Category Archives: Food

Americans love Moroccan food, right? Here are some of our (vegetarian) adventures with the local cuisine…

Wandering through “the happy valley”

The gite was beautiful,
as were the surroundings,
P1020954 P1020961and we were a little slow to get started the next morning.

Ahmed arrived with a mule for Jeremy to ride,
and we set off,
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past irrigation gates, sheep grazing around an oven built into the ground,

shepherds with their sheep,
P1020985 P1020987or riding off into the far distance,
houses with fruit trees blooming like a puff of smoke from an invisible chimney,
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children playing, women washing clothes,
chicken on rooftops that look like fields,
baby burros and bee boxes,
spring blooms,
and who knows what all else?

James asked if he could photograph a bunch of boys we met along the road, and then he showed them the photo and a video as well.  When we saw that they had an old board with Qur’anic verses written on both sides–just as we had seen in the Nejjarine fondouq in Fès–we asked if they would read it to us, and they did!

Here’s the link to the video on Vimeo:
Boys reciting the Qur’an

Brahim and Ahmed wanted to stop for lunch at about 11:30, but we had just had breakfast at 9, so we wanted to push on.  Later, when we stopped for lunch, we understood the timing better: they had brought the ubiquitous pressure-cooker and tea kettle and proceeded to make first tea and then a bit of a feast while we lay about.
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All very imperial luxury: we didn’t quite know what to do with ourselves.  Then Ahmed needed to go off to the souq across the river,
so we set off with Brahim to climb up to one of the ribats on the mountain-tops through the valley. But first there was quite a lengthy walk back along the valley floor, over the creek, past the sheep, the drying laundry, the stork…
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The ribat was still occupied by a single elderly guardian, set up as a quasi-museum as to how life there used to be lived.
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The central living space included a gas stove with the necessary kettle, a kerosene lamp, food basket, an old couscousier…
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plus a hand mill, with a water-bag and some long underwear hanging from the wall.P1030048 P1030051
The “rooms” were a little claustrophobic, to say the least, but the corridor seemed to wind around forever, and you could climb this “ladder”

and find yourself on the roof looking over the amazing valley.P1030061



Brahim took a picture for us, then Jeremy wanted to take a photo of Brahim…P1030063P1030071SONY DSC

On the way out, Jeremy experimented with what it would feel like to be on guard duty, sleeping by the door.

Then we climbed back down the mountain to meet up with Ahmed and the mule
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and take the long walk back along the valley floor to the gite.

It’s a little hard to see in the photos, but these depressions in the rock are dinosaur footprints (Jeremy’s crouching in one footprint).SONY DSC P1030096I like the way the dinosaurs seem to have stepped off the rock into thin air.

We also passed some women spinning, using something like a drop spindle without the drop–a spindle spun on the ground.
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When they saw how fascinated I was (and we tried to explain that I spin with a wheel but can’t work a drop spindle), they let me take a video of the process (screenshot above).

The evening light was quite magical, even if we were tired.SONY DSC SONY DSCJeremy was drooping, so I got up on the mule and he fell asleep leaning back against me, but he woke up in time for a triumphal return to the gite, leading the mule himself.

And after all this, Brahim fixed us tea and supper and a warm fire.  Such an extravagant experience, all around.
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Centuries of olive oil

