Paths of Excellence

Paths of Excellence

Chefchaouen – Morocco

From the land to the table

Morocco is initiating an ambitious policy of promoting regionalization and territorial specificities both in tourism and agriculture, having the richest biodiversity in the Mediterranean after Turkey. In this context, the region of Chefchaouen, in the Rif massif is a good example of how new territorial dynamics are promoted. The region hosts a number of national and international governance frameworks that support conservation and the sustainable use of local resources. UNESCO has recognized this territory in 2006 as the first Biosphere reserve that encompasses two continents. There are also other territorial conservation initiatives such as Talassemtane National Park, and the proposed creation of the Regional Natural Park Bouachem. Chefchaouen is now a leading center of tourism, which attracts not only foreign, but also national visitors, mainly from the south of the country.

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Significantly, the province of Chefchaouen concentrates a tremendous wealth of territorial assets, both natural and cultural. It is located in the heart of the Yebala-gomara society (or Yebala country) characterized by the Yebala agrosilvopastoral system where cultivated, natural and semi-natural areas coexist and overlap intimately. There are three cultivations that are emblematic for the people of Yebala-gomara, which are the olive, the fig tree and the vine. Plum, apricot, pomegranate, orange, almond, and apple trees are also cultivated. Valuing and promoting diverse local products such as goat cheese and meat, olive oil, honey, dried figs, beans, samet (syrup), aromatic and medicinal plants, and so on, has been considered strategic for a sustainable territorial development.

The products of Chefchaouen – Morocco

Cereals, couscous and the tradition of bread

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Cereals occupy most of the farmland in Yebala countries. The main crops found in the region are: durum wheat, barley, sorghum, corn and rye with several varieties for each one. Traditional cultivation of cereals is integrated in the olive groves. The wheat is for human consumption only, while barley, sorghum and maize can also be used for animal consumption. Advances in agronomy have increased the farmland necessary for growing wheat but have also limited the farmland dedicated to grow rye, a corn more resistant to drought.

In the Moroccan Rif the seeds of rye feed poultry or are grounded into flour which is also mixed with other flours (wheat, sorghum, corn…) and used for the production of a dense bread that maintains its freshness even after several days.  Rye straw, which is more robust than other cereals, is used for the construction of rooftops, which can withstand a decade.

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Bread is the basis of every meal. There are a variety of breads made with spelt flour, rye, wheat, barley, corn, combined or prepared separately but increasingly being replaced by white bread. Women frequently make ​​bread in their homes. Cereals are also used to prepare couscous, archa (thick pancakes of semolina) and many other derivatives such as ftayar (a sort of pancake puff), bagrers (pancakes with yeast), especially eaten during the month of Ramadan. In Chefchaouen bread is often baked in collective wood ovens especially in the old part of the city. Many local cereals are now endangered, especially spelt or small spelt (chkalia) due to the standardization of the methods of production and the abandonment of crops.

Olive oil

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Olive is the most cultivated fruit in Morocco and its plantations configure the countries landscape. Oil is ubiquitous in Moroccan cuisine, particularly in the north of the country. The oil from this region is famous in Morocco for its strong and fruity flavor. Historically, olive culture is one of the pillars of agriculture in the Tanger-Tétouan and Ouezane regions. The most widespread olive variety in the region is the “Moroccan Picholine”. Locally, some farmers practice graft in the wild olive.

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The harvest period takes place from November to January. Olive oil is produced according to three different processes: a traditional one, a semi-traditional one and a modern one. In the traditional process, firstly olives are placed on an animal-drawn mill. The juice recovered can then be processed in two ways: either it is transferred into a decant barrel with cold water in which women mash it with their feet and recover the oil soaked fabrics that are later drained. Or it is placed in baskets of palm leaves that are installed on a hand press, allowing to filter the oil thus retaining solid particles and impurities. The oil is then recovered in concrete barrels adjacent to the press. This is the most common choice. In both cases, the produced oil is dense and has a very pronounced taste, which is very appreciated locally.

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Oil has a strong acidity due to the length of time the olives are stored once harvested; the subsequent process of crushing extends for several months. In the semi-traditional process the reduction of time in storing the olives minimizes acidity. Mechanization also fosters a wider number of consumers due to increased yields and production capacity. Modern crushing machinery have revolutionized oil extraction mechanisms to respect international standards of hygiene and controls. Firstly, the olives are collected and weighed. Then, they are cleaned with cold or warm water in order to maintain quality. Once impurities are removed olives are kneaded and a decanter separates the solid parts. The oil is then filtered. Fine and light oil is produced, which satisfies the tastes of European markets. It is intended primarily for export and for Moroccan urban customers. Making olive oil mobilizes a multitude of actors. This is one of the most practiced and profitable activities in the region, often supported by cooperation projects. Many producers gathered in cooperatives around this product in order to optimize production. The traditional mills are mostly families run. The sale of oil is based on the built trust between consumers and producers.

