Olive Oil production in Morocco: so many questions

Olives close up

No standard salad would be complete without olive oil. Our friends the lettuce, tomato and cucumber now come automatically accompanied by the vinegar and the oil, the oil and the vinegar. Perhaps in a bottle, perhaps in a sachet, perhaps in some kind of over complicated vinaigrette processed by a supermarket near you, along with lots of salt and some corn syrup, a 21st century salad in the Western world would be naked without an olive dressing.

This weekend, after an intensive academic seminar in Morocco[1], we studious seminar attendees were rewarded with a field trip. So I was taken out to visit three agricultural holdings in action. They all grew olives, but apart from that, had little in common. These three: large, medium and small producers in turn gave us a hugely insightful opportunity to witness agricultural change in action. Since the turn of the millennium the large site, on previously colonial, then state-held land had been an apple orchard and had now turned to olive oil. The medium one had been focused on cattle, making use of previous common land, that was now enclosed land, and was now diversifying with oil, watermelons, and more. The small producer produced a full range of things including olives for their own oil and most recently had established a side income in both fish and honey production.

Firstly, we learnt how to make money. Morocco’s heavily financed agricultural development programme, Plan Maroc Vert, which aims to intensify the agricultural system into a new-age competitive beacon of the modern food system, offers attractive incentives to spruce up agriculture in the country with new machines. All you need is to write a proposal (a report), have money to invest (from bank credit perhaps) and an impressive part of your money will be returned to you in state subsidies within two years.

So, for example, all three of the small, medium and large producers we visited, had benefited from a 100% state subsidy for irrigation of their crops. In the case of the ‘super-intensive’ large producer this meant state funding for the irrigation of 65,780[2] olive trees from groundwater on a rapidly declining water table. Some of the more landscape-savvy of the seminar group reminded us that olive trees had been grown in the region for centuries precisely because they did not need this kind of constant watering but could grow deep roots and access scarce water themselves. This, however, is not of interest to the ‘super-intensive’ producer. This producer is simply interested in the logic of economic growth, which in this case says: plant the trees closer, and add the chemical nutrients to the water while you’re at it. And so, these 65,780 trees are watered with the addition of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and ammonium, yet no studies are evident of what all these substances may be doing to the groundwater. By any other logic this would be a big concern, nitrogen pollution, particularly. Nitrogen pollution of water supplies, or more simply, of the nitrogen cycle, is one of the only planetary ecosystem boundaries that we have already crossed as a human race. This was not relevant in the lesson of how to make money.

Yet, I work with people, so where were they in the Moroccan olive grove? Well, it seems they have been replaced by a machine in this super-intensive oil production. The company, with links to power as far up as it goes, has invested in a machine that drives over the trees like a bridge. It shakes their branches and collects their olives.  So much for an investment in rural employment.

Some new olive trees defy the machine but are pretty un-reliable as employers too. These trees that the machine can’t manage provide jobs for only a very precarious seasonal and short-term workforce. I was told that 100 people would be employed for a space of around 200 hectares, and these jobs would last 2-3 months. The company assured us though that these workers would get both contracts and, in order to have those contracts, bank accounts. Thank goodness the banks aren’t losing out.

I should be kinder in tone about the small and medium sized farmers that we visited. Not only did their olive oil taste a lot richer, but they invited us to tea, and allowed us to share their experience of oil production more closely.  They humoured our partial language skills and our many, many questions. This was the second major thing we learnt on the trip – we were a team. We were a slightly chaotic, and erratic team, but really quite effective. A little like slugs on a cabbage, we chewed up every bit of information every which way.

Releasing a group of 13 researchers at a family farm, was a bit like inviting children to a playground, or providing clowns with an audience. Each of us found something to play with, interact with, reflect upon and smile. Some of us looked at the trees or identified the plant specimens. Others wrote notes, or took pictures, or carried out semi-formal interviews with whichever family member we felt most comfortable with. Others played with material toys, climbing ladders, smelling fruit or knocking on enormous oil containers to discover them empty. As we found the olive branches, force-fed powder food through irrigated pipes, or in the smaller farm providing shade for some resident chickens, this seminar group grew together, discovering the knowledge of the peasant farmer.  This experience was far richer and engaging than any power point presentation or report.

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[1] “Workshop on Agricultural Labour and Rural Landscapes in the Arab World” Organised by the Thimar collective and supported by the École Nationale d’Agriculture de Meknès, the Leverhulme Trust and the London School of Economics.

