Thursday, 6 May 2010

An army marches on its stomach

Stretching the dough out till you can almost see through it; till the white floured surface is streaked with dark patches where the earthenware bowl underneath shows through.

Folding it over. And over and over. And over and over again.

And stretching it. Delicate fingers stretched out in a Vulcan salute to push the dough out to the edges. No rolling pin, no flat of the hand, the whole trick of making this dough is in the fingers.

Slapping oil on the sides. More and more oil. I'm surprised how much the dough can take. It starts to glisten; sinister, in a way.

Then you fry eat. Then you eat it. M'semmen, Moroccan pancake.

I'd eaten m'semmen before - it was one of our breakfast staples, together with the thick besara, bean soup. (Mornings in Fez always started with a bowl of besara in the main street of Fes el-Jdid, in a rough brown-glazed earthenware bowl. Sitting at a table in the street, still in the shade of the buildings before the sun was high enough to shine down into the road, I hit the spices hard - crackly crystals of salt, earthy cumin powder, shocking paprika the colour of blood, from the communal bowls. The blast of spice as effective a way of waking up as a double espresso.)

But I hadn't seen how these things were made. Joining the hostess of our B&B in her kitchen, watching her fold and push, fold and push, the m'semmen into its little squares, I realised what patience, what rhythms lie behind much of Moroccan cuisine.

Nobody nowadays makes couscous the old way, rolling tiny grains of paste in their hands and spreading them out to dry. Couscous comes in boxes just as it does in Sainsbury's or Carrefour. But look at a tagine bubbling slowly, or a huge round of harsha coming off the stove, and you realise this is a cuisine made for slow cooking, for long days, for a house where somebody is always around and time passes slowly like the dripping of water.

I learned a lot about Morocco that evening.

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