We had stopped by La clé de huile the afternoon we arrived in Ourika, but it was closed.  A housekeeper came out to tell us the boss was in Marrakesh but would be back tomorrow, so we said we’d come by about 10 a.m. We arrived to find the gate once again closed, but we banged on the door and eventually a man came out.  “No,” he said, “the museum is closed.” “Dommage,” said James: polite French for “Bummer.”  He points out, gently that we came yesterday and were told it would be open this morning. “Ah, oui,” says the man.  “Elle m’a dit.”  The housekeeper told me.  You can come in. He swung open the gates and let us in, not only to the museum, but to his day, a small slice of his life. We started in the museum, full of informative posters about the history of olive oil production, both in Morocco and around the world: P1010155 P1010159 There was also an old Roman-era grinding stone, P1010186 plus an example of an ancient oil press, with technology even more “beldi” or traditional than what we saw outside Demnate: P1010190 And here you can see a little more clearly the bags that are filled with crushed olives in order to be pressed: P1010187 The metal press (outside Demnate) certainly seemed easier and less dangerous to run! But the museum was just the beginning.  We went out into the olive grove, to see people harvesting the olives with a hydraulic rake: P1010191 The yellow battery pack will run for the best part of a day; the prongs of the rake swing back and forth, shaking olives out of the trees.  People on the ground gather up the fallen olives: P1010192 P1010197 Under trees that have already been harvested, a small group of women gather up individual olives, gleaning in a traditional way. P1010199 The workers are paid 20 dirhams–about $2.50–per container of olives.  This is a little over the odds: our host didn’t want any trouble or argumentation over hours or labor.  (Nancy points out that this is also more than the minimum cash wage for tip employees in the U.S.) Nancy asks about pests and spraying, and indeed the trees are sprayed twice a year, first to prevent the growth of a particular fungus, Verticillium wilt, and then to limit the attacks of the  olive fly. Abdelhaq manages La Clé des Huiles for a French patron: a lawyer who has been involved in politics on a national scale, associated somehow with a prominent lawyer who recently committed suicide.  The patron had originally planned a large retreat center, where everything would be available on-site.  There are separate houses and apartments dotted about the property, a swimming pool, a massive professional kitchen and dining hall.  The place is beautiful: as we walk around the property, we can imagine how fabulous it would be to stay here.  But everything is shut, in limbo.  The aging patron, focused on his own troubles in France, wanted to fire all the workmen in the middle of Ramadan two summers ago.  Abdelhaq told him he could not do that–it would be unethical.  He tried to broker an agreement by which the 18 workmen would each work one-third time for the month of Ramadan so that everyone could have at least enough to support their families, but the workmen refused and all went on strike together.  What a misery, to be attacked on all sides.  The owner has now passed decision-making power to his son, who wants to sell the property.  Our friend was hoping that a friend of this son would help him negotiate a means of taking the property forward. P1010203 After our tour, we pulled up chairs in the courtyard of the living and office space, moved the buckets of olives off the table, and feasted on mint tea, olives, beldi olive oil, and warm fresh bread. We tried to offer Abdelhaq at least the listed admission fee for the museum, but he would have none of it.  We asked to see his store, up on the main road, where we tried to buy enough products to compensate in some small way for the time he had spent with us–and he kept knocking down the price as a gesture of friendship.  He set us on the road again, loaded with special honey, preserves, limited edition olive oil–and a plastic water bottle filled with fresh beldi olive oil.  We think of Abdelhaq every day as we dip our crusty bread in that delicious, warming, filling fare. P1020308

Ourika and saffron

P1010138Driving the back road between Demnate and Ourika, we have these wonderful views of snow dusting the high Atlas, with green fields and harvested fields alternating below.

The main road of Ourika is a bit of a come down: it feels a little like an American strip mall, with hotels, restaurants, shops and workshops all stretched unendingly along the road.  It’s hard to see how a saffron growing center or an olive oil museum would fit in here.

In fact, the saffron center is about a kilometer down a side road, with another turning off that road.  Suddenly we’re pulling up in front of a gate that seems to have no space for visitors.  We park and open the gate and find ourselves in something like a secret garden.

December is high tangerine season, and these trees are loaded with fruit.  The evening sun picks out each “golden apple of the sun,” supposedly the fruit of Hesperides’ mythical garden.

Pathways lined with rosemary or lavender keep the evening air sweet, and provide a secondary harvest, with herbs drying on racks behind the main display center.

James, resister of goats, is the first to spot this small herd on the other side of the path:
P1010144 P1010148More permaculture! Multiple layers of productivity, with livestock integrated into the growing cycle: eating pruned tree branches, contributing manure to the fields.

But we are here to see the saffron: first the small display fields at the front:

Not much to look at now, but imagine this field in early fall, with the saffron in flower:

 (web catch of a field in Taliouine, Morocco)

Even near the children’s school, October crocuses spring up in the fall:

The owner of this land is a medical man based in Casablanca, who has managed to grow truffles on about ten acres outside Immouzer Kandahar, near Ifrane.  Mohamed Amine manages this property for him, and has a part to play in the truffle farming as well.  We hope to meet up with him in Ifrane or Immouzer sometime this winter.P1010150

In the meantime, Nancy is going to try growing saffron in her garden in southern California, so Amine digs up a few bulbs to send home with her.  (Will they get past the airport sniffer dogs?)


