WHEN IT COMES to awakening memories and emotions from a distinct place and time, there is nothing more powerful than scent. The smell of lilacs transports me to my childhood in Chicago. My dad loved taking me to our favorite Italian restaurant, Martino’s, followed by a visit to Baskin-Robbins for some mint chocolate chip ice cream. I can still recall the aroma of lilac wafting through the humid summer night air as we walked home.
Now living in Berkeley, California, the smell of jasmine and wisteria herald the start of summer. Jasmine climbs neighborhood fences while wisteria petals paint the sidewalk in vibrant shades of purple. While these scents have created new memories in connection with the seasons, lilacs remain the most evocative for me. Every time I smell them, I am overcome with emotion remembering the summers of my youth.
“Smell is the most important sense of all our senses,” explains Dr. Jalil Belkamel, who owns and runs an organic aromatic garden outside of Marrakesh in the Ourika Valley. “We smell 10,000 molecules each day and what we remember are the best ones, the ones that make us feel good. Smell has a very psychological impact on people.”
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Dr. Belkamel, who holds a doctorate in aromatherapy, speaks with a strong French accent and has an infectious passion for his profession. As we stroll through his garden, he picks herbs and presents them to me for a smell and taste test. Dr. Belkamel’s face lights up as he holds each herb up to his nose. It’s as if each one transmits a superpower. I too feel a charge walking through his intoxicating garden, which houses an array of herbs including lavender, mint, rosemary, oregano, and thyme, to name just a few.
Dr. Belkamel passes me a handful of marjoram and rosemary and explains that “marjoram is good for anxiety because it’s relaxing. The opposite can be said for rosemary, which is energizing; so if you are feeling high tension, you should avoid rosemary or use it very sparingly.”
Through workshops and activities, the garden has an immersive educational function. Dr. Belkamel believes people can learn best if they participate and engage with the ingredients — it’s also a more hands-on way to learn about Moroccan culture. Dr. Belkamel opened the garden in partnership with his brother 22 years ago. Both were on a mission to educate people from the region and teach farmers how to farm organically while helping to preserve green spaces around Marrakesh. He now works with a small team of 65 people, 80% of them women. He promotes human-centered economic development and hires people rather than relying on machines.
In 2016, Dr. Belkamel started working with the Royal Mansour, a sublime property in Marrakesh with a world-renowned spa built around Moroccan traditions. In 2020, when the spa added a robust wellness program to their offerings, they partnered with Dr. Belkamel to create an herb garden on the property as a direct link between the land and the restorative activities for guests.
“The garden was created out of a vision of wellness,” explains Dr. Belkamel. He plants local species of herbs such as rosemary, geranium, mint, and lemongrass to be used at the spa, and educates the staff about herbal medicine and its benefits. He also creates an assortment of infusions using Moroccan herbs to aid in digestion and relaxation, among other treatments, depending on an individual’s wellness goals.
“I share the same philosophy and values about natural ingredients and local environments as the Royal Mansour. We both share those values by highlighting to the guests the richness of the Moroccan land, culture, and rituals. Even though the Royal Mansour is a very luxurious spa, it respects the very ancestral Moroccan rituals through the hammam experience, by using very natural and ancestral ingredients,” Dr. Belkamel shares.
Hammams date back to the twelfth century and play a significant role in Moroccan culture. Public hammams are used by Moroccans as part of a weekly deep-cleaning ritual. In a traditional hammam, the treatment is performed on a hot marble floor, and includes a black soap application and a full body scrub followed by a moisturizing wrap. The Royal Mansour spa upholds this tradition by performing this ritual on a marble floor in its own hammam while using a black soap and wrap.
The hotel spa offers three different hammam experiences to choose from, each using a set of local ingredients to stimulate your senses. Escale À Taliouine — the “glowing hammam”— features ingredients such as saffron, orange blossom honey, and argan powder. Only a small amount of saffron is used in this treatment and comes from another farm in the Ourika Valley run by Dr. Laqbaqbi. Among the various fruit trees, such as apricot, kumquat, and apple, Dr. Laqbaqbi specializes in growing saffron, a finicky spice known as “red gold.”
