Sunday, March 9
We make a leisurely start at 9 a.m.. Our first venture is in the countryside, where we drive through miles and miles of Argan trees. We are hoping to find goats in the trees; they like the taste of the tender young argan leaves. This is one of the fabled sights of Argan tree country.
The goats like the fruit, too, although they do not digest the kernel or seed from which the oil is extracted.. But now the government has invested in the Argan oil business and planted many, many trees. There is a law, not enforced, that goats may not climb into the trees.
So we speed along the highway, one eye peeled for goats. Suddently, the shout goes up …. Goats!
We tumble off the bus and climb down into the field where, yes, the herd of goats currently occupies two trees.
The bus disappears to who knows where, and reappears about a half hour later. I have made my quota of goat pictures, but some seem not to be able to get enough.
Now we are bound for a town whose name I never learned, where we visit the weekly market, in this town the Sunday market.
On the outskirts a few trucks and many covered donkey carts are parked along the road. There are “parking lots” for donkeys – whole bunches of donkeys, some hobbled, some not, being watched over while their owners market.
We walk into the market, where goods are spread on rugs or blankets under tarps rigged for shade. Here you can buy old jeans, a new suit, a winter jacket, a pair of crocs, a new wheel for your cart, laundry detergent, light bulbs, shampoo in large bottles, a home-made pair of tweezers, a crude wood-handled foldingnife, a pie tin.
The fruits and vegetable section is large and doing a roaring trade, as folks from the country buy their vegetables for the next week. One hand-selects what one wants and piles it into a plastic bin. The proprietor, behind an old scale, throws a weight in one pan and your selections in the other, taking out a piece of two to level the scale as needed.
Carrots, onions, turnips, cabbages, cauliflower, cardoons, eggplant, tomatoes, anise, mint, cilantro, fava beans, peas, beets, pumpkin; heaps of spices in vivid reds and golds; dried beans and lentils; huge bags of cookies, bread – and of course there is meat, hanging on hooks, ready to cut to your specification. You can buy your meat and vegetables here, and for a small fee the market cooks will prepare your tagine or your kebabs for lunch.
Children are off school on market day. They come to town to visit the hammam, to get a haircut, to have troublesome teeth attended to. It's a holiday for all. There are few women in evidence; all the shopping is being done by men. Perhaps the women are all relaxing at the hammam?
The bag of choice is a large (25 Kg) woven sack, which in times past would have been a burlap bag. One collects purchases from the individual stalls and then packs them into the big sack, to be slung over the shoulder or loaded onto the donkey or into the cart.
The noise and the crowd and the dust and the dizzying display of goods makes a quite an impression. There is no way a picture can capture the totality of sensations.
A short drive delivers us to an Argan Oil Coopertive, run by and for women. Here we learn that the Argan nuts, cracked here by hand, have two shells. The outer shell is used for animal food. The innter shell is burned for for heat. The inner nut, shaped like an almond, is processed in two ways. Some nuts are roasted and processed to make the cooking oil, and other products such as the “Berber nutella”, a mix of roasted argan oil and argan honey.
Some nuts are processed without roasting. “Processed” means ground, in this case by women operating hand grinders. They grind the nuts into a paste., which is then worked by hand to wring out the oil. Each handful of paste is squeezed and wrung for up to an hour.
The residue of the roasted nuts is again animal feed. The residue of the unraosted nut is used in making cosmetics and soap. We are given a taste of Argan honey, argan oil (eating kind) and Berber nutella – dip your piece of bread and have a taste.
We are led to the shop, where we are given a chance to smell and feel a huge variety of cosmetic products. This stuff can cure baldness, ecszema, dry skin, dry hair … you name it.
We are each given a small woven basket and somehow each of us suddenly has an attendant to help with the shopping. I buy cosmetic oil, some black soap just for fun, a bottle of lotion, some soaps, and some small bottles of oil for gifts. As I spend more than 400 dirham, I get 10% off. Such a deal. I also am given two small squares of soap as a bonus.
The cosmetic oil is sold in the U.S. as Moroccan oil, and it is outrageously expensive. After hearing fellow travelers recommend it, and rubbing a bit of it on the back of my hand, I am sold. The oil for food I am not so fond of. It is reminiscent of sesame oil but instead smells more like roasted peanuts – an acquired taste, I think.
Purchases finished, we emerge into the sunshine clutching our blue plastic bags. A woman in black Arab garb paces the walkway in her blue espadrille-style shoes, the first heels I've seen here.
We drive a short way and stop in front of a low, white building. A short way down the alley that runs through it, we turn left and duck into Madame's house. She is a widow, and has been cooking for OAT for six years, and she is a very good cook.
She serves us a delicious goat and vegetable tagine. The goat is tender in its spicy sauce at the bottom, and heaped with perfectly steamed potatoes, cauliflower, and green beans. We eat our fill. She clears that, and returns with a giant coucsous and vegetable tagine, with roast chicken on the side. Oof! The turnips are delicious, as is the pumpkin and eggplant. For dessert there is, along with the inevitable mint tea, fruit.
We admire Madame's cats and down an orange or two before departing. Madame will surely be inviting her neighbors to dinner tonight; we did a good job on the goat but there's lots of couscous left.
We go back to Essouira and our hotel for an afternoon at leisure. The sun has managed to work its way through most of the overcast, so it will be a good afternoon for beach walking.