Beldi (traditional) olive oil

P1010086 P1010088After a delicious breakfast in beautiful surroundings, we set off in the car to try to visit a traditional pottery village outside of Demnate.  Our host gave us directions and told us the road was a dirt piste, but in good condition: it should be fine.  Unfortunately, despite the fact that the day was sunny and the weather had been dry, the road was a massive mud slick.  James drove us part way through, fishtailing wildly, and then paused in a relatively dry spot, and ran a way further down the road to see if the village was in easy walking distance.  No joy.  We decided discretion was definitely the better part of valor here, and we turned back.

On our way back to the main road, we passed something that looked like a mechanics’ shop, but I noticed people bringing large bags of olives, loaded on donkeys, to the door.  “Hey, is that an olive press?” I asked.  James stopped the car, we all climbed out, and Mohamed, who was running the press, very kindly let us look around.

P1010089First, the olives are poured into this big stone bowl to be crushed, pits and all, by the millstone moved by the donkey in the corner.

Then the crushed olives are packed into burlap bags, round and flat, and stacked into a traditional press.

What looks like a rope wound in coils under a vise are actually some 25 of these burlap bags, full of olives, with the juice trickling out of the sides of the bags.  If you look closely, you can see it.
P1010093I thought of Keats’s Autumn, “watching the last oozings.”

The oil collects in the bottom of the press and then goes through a channel under the floor to be bottled outside the building.  Mohamed shows us a kind of solid surface to the oil, but I can’t follow what he’s trying to tell us as he reaches in, grabs a handful, and squeezes the oil out of it.P1010092After we get home, Fatima explains to me that the solids of “beldi” olive oil are wonderful for your health.  Just as a spoonful of honey in hot water each day is guaranteed to keep us healthy, so drinking a spoonful of beldi olive oil each morning will do wonders for us.

Outside the press, there’s a slag heap of the olive residue, left over from the pressing.  Traditionally, this material is burnt, either to heat pottery kilns or occasionally to heat hammams and bakeries.

P1010099In a traditional way of life, nothing is wasted.

There’s an Arabic or Moroccan proverb which states: “There is something good in every delay.”   I can’t always agree, but surely we would never have stopped here if we had not had to turn back from our pottery adventure.  Serendipity intensifies the pleasure of discovery.





Dropping into the Fez medina

One of the wonderful things about living in Ifrane is how easy it is to drop into Fez for the day.  The road down the mountain is often slow and crowded, but on our way we like to pass the stored onions
and the drying olives of early December.
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Roughly an hour later, we’ve arrived.  One of these days, I’m going to go around the city and visit each one of the many many gates.  But today, we’re just starting off at Bab Boujeloud:

Yes, that’s close to the camel meat souk.  Friends tell me camel meat is really quite tasty.
But I’d rather ride a camel than eat one, personally.

Someday, I’d like to learn more about how the waterclock by the Bou Inania was supposed to work, but today, we drift on past, focused on colors and scents (and grabbing a bag of pricey almonds to nibble as we go).

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Today’s great treat is the honey souq, with over a dozen varieties of honey: some of our favorites were lavendar, rosemary, and thyme.  Carob honey is supposed to lower cholesterol, forb honey (from the cactus that looks like little fingers) is supposed to be good for the lungs.  There’s jasmine, date, fig, cedar, even cumin honey.
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Our chosen honeys are weighed and packaged for us.  Note all the different colors of honey.

Our (new) friend is named Nouredine or “the light of faith;” he has a family tree stretching from Adam to Mohammed above the door to the honey storeroom. SONY DSC
(Special figures appear as green rounds on a date palm: Adam, Idriss (?), Noah, Abraham (with offshoots of Isaac, Israel, etc.), up to Mohammed.  Nouredine is a wholesaler: he works with a number of other men who purchase honey from different sources around the country.  Mostly, he sells to bakers who might use the honey to create a particular kind of wedding cake or other sweet treat.  His honey is carefully monitored by the state: he has to have it tested to confirm the purity, in contrast to the sugar water sold as honey by the roadsides on the way to Ifrane and elsewhere.

