaber we gathered wild oregano and myrrh to include in the evening meal. This is something that the staff do frequently to add something special to the food. It’s a lovely thing to do, I think, which is another reason that dinner times were such a disappointment. Imagine, collecting your own herbs in this beautiful landscape and then really looking forward to eating the food but then having it served by a lady who looks like you’ve just seriously insulted her entire family.

Jaber pointed out a walk that we could do through the mountains, which we did. If you’re staying here it’s best to ask him where to walk as quite a few farmers are growing cannabis near the Auberge and they probably wouldn’t want you walking through their fields.

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The Room - We had a lovely apartment that was divided into two main rooms. The main bedroom had tiled floors covered by rugs, a refrigerator, a fireplace in the corner for winter, plenty of candles dotted around (but strangely no matches) and comfy beds. The ceiling was lined with what looks like bamboo, there was a large walk in closet burn, a divan that could double as a single bed and the linens always smelt fresh, even the curtains. It was a big space that was very quiet at night.  Here are a few images we snapped.

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The second room had two single beds and another divan which, like the one in the main room, could be used as a single bed by a young child. There’s a very efficient aircon and a TV but as we’ve said, it’s not much use.

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The bathroom is very good with a powerful shower, plenty of hot water, spacious and the sink looks nice, made from beaten metal.

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There’s plenty of room in the suite and you could easily fit four people in there.

Public Areas and Reception – Here are some images we took of the indoors reception, sitting area and restaurant.

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The Gardens – The Dardara has beautiful gardens, full of fruit, wild flower and kittens!

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The Swimming Pool - The pool is a good size. refreshing, not too cold and deep enough to jump and dive into. It’s got a fountain spurting out of a rock feature at one end and stunning views of the Rif mountains from the pool side.

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There are umbrellas, chairs, a large lawn area for lying and white mattresses that you can drag to wherever you please in the pool area, like under a shady olive tree. It’s possibly one of the most enjoyable, scenically located pools we’ve ever been in.

The Farm – Between the auberge and the river is where the goats, sheep and fowl are kept. Lamia got to pick up a baby goat and milk other goats which was a lifelong dream fullfilled for her. The fowl are free range. Nearby the farm the river is crossed by a rope suspension bridge; standing on it we could look down and see fish and turtles in the river. There are also three very old olive trees on the farm; Jaber said one was nearly 600 years old and still producing fruit.

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The Dining Terrace - was sheltered from the sun by several canvases stretched from the building to the trees. There was always very good atmospheric music playing. To me it sounded like Persian mixed with Berber

Now to the dining experience.

Breakfast was changeable. Like so many Moroccan establishments it was superb on the first day but sadly went downhill from then onwards. The core was orange juice, coffee, a variety of breads and some local jam/honey. Here are some photos.

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As for dinner, we’ll take it night by night.

Here’s a look at the menu. We only saw it on the first night. Lucky we had a good look at it so we could recall what might be on offer on the next meals.

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On the first night, for starters we had olives, two vegetable dips, a locally produced goat cheese and slices of mushrooms and fresh warm bread which was refreshed every course. The cheese was lightly herbed and crumbly. Presentation was excellent, with the dips served in clay bowls.

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Then Lamia had a tomato and tuna salad.

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“It’s very fresh,” Lamia said. “The tomato is a pretty red and the cheese and tuna are delicious. The flavours all compliment each other and all in all it feels like a very Mediterranean dish; fresh, light and colourful.”

I had Bissara with olive oil, a traditional, smooth, thick soup served in a rustic clay bowl.

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It’s ingredient was puréed kidney beans – not far from the base of the Egyptian Fuul – and coming with a side bowl of chopped chilli slices, onion and ground cumin so you could spice it yourself. I thought the basic onion on the side was a very authentic touch. There was a large wooden spoon supplied to eat it with and it was very hot, a welcome change to the Michelin star restaurant we dined at the week before where everything is meant to be served at the right temperature which in reality means it’s cold.

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For main Lamia had roast chicken with lemon sauce.

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“Rotisserie chicken topped with roasted pine nuts and an earthy herb, nice.” Lamia said. “The roast potatoes are served on top of a vine leaf, and then there’s cauliflower with green beans, radish, courgette and carrot on the side. My roasted potatoes are very tasty, with a crispy skin and a soft boiled inside. The roasted chicken is a very large serving so I’ll share it with you Dave, if you don’t mind. Beautiful presentation and it’s a hearty, warm and familiar dish. Due to the large servings, I’ll try my meal tomorrow without a starter.”

I had a goat and prune tagine.

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The prunes were sprinkled with sesame seeds and roasted pine nuts. It’s a traditional dish but I never tasted it with sesame seeds and roasted pine nuts before and I really enjoyed the extra flavour and texture they added. It was served bubbling hot and the meat slid off the bone easily. As with Lamia’s chicken, it was a good portion size.

I normally didn’t eat vegetarian in Morocco because I found that Moroccans are all too often like the French in their cooking; they fail to understand that when you take meat out you have to replace not only the flavour but also the texture. But after this first meal I was satisfied that the Dardara’s chef understood such things.

