RABAT, Morocco — Like fans lining up for concert tickets, Abdelatif Reda’s customers patiently wait. If his small cart in Rabat’s old medina is unmanned, its young owner, they speculate, must be out for his afternoon prayer. But he will return, as he does every day after 5 p.m., to sell his homemade cheese.
Rabat’s medina is a pastel-washed huddle of squat shops and walls running across lines drawn in the 17th century. Here, soap is sold in reused water bottles. Vendors’ blankets display rusty sprawls of lamps, utensils and pots. Residents function on an intimate system of commerce, rotating among their favorite shop owners amid the stutter of moped engines and roil of street life in the medina. And although nearby chains such as Carrefour offer chilled dairy selections, Reda’s cart is, for many, their first choice for cheese.
“Competition is a fact,” said Reda, 30, whose daily inventory fits onto a single rolling cart. “But quality is a question.”
Reda began making cheese when he was 13, learning from his father and older brothers before him. Upholding the family legacy left little time for formal education, so Reda dropped out of school to make cheese full time.
Over the years, his cart has attracted medina regulars and converted supermarket-goers. Some customers travel from as far as away as Casablanca or Meknes, more than an hour away, to try the freshly made cheese, which tastes like a lucky meeting between mozzarella and Greek yogurt.
Cheese is breakfast, teatime treat
Eloise Schieferdecker is an undergraduate at Bennington College in Vermont where she studies documentary photography and video. Eloise grew up in Westchester, New York.
“[Reda’s cheese] is the first thing that I opt for with ghraif [a traditional Moroccan pancake],” said Badrdine Boulaid, 35, who lives in Meknes. “It’s becoming the most important thing served at breakfast and teatime.” The cheese is often paired with toast, olive oil and smears of jam.
Reda refuses to disclose his recipe, though many have asked him to share. He will say only that his process is a complex one, requiring fine manipulation of many different factors such as water temperature, milk quality and even weather.
The cheese comes in quivering white domes, which Reda separates into thick, buttery chunks with quick flicks of his knife. Prices are determined by the final say of Reda’s old metal scale, and customers accept their bags without argument or haggling.
“We prefer certain vendors because we know the source of [their] product,” said Yahya Boutaleb, 24, on his familiarity with the medina’s markets. “We know the produce comes from good farms.”
This familiarity is key to commerce in the medina. Boutaleb’s father, for example, receives a text from his fish vendor whenever a particularly good catch comes in.
A veritable culinary ambassador for her home country, Al Kasimi got her start making cooking videos with her grandmother and posting them on YouTube. Her quick, chirpy how-tos explaining traditional cuisine had an instant fan base with American-Moroccan families.
“If you notice, in Moroccan cuisine, there are not really many spices or ingredients that mask the flavor,” says Kasimi, who has hosted episodes of TV’s “MasterChef” in Morocco. “So the freshness of the ingredients is extremely important.”
Buy fresh, buy local
Because of this emphasis on ingredient quality, trust is an important factor in food commerce. “My grandma would go to the market every other day, or every day if she needs to, as if she’s trying to buy what just came out of the earth,” Al Kasimi says. “There’s this pride of how fresh it is.”
Increasingly, this traditional relationship between sellers and buyers has had to compete with well-lit — and air-conditioned — supermarkets within Wal-Mart-style megastores. Unlike the medina’s clumped knot of alleyways and twisty roads, these stores are spacious and organized. The Marjane retail empire is particularly formidable, with 32 branches and 600,394 square feet of space in Morocco.
Al Kasimi says this may be changing the importance that Moroccans place on freshness, adding that while her grandmother feels compelled to stop by the market several times a week, her mother goes just once a week. Al Kasimi admits that her friends in Morocco often prefer the frozen-food aisle at the local grocery store to places like the medina.
Ready to eat
Reda is fortunate that he doesn’t need to worry about defection. Moroccan cheese like his must be made fresh. And unlike traditional French cheeses, it doesn’t age. It has a tangy quality of newness that goes bad if not gobbled up quickly.
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Besides, he says, there is no time to check out the competition when he must spend the first part of his day making his product and the rest of the day selling it. He also insists he will not eat any cheese he has not made himself.
Zoë Hu and Eloise Schieferdecker spent several months in Morocco on an SIT Study Abroad program. They produced this story in association with Round Earth Media, which is mentoring the next generation of global correspondents while producing under-reported stories for top-tier media around the world.
Main photo: Abdelatif Reda engages with one of his regular customers. He has been selling his product since he was 13. Credit: Copyright 2014 Eloise Schieferdecker