Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Spreading Cheese

Throughout most of the night the roaring wind kept yanking my unsecured courtyard door open to the pounding rain. Exhausted at 3am, I finally rigged a “lock” with some wire I sleepily found in a box. I went back to bed to wake only twenty minutes later to the sound of water dripping onto my mattress from my closed window at an angle I had never seen. The next morning I was planning on starting my 10-day trip down south and it didn’t appear things were off to a good start for travel.

I did make it all the way down to fellow SBD PCV, Jae’s site the next day, despite encountering fresh snow in the mountains on a long bus ride. Jae and I were co-leading a cheese making workshop. All attendees were volunteers, either with Peace Corps or with the Japanese organization, JICA. I lead the first two days with five different types of cheese: yogurt (and yogurt cheese), Neufchatel (a.k.a. farmer’s cheese), Feta, Gouda, and Ricotta. Jae lead a third day with Pepper-Jack and cheese curds. The cheese curds didn’t cooperate with us (sometimes cheese can be finicky), but the Pepper-Jack looks great. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to taste it for a month—same with the Gouda. We did get a chance to try the three fresh cheeses in various ways including in sushi rolls, muffins, crepes, and just straight up with cut veggies. Yum!

Next, I headed over to another SBD PCV, Terra’s, site in the valley of roses. No roses yet, but this river-fed oasis was still looking lush in February. My visit was to help with a catalogue Terra wants to have made for her women’s products (primarily rugs, but also some farmed items). The difficulty in finding reliable transportation, electricity, phone service and internet (we had to get into town 30 minutes away and even then it didn’t work), really made me appreciate the conveniences I have in my much larger site. I have learned to be very flexible during my service, and I was tested considerably during these workshops. For our big meeting with the association’s women, our translator was 2.5 hours late (not all of that was the meeting-time, we wanted to have him come in early so we could review what we wanted to discuss. Originally we planned on meeting the day before to go over the workshop with him but our transportation out was slow and he had another meeting to attend. Flexibility!). We just switched some things around and had the women participate in the more visual part of the meeting (learning how to take photos of their products, reviewing the photos we had already gathered, etc.).

The women seemed excited about the catalogue and we did get their feedback on how it should be put together and how it can be used. I was concerned about my interaction with the women considering I have learned Moroccan-Arabic, darija, to speak in my site whereas they normally converse in Tashilhit. I found enough darija speakers that could help translate for me when needed. It also helped that my darija isn’t so complex that even if they have a basic knowledge of darija I could be somewhat understood.

One of my favorite moments was when Terra and I were sitting in the kitchen of her neighbors watching them cook dinner. One of the younger girls, Hafida, knows a good about of darija and so Terra and I could both talk with her. When Terra would converse with them in Tashilhit I was a bit lost most of the time. Hafida helped me out by translating what Terra said into darija. I was tickled by the passing of speech through one American’s mind, through Tashilhit, to darija and back into another American’s mind. Later, one of the woman commented that Terra and I should learn each other’s languages so we could communicate (momentarily forgetting that we both share the same language, English).

Despite the difficulties of a more rural life, I really appreciated the closeness to nature there. The families have houses all grouped together and their farming plots are all uphill of the river. I was treated to dandelion greens with corn couscous, and alfalfa with corn couscous. Something we don’t make up here in the north. I also managed to bake two huge cakes to share with the families that provided me dinner during my stay.

After our meeting in Terra’s site we turned around and went to (SBD PCV) Sarah’s site in the next valley over. She is living with a family there and I was once again treated to some great food and company. Sarah’s village is similar to Terra’s in that they are both centered around a river that feeds the farm plots in an otherwise dry place. There is much more evidence of tourism, however, with small hotels lining the main roadway.

This second cheese making workshop was primarily for the local community and I was without an official translator so I had to hope that my darija would be understood by a Tashilhit-speaking group of women. My fears were assuaged by the translation happening through those who understood darija for the other women when needed. I ended up having more trouble with the cheese this time and we couldn’t quite figure out what happened. Everything was taking a long time to set. We changed many of the variables around without success. We’ve narrowed it down to temperature or altitude. Despite our delays, I think the women still enjoyed the workshop—and we all devoured the cheese at the end! A couple of the women seemed to really be into the process and I am confident that they will clear up whatever issue that we were having with their future attempts. Some have access to fresh milk from their own cows, so cheese making might be a great opportunity for them.

