The Bread Mystery: Fés, Morocco
Bread is the main thing to understand: the staple of speculation, the food for all theories about what happens next.
Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety
In the name of Allah give me bread.
Fesi street beggar
My husband and I spent Christmas 1997 in Morocco. I'd been pestering Howie for years about escaping for the holidays to an Islamic country, somewhere we could get through the thick of the season without ever hearing dogs bark "Jingle Bells" or the words "great gift idea." As our base we chose the northern imperial city of Fés. We'd visited this chaotic, ancient metropolis the year before. Both of us were smitten and sad to leave it so soon. Also, I had some unfinished business there. I longed to solve the bread mystery.
A person doesn't blithely stroll into the ninth-century medina of Fés. Stepping through the gates of the old city, Fés-el-Bali, is more like being pulled into a raging river; you catch your breath and surrender to the current. How strange, I thought, that this sensory extravaganza is as familiar to Fesis as a suburban mall back home would be for me. It seems unthinkable that anyone, even over a lifetime, could fail to be startled by the dancing colors, the pungent air, the bone-rattling insistence of this thousand-ring circus. Howie and I step over the cobbled threshold from extremely old to ancient, and we're pelted with the sweet-savory smells of cooking fat, jasmine, orange blossom, musk, and mud-crusted pack mules. Allergic mess that I normally am, I don't even sniffle. It's as if every receptor cell in my body is already on overload.
From the din I make out the ageless entreaties of street commerce. The common denominator is bread, universally required, perpetually produced. A new day yields about one fresh loaf for every inhabitant of the old city. Carted in sacks, perched on the tops of heads, balanced precariously by mischievous toddlers, nearly identical Moroccan round loaves crisscross the narrow streets like Federal Express packages on Seventh Avenue.
The medina bakeries offer no bread for sale. Their business is to immerse the homemade loaves in gaping wood-fired hearths, after which customers retrieve the fresh-baked breads, each a fragrant pillow. By the time a typical Fesi family tears off hunks of semolina loaf to dip into the lemony juices of the supper tagine, or stew pot, the breads have made a round-trip journey at the behest of a system sustained not by lists and figures but by dogged attentiveness, faint nods of the appropriate heads, and sheer faith. Few words are exchanged, nothing is written down. No one with whom I spoke would change a thing about the system. My tagged luggage has been waylaid to cities I've never visited, the photo store has sent me home with snapshots of a stranger's family barbecue, and I once lost an entire outfit at the dry cleaners. But in Fés it's an unspeakable rarity for a baker to misplace or misdirect a single bread. How is it possible?
Morning seems the best time to make sense of what appears to be a bread-centered conspiracy. In the company of a sullen young translator from the Arabic Institute named Karim, I survey the bread traffic from the vantage point of a café, in Place Nejjarine, near the henna souk. The proprietor produces a rickety spool table and laborer's bench, which I drag beside a mosaic fountain framed by elaborately carved cedar. In the carless square a gaggle of children are playing tag. One tiny girl carries a wooden slab with two loaves on it, and as the children sprint and giggle, she just manages to save the shaped dough from slithering off the tray to the rank stones under her feet.
I gulp my second espresso and, to Karim's frustration, bound off in a misguided attempt to shadow these trays of loaves as they come and go. A native of the medina, Karim knows it's a futile enterprise. The loaves and their bearers materialize seemingly out of nowhere. On their one-arm pedestals floating above the crowd, loaves emerge from ominous alleyways or the discreet doorways of aristocratic homes, the wealth of their inhabitants betrayed only by the elaborate frivolity of colored tiles called zellijes. The bearers are just as abruptly swallowed up by dark stairwells or shadowy depressions in windowless stone facades. Foreboding as seawalls, these conceal uncounted labyrinthine worlds of private courtyards and sun-baked rooftops. On the streets in winter, the faces of medina men are in shadows inside the pointy hoods of their woolen over-robes. This prevailing style lends a conspiratorial air to their every move as they dart here and there like figures out of a game of Dungeons and Dragons.