[2] Calculated based on 286 plants/hectare in a cultivated area of 230 hectares, this was the details of the holding advertised by the company.




sugar granules

Sugar, sweetness, rush. Smile for the beet and the cane, but too much sugar and you get just a black beam, with the sugar-lump-like teeth gone from the grin. Ah, teeth. Just a smile can reveal so much about social status, about struggles and tastes. There is that typical top and bottom post-braces smile of those with the private dental plan and the private education. Then there is the embarrassed closed-lip smile of the four-year-old in my fieldwork site who has already lost all her front teeth to a diet of sugary tea, bread and donuts.

It’s time to write about sugar. Not just because I am bouncing off the walls with the stuff in its caffeinated accompaniments of tea and coffee. Not just because sugar in the UK provides such a clear comparison to one of the key cultural ingredients of life in Morocco. The main reason that I have come to be thinking so much about sugar in recent days is that I have been taught about it: by my students.

I’m not sure that there is sufficient recognition in academia, or in education in general, that teachers learn from students. You might already be an expert in climate change but surely if you get 60 essays considering the same data from different perspectives, and filling in the gaps, you’re going to come away all the more confident that you know what you know.

And so I now know about sugar. Over thirty student reports into the connection between Bristol and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade have left me in no doubt that the wealth of this city (Bristol) is at least in part founded on the trade in sugar, and slavery. Bristol, with its access to the Atlantic via the Bristol Channel, its shipbuilding trade, and its merchant class, not to mention its burgeoning financial sector, was a hub for commerce of all kinds that linked back to the slave trade.

Bristol managed to find its corner in this ‘triangular trade’. We can hold Bristol ships and merchants to account for selling an estimate of 500,000 Africans into slavery on the plantations of the Americas and the Caribbean. That was 1/5th of all British slaves. This put Bristol in a perfect position to develop a sickly trade and a sweet tooth. The sugar processing, the rum, the glass-blowing for the rum bottles. These and many other industries were helped along by these ventures and the money that sloshed up the Avon with them.

I would point out, that like any good academic, I am not simply relying on the things that I have learned from my students, but on my first hand research. That’s right, I have been eating a lot of sugar and visiting a lot of buildings which were built on the shillings of the sugar merchants. It’s not hard in Bristol. I don’t have to even leave my own institution in order to find an example of that trade on which it was at least partially founded. The University doesn’t explain the providence of its founders’ wealth in its own narrative history though, so we’ll have to be more specific.

The Cabot Institute and the Wills Memorial Building are both named after philanthropists who were slavers first. Wills dealt in tobacco rather than sugar, but it’s not such a big difference. Too much sugar and you are sick. Too much rum, the same. Too much tobacco and your teeth are stained rather than rotten. Bristol is sick of the sugar. There is a petition at the moment to change the name of at least one of those magnets that brings people to Bristol year around: Colston Hall. The national media are even interested in the debate (Guardian, Telegraph, BBC).

Perhaps it could be re-named. Why not? Hally McHallFace could work well. If that doesn’t go down well with Bristolians, I think I know a group of students who could come up with some very good counter proposals. One pointed out that the Hall wasn’t even built and named until well over a hundred years after Colston had died. So, so much for editing history, this seems to be more about revising the bad revisionism that led to the Hall having this name in the first place.

With sugar on the brain it’s quite difficult to write a thesis. Teaching though, is every bit as much a part of the PhD process as is thesising. Too much and you get very tired. A little and not a lot of teaching, like sugar, is a welcome luxury that takes the bitterness and the loneliness out of the 80,000 words: to be written.

Lettuce con courgette spaghetti

courgette-spagetti-tescoAs it is valentine’s day, I will start with something very un-politically correct in the post-grad-researcher world. We are naturally expected to complain, over-heat like any over-used computer and more than anything, suffer for our doctorate. Well I defy you culture of suffering, this is fun. On a day of love and emotion, I admit it: I love my PhD.

Yes, OK, I am in the post-fieldwork honey-moon period, pre-thesis and post research proposal; no, I haven’t yet entered the hell of synchronising data charts with pages of contents, and no, there are no chapters ready to go in the book. Let’s be honest, there are pretty much no chapters at all. That, however, my PhD and more normal friends, is not the point. The point is, that even though hard days in this relationship are still to come, I am still interested.

