Our guide in Morocco did not drink alcohol. He said that he had tried but had not liked wine and vodka. The guide, however, was a practicing Moslem, and I assumed that religion was behind his abstinence. I have been told that Moslems are not supposed to drink alcohol. (I have since learned that that is true for the majority of Moslems, but some believe that the Koran only bars intoxication, not drinking in moderation.)
I did not see any liquor stores, and the only bars I saw were in our hotels in the overwhelmingly Moslem Morocco, but at our meals we had plenty of drinkable, inexpensive local wine. Morocco has an active wine industry with most of the product staying in the country. The country has a lot of tourists, but more than tourists must be drinking all that wine. (The guide said that Morocco’s national liquor was very strong and made from dried figs. I did not try it because I could not find it.)
A westerner might see hypocrisy at work in this wine industry, but I remember that I was raised in an American Baptist Church that proclaimed that alcohol abstinence was necessary to get into heaven. This stance is true for most varieties of Baptists. In 2006 the Southern Baptist Convention reaffirmed this position. I have never understood this prohibition since wine is consumed by the godly (including, of course, Jesus) in both the Old and New Testament. My hunch is not that the Bible commands teetotaling, but the reason is more along the lines of what H.L. Mencken said about Puritanism: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.”
What I do know is that many Baptists do drink. Polls report that a third of Baptists admit to imbibing. And if a third are willing to concede this “sin” to a pollster, I am sure more than that drink alcohol. There are reasons that swaths of this country are laden with bourbon and Baptists. Probably the jokes I heard when I was fourteen are still told: “Jewish people do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Protestants do not recognize the Pope as the leader of Christianity. Baptists do not recognize each other in the liquor store.” “Why should you always take two Baptists on your fishing trip? If you take only one, he will drink all your beer.”
If there is hypocrisy about Moslems drinking, it is a hypocrisy shared by other religions and cultures. I am not about to cast the first cork.
The Moroccan wine, which I drank as much of as I could, was served most often to accompany a tagine. A tagine is the vessel in which food is cooked. The traditional Moroccan tagine is earthenware, with a circular, flat base with low sides and a removable cone-shaped cover that sits on the base during the cooking. That cover condenses escaping liquids allowing them to drip back onto the food. A tagine is wonderfully designed for slow cooking and is used in homes and restaurants throughout Morocco. Clearly using one can be a source of pride. Our guide, normally modest, bragged that his wife said that he made the best tagines. Apparently, it is a custom that men cook a tagine on Fridays.
Tagine means the pottery, but it also refers to the cooked food. We had tagines of many foods that can benefit from slow, moist cooking, including vegetables, beef, chicken, and lamb. We also had food that did not benefit from this cooking method—i.e., most of the fish dishes. The Moroccan cuisine is distinguished not only by the tagine pot, but also by the combination of the foods cooked inside it. Vegetables and protein together were obvious choices, but also fresh fruit such as plums were part of a dish. A careful blend of sweet and savory or sweet and sour was common. Nuts and dried fruit, perhaps apricots or dates, or even dried tomatoes were frequently used. And the careful spicing raises the cuisine to what is nearly mythic levels in some places. I have cooked lamb with rosemary, salt, and pepper. The Moroccan cuisine, however, had careful blends of spices. Cumin might be combined with cinnamon and ginger. Or saffron and paprika. Or with spices I don’t know. I am guessing that the best Moroccan chefs are known for their precise and innovative blending of spices. As a diligent tourist, I, of course, bought spice blends to bring home. (Oops, forgot to tell customs I brought back food.) And as a typical tourist, I have mostly forgotten how to use them.
The tagine was almost always accompanied by fresh baked bread. The bread was of many different styles and very good. I don’t know if the French influenced this baking, but the variety, the textures, the shapes, the tastes were about as good as I have had anywhere.
The tagine was usually proceeded by many small plates for the table of vinegary, cooked vegetables— several styles of carrots, beets, eggplant, and the like. Forkfuls from a variety of the dishes made a tasty salad. After the tagine sometimes we had a cake or some other confection, but mostly we had fresh fruit. Altogether, the meals we had were tasty and healthy.
And, yes, I looked for Moroccan cookbooks, but then I thought that it did not make sense to lug around a tome when I could find a good cookbook in New York to teach me Moroccan recipes. I have held on to that thought but so far with no action.