Dr. Laqbaqbi started La Safranière de l'Ourika 20 years ago after returning to Casablanca from France, where he studied and practiced medicine. Weekend trips to Marrakesh became more frequent and eventually turned into a move to live full time. He soon asked a friend for some advice about building up the local economy and his friend suggested saffron farming. At the time, this was very rare in Morocco, but Dr. Laqbaqbi embraced the opportunity to start a new business in the area. “I noticed that the population in the Ourika Valley was very poor, so I started this farm to help build up the economy and to hire women in the area,” explains Dr. Laqbaqbi.
After years of studying the art of saffron production and perfecting the process, La Safranière de l'Ourika opened its doors to guests who were interested in learning about the spice. During the harvest in early November, visitors from around the world flock to La Safranière de l'Ourika to marvel at rows of purple flowers set against a sprawling backdrop of the Atlas Mountains. Each morning at sunrise, for no more than two hours, a group of 60 women carefully picks the flowers. Most flowers, commonly known as pistils, have three red stigmas. This is the only part of the flower that produces saffron. The women delicately extract the stigmas from each flower in a rigorous process, and then dry them in a dark room to create what is later bottled and sold as saffron. Dr. Laqbaqbi likens the process to surgery, saying only women can do it well. “They have small and delicate hands.”
In order to produce two pounds of saffron, the women need to pick 300,000 flowers. Each woman can only pick around 1 ounce of fresh saffron each day by extracting the stigmas.
“This is why saffron is so expensive,” he says. “It’s very labor intensive. We create the best-quality saffron because we only pull a certain part of the stigma to create the highest-quality saffron — which makes the process even more rigorous, since the women only extract such a small amount of stigma.”
Saffron production is more common in Morocco these days; the country is now one of the top five largest producers in the world. Miloud, who manages the garden, escorts me into the field to show me some of the saffron bulbs that have been planted. “Each bulb has a five-year lifespan, but they multiply and have baby bulbs,” he says, handing me a baby bulb and her mother. “Four years ago we planted this mother, and this is her baby, who will continue on for another five years and create the circle of life.”
We pass by a family of goats as we circle the field. During January and February, the goats roam the fields and eat the leftover filament from the saffron harvest. By eating the remnants, the goats produce higher-quality milk and butter. “Magic butter,” says Miloud.
Miloud speaks about saffron with ease, despite the rigorous process. He tells me that the bulbs are purchased in the village of Taliouine, and the Royal Mansour pays homage by calling their signature hammam treatment the “Taliouine.”
La Safranière de l'Ourika has been working with the Royal Mansour since they opened in 2010, and beyond providing them with saffron, they have more recently also supplied the hotel with truffles. Dr. Laqbaqbi is the only truffle hunter in Morocco, an accolade that he holds dear to his heart. He was introduced to the Royal Mansour by a chef who worked at British entrepreneur Richard Branson’s Morocco property. From there, Dr. Laqbaqbi started working with the chef at the Royal Mansour to help him better understand saffron and its benefits.
“If I could go back, I would not have practiced medicine; I would have been more involved with nature,” says Dr. Laqbaqbi. But he’s happy to be here now. His dedication to this land, which is able to produce rare and beautiful ingredients like saffron and truffles, is an expression of his admiration for Morocco and everything it has to offer.
Depending on where you venture on the Royal Mansour’s property, you may encounter an array of scents. Outside my riad, geranium fills the air, perfuming the walkway and pairing nicely with the sound of the property’s many water features. Entering the area surrounding the spa, there is a distinct aroma of orange blossom. The impressive gardens were specifically designed to produce this smell, which is traditional in most gardens around Marrakesh.
“It’s emotional, even for us as Moroccans,” says Ghita El Fouiri, PR manager for the Royal Mansour, “because they are very traditional gardens, simple citrus gardens filled with orange and lemon trees. It’s the same as our old houses in Morocco. Before tourism and population you smelled orange blossom when you entered Marrakesh. And the spa here is the old Marrakesh.”
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Elissa Polls Writer
Elissa Polls is the senior director of content production for Departures. A producer who typically stays behind the scenes, she has worked with creatives from around the world, helping bring their ideas to life. Elissa has over 15 years of production experience and lives in Berkeley, California.
Ilyass Nazih Photographer
Ilyass Nazih is a visual content creator and social media creative, and a lifestyle and street photographer based in the city of arts, Marrakesh, Morocco. As a social media creative, he has produced visual content for many brands and companies in the lifestyle and hospitality industries. He can be found most days with a camera in hand chasing light, shadows, and stories in the Medina of Marrakesh.