It is a world tauntingly out of bounds to the casual visitor. But I was able to do some serious spying from a strategically placed rooftop café. I saw drying laundry in candy colors, smoke curling skyward from Macbethian cauldrons, women bent over washbasins, and men folded in prayer. Beyond the high walls lining the medina streets and alleys are updated harems from which women venture out only for hurried shopping errands or a trip to the hamam, or community bath. For pubescent girls and restless young wives, a sheet of uncooked round loaves perched on a shoulder is a welcome license to dawdle in public. Young girls' yearnings aside, why not bake bread at home? It's not possible in the old city; there are no proper ovens, Karim tells me, though his own mother bakes bread at their apartment in the nouvelle ville. Other than a few holes in a tiled kitchen stove, most Fesi homes contain only a kanoun, or freestanding charcoal-burning brazier of sun-baked clay. Here sauces, couscous, and tagines simmer on glowing coals. Buying bread is considered almost sacrilege. True, the cafés and food shops of the nouvelle ville serve up their signature croissants and baguettes, but the feisty, transplanted country people who populate Fés-el-Bali consider these French staples second-rate. Morocco has been independent since 1956. To cultural purists, the croissant, the essence of nouvelle ville yuppie fare, is an affront to precolonial authentic Morocco, whether Arabic or Berber. And why, they wonder, would anyone buy bread when they can avail themselves of a nearly flawless communal baking system that does the trick today as well as it served people in the time of Moses?
Medina women prepare bread dough every morning without exception. They knead the dough in a gsaa, a round dish, big as a café table, crafted locally of unglazed baked clay or carved oak, olive or walnut wood. Every day they turn out several loaves of the simple bread called ksra. The typical bourgeois Fesi family feeds thirty or more people. Laborers who won't return from work for a proper lunch set out with a hunk of bread, which they eat at midday along with olives and sour milk.
"Why do you care so much about bread?" the meticulously Euro-clad Karim grouses as we take our third espresso break at a sidewalk café, by the Bab al Jaloud gate. Here is why: Man has been making bread for eight thousands years, and Fés is a rare living museum of the last millennium. Here bread is the glue of community and the currency of human relations; Muslims place bread xoobz not flowers or stones, on the graves of their loved ones and that bread is the traditional sustenance in the holy month of Ramadan. Toiling before our eyes are descendants of the ancestral chain of bakers and millers born to what truly may be the planet's second-oldest profession. Here a person can see the world in a grain of wheat. I've answered his question, but Karim feels we've hounded enough bakers for one day, and hails a cab.
Karim takes me to the stylish Café Aswan in the nouvelle ville. Arranged like an orchestra pit, its tables face the busy Boulevard Mohammed V and draw its traffic with magnetic regularity. I could certainly linger here, nibbling on almond pastry and watching elegant Arabs murmur into cell phones. But every minute I spend here is a minute apart from the drama of the medina. I can't bear to be away from it. I have stood on snowy alpine summits and ocean bluffs, I've trudged through rain forests and paddled a kayak through schools of dolphin, but nothing holds my senses hostage like the pungent mob scene of the bazaar. And Fés-el-Bali is the mother of them all.
The bakeries are spread generously and reliably throughout the old city, and I suspect my nose could lead me easily to any one of them. But I'd never find my way back. Foreigners do not enter the medina alone; it simply isn't done. There are no proper maps of the maze of streets and alleyways that make up Fés-el-Bali, which dates to its establishment in 809 by Idriss II, a member of Morocco's first Arab dynasty. (The Karaouinyine Mosque, founded in 862, is one of the world's oldest universities and remains the pride of Fés.) The medina has been continuously inhabited ever since. But no one ever got around to naming the streets, or even drawing a proper map. "Our medina streets were narrow, dark and serpentine filled with so many twists and turns that cars could not enter, and foreigners could not find their way out if they ever dared to come in," writes Fés-born Fatima Mernissi in Dreams of Trespass, her memoir of a harem childhood. "This was the real reason the French had to build a new city for themselves; they were afraid to live in ours." The medina's centuries-old refusal to bare itself for visitors' convenience is part of what makes the place irresistible. In a time when data collectors are poking into every natural and manmade nook and cranny I'm grateful for the few locales that elude them.
