Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Wild and wacky workshop week

Last Tuesday volunteers started trickling into my site for a cheese-making workshop. By Wednesday morning we had nine of us crammed into my tiny kitchen hovering over pots of heating milk. We ended up making five cheeses in all, including: Feta, Yoghurt and yoghurt cheese, Neufchatel/Farmers cheese, Gouda and Ricotta. I figured out a way to get all the necessary ingredients and equipment in Morocco, but still no success with Mozzarella. So we picked Mozzarella up at the store—a trip that delighted some volunteers since it included a horse carriage ride to the big grocery store, both of which most volunteers don’t have in their sites.

It was a very cheesy couple of days and we enjoyed Greek salad (with the Feta), cheese and crackers, Ricotta cream dessert, and several different pizzas topped in various cheesy ways. I felt it was a success over all, the cheeses came out great and I managed to sleep nine people in my modest home. I did want to included more Moroccans in this workshop, but realized what worked best for volunteers—scheduling during the slow Ramadan period—was the opposite for Moroccans busy preparing for lftor and maybe not the best to have around a mostly non-fasting American group. My neighbor did attend when she could catch a break from her household chores, but I will definitely have to repeat this again at another time.

On Friday our entire group moved down to Jon and Emily’s site for papermaking. There was a collective stretch as they realized the Lindbergs have considerably more space than I do. We got started right away breaking down egg crates, milk cartons, and other cardboard/paper trash. After turning it all into pulp we each got to try our hand at pulling paper on their roof while keeping an eye on the ominous sky overhead. The equipment needed for papermaking is a little more involved than cheese-making, but I would like to gather the necessary materials together to start my own paper-making fun.

Saturday we made a hike down to the source, the spring from which Oulmes water is bottled, in between rain showers and making paper. It is a good hike down a mountain and back up, but I made it all the way this time! Down at the bottom a friendly man showed us around the pumping site. They have a healthy population of cats breeding down there. I didn’t drink the water, but I did get to stick my hand in the warm baths set aside for hikers interested in the healing properties of mineral water. The spring pumps out perfect bathwater.

The weather has been crazy lately. It went from being so hot that sweat was a constant companion to down right chilly in a week. I am under two warm blankets as we speak. What caused this change was a pattern of rain showers, started by a big old-fashioned thunderstorm. Did I want rain? Yes, considering summer was basically devoid of it. Did I want cool? Yes, I’m tired of sweating. Do I want winter? Not until my toenails heal so they can get frostbitten again on a clean slate.

The cooler weather did inspire a fall dinner on Saturday. We roasted a stuffed chicken, made bread stuffing, mashed potatoes, and green beans. It was a mini-thanksgiving. We eat pretty well when we get together around here, I must say. I’ve also found my ultimate cooking partner, Kristen. I’m more of a baker, so I prefer to take care of anything that involves flour, and she is an excellent cook. We’re a dangerous combination.

Sunday I stayed behind as the others filed out and got back to their lives. The paper we made was dried and ironed and I was determined to make a sketchbook with it. I learned a bookbinding technique from Emily, which I made a cover for back in my site. I’ll never buy a sketchbook again!

To wrap up this “summary of my week” post, the end of Ramadan is in sight. All during the workshops last week I had stopped fasting. Fasting is much more fun when you are breaking your fast with other Moroccans. I have gone back to it though, and it wasn’t so hard of a transition between the two. I’m actually considering fasting once in a while, like once a month. It really makes you slow down and think about food in a new way. I don’t need to constantly obsess about filling my stomach. It is important to enjoy what you are eating, and pick good foods both in taste and nutritional content. Many people go without food for much longer stretches of time, and many not by choice. It is also about fighting instant gratification, which I feel is a big problem in contemporary America. Of course, in my head I know these things already, but fasting makes them present.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Thinking Through My Stomach

Recent discoveries:

1.) Not eating for long (up to 20 hour) periods of time won’t necessarily result in torturous stomach pain, inability to work, or death. I think I may have believed the contrary up until last week. American culture is focused on eating at every available opportunity-- woe the person who suffers from a pang of hunger. I definitely had an almost diabetic’s obsession with making sure I had access to something, anything, at all times just in case my stomach was empty and I started to feel tired or hungry.

It was hard to imagine that it could be possible to go through the day without food (or water) and still be able to function. So with Ramadan coming up I prepared myself to suffer considerably and was completely surprised to find I could grow accustomed to it, virtually pain-free. In part I think it helps that I have no other chemical habits to give up (cigarettes, coffee), but there is a lot to say about forming eating habits. When at my most scheduled, I can feel the first signs of hunger exactly at 12 noon, when I allow myself to declare “lunch”. A snack at 3pm becomes almost necessity to get me through the afternoon. However, if I simply tell myself I can’t eat until exactly sunset, well, so be it. There is no big temptation in treating myself to something between meals if I’ve forbid myself from putting anything in my mouth until the appropriate time. The hard rule makes it easier for my body to accept the challenge.

Of course, I’m also glad that Ramadan is only a month for the fact that I am a morning person and don’t think I could put up with eating for the day between sunset to first light for much longer than that time period. Also, if you make the mistake of not drinking enough water during the night, you may suffer more considerably during the day (we need water before food, after all).

A final note, it doesn’t seem like condensing your meals saves much time. Every day I wonder where the time went, I never feel like I’ve accomplished quite enough “before breakfast”.

2.) I can eat my chicken and her eggs too. So, to follow up on my chicken experiment, I’ve found that I would definitely keep chickens for their eggs if I had space to do so in a future living arrangement. However, they sort of took over my small courtyard and with the cooling weather I imagine a nice outdoor sanctuary for me and a few potted plants. Also, the landlord upstairs was starting to complain about the noise (this was mostly due to a visiting rooster, and grumpy Ramadan mornings, but I don’t need to pick that fight).

What did this mean for my hens? It meant finding out if this suburban child had enough farm girl in her to mercilessly eat her “pets”. Apparently, the answer is “yes”. The scrawny, noisy one was up first. We made pastilla, the delicious and famously Moroccan savour-sweet pastry dish. We buried my hen between layers of thin pastry, herbed scrabbled egg, and almonds, topped with cinnamon and sugar.

“Big Momma”, my other girl, is up next. She once extended her life by allowing me to pet her, but now my cold, cold heart races as I flip through cookbooks.

3.) It is, in fact, worth it to take a trip back up to the mountains specifically to pick blackberries (and visit my former host-family). Wild (i.e. free) fruit is sweetest!

4.) Cheese can be a simple, yet tricky culinary challenge. I’ve been learning leaps and bounds as I gear up for a cheese-making workshop I am hosting this coming week. It has been interesting trying to figure out what ingredients are really available in Morocco. I think I can find everything locally now.

It amazes me how much variety you can get simply by changing the timing and temperature of the same basic ingredients. Nope, still no Brie without the mold culture. Bummer.

5.) It has been nearly a year since I’ve arrived and I have been free of any major stomach issue! Even the minor stomach issues have been few and far between. I can only imagine the amazing stomach flora and fauna I must have to put up such a good fight. Keep it going team!