Wanderings
Just some camels on the beach, no big deal.
First quarter moon falling behind the mosque
This is cheese in its most elemental form. I call it “Just Cheese!” my homage to
Jack from Will & Grace. This is made with cow’s milk, although goat and sheep
milk is common as well. It is sold in round cakes.

 

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Tastings

put it in your mouth

Before I arrived in Morocco, I made the decision to just eat everything. Barring obviously sketchy things like rare meat or fish, some street food like snails, and sheep brains, I was going to quiet the worrying part of my brain and just eat like a Moroccan. This was important to me for several reasons, one being simple convenience, two being I didn’t want to be that annoying American and the last being that I think getting an accurate view of food culture is vital for the total experience. I suspected this might be a bit of a challenge. My attitude towards germs rests somewhere between that of a normal person and the OCD of Monk (and yes, it is a blessing and a curse). In the past several years I seem to have developed some sort of special vision that allows me to see the microscopic critters that cover everything from subway seats to water glasses to that most questionable space of floor at airport security where the shoeless and the shod tread indiscriminately. I can get a little nuts sometimes, but I knew that during my travels this summer, I would have to chill out quite a bit and just accept that I wouldn’t have control over much of it.
The most important thing I learned is that the water is safe to drink; according to one of the directors at the school, it is some of the best in the world, coming from the mountains. On canidrinkthewater.org, it says that the water in Morocco has high mineral levels and so shouldn’t be drunk by visitors. I don’t know about that, but as long as there are no pathogens, disease or parasites, that is one less huge thing to worry about. This means that, aside from being safe to brush my teeth and take showers, I don’t have to worry about eating fresh fruits and vegetables, drinking coffee or juice, or even what people preparing my food have washed their hands in. No one uses gloves to prepare food, and they get quite handsy with it so I just trust that they wash their hands, as I do in restaurants anywhere else. Utensils and plates and cups are never quite clean, and I doubt that any restaurant has a dishwasher with a “sanitizing” setting. People have no problem using a spoon someone else has used at a street stand, and I wonder if the same system applies at restaurants and coffee shops. I don’t really know what the whole refrigeration system is. A few days ago we ate at an establishment in a rural souk under a tarp roof. The stove rested on the ground, there were live chickens to the left, the scent of dead animals and fish in the air and a boy washing the plates and glasses in a bucket in the corner with a rag and water from I don’t know where. But beyond a squirt of hand sanitizer, I really didn’t give it a second thought, and the food was good. I think the mental calculations required to decide if something is safe to eat are too troublesome and really, what is “safe” anyway? The alternative is to eat only canned food, pasta and peanut butter sandwiches, as a few other students here do, and what is the point of that? I’ve had some good food, some not so good food, with, knock on wood, no ill effects. Most importantly, I think I’m getting a good view of what average Tetouanis eat and drink. 
It was all going quite well until the unthinkable happened. There is a small place down the street from where we live where we usually takeaway a huge salad (mostly rice, with lettuce, tomato, cucumber, cheese, tuna, anchovies, mayo, and a kind of mortadella which is a disconcerting shade of pink and presumably made with something other than pork, grated over the top), half a rotisserie chicken, rice, French fries and a loaf of flat local bread for about $5. We ate food from there three times in 8 days. Easily the best food I’ve eaten here, and the cheapest. But there it was, nestled right underneath the chicken leg in the takeout container, drowned in the sauce. The biggest cockroach I have ever seen. I pretty much freaked out. I’ve heard the stories about bugs, fingers, whatever in food from restaurants, in packaged goods. It’s a thing that happens. But it was pretty much my worst nightmare, the manifestation of everything that I worry about writ large. There was a span of about three seconds where I considered getting out of here. But then I realized that there are cockroaches everywhere. That some other countries get right a lot of what the US gets wrong in the actual production of food, eliminating the need for stop-gap measures at the consumer end. And do you know what I did? It took me a week, but I got back on the horse that kicked me. We got takeout from the same place (ahem, not the chicken) and I ate it. Don’t judge me. OK, you can judge me. All I know is that when you are in a foreign country, you (almost always) eat it, and say thank you.