Powered by a massive honey buzz, we continue down the Talaa Kbira, the main street of the old medina.  James particularly likes this view of the Qaraouyine minaret:


I think it’s the combination of the soaring minaret, the building supports below, and the donkeys on the ground.
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We also like the fact that so many of the Fez mosques are still such active spaces, so much a part of the community:


Nearby, a woman carries bread to be baked at a public bakery:

And djellaba makers are busy braiding trim:

In his workshop, a little off the beaten track, a man is painting a door in the time-honored traditions of zouaq, but with bright modern paints:
P1000968 P1000969In Morocco, of course, a teapot is never very far away.

In the Seffarine square, brassmakers are polishing their wares
while another man peddles poultry.  Chicken for dinner, anyone?

After lunch at a small family restaurant, we visit the Nejjarine fundouq, with its fabulous collection of craft artifacts (no photos permitted), and we climb to the rooftop café for a view down into the street,

across the domed roof of a local bakery/hammam (the two neighborhood institutions are usually built together to share their heating),

over the populated rooftops,

and finally over the hills to the Merenid tombs:

And then it’s time to be on our way home to the Ifrani sunset.

Aziz and the Todgha palmerie

This is how Moroccans give directions: “Drive into town, then call me and I’ll tell you where to go from there.”  Really?  I have to call you from the roadside and then try to listen to “second left, next right, two roundabouts” in French with bad reception while scrabbling for paper and pencil to write it down?  You can’t give me a post code ahead of time and let me look it up on Google maps?

Actually, Google maps are not very satisfactory in Morocco.  The site is blanked out over the royal palaces to protect the king’s privacy, for instance, but in addition to that, most city maps include a variety of unlabeled streets along with various streets labeled in Arabic script.  Remember that I’m reading  at about a first or second grade level.  Picture us driving.
James: “What’s the next street we’re looking for?”
Betsy: “Uh, can you pull over and let me sound it out?”
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As instructed, we called Aziz once we reached the outskirts of Tinghir.  “OK, just drive through town; the last café on the way out of town will be called  mflmr.  I’ll meet you there.”  The name of the café is impossible to catch, even with three repetitions: James thinks it’s Ahmed’s café; I think it’s Mohamed’s.  We’re in the midst of rush hour traffic, so it’s hard to drive slowly enough to spot the names of shops or cafés in the gathering dusk.  We’re convinced that our plans for the night and the next day have just gone up in smoke.  Suddenly, Aziz is standing beside the car, in the middle of traffic, like a ghost appearing out of nowhere.  Moroccan magic.  (This is the kind of story that annoys me when I read them in books, but still…) Aziz jumps in the car and tells us to turn right and right again and suddenly we’re on a dirt track curving along the bottom of the town.  The noise and bustle drop away–we enter a courtyard with a Berber tent, incense rising, and dusk falling.

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The auberge seems to be an all-male operation, which may explain a certain degree of grubbiness, but I’m too tired and sick to care.  I crawl into bed; Aziz and his brother make me a verbena tisane to try to settle my stomach; James and Jeremy have a couscous from which Zoe abstains, then we all fall asleep.

November 5th: Guy Fawkes day in England: my birthday!  As a present, James has organized another tour of the Todgha palmerie (and the children are willing to go along with it).  Give Zoe enough sweet mint tea and she can cope with anything.

We bribe Jeremy by telling him Aziz will teach him to weave little camels out of palm fronds, but damn, that’s harder than it looks.  (In the palmerie, six-year-olds are already doing this with ease…)  Aziz is amused by our struggles with the simple task.

Those of you who know my passion for permaculture will understand my obsession with the palmeries: these are permaculture sites that have been operating abundantly for thousands of years.  Our brief earlier tour did nothing to slake my curiosity about the details of how these palmeries are structured and maintained.

We start again at the garden of the Sacred Fish (Poissons sacrées) café and restaurant: a fresh water spring inhabited by salt-water fish.  Don’t ask me how this works: that’s why they’re sacred.
They’re hard to see in this picture, but they’re a little scary when swarming (leaping) for bread tossed on the water.