But it's frustrating, too. I long to wander on my own, to get lost and found and lost again, the way I have in Venice or Calcutta. No one knows how many people live in the medina, named by UNESCO as a Heritage of Mankind City, sharing the honor with the Old City of Jerusalem. Old Arab Fesis die off and their children and grandchildren migrate to the nouvelle ville while a stream of Berbers, who make up about half of Morocco's population, descend from the surrounding mountains. Once an exclusively rural tribal people, the Berbers are to Morocco what Indians are to North America. Non-Arabs, they dominated all of northwest Africa before the Arab conquest in the seventh century a.d. Though most Berbers speak Moroccan Arabic, their own language dances among three hundred dialects and is rarely, if ever, written. I fell in love with their colored robes and garish headscarves. They look as if they've come bearing frankincense, licorice, and myrrh, and, in fact, many of them do. From the desert and the scrubby highlands the Berbers brought with them a variety of unleavened specialty breads, including the kind of flat bread that can be baked by burying the dough in the hot desert sand. In the medina, Arab-owned bread stalls employ only Berber women to stretch crepe-like dough over a hot globe. "Only Berbers know to work the dough this way," one shopkeeper told me, motioning to a dark woman with leathery hands.
A self-contained hive in perpetual flux, the medina is home to anywhere from a hundred thousand to three hundred thousand people, depending on the whims of les guides, the government-sanctioned guides who lurk outside Fés's hotels clad in white robes and red fezzes. These passive-aggressive entrepreneurs have at least one quality in common: their talent for fabrication. When Howie and I stopped to browse in one of the medina's Judaica shops our guide, Benani, instructed us that each of the menorah's nine candlesticks represents one member of the family. "You have a big family, you light more candles," he explained. Howie and I nodded wearily, not in the mood for launching a lecture. Besides, we're a bit hazy on the details ourselves. It wasn't long ago that I thought a Maccabee was a type of cookie.
Still, d'aller sans guide is a risky proposition. Even if we were equipped with some primal homing device preventing us from being defeated by the medina's dense coil of look-alike streets, having a licensed guide in tow is the only effective way of scaring off swarms of would-be guides, referred to as les faux guides. False guides are as wisely avoided, and ultimately a lot more irritating than false prophets. Official guides are easy to spot, if not for their operatic costume then for the laminated identification cards that swing from their necks. But les faux guides run the gamut from enterprising wannabes (many official guides got their start this way) to money-grubbing predators, to the universally vilified fumeurs de hashish. Most ubiquitous are the ragged prepubescents promising a petit price in keeping with their stature. These are the hardest to shake off. They buzz around you with the tenacity of mosquitoes until you either hire them, which is ultimately the same as adopting them, or beat a breathless retreat back to the sanctum of the hotel. Nothing amuses an official guide more than watching the poor slob who spurned his services being harassed by a faux guide of any age.
Within the apparent insanity of the medina there is a surprising level of order. Its confounding sprawl is really a mosaic of distinct squares, each with its own mosque, Koranic school, fountain, hamam, or bath, and, of course, a bakery. One guide put the number of these squares conservatively at 150, another told me 800, but most sources point to the lower number. Wrapped around the squares are districts specializing in a particular form of commerce or craft. I suppose I could eventually orient myself by the districts the tanners, woodworkers and metalsmiths, millers, the gold souk, the henna souk, and the textile districts, where weavers toil as they have for centuries. And there are always the distant mountains, the minaret of the great mosque, and the ramparts of the king's humble pied-à-terre, an eighty-two-acre palace at the edge of Fés-el-Jdid, the Andalusian quarter that once was home to thousands of Jews expelled from Spain. There is still a synagogue and a well-maintained Jewish cemetery there.
