Have you ever massaged your food during the cooking process? Well, it was certainly the first time I ever witness such a thing, but apparently that’s the traditional Berber way to cook cous cous! Something Valentina and I found out at 10pm on New Year’s Eve, in a Berber kitchen in the middle of the Moroccan mountains, hungry and tired after a day of climbing and wondering what on earth was going on…
I don’t remember whose idea it was to go to Morocco for an end-of-year climbing holiday, but I loved it straight away, having been to the country a couple of times before and loved it both times. I originally suggested going somewhere like Costa Blanca, which apparently is a great place to climb in the winter, but the price of the tickets and the difficulty getting there, considering we were all going to fly from different places, had put us off. Morocco seemed to work for everyone, and more importantly, it is warm this time of year, and cheap all year round!
So, after painstakingly working out a day when we could all arrive within not too many hours of each other – me flying from Germany, Valentina from Italy, and Gianni from London – we finally had an itinerary.
- Arrive in Marrakesh on 28th December
- Travel eight hours by coach to Tinghir on the 30th
- Climb in Todra Gorge for three days
- Head back for Marrakesh on 3rd January, 2016!
That meant New Year’s Eve in the mountains, which was exciting and unpredictable, and we all loved the idea!
There is a saying in Russia, the way you welcome in the New Year is the way you will spend it. Well, we welcomed it in with a group of Spanish climbers, in a Berber house, having finally sat down to eat a HUGE dish of cous cous after – I kid you not! – three hours of cooking it. Which involved the said massage – something that had to be performed once after the cous cous was first rinsed, and again after it was cooked the first time. While it was steaming hot.
Now, apologies to all Berber people, because I am probably insulting you here, but isn’t cous cous the quickest thing in the world to cook? Boil water, cover the grains, leave them to stand for five minutes, done! Ok, ok, so apparently there is also this special non-instant cous cous that needs cooking for longer. But I saw the packaging, and it was exactly the same as the stuff we get over here (probably imported from Morocco)! And even if it had been, three hours?!!! Really??!
Let’s backtrack for a second. New Year’s Eve, 31st December, was our first day of outdoor climbing in Todra Gorge. We did not know what to expect in the slightest and had no plans for the evening. From the previous night’s attempts to discover evening entertainment or even acceptable food in Tinghir, a village where we were staying, around 15km away from the gorge, we discovered there was none. So we hoped a plan would materialise once we arrived at the crag, met some climbers and inevitably became great friends with them within half an hour (that is, after all, the way the climbing community works, right?).
And that is kind of what happened. We met two groups of climbers that day – three boys from Ireland and four climbers from Spain, and all of them invited us to join them for celebrations in the evening. They were all staying in Todra itself, which presented a problem if we wanted to go back to our hotel at night – unfortunately, Uber does not work in the Moroccan mountains, and the walk back to our hotel from Todra would be a grueling 3 hours in the bracing cold of night (well…colder than the balmy 22 degrees of the midday sun!). But we decided we should still come and party there, instead of staying in the town where we knew no one.
We chose to stay with the Spanish lot for one main reason – they were hanging out with a Berber man called Sufjan, who was also a climber, but couldn’t climb himself due to an injury. He provided topos for the area (more on this topic in a separate blog!), and also regularly housed climbers in his family home, where the Spaniards were spending New Year’s Eve. They invited us to join them, and we thought the experience was not to be missed. Well…I guess one thing is sure, we will never forget our Spanish/Berber New Year’s Eve celebrations!
After we finished climbing, we got a lift back to our hotel from one of the Spanish guys so we could shower and change, while he and Sufjan went grocery shopping in the town for festive dinner and some Moroccan wine – a novelty in a country as dry as Morocco. Not that wine is impossible to come across here, but it has to be bought from hotels and it is expensive by local standards (though apparently a bottle of the wine we had actually only cost €7). Anyway, around 8pm we got picked up again at our hotel and drove to the Berber house.
When we arrived it was past 8.30pm and Valentina very aptly predicted that the food would not be ready until midnight. I was convinced some vegetables and cous cous could not take so long to cook. After all, Sufjan had “forgotten” (skimped out on??) the meat, so we were in for a vegetarian meal! I was wrong. It really did take three hours. And on top of that, we were made to do all the work in the kitchen – either because we were women, though there was another girl there not participation, or because we expressed an interest in the Berber cooking tradition.
The cous cous was cooked in an aluminium contraption consisting of a pot at the bottom, in which the vegetables were boiling, and the cous cous in an aluminium sieve on top, with the steam from the vegetables rising to cook it over time. Except the device didn’t really work, so Sufjan used an old torn up plastic bag to seal the gaps between the two dishes, to allow the steam to seep through to the top. That I will also never forget. Then, at the crucial moment, the gas stove ran out of gas and we had to use a portable gas cylinder, except the dish would not balance on it without spilling over, so we had to crouch on the floor, holding it up from either side with a towel, to avoid burning our hands. It was around 10.30/11pm by this point. Simply epic.
Now you would think three hours of cooking would produce stunning results, with subtle flavours and delicate aromas, but unfortunately it did not. Which makes me that little bit more amazed at how long it all took. Because it was literally a mountain of cous cous, covered in boiled vegetables and a bit of broth, flavoured with a tiny bit of salt and cheap saffron. Luckily, Sufjan had some spicy sauce, which made it all more bearable. Apart from this masterpiece, we had the usual bread, which comes with every meal in Morocco, fruit and pastries for dessert, and one bottle of wine between nine of us. This was particularly surprising, since we chipped in €10 each for the groceries, an amount that usually goes a very long way in Morocco. But that’s a lesson learnt – do your own food shopping, no matter how little time you have and how badly you need a shower instead!
But it certainly wasn’t all bad, don’t get me wrong. For one thing, I managed to start working on one of my New Year’s resolutions right there and then – to go back to learning Spanish – as we spent the entire night speaking exclusively in that language. I understood…some of it. We also met some wonderful people. One of the Spanish climbers was blind (!), but climbed harder than us and was planning to do a multi-pitch with his friend the following day. The girl in the group had been climbing just over a year, but could comfortable flash a 6c lead outdoors. They were a cool and impressive bunch, and I’m really glad we met them!
And did you know what the Spaniards do as the clock strikes 12 on New Year’s Eve? They take a small piece of fresh ginger, chew it and swallow it while making a wish. It’s supped to bring good luck and good health. That was probably the most flavoursome thing we’d eaten all night! And we washed it down with a couple of shots of Mezcal, a distilled alcoholic beverage which comes from Mexico, made from the maguey plant. The blind man brought a bottle of the stuff with him, and at 41% alcohol it kept us toasty in the late hours. Because Berber houses don’t really have heating, apart from some coal burners or an old camping stove, and it gets pretty chilly in the Moroccan desert and mountains that time of year, so we had to resort to everything we could to keep ourselves warm.
We ended up staying in that house, as there was no way to get back to our hotel room, and spent the night dreaming about a hot shower and sheets that didn’t smell of goat. But looking back, I already cherish the memory of that experience. The simple joy of waking up in the mountains and taking a walk up to the bottom of a sheer sandstone cliff, glowing orange in the morning sunshine, ready for a day of climbing, cannot be spoiled by a cold bed and a badly cooked cous cous dish. Nothing compares to starting the New Year that way, and I’m grateful that this was the way I walked into 2016.