October 2008 Archives

Oct 30, 2008 status: Up at dawn for the saffron harvest in Tinfat

Pistils at dawn

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Smbarnabysaffron0001.jpgToday Barnaby got up before dawn, for the first time ever.  He'd heard there was 'vegetable gold' growing up in the mountains around Taliouine here in Morocco.  But all he could find were tiny green leaves growing in tiny square plots of earth.

Then Barnaby noticed a beautiful purple flower.  He thought it was lovely.

Some women who were up at dawn too told him to pick the flowers, carefully pull out the bright red three-pronged pistils, dry them and use them as a spice in his tagines and couscous dishes.  Great, thought Barnaby; he'd found the vegetable gold!

But then he found out you need to pick 150 flowers to make just 1g of spice.  And picking pistils out of crocuses with paws isn't easy.  No wonder saffron's the most expensive product in the world!

Oil, vinegar and phonological assimilation

morocco, spain
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Some olives in Morocco. Although they could
just as easily be in Spain.

I'd always wondered why the oil and vinegar seemed to be labelled wrong in Spain.  If, like me, you're more familiar with Italian than Spanish, and you see two bottles on the table, one labelled "aceite", you'd be pretty sure that was the vinegar.  You'd be wrong, though - although admittedly you'd work it out pretty sharpish if you saw that the other one was labelled "vinagre".  Or just tasted it, I suppose.

The Italian aceto (vinegar) comes from the Latin acer meaning 'sharp' or 'sour', and that's where we get English words like acid and acetic from too.  (Even the word vinegar comes this way, in fact, via the French vin aigre or 'sour wine').  Similarly, the word for 'oil' seems to have Latin origins in most European languages - the Latin oleum gives us oglio, oil, Öl, huile and so on.  So why would Spanish (a Romance, i.e. Latin-based language) be so different, and where does their word for 'oil', aceite, come from?  Well, now that we've made it to Morocco, all becomes clear ...

Oct 27, 2008 status: Learning how to make warka in Essaouira

Where the warka women work

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Smbarnabywarka0001.jpgEver since he got to Morocco, Barnaby has been searching for warka.  He'd already learnt about yufka in Turkey and filo in Greece.  So he was excited to hear that in Morocco they also love incredibly thin pastry - but have a totally different way of making it!

But could he find it?  It kept turning up in food like the famous pastilla pie, and the little briwat pastries he saw all over the place.  But nobody seemed to sell it on its own, let alone actually make it themselves - so where did it come from?

Well, today he found out.  Hidden away in their homes down little alleyways in medinas all over the country, there are women like Khadija, sitting at big round hotplates, making warka to sell to restaurants and patisseries.

But rather than rolling the dough out like their Turkish cousins, they take handfuls of sloppy, sticky dough and smear it directly onto the hot metal.  Ouch! thought Barnaby - especially when he tried it himself.  It's not easy, particularly if your hands are furry.  Best leave it to the warka women ...

Real fast food

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Smwarkahand0001.JPGWe came across warka being made the old-fashioned way by Khadija in her home in Essaouira.  Warka is the ultra-thin pastry used to make lots of classic Moroccan dishes, such as pastilla and briwat.  It looks a bit like the Turkish yufka and Greek filo, but is made completely differently: there's no rolling, just a lot of dangerous-looking hand-to-hotplate action. 

You might think this kind of manual cooking is the epitome of Slow Food, but it takes only seconds - at least, when you know how to do it.  Check out Khadija's technique, and just how fast she knocks them out, by clicking on the picture to watch the video:


Oct 22, 2008 status: In Marrakech shopping in the market with Afida

Black and green and red all over

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Smbarnabyoliveshower0001.jpgToday Barnaby was sitting under a tree in Morocco, minding his own business, when what should hit him but a shower of olives!  

Way back in May in Turkey, he'd seen little flower buds on the olive trees.  By the time he got to Greece the flowers were out.  Then in Italy he saw actual olives, although they were way too small and hard to eat.  Even in Spain in September, they looked ripe but weren't quite ready.  Finally, he thought - they're falling off!