The medina's communal bakery system functions in perfect sync with the work at home, performed by an army of prep cooks. In every household in the medina matriarchs, daughters, or servants devote part of their day to kneading the bread they'll enjoy fresh with each supper. This enterprise is not the relaxing ritual familiar to Vermont earth mothers or upwardly mobile owners of Williams Sonoma bread machines. Like everything pertaining to Fesi cuisine it's a labor-intensive proposition. Many families first buy the wheat itself, which they lug home in sacks from crammed narrow stalls in the medina market. Picked over, rinsed, and laid to dry on sunwashed terraces and rooftops, the wheat is then hauled back to the local miller, who grinds it into four flours, each with its special purpose. Howie and I stood mesmerized at the millers' stalls as coarse and fine powders rained from stone grinding mills we'd witnessed only within the precious confines of the ye olden theme parks scattered about our own New England. From the cleaned, groomed whole wheat comes a soft pure flour for the bread, a white semolina for couscous, a coarse golden semolina from the bran, or coating, and the bran itself, destined not for muffins but for the family mule. Aside from what floats into the atmosphere not one speck or kernel is wasted.
In a culture haunted by blood memories of deprivation and famine, bread embodies the blessing of sustenance. As it is to Jews, to Muslims bread is a gift and a blessing. Even the kneading of the dough in the immense gsaa is preceded by an invocation to Allah.
Though all were originally built for this purpose, some of the bakeries still share their immense hearths with the hamam, the public baths. To visit the inner sanctum of the medina's bakeries, most of which are below street level, is to descend into an ancient, deliberate world. At these bakeries hundreds of identical, rounded durum semolina loaves, each the size of a dinner plate, are hurriedly plunked down on a table near the entrance. The baker or his assistant snatches the trays of loaves. When the loaves emerge baked, each is fetched by a member, friend, or servant of the families who will dunk the bread into their evening harira (soup). Nothing is written down, few words are spoken, nothing is labeled.
Karim grudgingly obliges me as we troop into one bakery after another. My feeble attempts at research resemble a Sid Caesar routine. I ask a basic question and Karim rolls his eyes and launches a lengthy harangue that makes the baker roll his eyes as well. The baker offers an equally lengthy reply, which Karim translates back to me in four words or less. I am close to becoming the laughingstock of the old city. Later that day when I sack Karim, he makes an initial show of being bewildered. But he's clearly relieved. Fortunately I've got other names given me by a contact at the Moroccan Tourist Bureau in New York. How I wish my Arabic weren't confined to hello, please, thank you, I'd like some water, and God is Great.
From our hotel I phone Brahmin Snikah, the man I hope will be Karim's replacement. An official guide in his thirties, he's a friend of a friend of a helpful man at the Moroccan Embassy in Washington. When I reach him he's just returned from a vacation in Spain, and agrees to act unofficially, in plainclothes, as my interpreter. We'll meet him the next morning, but as he's helping us on the sly we must go to a café in the nouvelle ville, and from there enter the medina surreptitiously, far from the Palais Jamai and its gaggle of notoriously competitive guides officiel.
Tourists tend to return home with grim tales about Morocco, but those tales seem never to apply to Fés. Perhaps too many foreigners experience only the port of Tangier, which they reach by ferry from Spain and march off the boat's gangway like lambs to the slaughter. Tangier is all the things squeamish travelers fear: it is grimy, predatory, noisy, and conspiratorial. But it is cleaner and no more dangerous than many parts of New York City. In truth, Morocco is one of the cleanest countries I've visited. Its airports and train stations are glaringly immaculate, perpetually swept and polished. A random piece of litter on a Moroccan train platform stands out like a fly in an operating room. In the medina, sweepers emerge in force each dawn to relieve the dank alleys and market streets of cigarette butts, animal dung, and flotsam from fruit and vegetable stalls. Okay, so they dump a lot of the stuff in a shallow stream of septic sludge known as the Fés River. The guide had led us there and with a sweep of his arm announced "Oued Fés" with obvious pride. Howie paused to make a drawing and I started to gag.
But the stink of Morocco, where it rears its head, is not the stench of sulfurous heavy industry. Slightly larger than California, Morocco is a country of farmers and artisans. A leading producer of sugarcane and sugar beets, it exports wheat, tomatoes, potatoes, oranges, melons, olives, grapes, and dates, and its three mountain ranges and fertile valleys are home to some 17 million sheep, nearly 6 million goats, and 3.5 million cattle. It is a country that persists, fairly successfully, in producing goods that are edible, wearable, decorative, or utilitarian. And its artistic heart is the blue city, Fés.