Chaouen Honey and Strawberry Tree Honey

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Honey production is an ancient practice from the Yebala mountain region. The main local varieties of honey are: the strawberry tree, carob, thistle and floral honey. Originally, honey was produced employing the traditional cork beehive installed in the forest and the practice of transhumance, which was very limited. The putting pressure on the honeycombs of the traditional beehive obtains honey harvest. In the ‘80s the importance of beekeeping in the region was drastically reduced by the appearance of varroa  (a small parasitic mite) that decimated bee population and greatly discouraged the beekeepers.

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Since the nineties decade, modern beehives have been introduced and the practice of transhumance began to arise outside the province to produce other types of honey (eucalyptus, orange…). However traditional beehives persist and the honey produced is very popular among consumers and highly valued in the local market. Honey is entrenched in the alimentary habits of the Yebala people. It is usually eaten with bread at breakfast or served to guests at teatime. It is also used during Ramadan to elaborate cakes or during religious events and holidays (marriage). However, due to its high price, honey is usually not employed in bakery recipes. Its therapeutic use is very extended, particularly the strawberry tree honey variety. Beekeeping is an important economic activity in the region representing an important additional source of income for many families.

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The province of Chefchaouen currently has twenty cooperatives that gather a total of one hundred beekeepers. The sale price is sometimes very high, as in the case of strawberry tree honey, making it a significant source of income for beekeepers. Strawberry tree honey is an emblematic product of the region due to the abundance of strawberry trees in the woods. The flowering period extends between November and December. This honey is highly prized in the region for its virtues and its therapeutic use. It is easily recognized for its bitter taste and its dark color. This honey is used (alone or with olive oil) as a medicine to cure respiratory diseases and gastrointestinal problems. Beekeepers are working to diversify their products. For instance, they are generating pharmaceutical and cosmetic products such as pollen, propoleum, wax, creams, soaps and shampoo which generate more revenue from the honey they initially harvest.

Samet (grape extract)

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Since the XVI century, samet or grape extract was produced in the Chefchaouen region but gradually fell into oblivion and is now only produced in a few villages of the region.

When it was produced in the former agricultural regions of Bab Taza and Mokrisset, the elaboration of samet was a way to preserve the last grapes of the harvest, which are the less presentable. In the 70s, the phylloxera epidemic decimated the vines of the region, which were replaced by less fragile crops. Furthermore, the cultivation of different varieties of vines, such as the black vine and other vine varieties were located in the Moroccan Rif. A portion of grape production is intended for alimentary use as fresh grapes or as raisins, samet is made with the remaining grapes. All the vines varieties can be used for elaboration of samet. Towards the end of winter, the vines reach their mature state. Samet elaboration mobilizes an ancestral knowledge. The grapes are harvested, cleaned and washed. They are then dried in a basket and mashed by feet stomping within a basket. The juice is filtered before being placed in a clay container and then mixed with water. Once filtered and drained, it is cooked in a pot over high heat for over 8 hours. Once cooled, samet is preserved for a long time in bottles. Its production is reserved mostly for self-consumption and does not have much of an impact in the local economy. Samet has an important role in the alimentary and medicinal traditions of the region. It is consumed with butter at breakfast, as if it were honey. It is an energetic foodstuff that is also used – mixed with olive oil or honey – as medicine in cases of cold or fever. It is also given to women after childbirth and due to its energetic qualities it is regularly consumed during the winter season. The typical character of samet lies essentially in the perpetuation of an ancient knowledge that is crucial to preserve and not distort. The issues that arise from the production of samet are mainly linked to grape production. Today, the few vines around Bab Taza Muscat are muscatel grapes originally from Italy. It is grown at the expense of other local varieties of grapes, as Taferialte, Singu or Boukhanzir, which could, by its reintroduction in the region, contribute to biodiversity, an essential factor for local sustainable development.

Figs

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Fresh or dry, premature or mature, the fig is a Mediterranean fruit for excellence, and is a celebrated product in the Yebala country. Figs, grapes and olive are the three historic fruits of the region. Evidence of this can be found by assessing the amount of different varieties that grow in the territory: 83 local varieties of figs have been censed in the peninsula of Tingitane and more than 130 local varieties in the whole region of Rif. In ancient times, Moroccan northern peoples exchange figs for cereals coming form the plans. Figs are harvested and sold, fresh or dry. Traditional desiccation is attained by sun exposure, placing the figs on rooftops. Recently, families of Yebala have been practicing the drying of figs for their own consumption. In these past years, development projects have been supporting the expansion of modern drying machinery in the province of Chefchaouen. In these cases, once the figs are selected, they are cleaned in clear water before having been dried for 5 to 6 hours in racks.

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The modern drying machinery works with solar energy or with gas. After drying, the figs are fumigated and are then packed for commercialization. Figs are consumed fresh from May to the beginning of June. Dry figs are consumed throughout the entire year, especially during the month of Ramadan. In the mountainous region of Chauen, dry figs have always been the essential food stuff for shepherds, due to its nutritive value. The surface of fig plantations in the region of Tánger Tétouan is of 8000 hectares and the production is estimated to be of 16,000 tons. The fig has a strong potential for valorization. The diversity of local genetic heritage, its significance in the food culture and the development of a sector organization are different axis upon which development initiatives could consolidate. One of the challenges is to formulate alternatives, which foster perspectives that value and preserve agro-biodiversity and associated traditional knowledge.

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