With Day 3 seeing me to bed at 9.00pm, I had a lengthy 10 hour stint before arising at 7.00am for the start of Day 4. Today promises excitement, we are being given the works by a local vineyard, Val d’Argon, the only biologique vineyard in Morocco. It is about 20 minutes away in a taxi and the vineyard is providing us with lunch, a tour of the vineyard and winery and a hopefully pleasant afternoon.
It is now 9.45am and the day is warming up. Someone has just mentioned that it is Christmas Eve. When I think back over the many Christmas Eves I have experienced, this surely as the makings of the best of them. I remember lots of them that alcohol took over and more when the weather did the same but it is a pleasant 20C here at the moment and only a hint of wine in the air. Our housekeepers Abdul and Saida have their jobs made slightly easier by the presence of seagulls. They line up on the ramparts of the terasse whilst we eat our petite dejeuner and when finished they swoop down and take away anything that is not wood, ceramic, glass or steel, leaving the tables spotless and devoid of crumbs and bits of bread.
Well anybody who comes to Essaouira needs to visit Val d’Argon.
Lunch was fantastic in a lovely dining room overlooking the vines. We started with an assortment of vegetables, carrots, lemon and coriander, peppers green and red, cauliflower, lentils with a sprinkling of sea salt, tomatoes, beans and radish all cooked but served cold some with olive oil, some with argon oil and aubergines served warm. Prior to this we had bread and the two oils and little pieces of goats cheese and radish served with salt, pepper and cumin. The vegetable assortment, which was all grown in the vineyards own vegetable garden was absolutely delicious with everybody’s favourite being the aubergines and lentils. Then for the main course there was a choice of lamb chops, fish or beef, all cooked over charcoal. I had the lamb and has I said there is not much art to the butchery here, just a 2 kilo axe and the beast is cut into manageable pieces. I had four big pieces of lamb with potatoes and beans. I was gnawing at bones for 10 minutes after the meal.
With each course we had wines from the vineyard, a beautiful dry white mainly of muscat but with degrees ofclairette, bourboulenc, ugni blanc, roussanne, viognier and grenach, Then we had a gris made of muscat, very dry but delicious and with the meat we had a dark red, slightly chilled made of syrah, grenach, mourvedre, marsanne and muscat de bambourg. Finally we had a fantastic desert wine which smelt of port wine but was very dry and flavoursome. The whole experience cost us 200 dirhams each and was fantastic and then a tour of the winery and vineyard. All the vines are picked by hand and the vintage is early July and sometimes the last week in June. Orange trees and argon trees abound around the edges of the vineyard and ponies chew up the weed and grass growth round the base of the vines without disturbing the vines themselves. The owner also has a vineyard on the Rhone at Chateauneuf de Pape. We loaded the two taxis up with wine and headed back to Essaouira, the 18km trip takes about 20 minute and cost 200 dirhams for the four of us. Another 30 year old merc. The driver was from the Sahara in south, south Morocco about 1400 kms away and he goes in his taxi two or three times a year. God knows how many miles these mercs can do, for all I know they could be like Trigger’s brush.
If I can I will just explain the argon oil business. The oil is big here and highly prized in Europe as both a cooking oil and a cosmetic oil. Here it is plentiful and reasonably cheap whereas in Europe it is expensive. The argon tree is planted all along the westen side of the Sahara and is the main reason why the desert has not reached the Atlantic. It thrives in temperatures up to 50C. It is a totally female based industry with female communes, collecting and processing the nuts. Most of these females for one reason or another have fallen foul of the community mainly by having children out of wedlock, so has well has being an industry it is also a charity. The nuts have a casing which is hard to remove so they are fed to goats whose digestive system removes this casing but cannot break down the nut. The goats excrete the nuts and the women extract the nuts from the manure, they then grind them to produce the oil. The cosmetic oil is produced by grinding the nut and the casing together and is not edible. The edible oil has an intense nutty, smoky flavour and is delicious with salads, the cosmetic oil is good for both skin and hair and the females in our party after a few days swear by its positive affect.