I ask Nadjia, the secretary at the Arabic Institute, to take me shopping. Fluent in English and French, she grew up in the medina and will take me to the gold market where I hope to buy a small Islamic charm, the ubiquitous hand of Fatima, a symbol that pays homage to the great cross-dressing warrior and Mohammed's favorite daughter.
Walking the medina's market streets is a sensory extravaganza on the level of snorkeling. Your mind seesaws from minute detail to overall, kaleidoscopic sweep. Here an airborne chorus line of candy-colored djellabahs, there an Everest of polished dates. Your nose rivets you to a bucket overflowing with neroli blossoms tended by a portly Berber matron wrapped in what looks like magenta crepe paper. But soon something else flashes at the corner of your vision and you pivot to face a palette of red, orange, and brown spices and soon the scent of cumin and neroli perfume are battling for your nose's undivided attention. Eyes trained down or skyward there are things to marvel at carvings and mosaics and friezes and rugs and teapots and doorways revealing the contours of men bowed in prayer. It's a medieval world without the pestilence everything bared for the consumer, the head and hoofs of the slaughtered beast beside its meat, the woodworkers' lathes and rugmakers' looms clicking and humming in the shadow of the goods themselves. Metal and leatherworkers ply their trades while squatting in crammed cubbyholes, on perpetual display like windows on an advent calendar. Most stupefying are the tanneries, ground zero of all the medina's anachronistic enterprises. Breathing in fumes so acrid visitors hack and gasp, turbaned bare-legged men pop up and down like jack-in-the-boxes as they use their bodies to dredge wool and hides within a vast many-hued honeycomb of stinking tubs. Drying skins cover all the surrounding rooftops. Gnarled heaps of wool resemble the aftermath of some ghastly massacre.
As I lurch cluelessly onward veiled strangers yank me out of the path of oncoming mules and handcarts. Ragged children flash their teeth and call "Bonjour, madame! Hello!" "Hold on tight to your purse," says Nadjia.
"I do all my shopping in the medina; the quality is so much better and you get much more for your money here," says Nadjia. "But you have to know what you want." Here is a fraction of what you can buy: flat bread, pastry, sesame candy, flour, henna, kohl, pots and pans, teapots, fresh mint, orange blossoms, gold, silver, wood, brass, copper, leather, embroidered trousseau towels and sheets, tobacco, yogurt, newspapers, combs carved from bone, calculators, televisions, boom boxes, and tape cassettes of music from Morocco, Spain, Syria, and Egypt as well as American country-and-western. There are stalls whose merchants peek out from behind great surging buttes of fresh fruit, figs, dates, pine nuts, almonds, and pistachios. In rapid succession like flipped pages of a gastronomique are Berber soft cheese, chicken necks, goat heads, snails, and towers of silvery fish the size of peapods. There are shoes, sweaters, and ready-to-wear djellabahs and tailor shops at every turn. Too, too many eggs beckon from every food stall. Vermicelli overflows from sacks as huge as couches, and herbal pharmacies peddle painted deserts of cumin, coriander, saffron, cinnamon, paprika, and chiles. An earthen-colored mix combining anywhere from ten to a hundred spices, the ras el hanout, or "head of the shop," differs from stall to stall, each of which uses its own secret recipe. There are preserved lemons; pots of harissa, a tongue-searing paste of garlic, chiles, olive oil, and salt; and black olive-oil soap cakes, and for buffing the skin, palm-sized pills of sandalwood wrapped in wooden snoods. I linger spellbound by one of several stalls offering just fat, a Fats-R-Us crammed with vats of lard and gristle, and something else dark and gooey and unidentifiable. "What is it?" I ask in French, and the proprietor motions for me to stick my finger in and take a taste. I'm relieved to find it is sweet, some kind of fig and nut compote. (It is probably what condemns me to violent intestinal eruptions that will last through the night.)
Howie is fixated on the lack of refrigeration. He cannot stop harping on the fate of those unsold hunks of beef and goat meat, those chicken and pigeon carcasses that bake in the sun.
