Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Some like It Hot (or Let Them Eat Cake)

... or bread. Or baguettes. Or croissants. It's all good.

Most likely I will be disinherited by my mother for the preamble of this blog, but the truth is, when I was growing up my friends and I - as well as the knife-wielding fishwives of 18th century France - were generally deprived of decent bread. This is by no means an indictment of my mother; she was a full-time working mother in a time when women like her were still seen as mavericks and the fact that we had hot sit-down meals every night of the week is a testament to the excellence of her time management skills and freakish indefatigability. For special occasions (and I suspect, when there was a sale at the grocery store), we got Pillsbury crescent rolls, apple danishes (with "frosting") and slice-and-bake chocolate chip cookies (mmmm, the cookie dough that requires no baking).

Pillsbury products - with all of their attendant preservatives, chemicals and hydrogenated oils - were considered a great treat. When else did we get bread (or a bread-like product) hot out of the oven? It wouldn't be until I reached adulthood that one could buy wholesome flavourful bread at the grocery store: my childhood was sadly bereft of 7-Grain bread, Molasses Brown bread, an
d Whole Wheat & Oats bread. We had Wonder bread or a reasonable (or unreasonable) facsimile. On the whole, bread sucked.

Had I grown up in Morocco - not a feasible alternative to southern Ontario since it would have made for a nasty work commute for both of my parents - the situation would have been patently different. The Whole Wheat & Oats bread may not have been the bread of choice for my peanut butter sandwiches, but we would (or could) have had fresh bread daily and lots of it. Most Moroccan families eat 6 to 8 loaves of bread (generally round flat bread) a day - enough to make the Doughboy giggle 'til the cows come home.

Thanks to the prophet Mohammed, bread is imbued with a sacredness that prohibits its leftovers from being discarded haphazardly; with a brief prayer it must be set out of the path of oncoming and disrespectful feet. It is therefore not uncommon to see bags of bread (in various states of consumption) hugging the edges of Rabat's walls and gardens.

Here, bread can be acquired at boulangeries (as upscale or not as one wishes), grocery stores, or home-made, baked in one’s own oven. If you don’t have a suitable bread oven in your home (I know I don’t) there is a third option. You can prepare your own dough, mark it with your own design or seal, and bring or send it to the neighbourhood public oven.

Even in Agdal, three doors down from where I live (somewhat anachronistically just past the surf shop) is one such oven. A woodburning one, no less. From dawn until dusk, my street is abuzz with women, children, and restaurant workers bearing cloth-covered trays of bread dough on their way to and from the furan. It took me several passings-by and a few impolite stares before I realized what the building was. Set deep within a paved courtyard – where customers stop to chat and a surprisingly nimble pet turtle does his laps – and behind a tall metal gate, the bright orange flames of the oven can be seen from the sidewalk, the baker a veritable Vulcan at work at his forge. Faggots of tree branches are stacked outside the walls of the bakery, while lining its inside walls are rough wooden shelves where dough patiently awaits its metamorphosis into khobz, bread.

Because I pass the communal oven several times a day, my olfactory senses are regaled – if not besieged – with the fragrance of baking bread, a heady and stomach-teasing aroma which hangs over the street. Except for that one brief period last summer when the oven emitted a disturbing and not least of all sickening odour which, in my mind’s nose, was reminiscent of the roasting sheep skulls which are raked over open fires during the Eid El Kebir's - or The Great Sheep Slaughter - festivities. I can only assume that a couple of neighbourhood kids were stuffed into the oven Hansel & Gretel-like and roasted for a few weeks. That I can live with – just not more dead sheep.

Nonetheless, that was an aberration.

Its existence in my fairly prosperous neighbourhood is a constant reminder that not only does Morocco exist on several levels but that it does so concomitantly. Poorly-shod children pass by the provocatively undressed pretty-young-things on their way to the oven; the bread of restaurants and cafes bake cheek-to-jowl with that of women whose caftans hide their flannel pyjamas and slippered feet. It is medieval and modern; convenient and importune. An antiquated blip on Morocco’s map towards modernity.

If the gates of the Underworld were once believed to be an innocuous hole in the ground, marked by the telltale stench of sulphur & brimstone, then this neighbourhood oven is its antithesis. Apart from the evident malodorous roasting of children last summer, its fiery maw is both benign and salubrious and, I believe, directly responsible for the 3 kilos I’ve put on since I arrived in Morocco. Ahhh, maybe there’s a little bit of hell in there after all.


Blogger knarf said...

Hansel and Gretel, eh?

Did you happen to see a rotund witch flit by quickly, hairpins flying off her head?

6:29 p.m.  
Blogger Cat in Rabat ( كات في الرباط) said...

Shit! I did !!!

8:16 p.m.  
Anonymous Mr. N said...

When we met this afternoon, you said that you hadn't done a thing all day: blog finished by 9.30 am indeed.

8:17 p.m.  
Blogger Cat in Rabat ( كات في الرباط) said...

Actually, I began it at 9:30. Made Mr. CinR serve me my breakfast as I blogged.

8:54 p.m.  
Blogger knarf said...

What did he make you?

10:25 p.m.  
Blogger taamarbuuta said...

I loved - absolutely loved - this post.

10:42 p.m.  
Blogger Cat in Rabat ( كات في الرباط) said...

Thanks Taamar ... I've been craving bread all day.
Knarf, I had rice flakes (opposed to corn flakes) cereal with dried raspberries & strawberries. And Earl Grey tea.

10:52 p.m.  
Blogger woman wandering said...

Delicious posts.
Belgian pastries have done some harm over here but it's all very ... well you know, Belgian. No community ovens etc.

But the 'surprisingly nimble pet turtle doing his laps' ...


2:43 p.m.  
Blogger Cat in Rabat ( كات في الرباط) said...

Yup, saw the turtle about an hour ago, not doing his laps but munching on some grass.

3:14 p.m.  
Blogger Sylvia said...

Really organized villages have a combo hammam and bakery so as to use the same fuel source. Not sure how that would fly in Agdal though.

6:10 p.m.  
Blogger Cat in Rabat ( كات في الرباط) said...

Sylvia - Agdal isn't as coordinated as Fes.

11:26 p.m.  

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