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Wanderings

An Afternoon Above it All

In the hills above the city of Tetouan, dotted with sheep and houses, there is a restaurant. I don’t know the name; it probably doesn’t have one. There are some plastic chairs and tables underneath a roof made of poles. There is a stunning view of the city below, the mountains opposite, and the clouds racing by on the wind. A squat building sits beside out of which come steaming black tagines, round bread and mint tea. The men who work there, indistinguishable from the visitors, can tell you the tagines they are making today, which are anchovy, shrimp and kefta (meatballs). The tea is minty and not too sweet, the food is delicious, the breeze is invigorating, and the cats beg for leftovers.

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Tastings

Leave the gun, take the pastries.

One thing any visitor to Tetouan, whether interested in food or just hungry, discovers quickly is that they do pastries right. The converging influences in the area, including France from colonial times in early 20th century, nearby Spain, the cultural and religious connection of the Middle East and even the Ottoman Empire which controlled nearby Algeria during the 16th century, affect the food traditions, as they do many other facets of life. The café we like to go to and drink one or four coffees faces onto a pedestrian walkway. Facing the outdoor seating is the side door of a bakery and I like to peer through the large screen door to watch the women mixing, rolling and cutting. One girl caught me looking and gave me the warmest smile, as if we were sharing something. Men and boys come to this door and pick up basket after basket of rolls and baguettes to sell elsewhere, and I wish I could say that I did not see them drop the bread on the ground and then pick it up and put it back in the basket, long past the 5-second rule. In addition to the baguette, which is everywhere, you’ll find French pastries such as croissant, pain au chocolat and madeleines at most bakeries. We also found a cakey, spongey doughnut flecked with chocolate and with a well in the center filled with more creamy chocolate. So amazing it was gobbled up too quickly to get a photo and they are, understandably, always sold out when I go back. The one to the right is a pretty classic cake doughnut, but glazed with honey and covered with almonds. These doughnuts are familiar and comforting, but also different than any I’ve ever had before.

Taking influence from the Middle East and Ottoman Empire, they use phyllo dough, usually for sweet-savory combinations. One is a filling of fresh local cheese with a crumbly texture and a fresh, milky flavor like queso fresco or farmers cheese. These are rolled up into a triangle and finished with a glaze of honey and a sprinkling of slivered almonds, and are a wonderful incarnation of my guilty pleasure, the cheese Danish.

Meat pastries are popular, like this triangle of phyllo surrounding minced chicken and almonds. Portable, crunchy, delicious, these make an excellent snack, lunch, dinner…or even breakfast, let’s be honest.

The Ottoman influence can be clearly seen in this, a bready dough surrounding a filling of mincemeat and nuts with a dusting of powdered sugar and cinnamon on the outside. It was an interesting combination of sweet, savory and spice, but I’m not sure I would go back for seconds.
 
Each bakery puts its own spin on these classics, as well as creating some new combinations, and I take it as my solemn duty to taste them all before I leave. You’re welcome.



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Tastings

The Great Anchovy Affair: A Conspiracy of Pescatorian Proportions

La Esquina del Pescado, a decidedly Spanish-style seafood restaurant in Tetouan, is decorated in a kitschy way with an ocean theme: blue and white, nets, paintings of boats. Take away the heavy blue and white tablecloths and chair covers, and it could pass for charming.
The nautical décor
They serve a good variety of locally-sourced fish prepared simply, either grilled or fried. The Moroccan way of cooking everything very, very well, while welcome with lamb and beef, easily takes away the delicate flavors of the fish, making one grateful for that wedge of lemon. Although never full to capacity, there were always a few locals there, giving the impression of solid food for reasonable value. On our first visit we were offered a dish of marinated anchovies, a bowl of olives and a basket of bread upon sitting, and I tasted an anchovy for the first time, finding it a little fishy, but good. I enjoyed my first visit, and wasn’t exactly sure why Guillaume seemed overly critical of the place, picking apart little things I didn’t even notice. It was not until our second visit that I became aware that there existed a grand plot to terrorize him. Upon entering the restaurant we were met by a waiter, young and unassuming, sitting in a chair at one of the tables. As we sat ourselves, (which seems to be the custom everywhere) he slowly got up and came over with menus, and then walked down the stairs. “This guy!” said Guillaume, visibly disappointed. “He gives the worst service.” When the waiter came back with a dish of olives and one that contained chopped salad, the story came pouring out.
Olives, veggies and tuna: poor substitute for anchovies
The previous summer, whenever Guillaume went to this restaurant, he was served anchovies before the meal. But when this particular waiter had served his table, he wouldn’t bring anchovies. A witness to the scene describes it thus, “Well, usually they would simply bring the anchovies… but that one waiter was all surprised that we wanted anchovies, and then stressed that we will have to pay for them too. Finally, we did get them, but I think that [the waiter] was still not happy about the whole thing.” Guillaume makes it very clear that this was an egregious affront by this particular waiter, and occurred consistently every time he was the server. If the other waiter, the one who always brought anchovies, was also there, apparently he would act sheepish, seemingly aware of the victimization, and bringing different amuse bouche and wet naps at the end of the meal. This was not enough to sufficiently alleviate the situation, and this waiter was tarred with the same brush, merely by association. The final straw that broke the fishes back, the restaurant is pretty overpriced for the area, serving a salad of corn, peppers, pineapple and tuna, all from a can, roughly chopped tomato and a bit of lettuce and hard-boiled egg for $5.30. With a final declaration of “I think they’re taking the piss” Guillaume exited the restaurant, unlikely to return anytime soon.
The fisherman’s platter
Grilled swordfish