"I hate shopping," a politically correct friend of mine always insists. I find the statement nearly as shocking as if she'd said she hated animals. There is nothing more human than the marketplace, and the teeming bazaars and souks of the East and the farmers' markets all over the world are reminders that commerce is the oldest most enduring universal language. When a nation's in crisis we see images of babushka-clad matrons bargaining for a bruised potato or a rotting turnip. Commerce is the first sign of life after a calamity. Consider the concession stalls sprung, as if by spontaneous generation, from the primordial despair of the refugee camp. In Fés shopping for staples can easily fill the day. It sounds like everyone's fighting but it's just the routine spirited dialogue of buyer and merchant. A woman may spend hours as long as it takes marching indignantly from stall to stall, retracing her steps until she gets the price she wants on a sack of tomatoes. Foreigners tend to be mystified by this. But just imagine the ruckus if, say, the price of smoked salmon at Zabar's were negotiable.
Twenty-nine and unmarried, Nadjia lives with her invalid mother in the nouvelle ville, not far from the Arabic Institute. A pleasantly buxom woman with heavy lipstick and styled hair, she wears tight Western clothing and high heels half chewed by gravel and cobblestones. Does she hope to marry? "I have a friend in Casa," she tells me over coffee at a rooftop café in the medina. "Casa" is Moroccans' nickname for Casablanca, the nation's most modernized city and the one offering the most employment opportunities for young professionals. This "friend," a salesman Nadjia met when he had some business with the institute, is as immersed in his career as Nadjia is in hers as administrative secretary, an enviable post for a young Moroccan woman. Sometimes they meet up with friends for a long weekend in Marrakesh, but neither can envision moving for good. As for the local men, Nadjia dismisses the situation as hopeless. "Either they're young and they don't want to marry, or they're young and have no money, or they're old and have money and want someone as a second wife," she says.
As Nadjia and I roam the tunnel-like medina streets at random she points out the many incarnations of bread. We sidestep miniature matterhorns of fried, honey-glazed pastry. This is a seasonal treat. It is a week before the eve of the month of Ramadan and these sweets are to Ramadan what fruitcake is to Christmas. You just glance at the stuff and someone is urging a sticky wad of it on you, no charge for mademoiselle. Nadjia has a stomach ulcer and can be excused from the month of dawn-to-dusk fasting. But I'm surprised to learn that when she keeps the fast she tends to gain as many as eight pounds. Do explain, I say, expecting vindication. I can't even bring myself to stop snarfing down food for the twenty-four hours of Yom Kippur, a day when Jews are required to fast.
Ramadan falls on the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, when God first revealed the Koran to the prophet Mohammed. Most non-Muslims tend to think of it as the glum, self-flagellation fest, and in fact sub-Saharan nations refer to the holiday grimly as the "month of thirst." Prepubescents and menstruating women as well the old, sick, or traveling are exempt from the fast, which forbids not just eating but smoking, drinking, sexual intercourse, lying, and malicious gossip. But Nadjia explains that the month actually revolves around eating. It's a kind of daily Thanksgiving feast, every table perpetually cluttered with candies and cakes. After sunset, or that moment when, according to the Koran, the light has waned enough that a black and white thread appear the same, the eating begins, and it doesn't stop until first light. Looking forward to another foodless, smokeless, even drinkless day, people observing Ramadan tend to eat like there's no tomorrow.
The guide Brahmin Snikah has returned from vacation in time to be with his family for Ramadan. He is a soft-spoken, articulate Fesi whose passion for the medina rivals our own. There is no census of bakeries, he says, but he guesses the number to be at least three hundred. He guides us to the granaries, where we peer through the grainy dust at the millers, squatting and lost in the rhythm of their task. All day long in the medina, groaning millstones spill forth sack after sack of coarse yellow wheat and cornmeal, dusting the stone floors and the street and the mustaches of the mostly Berber laborers.