This last month or so, everyone else is interested too. There has been a #lettucecrisis and a #courgettecrisis and questions are being asked. “Why are Tesco rationing lettuce?” people are asking. “What can I do without courgettes for my veggie no-calorie lasagne?” And (big jump here), “Why are we even eating all this salad in the middle of winter?” And so the nation makes the mental jump from Tesco over to the greenhouses of Southern Europe, perhaps even beyond.

Now, since I don’t yet feel ready to move on to serious data analysis, I thought I’d go and do just a last little spot of fieldwork: a research trip down Park Street, in Bristol’s city centre. Sites visited were: Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and Waitrose. Clearly the limitation of the study is that Park Street is not representative of an average UK shopping street because it is big and really quite posh. Nevertheless, let’s see what we find.

A man in Tesco confirmed the national news, and what I have personally verified about summer vegetables really and truly depending on the situation in Southern Spain and not just on what we expect to see all day, every day, without exceptions. “Haven’t had lettuce for about six weeks” he said. Now lettuce is interesting to me, because it is counter-seasonal. That means that it is grown for us abroad at exactly the time when we can’t grow it here. So we can forget about seasons altogether and pretend that lettuce just is. Full stop. Thought stops there.

But no, during these last six weeks, the thoughts haven’t stopped there and in the UK people have been thinking about where their lettuce comes from and even briefly considering how the farmers of our food produced at the wrong time of year might be struggling to do that. But even more than that, there is discussion and help on how we might deal without lettuce in February. Personally I’d prefer porridge on the beach in August, but I’ve already admitted I like my PhD so we shouldn’t let my proven-radical opinions deter anyone from the crunch of an iceberg whilst shivering next to the radiator.

More interesting than lettuce however, to me and my counter-seasonal blinkered brain, are courgettes. Courgettes are vegetables that are not just counter-seasonal, but that are grown as part of the same supply chain as tomatoes. So in Spain from around the end of September until late June, and in Morocco from the beginning of November until the end of April, we get not just tomatoes but also courgettes, peppers, aubergines and more.


Tesco didn’t have any courgettes when I visited. Or did it? That depends on if we count the ‘courgette spaghetti’ that sat pre-prepared in a plastic box next to the loose veg. Sainsbury’s did have courgettes, for the quite considerably higher than normal price of £1.90 kilo, and also had the [ridiculous] spaghetti version too. Finally, Waitrose, rose above the spaghetti trend but also only offered the re-valued crop in semi-packaged form, this time in a nicely designed bag of three for the notable price of £2.59, or £5 a kilo.

The courgette spaghetti, or ‘courgetti’ is interesting – I can understand Tesco’s choice to prioritise its few courgettes for courgetti production because you get to sell it for a far higher price (£4 kilo) and perhaps just as importantly you can get away with absolutely no information about where the trapped and grated courgette comes from. So profit is accumulated in our humble convenience supermarkets on Park Street, and we don’t get any further forward in this radical process of thinking about where the courgette in the box is from, let alone who grew it.

Tomatoes will at some point get a blog of their own, but for the moment suffice to say that those I found on my little jaunt down Park Street were without a shadow of a doubt produced by firms and people that I encountered during my (proper) fieldwork in Morocco. The location confirms it, as do the codes on the packaging. We don’t know where the spaghetti courgette originates but I suspect it is from not so far away. On valentine’s day, I’m more than happy to think about this, and I’ll sacrifice the courgetti dinner for two.

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coffee-to-goCoffee to go. I went. But I didn’t go without passing through the tourist Morocco that allowed me go to get here in the first place. I bought the presents, had the breakfast on the terrace, and in the airport I had a… coffee.

Coffee isn’t really a girl’s drink in Morocco. We’re supposed to drink tea, or perhaps a very milky Nescafe infusion. The modern Moroccans will disagree with me here, and they’re right, of course anyone can have a coffee, what decade are we living in!? Any woman who knows her place however, will also know to use discretion when choosing a coffee shop.

Coffee shops in Morocco are like pubs (were) in the UK. They are the place where men go to smoke, talk, get away from the house, relax after work, watch football and drink… coffee. At the language school last year I had to read a text which started, ‘between coffee shops and coffee shops, there are coffee shops’. A Moroccan joke which sums up the sight of rows of men in plastic chairs smoking and watching the world go by in small and large town centres. So of course we are allowed in coffee shops, but like a rough pub in the UK (a couple of decades ago?), or a dirty little bar somewhere else in Europe, you reflect on your gender before going into this particular ‘public’ space. I’ve been into a few of these coffee shops but being allowed in doesn’t mean you are comfortable. I’d far rather have a tea in someone’s (or somewoman’s) house, thank you.