For dessert Lamia had the creme caramel.

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“It’s a really good cream caramel, tastes as I expect it to. Sweet and creamy, with enough sugary sauce on the sides. A sweet treat!”

I had the lemon tart.

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It was very lemony with a firm biscuit taste. Back in the west we’d probably call it a cheesecake. There was a lovely spiral of whipped cream on the side too.

So that was all a success. We really enjoyed the evening, the waitress was ok to us, the food was superb and we had a full moon showing through the trees.

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Maybe we said something wrong, although that’s unlikely as we don’t speak French, or maybe we ate too much, or perhaps the staff were angry as it was Ramadan and we weren’t fasting (although as every Muslim knows, those who are travelling are exempt from fasting). Whatever the reason, our meal on the second night was a totally different experience. The food was just as good, but the choice was cut right down and the service was nothing short of rude.

We weren’t given a menu, the waitress just told us what we could have.

“Harira,” she said. I didn’t want that, so I asked for what I had the night before, bissara. It wasn’t that I wanted bissara, just that I didn’t want harira and she wasn’t offering us any other choices. No salad, nothing.

Lamia had the harira.

“It tastes a little different to what I’ve had before in Morocco. It’s more earthy and fresher tasting, enhanced with a sprinkle of cumin.”

For main we both had no choice but to eat the chicken tagine.

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“It’s a good tagine,” she said. “The chicken is soft and moist and the oregano on top of the chicken was what we picked this morning, which is a nice feeling. The potato is roasted to perfection with a crispy skin and soft insides, but that means it’s definitely not a traditional tagine as the potatoes were added later, after the chicken was finished cooking. I like taking bites of chicken and then holding the oregano to my nose, plucking the leaf and eating it. There’s a really intense aroma and taste combination when I do that.”

We had to ask our waitress to bring table water as none was offered. She huffed as she did so. Did she expect us to eat with no drink at all, even table water?

At the end of our main course she asked us if we wanted dessert. We said yes but instead of bringing us the menu she asked us if we wanted fruit or yogurt. If I was at home I’d have yogurt or fruit happily, but I wasn’t. I was in a restaurant and we’ve seen in the menu and that there were three or four dishes that looked quite tasty. Couldn’t we have a choice of them?

She pretended not to understand us. It was clear that she wasn’t going to bring the menu back so in the end we settled for what we had the day before. Which was excellent, but… eating at a restaurant shouldn’t cause these problems, it should be easy. I don’t want to feel on my guard all the time. I expect that somewhere like Fez, a bustling, big city but not in this wonderful nature retreat. Jaber was a fine man with good ideals regarding organic foods, keeping his livestock and taking care of them, interacting with local community and the Auberge itself being a lovely place to stay in. There are great views and the food is of a very high standard but why should we have to battle the staff to get to that food?!!

If the staff issue can be sorted, then the Auberge Dardara has the potential to be one of the finest places to stay in Morocco, and Jaber did say that most of his staff had gone away for Ramadan so this might count for the poor service, but regardless, we have to report on what we experienced, and sadly, as it stands, the staff’s rudeness are enough to drive all but the most hungry away.

For our third dinner we were again refused a menu, so it was bissara and harira for starters. I must say that the bread served with it, and at all our meals, was homemade and of exceptional quality.

For main I had seen somebody else (a local) eating kefta tagine, so Lamia ordered that. The waitress wasn’t happy but I guess she couldn’t refuse it as the local was busy enjoying it nearby.

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“It’s got a sprig of oregano on top and fresh tomatoes and spices cooked well into it so it smells fragrant! I can tell the tomato sauce has been hand puréed as it looks wholesome and fresh and I can also see the seeds. When my parents make a tomato sauce, it looks very similar.”

I had the vegetable tagine.

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It had potato, carrot, green, bean, courgette, cauliflower, garlic and lots of sprinkled herbs. I could tell that it had been cooked in good olive oil. There wasn’t much juice and it was quite a small portion but it was very tasty.

There was not going to be any dessert, judging by the waitresses absence, but we called for her and asked for our usual. No, she said, no creme caramel. Ok, so it was lemon tart for us both for dessert.

Our final, fourth dinner, was harira and bissara, of course, and chicken and kefta tagine. It was good, if only we hadn’t have to have such a battle to get it.

Here’s a short video that we made during our stay. It’s not meant to be a glossy promo film, more an honest look at what you might experience yourself if you stayed at the hotel.

Based on our experiences, we’d say that the Auberge Dardara was a nice place to stay. The facilities were excellent. The food was superb and if only the service was not so unpleasant and, I’ve got to say it, racist, we could recommend it. As it is, sure, go there for lunch and enjoy some nice home cooking; the bread is great, the bissara too. But if you’re foreign like us (I’m white English, Lamia is brown, Muslim and from Bangladesh and Canada) and you stay for more than a single meal, then expect some judgmental behavior to come your way, sadly.

Discover more at http://www.dardara.ma/

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