Rattling around Morocco’s mountains has been an on/off habit of mine for some 40 years (read other posts here and here) so my latest trip hardly tossed up any revelations. It was more a case of confirming and revisiting what I knew: the grandeur and beauty of the landscapes, the kindness and hospitality of its people (when uncorrupted by tourism), and the ongoing deliciousness of its slowcooked tagines.
HOWEVER there was one astounding change – no lamb in the pots! Of course there was absolutely no shortage of the terracotta pots themselves, and though we spotted straggling herds of sheep and goats in the Anti-Atlas mountains and even by the sea, it was never in a tagine. Having written at length about North African food (see here and here) I feel qualified to be horrified at this gaping hole in the traditional Moroccan diet!
In Taroudant, a stunning, very authentic walled town in the Sous Valley, life as always revolves around cafés and low-key restaurants – (incidentally all men-only; Morocco is a man’s world until you enter the home). A tagine pot placed outside is the symbol for a restaurant – but peer inside it, even at a street-stand, and it’s beef or chicken that is bubbling away. One morning when we inquired at a restaurant if they ever had lamb tagine on the menu, the owner and a waiter glanced at each other furtively then asked hesitantly what time we’d like it. It felt a bit as if we were ordering heroin.
In another case we were even served turkey tagine. Not exactly indigenous, so where did it come from? At a butcher’s shop (above) there was no sign of that woolly quadruped which, here at least, produces naturally organic meat after roaming the hillsides nibbling herbs. One man even told us there had been a campaign to eat beef rather than lamb as the latter was allegedly bad for cholesterol…
But what about the environment? It’s a known fact that cows, as producers of methane gas, contribute massively to global warming, whereas sheep and goats have minimal impact. More than 80% of Morocco’s rural population live off livestock but climate change in the form of frequent droughts and soaring summer temperatures, is now making their lives difficult.
The government response came in 2009 with the Green Morocco Plan. Of the many measures enforced to ‘modernise’ the country, wheat production was replaced by olives, and dairy cattle by beef cattle. Moroccan-born calves were even subsidised. As pointed out by Megan Perry in an excellent article, “There is concern that the government, urged along by international development organisations and commercial seed and chemical corporations, is pushing further a model of intensive agriculture that is dependent on the global market and free trade.”
Basically the World Bank and IMF impose systems that are destroying a way of life and diet that has existed for centuries. Nor are olives, even if needing little water, the answer to Morocco’s agricultural economy; with every Mediterranean country blanketed in acres of these trees, Europe now has seas of olive-oil as well as lakes of wine.
And where does the feed for all these cattle come from? Texas of course! In November 2015, a team of Moroccan farmers were invited by the U.S. Grains Council to learn about “state-of-the-art” beef feeding and have a crash course in beef genetics. To quote a cliché, the rest is (commercial) history. And as US corn exports to Morocco soar – you can’t find a lamb tagine. Nor even a kebab.