Photo: Stacy Wheeler
But there’s a lighter side to Sbaa Rouadi – sports, festivals and especially food. Eating local takes on a whole new meaning here. Except for the occasional orange or banana, village residents grow all their own food and even make their own couscous, Morocco’s staple starch. At tea time, tables are piled high with fresh bread, platters of green and black olives and butter from local cows. But although the homemade food tastes delicious, preparing it is no picnic. For the average resident of Sbaa Rouadi, eating local means that food preparation structures much of the day.
Baking bread alone takes rural women up to two hours. Hanan Maghnoui, a seventeen-year-old in charge of her family’s culinary affairs, laughs when asked how many times she bakes bread each week. “I make it every day! What a question. How do you think we eat?” By her estimates, she spends between eight and ten hours a day preparing and serving food, and that’s with the help of a koukout,or pressure cooker.
Hanan has never been to school. “The school teacher here hit my older sister once, and after that I didn’t want to go,” she said. But she learned to read and write at home and she keeps a small notebook with family recipes.
For bread though, no recipe book is required. After she cleans up breakfast, Hanan throws together approximately fifteen cups of flour, a quarter cup of salt and some yeast in a large plastic tub. Little, by little, she adds warm water until the flour mixture becomes a moist dough, called aheen in Arabic. After kneading the dough for fifteen minutes, she covers it with a towel and leaves it to rise.
Unlike traditional American bread, Moroccan khobz is not baked in a pan. Instead, the dough is fashioned into flat circles and baked over coals in a faran, the traditional Moroccan oven.
Photo: Stacy Wheeler
When the oven is ready, Hanan flips the round, flat pieces onto a long sheet of blackened metal with the skill of an Italian pizza chef. Then, she slides the tray into the mouth of the oven and tosses a wet jacket over the opening to help keep the heat in.
The wait is short. After just five minutes, the flat dough has puffed into golden half orbs, slightly brown on the edges. Hanan flips them over and covers the oven opening again. This time, it’s just sixty seconds before she pulls out the loaves, which have grown into evenly browned circles about an inch tall and twelve inches in diameter.
The bread cools for a moment, but Hanan does not have the luxury of watching it. She’s already busy preparing lunch.
While women are in charge of baking bread and preparing meals, men work hard to produce the raw ingredients. Wheat, potatoes, lentils, tomatoes and olives are all grown locally in addition to a wide variety of herbs like mint, which is used for Morocco’s famous tea.
Although most of the village land is dedicated to agriculture, Sbaa Rouadi does not lack for meat. Chickens, which cluck around the front yard of most homes, are a common—and fairly inexpensive—source of protein. They are generally left free to roam, and sometimes families find eggs tucked away inside feed bags or under dense piles of brush. Rabbits are another common source of dinner meat and are often raised to be sold so the family has a small source of cash.
A more common source of cash is milk cows, however.
Each day, Mohammed Maghnoui wakes up just before dawn, at roughly five-thirty in the morning, to milk the cows for the first of two times that day. After wiping their udders clean with some water from a nearby pump, he races to finish the chore before his neighbor—who owns a van—arrives to pick up the 16 gallons of fresh milk. After collecting the entire neighborhood’s milk, the man drives it to nearby Fez, where it is sold to city residents in time for breakfast.
Not all the milk is sold, however, and extra becomes fresh butter, yogurt, and a salty buttermilk drink called leben that is especially popular after Friday couscous.
“The butter is the best in Morocco,” Mohammed says as he spreads it generously on a slab of fresh bread. But he recognizes the tradeoffs. “Work here is hard. Sometimes I work twelve hours a day.” He points to his hands which are creased with dirt and tough from hard field and wonders what it would be like to live in the city. But like most residents, he ultimately insists that the country is the place for him. Stacy Wheeler MORE