Overall I found my trip down south to be successful. The foreboding weather at the start of my trip gave way to calmer skies during my entire trip. All my hosts were wonderful and I got to know better my fellow PCVs as well as the Moroccans I encountered. It is too bad that a hard days journey lies between us!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

My contribution to the table

Brownies and chocolate chip cookies amongst traditional Moroccan sweets for a holiday

For as long as I’ve been able to stir chocolate chips into cookie dough, I’ve been a baker. Some of the highlights of helping my mother with her in-home daycare during high-school summer vacations were those afternoons baking with the grade-school kids. I would have my rapt audience study my careful measuring of flour and sugar. I would assign them jobs of mixing or spooning dough onto waiting cookie sheets, and we would all hear our stomachs grumble in anticipation of the results of our culinary chemistry.

I later went off to college, barely making it through those first dark years of dorm-life dominated by cafeteria food or what I could heat in a microwave. Of course the latter half I rectified this with apartments and ovens that once again fed my need to throw flour around.* By grad-school I was luring people into my art studio with the promises of sweet treats. I found my food mentors in the Visual Resource Library of Washington University, headed by Betha, who was also writing a food column for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at that time. My tastes became ever more refined and my determination to master the oven became ever stronger.

Then I came to Morocco. As I packed my bags I made a personal goal to improve my bread baking skills in between my duties as a volunteer. I reconsidered how easy this might be as I struggled to light a gas oven with a lighter and burned several sheets of cookies in the unfamiliar Moroccan oven. I’m a fast learner when I am interested in the subject, however, and by the time I set up my own house I was shopping for my own little metal box to fire up.

A year, and hundreds of kilos of flour later, I find myself amazed (but should I really be?) at how much of an influence baking has been on my service here. I have started to regularly teach different baked treats to a cookie association in town. I had started working with them in another form—as an English and jewelry-making instructor, until the building they were using for these activities was robbed and shut down during the summer. I reconnected with them in the fall when I discovered they were still meeting on the other side of town—this time the focus was on cookies and couscous. Perfect! I was excited to have another opportunity to work with this motivated group of women. I now look forward to every Thursday as a break from my other running-around (this is for another post). I get to sit down and get my hands dirty, whether it is my recipe contribution or a traditional Moroccan one. We have a great teacher-student relationship; I get to continually switch from one to the other. It feels good to hear that the cupcakes I’ve showed them how to make are in high demand at their newly opened storefront.

Another surprise is how I managed to get into cheese making. This came to be in the slow summer days, out of my need to: a) improve the poor selection of cheese in most of Morocco, b) fill the hole that a summer garden usually occupies, and c) make things from scratch. My careful research resulted in ways to make cheese in Morocco using local equipment and ingredients. I celebrated these discoveries by having a workshop attended by fellow PCVs in hopes of spreading the cheese (preferably over bread). This has since spawned further interest and trainings in my site, as well as several other locations around the country. This month I will be leading two cheese-making workshops down south, with my regrets for not being able to attend a third that coincides with the others. It is exciting to think of the culinary money making possibilities!

If this wasn’t enough for me, I just finished editing the “Breads” and the added “Cheeses” sections of the PC Morocco cookbook (email me if you’re interested in an updated copy of these sections). I have also started a food blog to record some of these made-from-scratch attempts. For those of you who are in Morocco, I try to emphasize the use seasonal and locally available ingredients (with the acknowledgement that I live in a larger town and have a wider selection available to me than the smaller villages). You’re also welcome over to help me get rid of my latest experiments, of which I have more than my waistline alone can handle.

