It’s the first week in april, 2009 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.
Sheep are plump, donkey’s clip-clop seemingly more joyful pulling carts of hay, and lambs scamper after one another like children at play. I have often watched in amazement wondering how the animals found anything at all to eat, nuzzling around on what looks 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, we are stunned by the extraordinary blue skies and the majestic snow -capped mountains that provided sharp contrast to the lush green Ourika valley below. 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 a mostly earthen-colored landscape typical of north Africa. The rain has not changed what they eat necessarily, but it has changed the look on the villagers faces. What was somewhat harsh, has softened. It’s cool and pleasant. For once, they 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 mineral rich red 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 as easily as jumping rope. No parents are in sight. Women only tend 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 they are. Depending on the village and the amount of trekkers through it, the children will ask for ‘argent’ or ‘bon bon’s’. To keep the commerce down and their teeth intact, I prefer to offer a game. I particularly like hand slap’s 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 human spirit.
The fruit from palm trees, various biblical fruit trees, olive trees, and citrus, end up in some form, cured or preserved, on the table to season tagines 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 , grounding it as a substantial vegetable of importance. Sustainability is no stranger here. It was growing 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 Agdal 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 are grown 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 fava 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. How he communicates with them is 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 ‘khobz’; Moroccan flatbread, stuffed with a wild herb that grows under olive trees called ‘fua’. It is pulled up, dried and then ground as a spicy element, sautéed with onions and tomato. It gives the bread an unusual ly 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, worth noting. One ingredient changes everything and that one element is what gives a cuisine its identity.
Fatima prepares a couscous for us that was steamed over an earthen stove in terracotta. Without doubt , it is the best cous cous I have ever tasted. It’s rare that you can find hand-rolled and even more rare to know where the 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. She is slow and deliberate, but done in about 10 minutes. After the couscous 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 that one needs more than a bit of practice.
After lunch we relax, drinking tea and resting 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.