Regional Moroccan Breads: Rounding Out Your Meal

Regional Moroccan Breads: Rounding Out Your Meal

The Breads of Morocco: An Insider’s Look

There are two things to know right off the bat about the breads of Morocco: first, they are important – bread is served at every meal; and second, they are good. Finding the best breads is an adventure I would recommend to anyone who cares about authenticity, culture, history, and flavor.

In May and June of 2023, I had the privilege of traveling in Morocco for two weeks. I visited more than half a dozen communal bread ovens, took a bread-making class where I learned to make five kinds of Moroccan bread, observed Amazigh (Berber) women making flat breads, and devoured French pastries. It was a delicious journey, to say the least.

Bread is more than just food in Morocco. As Katharina Graf, a Postdoctoral Researcher at Goethe University in Frankfurt, writes, “Moroccans eat bread with nearly every meal. Bread simply has to be there – it is the tool to pick up food, the conveyor of a dish’s taste, the guarantor of physical satiation, and the basis of caring and hospitality.”

Industrialization and the Changing Landscape of Moroccan Bread

Yet, as important as bread is to Moroccan life, it has changed significantly through the generations, becoming increasingly industrialized. You see more white flour, more commercial yeast, and more store-bought bread from the supermarket. Rapidly disappearing are the breads made at home using locally milled whole wheat and sourdough starters.

This industrialization of Moroccan bread reflects the country’s geographic and political place in the modern world. Just south of Spain on the northwestern edge of the African continent, Morocco is partly in and partly out of the Sahara Desert. The Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts are relatively flat, with fine areas for growing soft wheat, while the higher elevations in the Atlas Mountains are home to durum wheat, used for couscous and bread.

Wheat has been found in Moroccan archaeological sites dating back more than 7,000 years, so the country has had plenty of time to experiment with turning wheat into bread. And there are a lot of different variations on bread in Morocco.

Until the early 20th century, most Moroccan breads were leavened with sourdough starters. But in 1938, Somadir, the largest yeast-making company in Africa, started preparing fresh yeast in Morocco. Today, professional and home bakers are tempted to make the switch from sourdough to commercial yeast for the same reasons bakers are the world over: ease, efficiency, speed, price, and availability.

Sourdough is still used in spots around the country, especially by older folks living in rural communities. The sourdough cultures often contain fascinating add-ins like dates, whey, tomatoes, and chickpeas. But on my travels, I didn’t taste any sourdough breads – I suspect I didn’t venture far enough into the rural areas to find them.

The Traditional Moroccan Bread Oven

Instead, what I encountered were the communal ovens, known as khubz furan, hidden in alleyways behind unremarkable doorways and down a few steps into a room below street level. The bakers, all men, fire up their ovens after the Muzzeins’ pre-dawn call for morning prayer and bake until late morning.

In neighborhood households, women make the dough, shape it, and then take it to the communal oven. The bakers, with their years of experience, can keep track of whose loaf belongs to whom, even though they might have one hundred doughs cooking at a time. As the Moroccan saying goes, “If you want to know anything about your neighbors, the baker is the person who knows everything about everybody.”

The ubiquitous khubz, a round, pita-like bread, is one of the most common breads in Morocco. Bakers churn out hundreds of these loaves to deliver to small stores, restaurants, neighborhood grocers, hotels, and riads. You can find these vendors in the morning, walking upstream against the flow of people returning home with warm khubz for breakfast.

A Variety of Moroccan Breads

While the round khubz loaves are the most common, there are several other notable breads that you can find throughout the country. Mlawi (or msemmen) is a layered, leavened flatbread served at breakfast, as street food, or layered with savory meats and vegetables for a more substantial meal.

Shair is a leavened bread made of cracked barley that has been allowed to soak before frying. It’s cooked like a pancake and has a dense, flavorful texture. Harsha is another slow-cooked, thick pancake-like bread made with coarse semolina flour and olive oil.

