Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Forsa Fromage

Well now, that was a productive and inspiring weekend. Ana eyiti.

So Lisa and Marian (PCVs) arrive Friday afternoon in time for us to meet Meriem (President of the new Women’s Assn. who asked for help w/the Milk Coop) to check out the facilities for the cheese workshop. Meriem has moved her personal kitchen into her bedroom to give that space for the Women’s Assn to make their hlwa (sweets, ie; cookies, cakes), and they’re busy filling trays w/beautiful things that they’ll serve at the post-Cheese Workshop party on Sunday.

We find out that, in fact, it was the kitchen of the Dar Taliba that Meriem was suggesting we use for the workshop. (The Dar Taliba houses 53 girls from the countryside during the week so they can attend school). This could not have worked out better. Huge kitchen, all the equipment we need, a large room attached to conduct the workshop and a dining room for serving, etc. In addition, it’s in the middle of everything in town, ie; can walk over to the Adwal Coop and show it off, can run to hanuts or back to my place to get anything we’ve forgotten, right by the Marche for Saturday meeting w/Hassan, etc. We are introduced to Mohamed, who is the President of the Milk Coop. Mushrfyn. We all climb in his car to also check out the Milk Coop in Zouia (about 10min down the road). Originally the workshop was going to be held there, but fortunately the Dar Taliba space was offered (maybe because Meriem’s sister works there, you think?).

It was very informative to go to the Coop, ie; 99 members bring in their milk daily, they’re paid a set price and it’s all sold to a larger Cooperative that comes by daily to collect the milk (it’s fresh from the cow, otherwise will spoil overnight). Their margins are extremely tight, thus their interest in doing something other than just selling milk, ie; make cheese. This Coop, which is only 1 ½ years old, has also not paid out the Coop proceeds, per membership agreement, so they can save enough money to buy land and build a warehouse for feed storage. I’m blown away. This is the first time I’ve heard of that type of saving/investment on the part of an organization in the countryside, ever. Tbarkalihum!

Mohamed has a chicken emblem on his keychain and Lisa asks him about it. Says he has chickens, do we want to see them? Well, one thing I’ve learned in Morocco is to never turn down an offer to go see something. So off we go, figuring we’ll see some cute chickens. Holy crap. 14,500 chicks. This is a major business he’s got going-all his. Never seen any production on this scale in Morocco either. Tbarkalih.

Saturday morning we’re about 5 minutes late to the workshop (which is normally about 1 hour early in Morocco), and the women are already gathering. Oops. Lisa gets set up, we’ve got copies of all the recipes for each of the women, incl. terrific diagrams that Lisa made for those who may be illiterate. She commences the workshop that, over the course of 2 days, produces 5 different types of cheeses: Neufchatel, Feta, Gouda, Ricotta and first yogurt and then yogurt cheese. In the downtime, Lisa shares some of her baking expertise w/the women-making a cake and cheesecake (using the Neufchatel and Yogurt cheeses).

In addition, 5 friends from Fes join us on Saturday: Gail who owns FezFoods and runs cooking classes in Fes and takes tourists on culinary adventures in Morocco; Michele who, along with her husband, own and operate a destination expertise company and want to bring tourists into the countryside; Colleen aka Cowlie Flower; Vanessa and Louise. I had set up a meeting for Gail and Michele with Hassan, President of the Ribat El Kheir Tourism Assn., to discuss what types of “tours” he could do for them and their guests. They had a great discussion, and along the way, realized that all their guests are English speakers, and Hassan speaks Arabic and French. No problem if Pete or I are here, but mushkil otherwise. But Wait! This is the alternating weekend that friend Fouzia should be in town (she lives in Sefrou) and she speaks excellent English, generations of her family are from REK and she’s currently looking for work. Call her up and she walks over to join the discussion. She agrees to work with both Michele and Gail as interpreter when they bring guests to REK. Love it when a plan comes together. Side note-Michele and her husband are scheduling time to come back later this week to spend more time w/Hassan, do some trekking, etc. so they know what options they can offer to their guests. Gail has a Canadian chef coming to Morocco film a piece on traditional food of the Moroccan countryside and they’re scheduled to come to REK next month-we’ll try to set up the Milk/Cheesemaking women, Olive Oil press, Couscous Coop and Honey Coop.

Sunday is another full day. When we arrive at the Dar Taliba at 9am, Fatima is already at work on our couscous lunch. Lisa begins the next set of cheeses and next steps of what was started on Saturday. Some cheeses, like the Feta and Gouda, require more time to set before they can be eaten, so Lisa has already made one of each of these ahead of time so that the women will be able to taste what they are making. We sit down to a couscous feast, after which Mohamed (Pres of Milk Coop) talks w/the women about the Coop. Some of the Women’s Assn (not members of the Milk Coop) are interested in having milk cows, and it’s a great opportunity for him to address their questions.

As if this isn’t enough, there’s still a hfla (party) to be had. The Women’s Assn has been baking all week long, and asked if they could have a party at the end of the Cheese Workshop to show off their baked goods (like they have to ask-it’s their workshop!). Merhaba!

While Lisa is finishing off the gouda making, we’re weighing the Neufchatel and Yougurt cheeses for yields, then setting them up for the tastings. We mix some of the 2 cheeses with other flavors, ie; thyme, honey, cinnamon, strawberry jam and garlic. We want them to think about how different the cheese can taste and varieties they could sell. The women make a couple of salads that we can use for the Feta tasting. Fatima takes me upstairs to show me the girls who are being dressed and made up in traditional Berber attire. Other community members are gathering downstairs for the party. Finally the party commences; music, the girls walk in to the traditional women’s song/ululating, the cheese and hlwa are passed around and Lisa and I are presented w/certificates. Why we are given certificates and not the women who completed the workshop is a bit unusual, but a very nice gesture on Meriem’s part. The cheeses are a hit-delicious.

We are finally finished w/everything about 5:30, drag ourselves back to my place and pretty much collapse-we’re beat, and both Lisa and I have to travel Monday. Lisa wanted to get to Khemisset by 11 for an English class (that will be tight) and I need to get to Ifrane for a meeting at Al Akhawayn University. I then go to Fes overnight at Gail’s before heading to Casablanca to greet Lindsay at the airport. It’s vacation time. And how!

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