We’re hardly into the palms when Aziz stops for a conversation with a man passing by.  The man is his uncle, and they’re discussing the harvesting of a shared family date palm.  Aziz noticed that the dates were close to ripe and he told his brother to harvest them.  Evidently, there is another branch of the family (cousins to Aziz) with whom this uncle has some issues.  “I thought they were harvesting the tree,” said the uncle, “and I was going to give them what for” (a gesture with the hand–coincidentally?–holding a knife) “but then I saw it was your brother, so I left him to it.”

“Are there many family issues about dividing the harvest?” I ask Aziz.  “Not really,” he answers.  “The best thing is for everyone to be present at the harvest and receive their share.  If you can’t be present, then you don’t really have the right to complain.”  I’m not quite sure how this statement of principle works out in the context of the family story he just told me, but I don’t press the issue.  My family wants to get moving.

“You want to understand dattel farming?” Aziz asks me.  “Well, to start with, the farmer has to keep the palm trees pruned properly, or they will not produce.  Here, this tree is very messy: many fronds, no dattels.”  (I’m not sure why Moroccans call dates dattels–it doesn’t seem to come from French or Arabic or English.)

We cross the river which makes this particular palmerie so productive,
looking as we pass at the rock-and-wire bulwarks that people hope will contain the floodwaters when they come, so that the floods don’t uproot plants and trees in the oasis, as they have done in the past.

One of the delights of the palmerie is the cool shade it provides, even in the midst of blazing sun:

The middle layer of the palmerie–fruit trees–is much more closely interwoven with the palms than I had expected: here’s a fig tree entwined with the base of a (badly pruned) palm, and a pomegranate very near by.

Aziz stops to greet an elderly man.  In his youth, he was called Karim (the word for generous), but his nickname now is simply Aki.

Aki is busy working his garden, located behind a head-high pisé wall.  He invites us in to take a look.  In fact, the first thing he does is climb a big palm to pick us a few lingering dates.  I hope I’m half as agile when I’m in my 80s.
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The date season is already mostly over by early November, but there are 26 varieties of dates in the oasis, and there are always a few somewhere that are slow to ripen.  These are premium dates, Aki tells us, and they are indeed the best tasting dates I’ve ever had: enormous and sweet and juicy.

Each year, as a good farmer does, Aki prunes back a lower layer of palm “branches;” this means you can read the age of the tree by counting the rows of pruned branches up the trunk.  Some varieties of palm have tightly spaced branches; others are more loosely spaced.  As a result, the height of the palm doesn’t tell you the age of the tree: you need to count the pruning rings.

But date palms are only part of the picture here: there are fruit trees (including olives) around the edges of Aki’s garden,
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green fields of mint and (nitrogen-fixing) alfalfa (with some loose-leaf cabbage–this is the preferred variety of cabbage in the south),
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and beets and peppers and eggplant, oh my!
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Every time I admire a plant, Aki promptly harvests one and hands it to me: note the large bag of loot I am accumulating.  When he hears I’ve got a stomach bug, he finds a variety of celery that he says will help, along with more verbena.

Then he wants to show us the oven built into the side of a wall: he shows us how he hangs, say, a leg of lamb inside the oven, with the coals below, and then banks it to cook slowly for two days.  Then he grins at us: it’s a good photo here!  Aziz, take their picture!

Laden with food, we leave Aki surveying his garden (built on the space where a house once stood) and head back out into the more open spaces of the oasis.

Water is everywhere: this palmerie is incredibly rich in water, flowing under bridges made from palm trunks.

The al-bayud fungus threatening the palmerie is treated by cutting down infected palms and burning the surface : the fungus lives on the outer layers of the trunk, so the inner trunk can be used for construction purposes.

