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 Me with the "Grupe Maira Saqati"


 I have asked myself several times why Morocco, which is so near, is so little known by the Portuguese. It certainly can’t be because of certain expressions such as “expel the unbelievers” and “combat the Moors” that can be found in the History of Portugal during the time of Salazar’s Estado Novo that prevents them from knowing this enchanting country. Such a different experience although it is so near! But now there are more flights to provide easy access.

For a number of years now, I’ve been going to Morocco and especially Marrakesh. Perhaps I escape to a milder climate to avoid these cold winters. I have now visited places other than Marrakesh, places such as Tangier, Casablanca, Rabat, Essouira, Safi, Ouarzazate and Taroudant. I perceived certain common features in Moroccan gastronomy, but also some differences that characterized their regional cuisines. But what excited me most was the search for influences that the Moors may have left in Portugal during the almost six centuries that they occupied the country.


We all know the difficulty in defining a gastronomy confined within frontiers since within these frontiers there is a variety of well-defined regional cuisines. And it is the same with us; it is not easy to define what Portuguese cuisine is. We can only come to the conclusion that Portuguese cuisine is a combination of its regional cuisines, and that this combination constitutes Portugal’s culinary heritage. But how can we define this identity? For a long time, when the rapid transport system that we have today did not exist, it was easy since food reflected what nature produced in its continuous natural cycle, but with the development of communications the exchange and miscegenation of food began. At the beginning we had what could be called peasant cuisine which has been changing, especially since the nineteenth century, but we mustn’t forget that there was always an “elite” cuisine and a large cuisine of the masses, a feminine cuisine, a tradition that is still maintained in Morocco.


Apart from its own different dynasties that have governed the country, Morocco has also felt the influence of other peoples and civilizations. In the opinion of Salah Chakor, “Moroccan cuisine is a Berber, Arabic, Jewish and Christian cuisine, a real amalgamation of unequaled know-how, which perhaps makes it one best in the world, together with the French, Asian and Italian cuisines.  We can understand this claim to greatness. It’s easy to acknowledge that Moroccan cuisine was also enriched by the influence of the civilizations of neighbouring countries and by its colonizers, amongst being the Portuguese, Spanish and French. The French governed the territory for about half the twentieth century, something which, in my opinion, seriously affected bread-making; today we come across baguettes. We find influences that range from the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Andalusians, Spanish, Turks, Portuguese, French and English. Of these the major influence must have been the Arabic, Turkish and Andalusian, which “permitted an enrichment and diversification, and thus was created a true mosaic and a real work of art” according to Salah Chakor in her “Traité de Gastronomie Marrocaine”. Thus, on eating “bastilla” we feel we are returning to the time of the Andalusian domination, and can see that “briouattes” are the cousins of our samosas (fried Indian pasties), and close relatives of the “boreks” of Turkey.


But what are the characteristics of Moroccan cuisine nowadays? What can we find in common all over Morocco? The most visible is mint tea, which is also a symbol of welcome and hospitality as well as being served as an aperitif and digestive. Then there is “batbout” bread, small, round and flat and slightly leavened. There is “r’ghaif” puff pastry, either simple or stuffed, as well as “amlou”, small moulded marzipan sweets with aragana oil (obtained from the fruit of the aragan tree, which is endemic to Morocco) and honey. “Couscous”, “méchoui” and “bastilla” are important main dishes and obligatory at large events. I should mention “harira” soup, which can be prepared with lintels, chick peas, squash, broad beans and other ingredients. At times this soup is thick and heavily seasoned and can be a whole meal in itself.  The most common seasoning is “harissa”, which besides seasoning soups goes with other dishes such as couscous. In places frequented by tourists, it is common to serve the seasoning separately so that the hot spice can be added according to taste. “Harissa” is prepared with dried red malaguetta peppers, garlic, salt, coriander seeds, cumin and oil.


I won’t dwell on the topic of “couscous” as it is extremely well-known, and recently it has become available in an easy to prepare form: simply add boiling water. Of course, I can’t fail to mention “cuscos” which is still made in Trás-os-Montes, and was possibly taken by us to Cape Verde and Brazil.


As for “méchoui”, a veritable local emblem, it is the barbecue of a whole sheep spread with butter roasted on a spit over burning charcoal. As it slowly roasts, it is   sprinkled with salted water and butter. The meat should cook slowly without being burnt until, using one’s fingers, the meat slips off the bone. A specialist, a “chouye”, is often invited to carry out the process, and he carries the sheep to the table when the meal begins. Finally the meat is sprinkled with cumin and salt. Mutton is one of the most consumed meats and it is associated with various feasts. This dish is considered to be a national specialty.


But the dish that most arouses our curiosity and which reveals the excellence of gastronomic skill is “bastilla”, unfortunately often translated as flan, but it isn’t a flan. To begin with it depends on the subtlety of the dough. It starts off as a dough made with wheat flour and is identical to the brick dough that is now readily available in many shops and which calls to mind the dough used in the preparation of our famous Pastéis de Tentúgal (Tentúgal pastries: a finger-long crispy log filled with a cooked egg-yolk and sugar mixture). When I saw the preparation of the dough in Morocco for the first time, I immediately thought of our pastries. Could it be that this technique was given to us by the Moors when they ruled Andalusia? The Moroccans claim this specialty is an inheritance from Andalusia, although there are some who find a more remote heritage in Mesopotamia. Well, what does this dish consist of? It seems that originally it was made only with pigeon. Nowadays it is made with several kinds of meat and even shellfish. The desired filling is prepared as a well seasoned boneless meat stew. On two or three thin round layers of dough, place the filling, and close the edges of the dough so as to obtain a smooth enclosure of the dough. The filling is now completely wrapped in a uniform layer of dough. It is now placed in the oven until the dough is crisp. Before going to the table it is sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon. This dish is a must.


As far as the rather sweet sweets go, we can feel the pleasure of tasting the addition of honey and a lot of almonds and a dough that is more or less puff-pastry.


Now, as you can well imagine, it isn’t possible in this small space to describe any more dishes. It’s better to take up the challenge and go to Morocco and discover these pleasures of the table yourself and try out those small establishments that are frequented by the locals and not by tourists.


To finish off, I’m going to describe one of the last meals I had during my latest sojourn in Morocco. It was a small place with low benches and tables that came up to our knees, and where bread appeared on the table as soon as we sat down. Then came a tomato salad with onions and oregano. And on the heels of that a small bowl of lentils cooked with seven spices. Then for the first time a voice announced the dishes of the day. The choice was between meat balls with egg, mutton chops and veal cutlets. I managed to get a mixture: a bit of everything. Then the choice of a soft drink as the sale of alcohol is prohibited on the premises. The choice fell on Coca-Cola. Apart from a small spoon to eat the lentils and the tomato salad, there was no cutlery with the meal. Everything was excellent and it was a really pleasant surprise to pay the equivalent of only three euros...! From there I went to a pastry shop where I almost stuffed myself with very sweet sweets. Finally, for my digestion; a coffee and a long walk.


And Morocco is so near.

Bon appétit

© Virgilio Nogueiro Gomes