Smbarnabyblackolives0001.JPGBut when he took a closer look he realised they weren't.  There were wrinkly black ones, shiny fat purple ones, and hard green ones - all coming from the same tree.  And in fact, there were ladders.  With people up them, pulling the olives off the branches by hand.  He thought maybe they were picking them too soon, but when he asked, they told him that it's best this way - they wanted all three colours to cure and to make tasty olive oil with.

And when he tasted one, he found out they're still too bitter to eat!  He's just going to have to wait until they're cured.

Olive harvest

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Smoliveladies0001.JPGLast night we were staying at Le Bled, the organic farm which supplies the excellent Marrakesh restaurant Dar Moha.  As luck would have it, it was time for the olive harvest, so we spent the morning with the hard-working ladies around the olive trees - helping a bit, but mostly watching and learning from Ibrahim the head gardener how to pick and cure the various kinds of olives.  Here's a recording, of people chatting and olives plopping onto the ground.

Smolives0001.JPGClick here to listen.

Click here for more audio samples.

Oct 20, 2008 status: Harvesting olives outside Marrakech

Morocco part 1: tea and crumpets

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Smtaginetomatoes0001.JPGWe didn't quite know what to expect from Morocco - we'd heard very different and conflicting reports.  To some people, it's the home of one of the world's classic cuisines, and some of the best street food you'll find anywhere; to others, it's apparently an interminable round of underspiced vegetable tagines.  Which would we find?

We knew some things, of course - but there was a lot more we didn't know.  We knew they ate a lot of couscous here - but what is it actually made of, and how?  We had to make it our mission to find out.  (Our friend Robert told us we really didn't need to go all the way to Morocco for this - Smfesbeghrirplate0001.JPGjust buy a packet from Waitrose and pour boiling water on it.  And he has a point.  But it turned out there's a lot more to it than that).

And we knew they drank a lot of tea, too.  But we really weren't expecting the crumpets ...

I can't believe it's butter

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Smbarnabysmen0001.jpgToday Barnaby went up into the High Atlas mountains - way up into the hills, past the Todra Gorge and everything.  He found his way to the village of Aït Hani, where he met some very knowledgeable women, Rabha and Hadda, who taught him all sorts of interesting things about vegetables and couscous and lots lots more.

But the most exciting part was when he came across an old earthenware pot.  By the smell, he could tell it was cheese - and quite strong, old cheese at that.  It reminded him a bit of his adventures back in Munster, in fact.

So he was quite taken aback when the women assured him that it wasn't cheese at all: it was butter.  No ordinary butter, though - this was the famous aged rancid butter they call smen.  It's kneaded (sometimes with herbs and spices), cooked (although not always), salted and then kept for years until it gets just the right taste.  They gave him some with some couscous to try, and he thought it was very interesting.

Four hours later, he still thought it was quite interesting, although he also still thought it tasted quite like he'd been sick in the back of his mouth.

Oct 16, 2008 status: Making beghrir in the kitchen at Kasbah Itran

Oct 06, 2008 status: Shopping for couscous sieves in Fes

Oct 02, 2008 status: Trying to buy coriander at Aïd in the Tangier medina

In search of the perfect pig

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Smcastellsign0001.jpgAs we got higher into the Pyrenees, the road signs got gradually less French.  Call it Occitan, call it Catalan - whichever way you look at it we were moving into new territory.  As if to illustrate the point, we also quickly found ourselves in the middle of the biggest hailstorm I've ever seen.  This, of course, was the perfect moment to discover that our sunroof didn't seal properly.

Smpatanegra0001.jpgWe'd come to Spain to settle an argument.  Ever since visiting Hungary, something had been nagging away at us (and I don't just mean Barnaby).  Which is the true king of pigs?  In the Spanish corner, the pata negra pig, black of foot, fed on acorns and cossetted like a prize sumo wrestler (do sumo wrestlers eat acorns? Probably).  In the Hungarian corner, the mangalica, curly of hair, and a whacking 70% body fat.  Both tasty, no doubt - but in the world of cured pork products there can be only one winner.  Only time, and extensive sampling, would tell ...


Culinary Anthropologist