Well we all tied one on last night and had a good night’s sleep, up at 7.30am and I cooked the merguez sausages bought on Monday as a pre-breakfast treat. The kids loved them as did I. It is the start of Day 5 and would you believe Christmas Day, the sun is low in the sky over the Sahara but it is only 9.00am and the heat already is making itself known up on the terasse. Today for Christmas Day lunch we are walking the few hundred yards to the port and eating in the Restaurant de la Porte which sits about 3 metres above the Atlantic with South Carolina just beyond the horizon. No turkey today but plenty of soupe de poissons and prawns and octopus. After a relaxing pastis, I had the fish soup which was brill and then fish tagine, the tagine pot was wiped clean with plenty of bread and the lot was washed down by Sahari gris and then back to the riad for a feet up afternoon. This is the way to spend Christmas, no cooking, no washing up and no flaming turkey but lots of delicious wine. It is a balmy 22C feeling cooler because of the breeze. I cannot truly relate how good all the experiences are. You can walk 100 metres down the same street every day and see or feel something different each time, something you missed from the day before, there are so many things to take in and everybody so friendly and everybody so desperate for the odd dirham or two off you. Everybody thinks we are millionaires and in this environment I suppose we are; millionaires for the two weeks.
So after a glass or two of wine in a local rooftop bar watching the massive Atlantic waves being smashed to pieces on the rocks outside the walls of the Medina and watching the Christmas Day evening sunset magnificently dip below the western horizon, it was home to the Riad de la Mer for another early night and the end of Day 5, our muslim Christmas Day over.
St Stephen’s Day, Day 6, started early for me. Showered and washed and tarted up for 6.00am, I spent the next few hours writing letters and catching up on this diary. It is hard to get used to how such poverty stands side by side with great wealth on a daily basis. This riad we are in is down a dingy, smelly tunnel lined with smart boutiques, luxury hammams and portable stalls selling everything and anything. One man outside our door sells single cigarettes, he does 15 hour shifts at his stall and every now and then somebody brings him mint tea and in the six days watching him I have only seen him sell three cigarettes. He specialises in Marlboro. Opposite our riad door is a tailor/dressmaker called Barak, a smashing chap who has fitted my daughter out with some great clothes. He is making me a Moroccan shirt from linen cloth and he is bringing it round this morning. He worked in New York for 20 years but was glad to come home and he can speak at least five languages. He is also going to show me how to fashion a turban. The shirt is delightful and my turban turns me into a proper Berber. I am now a fully fledged Essaouiran.
Essaouira is a town of 90,000 people, on latitude 31N and longitude 10W about 400kms south of Casablanca. We are on Greenwich Mean Time, one euro is 11 dirhams, bread is one dirham, a glass of tea or coffee is 7 dirhams, vegetables are 2 dirham per kilo, meat is 80 dirhams per kilo. Beggars, troubadors, acrobats, singers, snake charmers abound all doing their best for an odd dirham or two that you hand out. One of these street turns was an artist, wheeled to his pitch every day, he doesn’t beg, he cannot speak and he has no arms or legs. He paints remarkable pictures of local scenes in bright colours with a brush held in his mouth and along with all his frailties he has the tremors, how he manages his beyond belief. He has a water bottle and every now and then a waiter from one of the cafes walks over and gives him a slug of water. There is no state benefit system here but an unemployment/redundancy benefit will be started shortly, so you have to earn your corn as best you can. The beggars are the most cynical at least the others have some skills or at least the odd limb missing.
The evening of Day 6 consisted of me preparing a beef tagine and having a few aperos, I find cooking a lot less tiring when alcohol accompanies the task. My apero of choice in riad this week is vodka, juice of half a lime and the glass topped up with sparkling water. It is ideal for this climate. The women went off for another hammam, so myself and son in law swallowed a couple of aperos more prior to tagine in our favourite rooftop bar. We returned shining and the tagine was, as I expected, lovely. Beef, onions, garlic, tomatoes, beans and carrots with harissa, cumin, pepper and ginger, all washed down with a bottle of gris and I wandered off to bed uncertainly at 9.oopm