Friday, July 15, 2016

Dining out in Morocco 110 Years Ago

"'A good supper is known by its odour.' -- Moorish Proverb. 
"There are no more important qualifications for the diner-out in Morocco than an open mind and a teachable spirit. Then start with a determination to forget European table manners, except in so far as they are based upon consideration for the feelings of others, setting yourself to do in Morocco as the Moors do, and you cannot fail to gain profit and pleasure from your experience." (p. 102)
Thus begins the chapter "Dining Out" from the book Life in Morocco and Glimpses Beyond by Budgett Meakin, published in London in 1905. This chapter is credited to the author's wife.  Because I'm about to attend a potluck dinner sponsored by the Culinary Historians of Ann Arbor that features recipes by Paula Wolfert, I am curious to learn more about the history of Moroccan food. I found this travel book from the past; this chapter is so interesting that I'm going to give a detailed summary of its 3 pages.

At first the author concentrates on the vast difference in manners expected in Morocco, compared to London back at that time. She remarks on the necessity of removing one's shoes when entering a Moroccan home, and the way that everyone sits on a "mattress" on the floor. Every food and gesture in this description seems extremely exotic to the writer, and I'm sure it must have seemed that way to any Europeans of the era.

Once guests have arrived and removed their shoes: the offering of tea:
"The slave-girl appears with a handsome tray, brass or silver, upon which there are a goodly number of cups or tiny glass tumblers, frequently both, of delicate pattern and artistic colouring, a silver tea-pot, a caddy of green tea, a silver or glass bowl filled with large, uneven lumps of sugar, which have been previously broken off from the loaf, and a glass containing sprigs of mint and verbena. The brass samovar comes next, and having measured the tea in the palm of his right hand, and put it into the pot, the host proceeds to pour a small amount of boiling water upon it, .... 
"He then adds enough sugar to ensure a semi-syrupy result, with some sprigs of peppermint, and fills the pot from the samovar. A few minutes later ... he proceeds to fill the cups or glasses, passing them in turn to the guests in order of distinction. To make a perceptible noise in drawing it from the glass to the mouth is esteemed a delicate token of appreciation. ... Orange-flower water in a silver sprinkler is then brought in, followed by a brass incense burner filled with live charcoal, on which a small quantity of sandal-wood or other incense is placed, and the result is a delicious fragrance which you are invited to waft by a circular motion of your hands into your hair, your ribbons and your laces, while your Moorish host finds the folds of his loose garments invaluable for the retention of the spicy perfume." (p. 103-104)
Then we learn about the meal. The first course may be "puffs of delicate pastry fried in butter over a charcoal fire, and containing sometimes meat, sometimes a delicious compound of almond paste and cinnamon." For the second course: "savoury stews with rich, well-flavoured gravies, each with its own distinctive spiciness, but all excellently cooked. The host first dips a fragment of bread into the gravy, saying as he does so, 'B'i'sm Illah!' ('In the name of God !'), which the guests repeat, as each follows suit with a sop from the dish." (p. 105)

After the stew, "the piece de resistance of a Moorish dinner, the dish of kesk'soo, is brought on." I believe that this means couscous: "This kesk'soo is a small round granule prepared from semolina, which, having been steamed, is served like rice beneath and round an excellent stew, which is heaped up in the centre of the dish. With the thumb and two first fingers of the right hand you are expected to secure some succulent morsel from the stew,—meat, raisins, onions, or vegetable marrow, and with it a small quantity of the kesk'soo. By a skilful motion of the palm the whole is formed into a round ball, which is thrown with a graceful curve of hand and wrist into the mouth." (p. 105) After eating this way, which is explained in more detail, guests are given the opportunity to wash their hands.
"Orange-flower water and incense now again appear, and you may be required to drink three more glasses of refreshing tea, though this is sometimes omitted at the close of a repast. ... For a while you linger, reclining upon the mattress as gracefully as may be possible for a tyro, with your arm upon a pile of many-coloured cushions of embroidered leather or cloth. Then, after a thousand mutual thanks and blessings, accompanied by graceful bowings and bendings, you say farewell and step to the door, where your slippers await you, and usher yourself out, not ill-satisfied with your initiation into the art of dining out in Barbary." (p. 106)
Besides Meakin's intriguing book, I've found several sources with descriptions of agriculture, commodities, and the picturesque souks of various Moroccan cities around 100 years ago, and I may write another post about these topics. Meanwhile, here are images of souks from old postcards of that era from a random web search.


Janet Rudolph said...

fabulous post, Mae.. Love the historical background. What will you be making from Paula's cookbook?

Unknown said...

Love the post and the photos and we are all interested in what you will take to the potluck!