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Musings

دنِكا

At this point in my studies of the Arabic language, a week in, I know the alphabet: how to write and read the letters and what sounds they make. I can read words, although I feel like a kid again slowly sounding out the letters “sss…aaahh…mmm…kkk” (samak, or fish). I was assigned four hours of Arabic classes a day, with a group of Spanish tourists on holiday. I had been under the impression that I would be taking two hours a day, so I was none too happy to find out that it would, in fact, be double the time. Quickly, though, my school-brain kicked in and the classroom took on a fun atmosphere. Our teacher, Ikram, speaks very little English or Spanish, but as she was only supposed to speak to us in Arabic, that ultimately didn’t matter. I have been pleased to find that my name, so often mispronounced elsewhere, is made up of straightforward Arabic sounds, and is easily understood, written and spoken. Poor Pablo sitting next to me was out of luck; there is no “p” sound in Arabic. Likewise “g” as in “good” and “v”. However, there are enough letters in Arabic that have no equivalent sound in English (or Spanish or French) that when a sound like “shin” (the beginning of shoe, or shop, or shin, for that matter) comes along it feels like a small victory.
As we went through the 28 letters of the alphabet we would learn three or four words that used letters we had learned thus far. To define the word, Ikram would show us a picture.  It was great fun to guess what was pictured. Grainy black and white photocopies, she held them up and the Spanish contingent quickly said what it was, in Spanish, and I followed in English. Sometimes it was straightforward, orange, say, or peach, or cat. But on Wednesday she showed a picture of something that I wasn’t sure about. “Acorns?” I said, as they looked vaguely similar, the crown being the same, but the body was quite a bit longer and thinner, shaped like a date. “La (no), from the tree,” my teacher said, shaking her head. At a loss, I looked to the Spanish for help. “Like a seed? A nut?” I asked. “I don’t think we have those in America.” One girl, Susannah, took over. “Jamon, you know?” “Si, pig,” I answered. “What the jamon eat” and she mimed eating. “Oh, si, acorns!” I was right the first time, and I didn’t say that only the very luckiest American pigs would eat acorns, and if they did they wouldn’t look like that, and that I was glad that I had read enough food magazines to know that Iberian pigs feast on acorns.
This second week is harder, having left the cozy confines of 28 letters to find myself in a jungle of “the rest of it”: endless vocabulary, grammar, colloquialisms and dialects; a vast undertaking that people, even native speakers, spend their entire life on. I do not expect it to be easy, but I am finding that learning something, especially something that is challenging and with rewards that come the second I step out of the classroom, is satisfying. But ask me again next week.
Two of the words I know: cat and door.

*Title is my name in Arabic, basically.

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Sightings

Chefchaouen

Chefchaouen



Chefchaouen, from the Berber word for “horns”, is a city about an hour and a half inland from Tetouan, and is so called because of its placement in the Rif Mountains between two peaks. It is reached by driving on winding roads up, up, up and I recommend bringing some ginger if you are prone to carsickness. It’s on my list for next time. Beautiful and idyllic, my first thought was that it was the Disney World of Morocco. The sight that met our group as we got out of the car was a waterfall coming from the mountain, dammed in such a way as to create a pool filled with children beating the mid-day heat. On either side, a washing center for locals to clean their clothes, and a snack bar with drinks and oranges kept cold by the icy mountain water.