One of the things I envy most is the remarkable ease and simplicity of irrigation here: a few stones, a handful of mud, and gravity.  It certainly beats bucket and hose.
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Deep beds (rather than raised beds) allow for deep irrigation, flooding for a few hours at a time:
Even if the irrigation is easy, though, the labor is still hard.  I remember Eric Ross drilling it into us: an oasis or palmerie is an agricultural system, highly productive but incredibly labor intensive.  Aziz has been telling us that the older generation know how to work all day long without getting hot or tired; the younger generation has lost this knack.  Here, for instance, the older man is wearing a djellaba and long sleeves, while the younger man is stripped as far as is decent.
Pruned palm fronds make a fence defining a family’s plot.  Nothing is wasted here.  Even the date stems, stripped of the dates, can be used for brooms, as Jeremy demonstrates:

This half-harvested plot is also one of Aki’s fields, Aziz tells us.  He’s one of the most productive farmers in the oasis.  This is a field of mint, left perennial.  He harvests it to take the mint to market (for the essential Moroccan mint tea); by the time he’s reached the end of the field, the beginning is ready to harvest once again.  I’m amazed it rebounds so well and so quickly–but then, it is mint, liable to be invasive unless handled with tough love.P1000351

There’s an interesting mixture of the traditional and the new in the work of the oasis. Note the dangling earbud on the man driving the donkey.P1000359 P1000360

After touring the oasis, we went to visit the abandoned village above the fields.  The pisé buildings with the mountain behind are very evocative of the American Southwest, aren’t they?

Inside, we see more of the palm trunk floor/roofing, and also the upper layer of the house.  I’ve been wondering about why people have moved out of these traditional buildings in such droves, but Aziz’s explanation clarifies things for me: not only is there no running water, but the traditional mode of living included larger domesticated animals (donkeys, sheep) on the ground floor, then smaller animals (chickens, rabbits) on part of the upper floor where the family lived.

The village offers a lovely warm spot for baking in the sun during colder winter days: Zoë decided to clone herself so part of her could stay here.P1000394

We leave Aziz at the Poissons Sacrés cafe and drive out of the gorge toward the desert.  On the hill above the palmerie, you can see both the fertility of the oasis and the aridity of the  landscape surrounding it:
P1000399 P1000400The contrast underscores the near-miracle of oasis productivity–and the precariousness of this life in an erratically warming world.


Eid el Adha

Early in the morning of Eid el Adha, I am listening to the sheep in the neighbor’s garden, waiting for the slaughter.  For days, we have been watching the sheep go by, strapped onto the top of busses, lashed onto the backs of bicycles, driven in herds to the edges of towns.
I find myself braced, physically tense, as I listen to the children squealing, the noise increasing in pitch and intensity.  Still the sheep bleats: I am waiting for it to bleat its last.

Ignorant as I am, the first details I learned of Eid el Adha came in discussion of Eid el f’tur at the end of Ramadan.  Eid el f’tur (breaking the fast at the end of Ramadan) is  also known as the “little Eid” (eid el sghir) versus the “big Eid” (eid el kbir) which is Eid el Adha.  “So what happens during the Eid el Adha?” I asked Youssef.  “What makes it the big celebration?”

“It’s the festival of the sheep,” he told me, which left me even more befuddled.  What’s so special about sheep?  This is a religion opposed to idols, right?  Surely they’re not worshipping sheep.

“What happens, exactly?” I asked Youssef, and his face lit up. “My family all gathers.  My father has bought a sheep.  My brothers and I hold it by the legs, with the head up (miming a tussle), and my father cuts its throat.  Then we hang it up and we pull the skin down and off.”  Youssef’s Darija was punctuated by vivid explanatory gestures.  I held up my hand to stop him: this was perhaps more than I wanted to know.  But after Youssef left that day, I looked online and found multiple photos and descriptions of travelers encountering piles of sheep corpses on street corners.  It occurred to me then that Spain might be an appealing destination for my vegetarian family over the Eid holiday.

But Eid has come and here we are.  It’s almost 10 a.m.  The children are still squealing in the garden behind our house.  At the front, on our left, adult voices build, peak, recede.  I hear the scraping of a shovel on the ground, the click of a bucket handle as the bucket is picked up and set down.  I hear running water.  I can’t seem to turn off my imagination’s visual accompaniment to this particular soundtrack.  Inside our house, Jeremy is listening to the story of Mozart’s musical childhood.  Outside, there are more sweeping and scraping and popping sounds.  Are they chopping the sheep—separating the joints?

Another man stops by next door.  “La bas?”  (“What’s up?”) There is a guttural satisfaction to the exchange: I’m not sure of the exact words that follow, but I’d swear they translate to something like, “Now that’s the way to kill a sheep.”