There is no inhabitant of the medina who is not within walking distance of a bakery. The bakeries are close enough so that even tiny children can carry the tray of uncooked loaves there and deposit them wordlessly just inside the baker's door. We often saw such children dawdling in the souks or horsing around with each other as the loaves slid precariously to one edge of the tray and then to the other. Brahmin, son of a typical Moroccan matriarch, assures us there'd be hell to pay if the loaves were lost. And what about those few married women whom tradition confines to the home? If there is no husband or child to spirit away the day's loaves, how do these women manage? A Fesi man told me the women simply set the tray outside the door. "Someone," he said, "an acquaintance or neighbor, will take the bread to the bakery, and return it later to that same spot."
It would be nearly accurate to say that if you've seen one of the medina's bakeries, you've seen them all. Most are built back to back with the hamam, the public bath, which draws its heat from the bakers' deep stone hearth. Behind its veil of chaos the medina is a model of conformity and predictability. The bakers never try to undersell each other. From the banks of the Oued Fés to the Bab al Jaloud gate the baking charge per loaf is five dirhams, about forty cents. No bakery promises swifter service than his nearest competitor. It takes Ahmed as long to bake a bread as it takes Abdul, and some mystical market force appears to ensure that no one baker has more loaves than he can handle.
If there was a difference in ambiance from bakery to bakery, it eluded me. Descending into one such establishment after another I witnessed the same tableau: makeshift shelves of round loaves, a worker or two crouching by the wood- or dung-fired hearth working the baking breads with an immense ramallah, or peel.
On the eve of Ramadan, the bakeries also produce tray upon tray full of chekbakeit, the ubiquitous holiday sweet. These are also cranked out by small-scale bakers scattered throughout the souks. Selling directly from their stalls, these bakers offer a variety of crepes, pancakes, and flat breads. In the hottest and narrowest of market stalls I watch a Berber woman with henna-stenciled hands pour batter on hot globes for gneunboura, a spicy pancake that must be peeled off the globes with expert delicacy. "It's a uniquely Berber skill, passed down from generation to generation," says Brahmin, echoing what another shopkeeper had told me about this being, now and for always, an exclusively Berber craft. There is also the trid, or crepe, and milhoui, a semolina flat bread that's cousin to India's nan. "But when we say Moroccan bread, we mean the bread you see here," says Brahmin, gesturing to a waiting line of round loaves at Mohammed's bakery.
Most of Mohammed's customers drop off their loaves in the morning, and some may return for them in as soon as an hour. If the breads aren't all collected by closing time eight in the evening Mohammed or his son Abdul will carry the loaves to the family's home or leave the bread in the coffee shop next door or pass it on to some other intermediary. By suppertime customers are reunited with their loaves, which may, like a friendly cat, have traveled among many hands. Women prepare the dough, of course, but there is not one woman baker in all of the medina. "The bakery is man's work," says Mohammed. "Home work is for the ladies, outside work for men."
Though only some carve their initial into the bottom of the loaf, and the marks are often indistinguishable, it is extremely rare, if ever, that a customer returns home with the wrong bread. "People would get really furious," says Brahmin. "Oh, that would be just terrible," said Nadjia when I asked her about it. To hear them talk of it, the gaffe would be less like getting the wrong shirt from the Chinese laundry and more like getting the wrong dog from the kennel. The notion is utterly unacceptable.
But how can this be? I watch a stream of Mohammed's customers come and go, depositing trays of uncooked loaves and snatching up cooked ones. All the while his baker is rearranging the loaves in the "modern" hearth, one of only twenty-one in the medina with crude heat controls. "My bread is cleaner and baked more evenly," says Mohammed, who learned the trade from his father and passed it along to his son. "In other bakeries the bread is close to the wood; in this one it is close only to the brick." Mohammed's modern hearth is lit from within, an unusual feature even though the medina has had electricity for nearly a century. It's not Mohammed's snazzy hearth that stirs my awe. It's the fact that his baker must do more than recall which loaves ended up where to begin with, but where he moved them to a kind of bakers' three-card monte. I'm trying to pay attention and already I've lost the game.
