The Dry World

Tangier, Morocco.  Image from the American Legation.

The American Legation area in Tangier, Morocco.

Tangier and the
Imaginary Maitre d'Fromage

To follow in the footsteps of the world's greatest cheese traveler, we must begin in Tangier.

Chickens hang upside down with their throats slit and the esophagus dangling. Cowheads sway from ropes and men carry just-dead sharks over their backs. The smell of mint, the color of saffron, the light of bare bulbs.

It’s the day before Ramadan, which means we need to move quickly through the medina, to find a slice of Berber goat cheese before it’s gone.

Ramadan means no eating, no drinking and no smoking until nightfall, so the men and women of Tangier in Northern Morocco are swarming to the medina to buy special foods they will store for the month-long occasion of contemplation and community.

Old American Legation, Tangier, Morocco

Blue door at the American Legation in Tangier.

The day before Ramadan is cause enough to unleash the Berber mountain people off their highland shepherding fields and into the city to exploit the Muslim holiday. The Berbers are not Arab, and today in their numbers they are conspicuous in their bright uniforms and colorful hats, with their sheep and goats in tow.

The Mediterranean - more or less the center of the world - has always excelled at creating mutts. What divides, say, the Greeks from the Arabs is only their relative distribution of Caucasian, African and Asian blood. The Berbers, then, are a peculiarity in the Mediterranean, for they are distinctly Caucasian. Like the Aborigines of Australia, who evolved in the desert from their Asian heritage, their isolation has made them one of the most distinctive people on Earth.

“Hold on to your wallets,” Mohammed says, as I’m telling him we have to find the Berber goat cheese before it’s sold out.

Tangier Streets

Arched gate in Tangier's medina.

We cross under arches and pass old men with ancient beards, cloaked figures as if preschool ghosts, and nine year olds selling toys and Fanta. Mohammed tries a round of cheese – a white pie wrapped in palm fronds. “No good,” he says, “we keep looking.”

“Sorry,” I say to a storekeeper, “quite sorry,” as I hit a number of dead chickens, making them swing back and forth. It’s hard work keeping up with Jane and Mohammed, who move like the wind in the narrow passages.

Between 1923 and 1956, Tangier was a kind of free-for-all ‘International Zone’ ruled jointly by 9 countries, including the United States, Britain and France. It is the Tangier we know best - a pre-hippie come-as-you-are that attracted everything from scorned homosexuals to beatniks to poets and painters to pedophiles, drug-pushers and a vast child slavery network.

Walking through this place – which resembles the culture of Spain and Italy as much as that of the rest of Morocco, you cannot escape the legacy of this odd time. An old European man we meet on the street has a crooked nose, a deep tan and a straw hat. He came to Tangier so many years ago for this lifestyle, and when I asked him about the International Zone days, he kissed his hand and threw it in the air. “Such beautiful times. Fantastic. That was life. Life was right here in Tangier.”

Long before this time – seven hundred years before the International Zone, Morocco was still the far end of the dry Muslim world, and even then radically different from the Middle Eastern heart of the Arab world. Because of this difference – because Tangerines considered themselves at the periphery of their Muslim world, Tangier would become the departure point for the world’s most incredible traveler.

Ibn Battutah was a Berber from the fourteenth century, although thoroughly islamicised, and at the mere age of twenty-one, he left Tangier on a walking quest into the heart of this Arab world, under the assumption that he would gain insight and enlightenment by approaching the center of his religion. His journey would take him a chunk of his life, and he covered 30,000 miles, three times the distance of Marco Polo.

According to Tim Mackintosh-Smith, who followed in Battutah’s steps in a 2001 travelogue, Battutah was likely influenced by a travel writing predecessor, a fellow by the name of Ibn Jubayr – a thirteenth century hero to the Arab travel writers of the fourteenth century. Jubayr was a Spanish Muslim who sought Mecca and returned a travel writer. His accounts of foreign lands were wildly popular, and likely a grand motivator for Battutah.

At home, Jane makes the pasta, but I shave the Parmigiano-Reggiano. One day during this ritual of what-I-call mutual responsibility, one of us asked the other if maybe someday we could commit to traveling the world in a quest. A quest to visit the towns and countrysides where artisanal cheeses are made.

This act was also a ritual. What if we traveled the world in search of stage clowns, in search of palm trees or artichokes?

With this particular whim, however, we made a pact – a six-year commitment to explore the world’s artisanal cheese towns - tasting farmhouse cheeses in the very towns where they were produced.But Jane and I are no cheese fanatics. Rather, I see cheese travels like Jerry Garcia described improvisational music – you need a thin structure and beyond that, whatever happens, let it happen.

