When the only bread you eat comes pre-sliced out of a plastic bag, it’s almost impossible to understand that “staff of life” saying so commonly applied to bread.
George Orwell’s story of feeding bread to a hungry Moroccan worker pointed out the near reverence for bread in much of the world.
And, in Morocco, bread indeed is the “staff of life.” Moroccan bread exemplifies the reason for the saying, as I learned, writing the following in a letter to the folks back home:
It is considered sinful to throw away bread. I had read that often an old man would go from affluent house to affluent house, asking for any old stale bits of bread that the household was unable or unwilling to eat that day. This bread was distributed or at least sold at very low prices to the poor who could not afford to buy their bread fresh. I actually saw this in Fes (Fez), in the form of a large flat, slightly shallow basket brimming with odds and ends of bread, being wheeled along in a wheelbarrow by an old man who stopped from doorway to doorway.
For those who did not grow their own grain, or did not have family members living in the bled (countryside) growing wheat, the old grain market in Rabat provided all the grain and other dried food necessary. Of my first visit to this market on the banks of the Bou Regreg river, I said in another letter:
The pink walls of the Grain Market hide more than huge mountains of wheat kernels; it also is an excellent place to buy lentils, chickpeas, white beans, broad beans (both whole and split), split peas, cornmeal, pasta, semolina, couscous, short-grain rice for risottos, and broken rice (sift the rice before cooking to get rid of the weevils).
I bought 20 kilos of wheat, which we picked over sitting there in the market with three Berber ladies, the tattoos on their chins and on their foreheads signifying any number of things. It took an hour and a half. After that we went to the souk (open-air market) and bought a large blue plastic tub to wash the grain in when we got back home. Once the grain appeared clean, we spent three days drying it in the sun on the cement floor of the walled-in courtyard. And then we returned to the Grain Market, where the Berber ladies greeted us like friends and ground the grain into flour for us. The flour makes the nicest-tasting bread, even if it is soft wheat and not the hard wheat we prefer for bread.
Without wheat, and bread, it’s hard to imagine Moroccan cuisine. The Romans, traces of whom can still be seen in Volubilis near Meknes, encouraged the production of wheat. And that’s another story altogether.
**For the next few weeks, I am going to be on a “working vacation,” so my posts will be somewhat more abbreviated. I will still provide you with something substantial to chew on, though!
© 2009 C. Bertelsen