Date Harvest Morocco

I am missing the beauty of the date harvest in Morocco this year. The colours must be seen to be believed and are so stunningly captured by the French artist Jacques Majorelle in his 1921 portrayal of the Date Market in Marrakech, one of the few paintings I truly lust after.

(Image from Les Orientalistes, Jacques Majorelle, by Felix Marcilhac ACR Edition Internationale 1988,1995)

The oases of the great river valleys in Southern Morocco, the Draa, Dades and Ziz, stretch for miles and are the main livelihood of the local inhabitants.  The succulent medjool date  (medjhoul in Moroccan Arabic) originated in Morocco and is also now widely cultivated in California and the Jordan Valley – our main source of this delectable fruit.

Dates are native to the Middle East and were spread by the Arabs to North Africa and Spain. They are mentioned in the Bible and constituted one of the seven species so important to human survival and ritual, alongside wheat, barley, the olive, pomegranate, fig and grape.”For the LORD thy God bringeth thee into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths, springing forth in valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, and (grape) vines and fig-trees and pomegranates; a land of olive-trees and (date) honey;” (Deuteronomy 8:7-8)

In 2005 seeds of the Judean date, a cultivar extinct for almost 2000 years, were found by Israeli archaeologists on the site of Herod’s palace on the fortress of Masada. Scientists at the Arava Institute in the Negev managed to germinate one of the seeds and the resulting plant, named Methusaleh after the oldest man mentioned in the Bible, is now about two metres tall.

Following an ancient Arab Tradition, La Maison Bleue in Fes offers arriving guests dates  filled with roasted almonds together with a bowl of orange blossom scented milk.  This sets the scene for the peaceful, fragrant stay in this haven of luxury in the ancient medina of Fes.

Dates are the first food consumed to break the fast each evening during the month of Ramadan and are the traditional accompaniment to Harira soup,  served at the traditional Ramadan Ftour or breakfast.

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Saffron

At this time of the year, I am usually in Morocco. I love Autumn in the Maghreb. The date harvest is in full swing as is the olive harvest and the pressing of the new season’s oil. But the absolute highlight for me, is the 2 week saffron picking period. We get up at dawn to drive for the hour or so from Marrakech to the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains. The young girls of the area arrive at about 7am, warmly dressed against the biting cold, to pick the saffron crocus flowers before the sun rises and the flowers open. The girls are all in their teens and supple enough to bend from the waist, plucking the crop and filling their baskets. The bright purple flowers contain just three red stigmas each – the part of the flower that, once sorted and dried, will constitute the most expensive spice in the world!

It takes 140 flowers to yield 1 gram of saffron.

As the flowers are picked, they are transferred to the sorting room where older, more experienced ladies  (no longer able to bend from the waist as easily as their daughters and granddaughters) remove the stigmas from the flowers and send them to the drying room where they will give up their moisture and develop the exquisite flavour and colour that make them such a prized commodity in the culinary world.

True saffron (zaafran horr)  is used in many Moroccan dishes, and is often combined with ground ginger and black pepper, and sometimes a little  cassia bark, in the most lavish of tajines and celebration couscous  preparations.  Those who cannot afford it resort to zaafran roumi (yellow  food colouring powder) to emulate the appearance if not the flavour of these extravagant dishes.

In the saffron growing area of Taliouine in the High Atlas Mountains, I have been lucky enough to have been served saffron tea, brewed with a scant spoonful of green tea leaves, a pinch of saffron and sweetened with pieces of cone sugar!

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