Morocco, The Good Oil

Olive Pressing, MoroccoFood Stalls, MoroccoAs soon as the bus comes to a stop, a good third of the passengers, clutching plastic flagons, alight and disappear up an alleyway beside the restaurant. My curiosity aflame, I wait a few minutes, then follow with my camera loaded and ready to fire. Tripping through the muddy lane I come out into a vacant lot. On the far side, I see a huddle of Moroccans by a group of lean-to’s and sheds. Skirting the pot-holes and puddles, I make my way over. As I edge my way to the front of the shed where they appear to be haggling, my appearance distracts and amuses them. But I am transfixed by the medieval sight inside.

A blindfolded camel plods wearily around a stone mortar of mammoth proportions. He is attached to a wooden shaft that is fixed to a vertical pole. This, in turn, is secured to the centre of the axle of two gigantic stone wheels inside the mortar. These wheels are crushing ripe, black olives. The camel’s feet follow a deeply worn track in the hardened earth floor, testament to the antiquity of this press.

A thick, dark green fluid trickles out from the exterior channel. This is olive oil in its most natural form. Highly sought after by the Moroccans, this first pressing produces a very strong flavoured, highly viscous oil. To the nose it is pungent. To the palate it is earthy, rich and powerful. No commercially processed olive oil can ever taste like this!

The owners of the press light-heartedly ask for a few dirhams in return for the photos I’ve been taking. I happily give them and return to the bus.

We are heading for Larache, an old Roman fishing port on the north west coast of Morocco. Our journey takes us through Sidi Kacem, Souk-el-Arba du-Rharb and Ksar-El-Kebir, a mountainous region with small settlements and fertile valleys. It is November, olive harvesting time. Along the road sides, small mountains of black olives await uplifting to the nearest press. We begin to see many stone wheel presses and find that the mule, widely used here for transport, is used at the wheel as well. This small scale production is typical of most of Morocco, however, there are large tracts of land being given over to the olive. Large scale production and modernization are under way.

Where the olive is gathered for eating, women, two or three at a time, can be seen up in the branches of the large, old trees, carefully plucking fat and ripe fruit, storing them in their gathered aprons. Small scale indeed, but time honoured, traditional and life lived at a better pace.

We first tasted the real ‘good oil’ of Morocco in the following recipe.  The oil can be so strong it dominates the dish, but we acquired a taste for it. As you are not likely to come across this raw oil outside of Morocco, use the strongest flavoured olive oil you can find.

BESSARA (puréed red kidney bean soup)
Ingredients and Method (for 6 people):
Wash and clean 500g (1lb 2oz) of dried, skinned kidney beans. Put on the heat with 2 cloves of garlic, 1 level teaspoonful of salt and 1½ litres (3 pints) of water. Leave to cook, stirring from time to time, then pass through a vegetable sieve. Add a little water if the purée is too thick. It should normally spread itself out over the dish when poured out. Heat well before serving. Pour into a heated bowl.

The Seasoning (for each individual bowl)
A good dessert spoonful of Raw Olive Oil is then floated on top, with a squeeze of lemon juice. The soup is topped off with a sprinkling of a mixture comprised of paprika, pounded cumin and chilli.

This dish is extremely nourishing and flavoursome.

Copyright © J Cedric Watkins 2009