As we made our way down a steep stone staircase, through fig and orange trees, the water meandered beside us in its own stone trough. It seemed perfectly manicured and curated for visitors, particularly visitors from the West, in a way that seemed somewhat inorganic. The custom of the town is to paint the buildings with a blue wash and then accent with bolder shades of blue. The center of the city is an intricate beehive of winding hills, stairs and narrow passages, most of the houses using “hidden architecture”, the dwellings, courtyards and gardens unseen behind tall walls, accessible only by small, snaky passages. 
 

One of the famous doors

Picturesque scenes met us around every corner and down every alleyway.

 

The courtyard of the riad

The city is incredibly photogenic and with every click of the camera I could sense the thousands of identical snapshots taken before. After a tour through the winding medina we went through a traditional riad, or house, in this case one that was turned into a hotel. With a gorgeous outer garden hung with a bower of grapes and leading into a courtyard surrounded by rooms, it was a cool respite from the heat and jumble outside and I could easily while away an afternoon in those peaceful surrounds.

The city is home to guilds of craftspeople, weavers and leather workers, and we visited a weaving shop where the tour guide showed us rugs, blankets and other intricately woven fabrics. We went up the narrow staircase and saw a weaver spinning yarn. But my favorite part was seeing all of the itty-bitty windows randomly dotting the walls. Diminutive to let light but not heat in, in some cases they appear as though the Hulk had come through and haphazardly punched a hole in the wall. We ended up at the center of town, marked by the mosque and dotted with restaurants. Small streets radiated from the center and were stocked with what can only be called gift shops, selling leather bags and bracelets, keychains, wooden models of the blue houses, local olive and argan oil and, in one instance, a carved marble toilet.
We were given an hour of free time during which I had my first mint tea, a glass filled with sprigs of fresh mint and tea and more than a bit of sugar which attracted a small swarm of what Guillaume calls “friendly bees”. I found it too sweet, the sugar overpowering the delicate flavor of the mint, but I have a feeling it’ll grow on me. The group met up again and we were ushered to what used to be the Mayor’s house. The house was built in the early 1950’s with strong Spanish influence and filled with ornate tile and furnishings. It was lovely and decorated with a predominance of red. Our group was thrilled to sit down and cool off (slightly) while enjoying a fun concert by three musicians performing Andalusian music. A traditional orchestra has roughly forty musicians, all playing different instruments, so this was definitely a pared-down group, but we didn’t mind; our group was clapping, singing along and having a great time. We had worked up a big appetite by the time we sat down to a traditional feast. To start, on the table appeared a huge tureen of harira, with plates of dates. Harira is the national soup of Morocco, beginning most meals and eaten to break the daily fast during Ramadan. A sort of minestrone with a tomato base, usually a bit of meat, lentils and/or chickpeas, broken spaghetti or other pasta, and various spices depending on the chef. Guillaume, the obvious expert in harira, having had it all of three times, tells me that it’s an “everything but the kitchen sink” kind of soup. The jury is still out on that one. It was perfectly yummy, and easy to see why it’s such a staple. Next we had a tagine of goat, parsnip, carrot and peas, with an accompaniment of dishes of spinach and fava beans, and the flat local bread. A tagine is a flat clay dish with a conical lid in which food is cooked in an oven, and also the name of the food that is cooked in it. It was easily the best goat I’ve ever had, and I usually find it too “goaty”. Platters of watermelon, grapes and a melon similar to honeydew were the perfect light ending to the meal. The old woman who cooked the meal made an appearance at the end and we were able to thank her for the delicious food.
The tagine

It is a beautiful, if slightly touristy city, and the trip was a wonderful end to my first week in Morocco.

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Musings

The count

I have been in Morocco for 5 days, have seen 3 black cats cross my path, had a delicious chicken and rice dinner 2 nights in a row, heard the call to prayer 27 times, had 12 hours of Arabic class where I learned 17 letters, dipped 10 toes into the Mediterranean Sea, ate anchovies 2 times, had 11 cups of coffee, saw 1 summer palace and felt unwelcome exactly 0 times.
 
The view from my doorstep
The seaside town of M’Diq
The Mediterranean Sea in M’Diq
 

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