Tafarnoute is a flatbread cooked on small river stones heated in an open fire. The hot stones give the bread a lumpy appearance and a flavor that carries directly from the hearth to your mouth. This bread is Berber in origin, and though I had the great joy of watching it being baked by Amazigh women in the High Atlas Mountains, I didn’t have a chance to see it being prepared myself.

The Politics of Bread in Morocco

The importance of bread in Moroccan life has deep historical roots. In 1677, the Alaouite Dynasty gained control over Morocco and ruled the country until 1912, when they lost control to the imperial ambitions of Spain and France. One way the Alaouite Monarchy maintained political stability in Morocco across centuries was by ensuring plentiful and affordable supplies of wheat for breadmaking.

Between 1917 and 1931, the French government and French settlers took possession of more than 750,000 hectares of land in Morocco, reaching a production of three million acres of cereal by 1929. France justified its occupation by propping up the price of Moroccan wheat exported to France, making farming in Morocco profitable regardless of farm efficiency or yield.

However, Morocco’s fickle climate and global events wreaked havoc on France’s acquisition of wheat. In 1930, for example, Morocco suffered from a plague of locusts, drought, and a worldwide economic depression, leading to woefully insufficient wheat exports to France. The following year, rain was abundant, and yields were so explosive that Moroccan exports flooded French markets, depressing prices and angering French grain farmers.

By 1956, France finally concluded that the benefits of controlling Morocco were outweighed by the costs of suppressing nationalist fervor, and they restored the Alaouite family to power. Though French rule has been gone from Morocco for nearly seven decades, its imprint remains – French is the second language of Morocco, and French baguettes and pastries can be found in Moroccan cities.

Bread and the Makhzen: Keeping the Granary Full

With the official end of French rule, the Alaouite Monarchy of Morocco, now restored to full power, has resumed its multi-century commitment to protecting its citizenry and assuring the availability of reasonably priced bread. High prices for bread, compounded by corrupt governments, were one of the main contributors to the Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa in the 2010s. Yet, Morocco’s monarchy managed the crisis better than its neighbors.

Today, the government is keeping the price of wheat within reach by supplanting Morocco’s traditional hard wheat with soft wheat. Soft wheat is inexpensive, plentiful, readily imported, and generally refined and sold as white flour. But many Moroccans prefer the flavor, appearance, and quality of local hard wheat, which is often milled whole and golden in color.

The government manages this delicate balance by applying tariffs to grain imports to protect domestic farmers while subsidizing the cost of soft wheat to keep it affordable for the increasing population of urban poor. For recent city dwellers struggling to pay rent and utilities, purchasing grain or even flour in bulk is prohibitive, so purchasing subsidized bread from a neighborhood baker is the only rational decision.

This shift towards soft wheat, while keeping bread affordable, is a source of depression for many Moroccans, who see it as an erosion of their traditional food culture. As Katharina Graf explains, “Traditionally in rural Morocco, women go to open markets to purchase whole grain, clean it themselves, bring it to a local miller, and bake with it. But since local grain can be expensive even in rural Morocco, people opt for subsidized soft wheat to save money.”

Preserving Moroccan Bread Culture

Despite the creeping industrialization of Moroccan bread, the age of great bread is not yet over in the country. Bakers across Morocco still fire up bundles of wood in khubz furans every morning, and for a small fee, they will bake your bread or sell you freshly pulled loaves at very low prices on virtually every city block.

For a visitor to Morocco, the rich variety of traditional breads can still be sampled. As I found on my travels, all you have to do is ask anyone in Morocco about bread, and they will happily talk to you about their relationship with bread and breadmaking. And even if you don’t have the chance to eat bread in North Africa, one of the great joys of home baking is that you can get a bit of insight into other cultures by trying foods out in your own kitchen.

Soon, my colleague Maurizio and I will be publishing a recipe for mlawi, a layered, leavened Moroccan flatbread. I hope it will give you a nice taste of the wonderful breads that Morocco has to offer. And who knows, maybe it will inspire you to book a trip to Morocco to explore the country’s rich bread culture for yourself.

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