Thursday, June 11, 2009

El Jadida: A Cistern and Cookies

We set out from Casablanca with our driver, Hisham, of the "gaswhal" fame, to search out as many UNESCO World Heritage sites as we could find.

About an hour's drive down the Atlantic coast, we found our first - the fortified medina of El Jadida or, in the years of the Portuguese, Mazagan. The fortress and medina were built by the Portuguese in 1502 when they were the great seafaring explorers of the world - remember Vasco de Gama and those guys who were the first to make it around the tip of Africa looking for the trade route to India? They held onto the city until the Arabs, specifically Sultan Mohammed ben Abdallah, decided to stop by in the year 1769 and the Portuguese blew the place up on their way out. The fortress remained and the insides were rebuilt, reinhabited by a Jewish group, and renamed El Jadida, "the New One".

Inside the fortress are typical narrow alleys,

but the most amazing sight of the city is hidden beneath -

- a cistern built under the city in 1514, originally as an underground arsenal and converted to fresh water storage in 1541 to supply the city under seige. The supporting columns, 25 in all, are in the Renaissance style of the times and a well was sunk into the center for access to the water. It is the well opening in the ceiling that admits light and casts a stunning mirror reflection in the thin layer of water. More amazing, a shopkeeper accidentally stumbled on the cistern while doing a little remodeling in 1916. Orson Welles used the cistern as a location for the 1952 movie, Othello.

San Diego, seafaring city that we are, has a large Portuguese population, many of them tuna fisherman gone for weeks at a time out on their boats.

For several years until I closed my private office, I had an elderly Portuguese woman who often brought me a tightly sealed jar of cookies. She would say, "keep the lid on tight and these will stay fresh for a long time". With time, she related the history of the cookies. They were made from a recipe passed down through her family for, literally, centuries, used to make cookies for the Portuguese ships that would be gone for two years at a time in the 1400's to 1600's. If tightly sealed, the cookies would stay as fresh as when they were first made. I can imagine cookies from this recipe were on those ships passing by and through El Jadida. They are very delicate tasting, wonderful with a little sherbet after dinner.

Eventually, she brought in the recipe and I was very flattered she shared it. I am going to share it with our readers here exactly as given to me. I have never found it on a web site or cookbook.


4 eggs
1 1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon lemon rind or extract
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 tsp baking powder
8 oz butter in cubes
4 1/2 cup all purpose flour

Melt the butter at low heat (don’t boil)
Spray or butter the cookie sheets
Mix baking powder and flour
Beat eggs well with the sugar
Add the butter after letting it cool a bit
Add lemon/vanilla or both
Add the flour little by little to the ingredients already beaten. Let it stand a few minutes
Knead until all the ingredients are well mixed
When ready fill a cookie press using the star tip (best the antique one made 40 years ago)
Squeeze into an S-shaped cookie
Bake 350 degrees 10 minutes or until light brown.
Let stand on the sheets a few minutes to cool before removing because they break if too hot
Knock under the sheet lightly to loosen them.

They do, indeed, stay fresh indefinitely. Why, I don't know.


Pat said...

So are you going to bring some of those cookies when you visit?

Katharine said...

I put in the recipe so YOU could make them for us.

Pam said...

That cistern looks magical! The image is just beautiful - as are all of them. I feel as if I've gone on a mini-vacation tonight.

Thanks for sharing the cookie recipe - they remind me of cookies that a friend from Spain made - he said they would store in an air-tight tin for weeks and weeks.

Katharine said...

Pam, Thank you for your generous comments about our stories and photos. They relive good times. Now if we can get Patty out on her feet again next year!

The cistern is indeed mystical, the colors, the silence, the reflections. It is otherworldly, and down there for at least 500 years.