"Come," says Mohammed, and I obey. He places a bread on my outstretched left palm, another on my right. "Feel," he commands. Though they look identical, one bread is crusty and dry, the other soft and springy to the touch. It occurs to me briefly that I'm busy pawing the bread that will accompany someone's evening meal, but Mohammed takes the breads away and replaces them with two others. Mohammed needs no further identifying characteristics than the weight, hue, and feel of the bread, all of which differ from loaf to loaf. "See the difference in color," he says. Howie joins in, and so does Brahmin, and soon we're all earnestly sniffing, palpating, and tossing around various breads of which, I concede, no two are precisely alike not even to the baker who blithely rearranges them deep in the hearth, some beyond his vision. A bread, explains Mohammed, is as individual as a person's face, or voice. Mrs. X's dough is dense and heavy, Mrs. Y's overkneaded and airy. Mrs. K's loaves are as perfectly round as if shaped with a ring mold, Mrs. P's faintly elliptical. Not that Mohammed would ever critique the loaves to these women's faces. "Everyone wants hers to be the lightest bread," he says, winking at me.
So, I inquire, rather stupidly, as it turns out, "What if someone new comes in? How will you knew that person's bread?" Mohammed groans and rolls his eyes in disbelief. "If it's someone new, of course I'll remember," he cries. "We always remember what is new!"
Howie and I hand a bundle of dirhams to Mohammed and some pens to his young helper, and Mohammed sends us off with a sticky clump of chekbakeit. As we wend our way home I ask Brahmin to let me navigate. With great confidence I march us in the exact opposite direction of our hotel, the Palais Jamai. I'm angry with myself. Mohammed has me thinking about the virtues of attentiveness to the subtlest detail and here I am unable to distinguish one narrow street from the next. But that is why Mohammed does what he does, day after day, keeping alive a system in which Fés's bustling communities are woven and interwoven as tightly as those Berber carpets thrust in our faces at every turn.
Sore and spent from a day of pounding the medina's uneven pavement, I decide to treat myself to the hamam at the hotel. Palais Jamai's hamam is to those frequented by the medina's masses what a Harley Davidson is to a rickshaw. I had visited a public hamam in Kusadasi, Turkey, and was treated like an inmate in a medieval asylum. Pummeled, doused, and rubbed raw with something like Ajax, I stumbled onto the street feeling as if I'd been violated by a gang of sailors and tossed into the sea. I felt certain that at these inflated prices, the Palais Jamais hamam would be, by contrast, a luxurious experience.
Imagine my surprise when, after stripping down to my underpants, I was led to a steamy cubicle and ordered by a feisty Berber woman named Fatima to lie face down on the soggy tiles. Fatima scoured me with black soap and then, like a deranged physical therapist, yanked my legs this way and that. "Sit up," she commanded, after which she jammed the small of my back down to the floor in what we yoginis call pachimotanasana, probably Sanskrit for ouch. Then her strong, hennaed hands went to work on my buttocks and limbs, which she kneaded precisely as if I were, well, a lump of bread dough. I had to smile. We left Fés and headed south into the Middle Atlas, settling in at a chilly mountain guesthouse in the village of Azrou. From there we drove northeast toward Algeria, stopping at the strange whitewashed city of Taza, which appears from afar to be slowly sliding down the mountainside. Then we returned to the Sheraton Fés for a few days before flying home.
As for Christmas, it came and went without a peep.
Madame Guinaudeau's Traditional Moroccan Bread
From Traditional Moroccan Cooking: Recipes from Fez, by Madame Guinaudeau
Two pounds sifted white flour
A handful of salt
One to one-and-a-half pints water
Yeast (dried or cake)
In a deep earthenware pan, mix the flour, salt, and water quickly, stopping before it is a solid mass. After softening the yeast with a little water, place it in a corner of the pan, mix it with the dough, and knead the dough vigorously for at least 20 minutes.
Separate the dough into four parts, reserving one dough ball for the next day's starter. With the palm of your hand, work the remaining dough balls into disks about 8 inches in diameter. Cover the dough with a cloth and allow it to rise until, when pressed lightly with a finger, it springs back to its original shape.
Fesis send the dough to the wood-fired communal oven for baking. In a regular oven bake the bread for about 45 minutes at 375 degrees.
Copyright © 2002 by Susan Seligson