James and I go out on the balcony and look over into the courtyard next door, where a sheep carcass hangs by its back legs, all pink and white.
I rethink “popping” as a description for the noises I heard: it must have been the sound of the skin being peeled off the body of the sheep, inch by little inch.  Ripping, snapping, perhaps.  On the wall across the road, the skin hangs, like a pair of footy pajamas turned inside out.  It waits, as a gift, for whoever may need it.
Meanwhile, the sheep’s head is roasting on a fire the neighbors have built in a metal wheelbarrow: it looks both unreal and a little too lifelike.

James goes over to greet the neighbors: they welcome him in, past the hanging carcass.  They encourage him to take photos; they force-feed him sweet tea and cookies.  They urge him to bring me over as well, but he demurs on my behalf, pleading a combination of illness and vegetarianism. I wave from the balcony, feeling like an old-style Moroccan housewife, happy to keep my Eid a vicarious experience.

11 a.m.  Around the neighborhood, smoke is rising from a dozen courtyards or more.  The smoke and smell of roasting flesh drift into the house and I close the doors and windows.  The noise of bleating sheep has diminished but not disappeared. Zoë swears she hears the sheep screaming; my hearing is not so finely discriminated, but the bleating is sometimes more frantic in quality, and sometimes abruptly interrupted.

There are thudding sounds from next door and I wonder again if they’re quartering the sheep.  The family eats one quarter, gives a quarter to the poor, preserves a quarter, and gives a quarter to a second cousin or similarly distant relative.  But no: still the pink and white carcass hangs, complete.  James reports that the noise is the removal of the ram’s horns, before the head is returned to the roasting wheelbarrow.  Eventually, they’ll crack open the skull and eat the roasted brain: a delicacy.
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Noon: James takes Jeremy off to visit our friend Said, at Said’s father’s house, carrying a cake we bought to contribute to their festivities.  On the way, James and Jem watch a sheep being skinned; near the entrance to the house, they pick their way through pools of watery blood.  Said apologizes for what he names the unsanitary conditions—James responds honestly that he’s very taken with everyone’s openness and communal celebration.

Still the sheep in back of our house continues to bleat.  I’m starting to feel grumpy with that slow-moving family.  For the sheep’s sake, get on with it, people!  A small child’s squalling blends with the more distant bleats.  Online, the Huffington Post presents photos of Eid el Adha from around the Muslim world in 2012.  Each photo includes the explanation that the holiday celebrates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isma’al.  How did I manage to ignore this for so many years?
I prefer the Muslim version of the story, really: Isma’al acceding to the sacrifice, unlike poor innocent, ignorant Isaac.  The Muslim Ibrahim, like his God, asks more than a father should dream of asking—but the Judeo-Christian Abraham seems to me to betray both the duty of a father to protect his offspring and the truthful relationship of a father with his son.

In both cases, the readiness is all: Allah and Yahweh both permit the substitution of a ram for a son, right at the brink of destruction.  In the Muslim version of the story, Ibrahim is rewarded for his obedience with a second son, Isaac.  What does Isma’al receive?  A lifetime of sibling rivalry?  Does it take a ritual sacrifice of a first child in order to have a second?
Finally, all the sheep—even the one behind our house—are silent.  James returns home, impressed at the number of people so very competent at managing the slaughter that that undergirds carnivorous consumption. This is more honest, he insists, than a lifestyle in which killing is rampant but almost totally denied.

We bake a chocolate cake and make lentil soup for a gathering of Americans abroad.  “The Al Akhawayn Christmas party!” one of our guests quips.

The day after our party, a man comes down the street on a bike with a cart hooked to the back to collect the hanging sheep skins.

“Why don’t they shear the sheep first?” asks Zoë.  “It seems so wasteful.  All that wool gone to waste.”

I gesture at the stuffed wool cushions that make up the banquettes on which we sit.  “They don’t go to waste.”

Zoë makes a face.  “I wish you hadn’t told me that.”

The art of the tagine

As you probably know, “tagine” is the name for any dish cooked in a tagine: this kind of a pot.


There are a variety of classic Moroccan tagines (lamb and prune, chicken and preserved lemon, etc.), but since we’re vegetarian, we asked Hayat to teach us how to make a vegetarian tagine.