The cheese is the note in the key, and when you end a passage, you land back on that note. For all you vegans and Cheez-Whiz bingers alike, don’t despair, for in artisanal cheese is a glimpse of humanity and the far reaches of your planet. We have selected six cheeses for the first leg of our journey. A short list of six fine cheeses in four countries.

Moroccan Lighting

Moorish lantern in the foyer of the El Minzah Hotel

This act was also a ritual. What if we traveled the world in search of stage clowns, in search of palm trees or artichokes?

With this particular whim, however, we made a pact – a six-year commitment to explore the world’s artisanal cheese towns - tasting farmhouse cheeses in the very towns where they were produced.But Jane and I are no cheese fanatics. Rather, I see cheese travels like Jerry Garcia described improvisational music – you need a thin structure and beyond that, whatever happens, let it happen.

The cheese is the note in the key, and when you end a passage, you land back on that note. For all you vegans and Cheez-Whiz bingers alike, don’t despair, for in artisanal cheese is a glimpse of humanity and the far reaches of your planet. We have selected six cheeses for the first leg of our journey. A short list of six fine cheeses in four countries.

Ibn Battutah. had a hero for his grand tour, but there is no such inspiration for a grand tour of the world’s finest cheeses. So we have to invent one.

That invention is an imaginary Maitre Fromage – an imaginary cheese expert. We named him St. Deuberex Montclair – a vaguely European gentlemen who in the year 1910, in that innocent age before the World Wars, wrote an imaginary tome called ‘The Cheese Traveler.’ In it he imagined what his circumstance as an educator never allowed him – a guideline to visiting the greatest known artisanal cheeses of the time.

Like Battutah, we also take our first steps here in Tangier, although for different reasons and in different directions. Cheese is thought to have been invented in what is now Arab Africa – perhaps as early as 8,000 B.C. But cheese has made its greatest strides in France, Italy, England and Switzerland, taking on thousands of forms and tastes. Montclair wrote, “This is why you take your first steps at the Straits of Gibraltar, where the Southern Pillar of Hercules points its cultural finger north, to Europe. You nod to the origin and you walk toward the majesty.”

Ibn Battutah. had a hero for his grand tour, but there is no such inspiration for a grand tour of the world’s finest cheeses. So we have to invent one.

That invention is an imaginary Maitre Fromage – an imaginary cheese expert. We named him St. Deuberex Montclair – a vaguely European gentlemen who in the year 1910, in that innocent age before the World Wars, wrote an imaginary tome called ‘The Cheese Traveler.’ In it he imagined what his circumstance as an educator never allowed him – a guideline to visiting the greatest known artisanal cheeses of the time.

Like Battutah, we also take our first steps here in Tangier, although for different reasons and in different directions. Cheese is thought to have been invented in what is now Arab Africa – perhaps as early as 8,000 B.C. But cheese has made its greatest strides in France, Italy, England and Switzerland, taking on thousands of forms and tastes. Montclair wrote, “This is why you take your first steps at the Straits of Gibraltar, where the Southern Pillar of Hercules points its cultural finger north, to Europe. You nod to the origin and you walk toward the majesty.”

The spidery narrows of Tangier’s medina takes us at last to a small kiosk exclusively selling Berber goat cheese. Mohammed samples a few and at last says, ‘very good.’ He buys us a pie and the three of us sit on stools, picking at the tofu-like cheese.

The cheese is soft and light in flavor. If anything, it tastes strongly of yogurt. For the Muslims in Tangier, this is a specialty to be savored in their ninth month of the year. For us, it is a taste of cheese in its earliest form. While we sit and eat, Jane asks Mohammed about his favorite kind of movie. “American!” he says. “Which movies?” I ask. He says, “Syllesty Styleen!”

“Sylvester Stallone?” Jane says.

“Yes, Rambo! He’s American yes?”

“Italian American!”

“Italian American?” He contemplates this while chain-smoking Moroccan cigarettes. I wonder if his chain-smoking is a habit, or if he’s purging before Ramadan.

 

The souks of Tangier

Deep in Tangier's maze-like markets.

 

He says, “I love this guy, Rambo! He’s in the trees, he’s in the air, he’s on the rocks. And these China people can smell him, you know? They can smell that he’s there….” Mohammed extinguishes his cigarette and yells, “but he…rat-a-tat-a-tat and…he gets ‘em!”

In the evening, Mohammed wishes us well and we retreat to the El Minzah Hotel wine bar, which plays a mix of Frank Sinatra singing Antonio Carlos Jobim standards, the Buena Vista Social Club, Nina Simone and Cesaria Evora. Above our table is an autographed photo of Jacques Cousteau, sitting so many years ago at our table.

Tonight will be a raucous affair in Tangier. Dogs will howl and Muslims will bark, all until four in the morning when perhaps we’ll finally sleep. Tomorrow, St. Deuberex Montclair’s grave will shake in anticipation, as we ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar.

 

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