*At this point I feel the need to mention my former roommate, and culinary companion, Claire, of The Food Outcast. She had to go gluten free (making me feel a little guilty for all the gluten I’ve given her over the years) but continues making delicious concoctions in her kitchen in Swaziland.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Happy Holidays from the Sahara

Staring into a sea of sand dunes, distinguishable only by the light of a half-full moon on a crisp night, I ponder my smallness. After all, isn’t this why we come out to such places? Certainly it isn’t for the extra sand in everything-- from my back pockets to my breakfast. I look over in the direction that my friend, Claire, had headed. In the moonlight I can barely distinguish her form from the sand, much less her distance from me. My ears away from the tents, the dunes are dense and quiet. Behind me the camels have made their beds on the sand, some with their heads up, silently watching us.

Later, we tackle the dune that overlooks our campsite. It is an hour of labor on my hands and feet, fighting to make it to where the dune draws a line with the stars. The lack of reference for distance makes this goal all the more illusive. My legs are heavy with the strain and the sand I’ve collected in my shoes. Suddenly, the dune drops down in my eyes and I’m gazing beyond the peak. Lights of civilization sparkle from a distance, the dune had hid them from us below as a backdrop on a stage might hide the commotion of the crew and actors. Of course, I didn’t have much illusion that I would be completely alone out in the Sahara.

I wait for Kyle, my other travel companion, to reach the top, having lost all sight of Claire in the darkness below. The dry air and arid landscape is quite a contrast from where I had been just a few days earlier, snuggled into the rainy mountains to the north. We had celebrated Christmas there, at Randy’s house (no berry picking this time, but we still got to have some of the plunder on Christmas morning—blackberries and crepes!) with Jon and Emily. As much as I love my host family, getting to spend Christmas with those who know what it is and can distinguish it from New Years was an amazing treat. This year, the stockings were our best socks; the shoes were drying by the fire; the shining sun was a Christmas miracle; the dinner was made completely from scratch (with the addition of wonderful canned cranberry sauce); the gifts were knitted with care; the chocolates were hand delivered from Switzerland; and the skype conversations with family back home were a blessing.

Kyle reaches the top of the dune, shortly followed by a solitary man, part of our camp-group. We sit and catch our breath, calculating how much easier it could have been if we had climbed the less steep side now visible to us. The weather couldn’t be more wonderful, and a welcome contrast to the rain the week before. The wet weather made some of my travel plans difficult. I was amazed at my forgiving and good-natured travel companions as the showers culminated in a drenching downpour and a wet-to-the-bone walk up the mountainside to Randy’s house.

Claire’s voice reaches us from somewhere down below. She won’t make it up any time soon and it is nearing midnight. I convince Kyle out of just sleeping at the top and we slide back down. I can imagine that taking big or running steps down the slope would be even more enjoyable in the daylight. In the darkness it is a strange sensation of stepping into darkness into something that won’t hold your weight. It is thrilling if not frightening.

We make it back down, laughing too loud for our sudden proximity to the camp, snuggle into our sleeping bags and shut our eyes for short night’s sleep. Before sunrise we get up again, witness the beauty of the sky and the dunes. Then it is back onto our saddles, a bit more tenderly than the day before, and back out of the desert.

The next day I am back home and getting ready to say goodbye to my friends. Of course their stay flew by too quickly, just as this year went by too fast. Last New Year’s Eve I spent with two new friends in a house in a small village. The New Year came in with the computer battery dieing right at midnight, the electricity having gone out an hour before. Our music held out to count down the last minutes of 2008. 2009 came in with darkness, and I left it that way as well. New Year’s Eve I was too exhausted from travel and went to bed before midnight, alone in my house.

This last year was a very full one. I know that my experience here has changed me in some ways (just ask my last visitors). It is the only year I have spent entirely out of the US. While away, I’ve made many new friends from different countries and cultures; I’ve learned a new language; I’ve learned how to make and do many new things from scratch; and I’ve gotten to exchange knowledge with those I work with.

I can’t say that 2009 was the best year I’ve experienced so far. There were plenty of challenges, and every step I take upward most certainly sinks halfway down. However, I see my progress in looking back. The dark mass of the dune is underneath and I have a new vantage point. Welcome 2010.