When I check my email I often am wading through dozens of junk emails. Then sometimes in the midst of a massive deleting spree I find one that catches my attention, and I’m never sure if it’s real, or if it’s an email from someone posing as someone else. That’s the story of this post. I woke up and scrolled through the emails in my phone that came in overnight (I know what a bad habit!) and I saw “Kitty Morse” in the subject line. “No,” I thought, “that’s not really an email from Kitty Morse contacting me,” and I almost hit delete. But curiosity got the best of me and I opened it. Low and behold – I was wrong – it really was Kitty Morse writing to me! I’ve written about my Paula Wolfert cookbooks, and I know I’ve mentioned Kitty a time or two but let’s recap. Kitty was born in Morocco to a French mom and British dad and moved to the US in the 1960’s. Her family has maintained their home, Dar Zitoun, since that time and Kitty has written extensively on Moroccan and North African cuisine. Her Cooking at the Kasbah: Recipes from my Moroccan Kitchen has been in my book shelf for years and I pine for a copy of The Scent of Orange Blossoms: Sephardic Cuisine from Morocco.
Today, she’s sharing an excerpt from her latest book, Mint Tea and Minarets which is part cookbook and part the sharing of the story of the home and area. Kitty was born in Casablanca and Dar Zitoun an hour south in Azemmour and is a home turned riad.
I’d already fallen in love with the hamlet’s name, the elision of its melodious syllables, with the first forming on my lips, the second and third gathering steam between throat and palate, and the fourth propelling itself gently from the tip of my tongue. Me-hi-ou-la. That none within my social circle could enlighten me as to its etymology was but a minor disappointment.
My father had never taken me to explore upriver, nor had he spoken of the now defunct auberge, the inn that once thrived above a stand of bulrushes in an idyllic valley located less than fifteen kilometers from the Azemmour ramparts.
Such an excursion would have required too many precious hours away from Dar Zitoun. Chafiq told of how he played soccer with his friends on a sliver of sand the locals referred to as “La Plage de Mehioula [Mehioula Beach].”
After a game, we’d go for a swim to cool off and then eat a couple of the oranges that rolled down the bank from the grove. The patrons of the auberge didn’t seem to mind.”Auberges, like the one at Mehioula, appealed to urban pieds-noirs, Europeans born and raised in North Africa, who followed French tradition by spending Sunday in the country. The establishments, with their red tiled roofs, expansive orchards, and lovingly tended vineyards, oozed Provençal charm.
As the years passed, I remembered French Moroccan inns less for their food than for their names: L’Auberge de la Forêt (Inn of the Forest), the more whimsical L’Auberge du Lièvre Volage (Inn of the Fickle Hare), and Le Sanglier Qui Fume (The Smoking Boar). The latter, in the High Atlas Mountains above Marrakech, was still the subject of international acclaim. Most, however, were but ephemeral features of the colonial era, and after Moroccan independence, were abandoned by their French proprietors. Chafiq hadn’t been sure the auberge of Mehioula was still in operation. Giving us directions was a challenge for Bouchaïb due to the dearth of road signs in the area, forcing him to dredge his memory for landmarks. “You’ll know you’re getting close when you reach the corn silo,” he said, referring to one of the beehive-shaped granaries unique to the region.
Our trip took an hour. The tertiary roads we followed were barely wide enough to accommodate our rented Renault subcompact. The rare bicyclist or horse-drawn wagon we encountered on the irregular tarmac had to give way as we approached, as we did when confronted with an oncoming grand taxi or truck; might made right, or rather, might made for right-of-way. We were forced to stop on several occasions to get independent confirmation of Bouchaïb’s directions, once from a group of old men who were passing the time in front of a quiet, country épicerie . . . Better yet, (one) informed us, one of his cronies happened to be going that way and would gladly ride along as our guide. We quickly agreed — before learning that the man in question was delivering a sheep to the organizer of an upcoming tribal festival. But we were already committed.
The shepherd, whose face was as weathered and brown as the earth he’d been sitting on, slid his hog-tied ewe across the seat before he himself climbed in . . . Transporting livestock was a first for us . . .In time, we could have adjusted to the smell of unwashed wool tinged with manure, but not on so short a run . . . The bleating cargo seemed as eager to reach its destination, as we were to deliver it. Its owner smiled and uttered a few words of Berber whenever I turned around . . . The last time he spoke up, it was in a tone so assertive that the meaning was clear. We pulled over.
The shepherd adjusted the hood of his burnoose, hauled the sheep from the car, and hoisted the animal onto his back.. . . He headed in the direction of a dozen women and children bent over at the waist cultivating corn. On a hillside above them was the silo Bouchaïb had described. I caught sight of a barely legible sign where the paving ended — “Mehioula.”
I let the name melt in my mouth like a puff of cotton candy . . .
Behold, a singular structure soars above the banks of the Oum er-Rbia, Mother of Spring River, within the ramparts of the 16thcentury medina of Azemmour — Dar Zitoun – “House of the Pasha.” Into her late father’s centuries-old riad (Moorish mansion) fifty miles south of her native Casablanca, Kitty Morse warmly coaxes you. Generations of cooks there sweeten the invitation. In the footfall of her deceased father, Kitty, an expert on Moroccan cuisine, uncovers the provenance of her culinary passion: Dar Zitoun was once a training venue for professional cooks. Having grown up in North Africa during the French Protectorate, a unique time in history, Kitty has a pied-noir’s rarified perspective. Her marathon quest for the riad’s title through Morocco’s Byzantine legal system helps build an appetite, as do the family recipes that accompany the tales just told. An amusing cast of characters brings to life the cultural mosaic that characterizes the northwest corner of Africa, Al Mahgreb Al Aqsa, the Land Where the Sun Sets.
Kitty is the author of ten cookbooks, five of them on the cuisine of Morocco and North Africa. Mint Tea and Minarets, was just awarded Best Arab Cuisine Book 2013 by the Gourmand World Cookbooks Awards. www.kittymorse.com. Excerpt from Mint Tea and Minarets: a banquet of Moroccan memories by Kitty Morse (La Caravane Publishing 2013) Photography Owen Morse. Content copyrighted. No reproduction without permission.