my darling clementines: christmas reflections from morocco
Susan notes: Carolyn Thériault is a Canadian expatriate who lived in Turkey when she wrote this blog post; she now lives in Spain. Thériault is the author of Stealing Fatima’s Hand, “an unforgettable collection of narratives presenting an alternative view of Morocco. “The following piece was originally published on Thériault’s lively blog This Cat’s Abroad. I republished in 2009, featured it again in 2012, and now republish it again in 2018. As a guest blog post, it’s as juicy as they get…
It is early December and Christmas has just arrived in Morocco.
It has not come in a sleigh borne by reindeer; it cannot be found in Santa’s toy sack or tucked away behind a lowing cow in a nativity scene. But it – or to be exact, its harbinger – is here nonetheless. It is something far more resonant of the holidays than angels and elves, something that if I were in Canada, would augur a much welcomed if arguably psychological respite from a long dark frigid northern winter.
But the signs are everywhere: the Moroccan clementine has come into season. Seemingly overnight, the streets of Rabat have been gently invaded by these most perfect of tangerines.
When I was a girl, Christmas was a thing of wonder; to my mother, it was sacred. She threw herself into every aspect of celebrating the holiday with complete abandon, enthusiasm, and an eye for detail that bordered on disturbing.
My father’s chief responsibility lay in ensuring that the tree remain upright until the 6th of January – at which point it joined its denuded brethren on the curb – by anchoring the Christmas tree to the wall with the help of an electric drill and a series of eyelet screws and a prodigious amount of twine.
Sometimes it worked and the tree made it through the holidays vertical; more often that not, our mountaineering cats prevailed and the tree toppled over, as a rule, around three o’clock in the morning.
Having said that, it used to drive me to distraction that my parents insisted on – how shall I put this? – waxing so poetically about the oranges which, if they were fortunate and not at all naughty, bulged at the heels or the toes of their Christmas stockings when they were children. And yes, I understood then, as I do now, that in the 1930’s and 40’s, the appearance of citrus fruit, let alone any type of fruit, during the depths of a dismal December was nothing less than miraculous.
Awash In Oranges
So perhaps as a throwback or possibly as homage to their own happy childhood memories, my brother and I invariably found oranges in our stockings (making our already over-stuffed stockings look like an anaconda in the latter stages of digesting a wild boar).
But being the callous and ungrateful creatures we were, we would dismissively relegate the oranges to the Bohemian crystal fruit bowl for my father to eat later. Oranges – in tale and in the flesh – were tiresome and just not that exciting, especially when an Easy-Bake oven was awaiting its inaugural batch of brownies. Besides, we could have an orange any time of the year. This was the 70’s after all.
Up until my father’s death, both of my parents always ensured that a gargantuan orange lay hidden at the bottom of each other’s Christmas stocking. They even ate them.
Not too long ago, in response to a devastating cold snap in Florida which had laid waste to its orange crop, wooden crates of Moroccan clementines began to pop up in Canada with a vengeance. But this was not their first foray overseas; they had already been travelling the world well before then. It is commonly held that the first clementine appeared in North Africa at the turn of the nineteenth century.
The Family Tree
Legend has it that the clementine is in fact the happy offspring of a mandarin and a sour orange, a hybrid fruit developed by Father Clement Rodier in the garden of the orphanage he managed in Algeria; however, the Chinese claim that they were the first to discover the clementine.
I am no expert, but in light of the fact that China has already been credited for discovering gunpowder and moveable type, and in the complete absence of a moving “creation” story (preferably one involving orphans), I am inclined to dismiss its claim to the fruit.
Whether the roots of the clementine’s family tree are buried in North Africa or Asia is a point for fruit historians to debate. What we do know is that in 1925 the tiny tangerines crossed the Mediterranean for the first time and tumbled into Spain on a self-imposed mission to see – if not conquer – the citrus-eating world.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Thanks to that ill-fated crop in Florida and its natural love of travel, the clementine eventually found its way farther north; in 2007 alone, Canada imported almost $153 million worth of these globe trekking little fellows from warmer climes. That’s just shy of two kilos of clementines per person – rather exceptional considering the shortness of the holiday season.
I for one would rejoice at their arrival if only because I could never (and still can’t) get the knack of peeling oranges properly. In my mind, oranges are simply too labour intensive and are just as likely to disappoint the taste buds as not. Frankly, they’re not worth the trouble. But inside these wooden treasure chests, kept secure with mesh webbing, dozens of brilliantly coloured and head-reelingly aromatic clementines – each bearing a little black diamond-shaped Maroc label – promised untold gastronomic delights.
And they did not disappoint.
With magical peels (which even I could manage) and twelve perfectly succulent seedless wedges of North African sunshine, all enveloped in the heady exoticism of Morocco, this David of fruits muscled its way into the Christmas market, eventually supplanting the Goliath Florida orange to become a holiday staple.
The first sighting of the little wooden boxes from Morocco is quite coveted, and is consequently widely broadcast through word of mouth as well as on the radio back home. In towns bereft of a Santa Claus parade, the arrival of the clementines signals the Christmas season in earnest.
And now the mandareen, as they are known in Morocco, are here. In abundance.
They are stacked in boxes outside of hanoots (neighbourhood convenience stores usually run by Morocco’s Berbers), vying for sidewalk space with beggars, piled in precarious pyramids in the medina’s fruit-souk, arranged just as haphazardly in Western-style grocery stores, and peek out of the baskets suspended across the bicycles of itinerant fruit-sellers. They are everywhere.
Even The Dregs Are Delicious
For weeks to come we will press every available bowl into duty, heaping clementines into them; the air in our apartment will be suffused with their intoxicating fragrance. Mandareen will find their way into pockets and purses, briefcases and knapsacks, and it will be impossible to pass a day without a colleague, acquaintance, friend or shopkeeper offering– or more likely just handing – you at least one.
Locals claim that the choicest clementines, those bestowed with that much envied Maroc diamond-label, are exported to foreign tables, leaving Moroccans with the dregs. But oh such dregs!
To my uncultured palate the Mahgrebi homebodies are just as sweet and just as juicy as their jet-setting compatriots. In fact, ours have something better than those little black labels. They have stems and leaves – an umbilical cord if you will, linking my Christmases past and present, a cycle which begins in my adopted home and finds fruition in the place of my birth.
And at such outrageously cheap prices, some fifty cents a kilogram, my husband and I will be eating them until we can’t bear the sight of them any longer.
Fortunately that won’t happen – they’ll disappear long before that.