[Sca-cooks] Cool New York Times article on modern-day communal ovens

Phil Troy / G. Tacitus Adamantius adamantius1 at verizon.net
Wed Jun 13 04:05:17 PDT 2007

> June 13, 2007
> A Moroccan Oven That’s Open to All
> ASSILAH, Morocco
> THE best way to understand this fortress town, on the Atlantic  
> coast about 30 miles south of Tangier, is to let your eyes and your  
> nose lead you through the narrow streets where only foot traffic is  
> allowed. While visiting here for a few days, I sniffed my way  
> through the warrens of the medina, built in the 14th century by  
> Portuguese and inhabited later by Muslims and Jews fleeing the  
> Spanish Inquisition. Today the town’s population is international,  
> with people from Spain and France buying quaint apartments as  
> second homes.
> Morocco, at the end of the spice route in Africa, developed a fine  
> cuisine known for its pungent spice combinations. In Assilah, as in  
> much of the country, people eat seasonally, shop at the outdoor  
> markets, buy live chickens to have slaughtered on the spot,  
> feathers flying helter-skelter. (In the big cities, where health  
> inspectors and supermarkets are taking over, this is a dying  
> custom.) At one market I saw eggs gathered the same morning,  
> carefully protected by strands of hay; lemons preserved in salted  
> water; black and green olives from nearby orchards.
> As everywhere else in Morocco, the home cooks make the most  
> flavorful food. But not all of their cooking is done at home.
> One morning, I happened upon a crowd of women, along with a few men  
> and small boys, all balancing boards on their heads piled with  
> rounds of dough. I followed them into a small stucco building where  
> smoke poured from the chimney. Inside, a baker stood calmly  
> underneath a portrait of the Moroccan king, Mohammed VI. He  
> carefully placed the mounds of shaped dough on long wooden paddles  
> and slid them into a brick oven fueled with eucalyptus branches.
> From 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day, customers arrive in a steady  
> stream, pay a few dirhams — about 25 cents — and then leave. About  
> 20 minutes later, they return to pick up their golden rounds of bread.
> In three other towns in northern Morocco I found similar ovens, all  
> contributing to the heartbeat of the city. Communal ovens have been  
> a part of Mediterranean life for thousands of years. People in the  
> shtetls of Eastern Europe, in French country towns and in Middle  
> Eastern medinas baked their bread in them, and later, when the  
> ovens were cooler, cooked casseroles and other dishes.
> Today many people have gas stoves or propane cooktops at home, and  
> the communal ovens are disappearing. In my travels I have found  
> them only rarely: in Jerusalem’s old city; in Arab villages in  
> Israel and the West Bank; on the Caribbean island of Montserrat.
> In Assilah, as in other Moroccan towns, the ovens are in  
> transition, still in use even though many people have their own  
> stoves. “These bread ovens are a link with the past,” said Paula  
> Wolfert, the author of “Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco,”  
> who lived in Tangier for seven years. “It was part of the  
> community, an extension of the home.”
> Traditional cooks in Assilah wake around dawn each morning to knead  
> and shape the dough. They let it rise for a few hours before  
> carrying it to the public oven, known as a ferrane. Called khubz,  
> the bread is about the size of pita but much denser. Sometimes it  
> is made entirely with white flour; sometimes barley or coarse whole  
> wheat flour is mixed in, and semolina is sprinkled on top.
> Somehow, with dozens of loaves on the floor of his oven, the baker  
> always knows whose bread is whose. But just in case he forgets,  
> most people make an identifying mark on their dough.
> “My housekeeper put a special stamp on the bread made out of iron  
> with a design, a sort of family mark on it,” Ms. Wolfert said. “She  
> didn’t sleep well unless there was a sack of wheat in the house to  
> make bread.”
> Bread isn’t the only food cooked in the ferrane. I saw metal plates  
> filled with green peppers and tomatoes, ready to be quickly charred  
> and then peeled for salads. Clay pots covered with tinfoil or  
> parchment paper also waited their turn. Inside were tagines of fish  
> — sardines, swordfish, snapper — rich with tomatoes, potatoes,  
> cilantro and spices. Family secrets work their way into these  
> tagines: the way the vegetables are cut, the ratio of spices, the  
> kind of fish, even the shape of the clay pot.
> The public oven is also where families announce weddings,  
> anniversaries and other special occasions, whether they want to or  
> not. When someone brings a b’stilla, one of the jewels of Moroccan  
> cooking — a chicken or pigeon pie made with nuts, sugar, cinnamon  
> and orange blossom water — everybody knows that a big celebration  
> is on the way. After all, no one would take the trouble to make  
> b’stilla on just any old day. This delicious pie is topped with  
> warka leaf, a thin dough somewhat like phyllo that is made by  
> bouncing fistfuls of wet, pasty batter on a hot grill until it  
> miraculously comes together.
> Other celebratory foods also appear at the ferrane, like crisp  
> Moroccan cookies. Also made from warka, they are first baked in the  
> oven, then taken home and soaked in honey.
> Later that day, I ate lunch at the home of Mohamed Benaissa, the  
> town’s mayor and an old friend from the time he was the Moroccan  
> ambassador to the United States. The round bread and the fresh  
> sardine tagine, the centerpiece of our magnificent meal, was  
> assembled at the Benaissas’ home by their cook, Halima Sella, and  
> baked in the same public oven I had just seen, only steps away from  
> the house. The Benaissas have two gas ovens in their kitchen, but  
> they prefer to use the ferrane.
> “The oven is a social equalizer,” said Mr. Benaissa, who is also  
> the foreign minister of Morocco. “It also creates jobs and is  
> economical, especially in the summer, because we use little energy  
> for so many people.”
> After lunch Ms. Sella showed me how to make her chicken couscous  
> with onions, ginger, cinnamon and saffron, a dish I had adored at  
> the Benaissas’ home in Washington. She simmered it over the stove  
> in a large couscousier, a double-layered pot.
> The chicken stewed in the bottom of the pot, producing steam that  
> seeped through the holes of a sieve and cooked the couscous in the  
> top layer. Plastic wrap helped seal in the steam. Patiently frying  
> almonds in hot oil, Ms. Sella insisted that the couscous be steamed  
> three times, something that cooks rarely do in the United States.
> As I tasted the Benaissas’ food and reflected on the different  
> varieties of tagine and bread I had seen at the oven, it occurred  
> to me that Moroccan recipes are proud secrets embedded in families,  
> transferred by word of mouth from generation to generation. A  
> little more cumin, a little less cinnamon? Should the vegetables be  
> diced in rounds or squares?
> These secrets are not revealed even to the man at the ferrane who  
> does the cooking.
> Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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