food in the arts 

extract from "Morocco that was", by Walter Harris, first published by Wm. Blackwood in 1921, and still in print. 
Sultan Mulai Abdul Aziz Walter Harris - author Morocco - Rabat Palace dining room
It was the custom of the Sultan in early spring, when the first fresh butter of the season came in, to give a feast to his courtiers and to certain distinguished people of the town. Butter with the Moors is like the primrose with us. It heralds the spring, the time of great productiveness in Morocco, when the flocks and herds bear their young and fatten upon the rich grass. A few months later summer comes, and the herbage dries up. The cows cease calving and their milk runs dry, with the result that the people are dependent upon preserved butter - "smin" - for their food; and they are great butter eaters, both in its raw state and in their cooking. So when the first cows calve and the butter comes into season, no feast is complete without its "lordly dish of this much-appreciated article. The poets sing of it, as ours do of the nightingale - not materially, but rather as being the outward and visible sign of the new spring-life of all things, those few months of the year when all is productive, all is increasing, and which give promise of the great crops that are to follow.

Amongst the guests of the Sultan upon one of these occasions was a certain celebrated scholar, a master of religion, who was charged with the education of the Sultan's sons. He has, as well as great knowledge, another characteristic - great meanness.

When the repast was over and the steaming dishes of cooked meats, or what was left of them, had been removed, there remained great plates of fresh butter, the very first of the season,
hard and rolled into large balls. The learned tutor of the Sultan's sons stated that it was much to be regretted that such splendid butter should be wasted by being eaten by the palace slaves and attendants, and forthwith he tore off a length of his fine white turban, rolled up one of the large balls of butter, and replaced the package in the crown of his high-peaked fez, which formed the foundation of his headgear.

One of the slaves told Mulai Hassen what had occurred, and he determined to amuse himself at the expense of his sons' tutor. He entered the great chamber where the guests were assembled and bade them welcome, paying a few compliments to each. When it came to the turn of the learned man, the Sultan congratulated him on his great attainments, adding, "He shall be specially honoured. Bring rose-water and incense."

Now, it is the custom at Moorish feasts to sprinkle the guests with rose and orange-blossom water, and to perfume their robes with incense. So the long-necked silver bottles and the brass incense-burner were produced. From the latter, laid upon red-hot charcoal, the burning sandal-wood diffused its smoke in delicious clouds. Having received the regulation sprinkling, the incense-burner was placed before him. Lifting his wide sleeves, the slaves held the censer below them, allowing the smoke to permeate his voluminous garments. Then drawing the hood of his "bernous" over his head and face, the customary perfuming of the turban was begun. But the slaves held tight, and instead of the performance lasting half a minute, it was unduly prolonged. At first it was only the richly-perfumed smoke of the sandalwood that entered his nose and eyes; but presently the delicious odour changed, for the butter concealed in his fez, melting under the applied heat of the red-hot charcoal, was beginning to drop in to the incense-burner, giving forth a penetrating and unpleasant odour of cooking. From drops to a trickling stream took a very little while, and soon the whole room was full of the smoke of burning butter, while the aged scholar presented the most pitiful sight - half-blinded, choking, and dripping all over. When he had been washed and cleaned up the Sultan had gone.


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