Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Morocco: The food

One of the greatest pleasures of a trip to Morocco is the food. Moroccan cuisine is unusual and very distinctive, using a combination of ingredients and spices that are unlike any other I have ever eaten. The combination of sweet and savory, sour and spicy and that fragrant combination of cumin, turmeric, ginger, cloves, cinnamon and saffron is irresistable. If you need a little heat, harissa, a flavorful chili paste, is a common addition. The dish, above is lamb with dried apricots, prunes, almonds and sesame seeds. The flavorful broth is the stuff of dreams.  This, like many Moroccan dishes was cooked in a tagine, which is a ceramic vessel with a domed lid that catches the steam from the cooking food and redirects it back onto the dish, creating moist, tender meat and vegetables, bathed in mouth-watering flavor from spices, olives, preserved lemon, garlic and onion. Are you hungry, yet? The tagine is placed directly on the stove to cook, or, more traditionally, on a small charcoal grill. 

In addition to the tagine, other staples of the Moroccan diet include small salads, skewered, grilled meat, fresh fruit, olives, nuts and traditional bread. The bread is made using semolina flour which gives it a beautiful golden color, and is often flavored with anise seed. It is baked daily. Most communities have a community oven where people take their loaves to be baked. Some people have their own small clay, outdoor ovens. And, of course one can always buy fresh bread in the open air markets. The bread is wonderful. It's an easy recipe and I have been making it in my own kitchen since our return. 

In Morocco we ate in restaurants, mostly, but were treated to a dinner in a private home, prepared by a Moroccan family. A very special meal with lovely people.  

A highlight of our tour was a cooking class in Marrakech. The Lotus Cooking School was created to provide training for Moroccan women, leaving abusive marriages to prepare them for restaurant jobs as chefs, bakers and cooks. Our teachers, for the day, included some of these women. Our main teacher was our beautiful "Dada"—the word used for female chefs. 

For our cooking lesson we first learned about the spices and how the bread was made, then with the Dada's instruction, we prepared chicken with olives and preserved lemon tagine, two different salads, including one topped with a tomato rose (fancy!) and two different beverages. 

Then we ate. It was one of the most delicious meals of my life—truly!

We ate well. We ate often. Everything was delicious. I almost hate to admit this, but even the French fries were outstanding! We learned this with our travel companions and friends, the Olafsons, on the first day, meeting up for a drink and snack in the hotel bar. It became a special treat. After a large midday meal, dinner could easily be a glass of wine and fries. What made them so good?  We never found out. 

Have I mentioned that Morocco, as a whole, was a treat for the senses? Nothing more so than the food. 

Tagines cooking on individual charcoal grills, for our outdoor lunch at an herb garden..

Breakfast with dates, fig jam, thick, chewy pancakes and cafe au lait.

Dinner at a fancy restaurant

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Morocco: Blue

Morocco is probably the most visually distinctive place I have ever been. It is as though, at some point in their history there was an agreement made that everything made by human Moroccan hands must be beautiful. Perhaps it was the Islamic aesthetic of the beauty of geometry and the beauty found in nature. Perhaps it was inspired by the drama of the landscape of verdant farmland, snowy mountains and red Sahara sand. I don't know, but I was constantly aware of color and design being a core value of the culture, and that in their color-filled world it seems blue reigns as the cool, elegant queen. In February the skies of Morocco are a brilliant blue.

That blue sky color is reflected everywhere you turn in the cities. Nearly every door, window frame and shutter is painted sky blue. The fishing boats are blue.

There is a town in Morocco where everything is blue. We did not go there, but the Kasbah of the Udeyas, a fortified village near Rabat, was very blue.

And then—the bluest blue I have ever seen. In Marrakech, in 1923, the French artist Jacques Majorelle, built his home, surrounded by a beautiful garden. He painted scenes of life in Morocco.

Painting by Majorelle

After Majorelle's death the home and garden were purchased by the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, who lived there with his partner until his death when the property passed to the city of Marrakech. It is now a public museum and botanical garden. The buildings and many features in the garden are painted Majorelle's favorite intense blue.

This intense, pure blue has come to be called Majorelle Blue and the pigment is somewhat rare and not readily available, but the effect of it in that garden is electric! I confess I have never been very keen on bright blue as a color, but I am gazing into our subdued, rainy, Oregon garden today and really, really wanting to see a jolt of that miraculous Moroccan blue peeking through the foliage somewhere out there.

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Thursday, March 29, 2018

Morocco: The Desert

The vast Sahara Desert begins at the southern edge of Morocco. When we were researching our trip the prospect of seeing and setting foot on the Sahara was perhaps my deciding factor. It is hard to imagine how far it stretches across the African continent and visions of Lawrence of Arabia and the English Patient and endless dunes and immense, star-filled night sky were playing in my mind and calling to me.

We traveled to our desert camp in 4-wheel drive vehicles across dusty roads that dwindled to paths, then bare rocky roadless ground and eventually made our way to sweeps of orange sand, drifting endlessly into the distance. Along the way we stopped at a Berber nomad camp—several small, black tents standing alone in the desert. We were met by a lovely woman and her precocious two-year-old, who invited us into her tent for tea.

We sat on the carpeted sand. The woman reached behind a small curtain and produced everything needed for the traditional Moroccan mint tea. (Side note: wherever you go in Morocco, including private homes, businesses, restaurants, you are offered Mint tea. It is always, as you see in my photo, served in small glasses on a round, brass tray, and poured with a flourish from a foot or more above, which is not only charming ritual, but serves to cool the boiling hot tea for consumption. This tea service greeted us at the front lobby of every hotel and riad we checked into, as well as every home.) Our hostess invited questions, translated by Abdul, our guide, as her child scampered about, serving tea, examining our cameras and cell phones and entertaining us. Despite the barren, harshness of his environment, he could have been one of our grandchildren—bright, social and playful. His mother said when the time came he would go to school—they would see to that, of course. Besides the main living tent, there was a kitchen tent and a small open tent where her sister-in-law was weaving.

Onward to our camp for the night. Out where the dunes began we came to a last outpost and a bit beyond that our tent camp, surrounded by dunes.

The tents formed a circle with a large open area in the center, each individual tent opening onto the central area. In the center was a firepit, surrounded by thick carpets and comfortable furniture. At one end was a dining tent.

While our luggage was being delivered to our tents, we took a camel ride into the desert to watch the sunset.

Camels, I had heard, are difficult, spitting, biting creatures. These were none of those things and we had such nice helpers getting us on and off and leading our patient beasts into the silent dunes. The silence in the desert seems huge. Even the chatter and laughter of our small group felt as though it was quickly swallowed up in the vastness of that silence. Back at our camp we prepared for the desert cold and enjoyed a beautiful dinner followed by music and dancing around the fire with the star-filled universe overhead. Each couple had their own tent, with hard, Moroccan beds piled high with wool blankets and layers of carpets underfoot.

In a corner of our tent, a sink and brass kettle of water...

And behind a small curtain, toilet and shower. Nothing like Scout camp!

I slept deeply under the weight of all those blankets. In the morning a group on camels appeared on the dune above us, passing silently, like something out of a movie.

We carried our mugs of coffee out across a dune, under a lavender sky and waited to watch the sun come up.

I can close my eyes and see it still.

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