So the airport coffee isn’t just a caffeine boost before a journey, it’s a place where my gender loses some significance and my mind begins to relax. Even the coffee cup speaks to me in English. It’s also a moment of loss. All that work, all that miming, all those words I’ve struggled to understand and build into comprehension, all that work is about to languish unused, for months and months. The rewards and sense of accomplishment after everyday interactions aren’t there when you return to your default self. But we are entitled to time off for a reason, and I think I need some.

I wasn’t going to write about coffee until I came back to work. It’s something I associate more with work friends and old friends and new friends, and even supervision meetings. Perhaps it’s fitting though that despite travelling between Morocco and the UK, two countries famous for tea, it is coffee is what comes across the globe with me. Not very original, I know. I was going to write about Harrira, a lovely warm soup with tomatoes and chickpeas and herbs. It’s cheap even when everything else is expensive, and would probably keep you alive if that was all you had. But I didn’t have my camera on me for the last bowl of Harrira. And somehow it hasn’t made the shortlist of ‘local products to be made available in the airport’. Not high-class enough, too much work, not admitted to ‘global’.

So coffee, with an imperfect colonial past (tea being no better), and an imperfect addictive future. Culturally though, it’s become a means, a code, a facilitator of better things, some of them really great, even precious. A means to connect, to think, to wake up, and most importantly right now, to have a break.

Out of Office

Thank you for your e-mail. I will be on an extended coffee break until the New Year with friends and family. Thank you for keeping me company with my research in Morocco.

All the very best,


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Harcha. It’s made of a harsh kind of flour called smeeda. I’d wondered for a while what that was, but of course, it’s semolina, hence the name smeeda, which isn’t so different. Another type of durum wheat, another variant on the ingredient used for Couscous. So what is so special about harcha? Well, it’s a semi-sweet snack which usually comes with good company. For a slightly special breakfast, or an afternoon tea merienda.

In this case, I made it! I made it with a friend. A research friend, but a friend all the same. With a short time to go, I’m starting to tally up the things that I have and haven’t done, but more to the point, I’m starting to reflect on the connections I’ve made and whether they end here or not. A research friend is still a friend, just like a school friend, or a Uni friend, or a friend with any other descriptive word in front. So it’s nice to be able to say that I have not just done a little research, but I’ve also made a few friends.

There’s something special about these friends. Our worlds are so different that it’s difficult to imagine them in my context, or us in another context. We’ve made friends in this context though, so like a Uni friend might share their washing liquid or their lecture notes, here, we’ve made sense of each other through what we are doing now, and why. We’ve seen how we can help one another or accompany one another through our different daily challenges at different times. I’ve made dinner for friends who worked late and used to live in my house. Others have made me breakfast, or tea and explained how things work here. How the school system works, or the way people find a job, or why they have two phones. The insightful things and the practical things are often the small things.

Research isn’t just about making friends though. It’s also about stepping forward and going out and asking after your research topic. With a research topic that is on people’s minds there have then been more questions back to me and lots of opinions about where I should be. Surely, looking like a tourist, I should be somewhere more set up for tourists? Surely, I should be mixing with the ‘ex-pats’ and the middle classes, not people who buy their ingredients in little scraps of newspaper. Surely, I should be just a little further away from my research topic. An hour might do it.

If there is something that I have learnt from traveling and living abroad it is to be ready to change plans. There is no point in digging your heels in with fixed dates and fixed plans. Especially when those dates were plucked from thin air based on an understanding far more shallow than the one I have now. The first time I properly traveled I spent two months rushing from hostel to hostel, only to realise afterwards that I could quite easily have stayed another month. Money wise, time wise, flights wise. So now that the forces that be are pushing me away from spending much more time with new friends here, I’m learning from these previous experiences and have found out that it only costs £30 to change my flight. I won’t be changing it by much, but there is a limit to how long I fancy changing roles: from researcher to tourist, from friend to client.

Some friends last though. You might lose touch, you might not coincide again, but you don’t un-meet people. I might not remember the recipe. I might never make it. But the next time I see a harcha, I will know more than just how much it costs and how it tastes. I will know how it was made, and how to make it if I fancy sharing in good company.