April 14, 2009

elephant journal columnist Peggy Markel: Slow Food in Marrakech.

It’s the first week in April, and the surroundings of Marrakech are covered in an unusual carpet of green. Wild flowers, wheat fields and stretches of land that have rarely known grass are bringing a lushness to the desert that has not been seen in 40 years.

The sheep are plump, donkeys clip-clop joyfully as they pull large carts of hay, and lambs scamper after one another like children at play. In the past, I watched these animals in amazement and wondered how they found anything at all to eat, nuzzling around on what looked like pebbles on this arid land. Now they have a banquet table full of tasty options.

As we move from the plains closer to the Atlas, the extraordinary blue skies and the majestic snow-capped mountains that provide sharp contrast to the lush green Ourika valley below stun us. Water is flowing in all the irrigation ditches. Olive gardens with branch-high stalks of winter wheat are mistaken for a meadow in Italy; as opposed to the earthen-colored landscape typical of north Africa. The rain has not changed what the villagers eat necessarily, but it has changed the look on their faces. What was somewhat harsh has softened. It’s cool and pleasant. For once, the villagers are not bracing themselves against the element of dry heat and dust.

Taking a walk along the pathways from village to village, we observe farmers using donkey power to plow the red, mineral-rich soil, sowing their crops by hand. Small boys collect fodder for the cows, stuffing big straw panniers that straddle the back of an ass, while they, strict masters, command the animal along narrow trails with ease.

No parents are in sight. Women tend only the cows. Small girls seem to have more patience, moving them from one pasture to the next, already mature in the nature of responsibility. I am always shocked at the absence of toys. When not tending, gathering or fetching, the children seem to play inventive games, always laughing and running around after their one, and only, diversion- a ball. I have seen no dolls, thankfully no plastic, and no extraneous junk lying around. I am forever impressed with how clever these children are. Depending on the village and the amount of trekkers through it, the children will ask for ‘argent’ [money] or ‘bon bons’ [candy]. To keep the commerce down and their teeth intact, I prefer to offer a game. I particularly like hand slaps with rhymes. ‘Three six nine, the goose drank wine, the monkey chewed tobacco on the street car line.’ They are fascinated and delighted. It’s unexpected, engaging, and offers an exchange of the human spirit.

The fruit from palm trees, various biblical fruit trees, olive trees, and citrus end up in cured or preserved on the table to season taglines and aromatic desserts. Wheat, sorghum, barley and corn are milled into flour and used for various breads and couscous. The growing season offers an almost year-round plethora of fresh produce, including winter squash that provides an unmistakable alliance with traditional couscous, classifying it as a substantial vegetable of importance. Sustainability is no stranger here. It grew before my eyes.

Then we sink further into the past. My friend David Michael, a long tall drink of water from Austin, Texas (as my Southern mother would say) restored a farmhouse in the Adel gardens of the King, on the outskirts of Marrakech. His specialty is vernacular farming and landscape. He has a contract to farm, but not to own. It’s a mix between a kitchen garden and a truck farm. He told us that it was not his way to introduce his own methods, but at times, to encourage old ways that had been forgotten or overlooked. He has a fine sense of aesthetics, which draws on the simplicity of tradition. His garden has various mints, verbena, onions, artichokes, runner beans, parsley, cilantro and so forth, in 5 x 5 foot squares. Onions grow on the borders and the rest grows in the moist center where flood irrigation takes place every 15 days. He grows two hectares of olives and barley, four hectares of five beans, a quarter of peas and a quarter of okra. (Anyone who grows okra is near to my heart.) He has a few villagers who help him. They are teaching him the old ways. The ways in which he communicates with them are interesting; a little Berber, a little broken French, and English. It’s quite touching, yet gesture and intention seem to go a long way in getting the message across.

We are welcomed with a cup of mint tea from the garden and freshly made ‘knobs’; Moroccan flatbread, stuffed with a wild herb that grows under olive trees called ‘faun’. It is pulled up, dried and then ground as a spicy element, sautéed with onions and tomato. It gives the bread an unusual, savory flavor, quite like cayenne, but not. It reminds me of the similarities of things I have eaten in other parts of the world like, Mexico and Rajasthan. Cuisines have a thread that weave around the world; a thread worth noting. One ingredient changes everything and that one element is what gives a cuisine its identity.

Fatima prepares a couscous for us that is steamed over an earthen, terracotta stove. Without doubt, it is the best couscous that I have ever tasted. It’s rare that you can find hand-rolled rain and even more rare to know where that grain is grown. She demonstrated her technique with great finesse, as her hands took a little flour and water and moved it around until quite amazingly, tiny balls of dough were formed. Though she works both slowly and deliberately, the process takes only 10 minutes. After the couscous is cooked, we try to scoop up a small handful of it, freshly steamed, with three fingers to form a ball and pop in our mouths. We quickly realize this is a skill that requires more than a bit of practice.

After lunch we relax, drink tea, and rest on pillows. The breeze takes our thoughts away under the olive trees and over the sea of wheat underneath. Nearby curtains flap. The lunch has landed our minds in our bellies and for a moment, we get a taste of what it feels like to slow down enough to enjoy the poetry of place. 

Peggy Markel.

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