BREAD IN MOROCCO

Elizabeth David in Tangier

The Tangier Diaries,
by John Hopkins
(Arcadia Press, 1996)

March 5th, 1979:
My wife’s friend, the food writer Elizabeth David, has come to Morocco to stay with us. We took her to Tangier’s teeming food markets, with their piles of fresh fruit and vegetables, country women calling us to buy their eggs and mint, and the fish market where the day’s enormous catch was on display. Elizabeth declared she had not seen anything like it since the south of France before the war. Paul Bowles invited us to tea, and they hit it off immediately, reminiscing about mutual friends. It seems that her ex-husband owned a bar in Tangier back in its international heyday.

Elizabeth was writing a book on bread (The History Of Bread) and was eager to know how the Moroccans made theirs, A-Z. Paul’s factotum Abdelouaheid Boulaich obligingly drove her in Paul’s ancient Mustang to the countryside where Moroccan women in their colourful costumes were harvesting barley with their sickles; then to the threshing floor where the animals went round and round, the little ones on the inside where they wouldn’t have to walk so far; then to the water mill, where the huge whirling stone pulverized the grain. Next Abdelouaheid took her to his home so she could watch his mother prepare the loaf and afterwards to the public oven where it was baked. A perfectionist and notoriously difficult to please in matters of food, Elizabeth returned thoroughly satisfied.

One of the last times we saw Elizabeth was in the Lister Hospital in London, where she was confined with brittle bone disease. She said she wanted to write a book about wild food, and I described to her how the nomads of southern Morocco made sand bread.

Their way of eating, which I found sensible, was to eat something right away when a stop was made, even if it was only a piece of cheese or a crust of yesterday’s bread. This cut the appetite and one waited patiently while the hot meal was prepared. To be in a hurry in the desert can be fatal: you leave things behind, or you take the wrong path.

I lay on a rug before a candle stuck in the sand, writing things down. A few feet away a fire blazed, men talked, a pot bubbled, and the stars shone down on a perfectly still Saharan night.

Sand bread

Scooping a hole in the sand, Brahim kindled a fire of sticks. When the fire was reduced to a mound of glowing embers, he scraped the embers to the perimeter of the basin and flopped the round flat dough onto the hot sand. (NB: hot sand flows like mercury.) The dough, made of flour, a pinch of yeast, salt and water, had already been kneaded and allowed to stand for a while in a bucket. With the dough resting where the fire had been, Brahim covered it with a layer of hot sand.

While we waited, Brahim prayed. His prayer in no way resembled the orthodox, humbled mutterings of men lined up in a mosque. He didn’t go down on his knees. He just stood atop a sand dune and shouted his prayer at his God. The high trailing voice was suspended in the silence of the evening sky. His chanting seemed to fill the empty space for miles around.

After about three-quarters of an hour, he majestically lifted a large white loaf from the dune. Incredibly, not one grain was stuck to it. Then, for reasons I did not fully understand, he rather unceremoniously beat it with a stick before reburying it in cold sand for a few minutes.

When the meat was cooked, Brahim ripped the bread apart, releasing a cloud of steam. We dipped the bread into the stew. The meat was placed to one side to await the “desert lottery”.

Sadly, Elizabeth died before getting around to writing Wild Food.

— John Hopkins

 

The Tangier Diaries, Arcadia Press, 1996 are available at www.amazon.co.uk.

 

 

 

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