We start with olive oil to coat the tagine, then a base of onions.  Note the absence of a cutting board.  Most Moroccan women do all their chopping with the vegetables in their hands.
After potatoes come the carrots, cored to remove the woody center.
Then squash and green beans.
Add peppers and tomatoes (the tomatoes peeled and seeded).
Add parsley and cilantro, finely chopped, and finely grated garlic.
Then come the spices: pepper (1 tsp), paprika (2 tsps), turmeric (2 tsps), ginger (1 tsp), salt (2 tsps).  Garnish with several sprigs of fresh rosemary, and drizzle generously with olive oil.

“It’s so beautiful, it’s like a painting!” says Jeremy.

You put the top on and cook the tagine on the stove (or a fire) until the vegetables are soft and well-flavored.  (I like it cooked a little less than is typical for Morocco.)  The indentation in the top of the tagine cover is filled with water to help keep the food from drying out.SONY DSC

Et voila!  (I failed to take a photo of the finished tagine because we were so busy gobbling it up: you’ll have to use your imagination.)


This is a cooking lesson, but it starts with a pronunciation challenge.  The starting ‘r’ is at the front of the tongue; the next consonant is pronounced like a French ‘r’, in the back of the throat.  All together now: rghaif!

OK, you can also call it msemmen or milhui.  That’s considerably easier for me, at least.

The starting ingredients are very simple: sifted flour, salt, water, oil.
Hayat told us apologetically that her sister would have to do the first part of making the dough: the proper ratio of flour, water, and oil is a matter of long experience, measured mostly by feel–we wouldn’t have a chance of getting it right.
Kneading, on the other hand, was fair game.

After a considerable amount of kneading–about 20 minutes, shared among us all–the next step was to grab a handful of the (remarkably light and fluffy dough) and squeeze it out between your thumb and index finger in the shape of a little ball or a balloon.  This was harder than it ought to have been for us; we needed some help and a lot of practice.
The little balls of dough then sit and rest for a while: 30-60 minutes or thereabouts.  Then you take one at a time and start to press it out into a circle on a well-oiled surface.  The patting is very gentle, expanding the circle little bit by little bit.  Again, this was harder than it might seem: we had heavy hands, apparently.

The best moment, though, came when Hayat’s sister picked up the edge of this circle of dough–extended as far as it could go, we thought–and pulled it out to the very edge of this round table, and then did the same in all four directions.  We literally gasped at the unexpectedness of this move.  Not a move we could really replicate, however:
Imagine an unbroken circle of dough, extending much farther in all directions.

Next, you drizzle a little oil on the dough, and you fold in the edges, shaping a square with several layers.  That square–the rghaif or msemmen or milhoui–is then fried in oil (preferably olive oil) and enjoyed hot off the stove.

Learning to cook in Morocco

The first step is learning to shop in Morocco.
For a family of vegetarians, the meat side of the marché is a bit of a challenge.  Oh, those little lamb and kid heads dangling at the bottom of the hanging meat!  And the delicacy of the sheep heads: brains, tongues… I prefer not to go there, even mentally.
But the fresh fruit and veg: let’s go there!
And the souk is far more extravagant:
Spices, anyone?

Here’s a water-seller who wanders the souk in conventional water-selling garb:
James is always impressed at the range of the souk: he finds specialized computer cables for a dollar.  A good bicycle runs about $100.  On the other hand, Zoë and I  bought watches at the souk on our first visit for about three dollars each, but both are now defunct.

Still, the heart of the souk is to be found in the fruit and vegetable offerings.  Here’s what we bought for somewhere between two and three dollars:
Jeremy has decided that we need to consume fresh-squeezed orange juice every day.  He’s willing to be the juicer, since the electric juicer that came with the house is broken.  We’ve started to buy a couple of kilos of oranges every time we go to the souk, and: yum!
Meanwhile, to make bread and pizza, we have to come to grips with clumpy “live yeast:”


And we were a little shocked to discover that Moroccan tea is boiled on the stove in the silver teapot! and that it takes six of these sugar cubes (sugar rectangles?) for each pot of tea:

Diabetes, anyone?  No wonder the children love it.  And I thought it was the fresh mint leaves…