June 24, 2008 Posted by Tahir in Travel

The Butcher

In England I grew accustomed to buying meat in shallow polystyrene packs, clingfilm tight over the top, a price, weight, and barcode printed neatly onto the sticker at the front. Years passed of running down to Tesco to grab some meat. And in that time I rarely gave it any thought. Indeed, I began to think that meat came in white plastic packs, straight from the animal. Or even worse, I began to forget that it came from an animal at all.

OK, that sounds crazy, but think about it. Think how wildly de-associated we are when it comes to food production. Everything I ever bought was shrink-wrapped in plastic, or stuffed in a box. All you begin to care about is the weight and the price.
Anyone who has ever traipsed through the medinas of Marrakech, Essaouira or Fes will have seen the butchers’ stalls. Our overly sensitive Occidental eyes spy them immediately, mainly because there’ll be a large carcass hanging on a hook outside the shop. And, whether we’ll admit it, we are timid about them. (Remember than until recently, in the pre-supermarket world everyone in Europe visited butchers all the time.)
The butcher’s stall tends to have a variety of wares. There’s lamb, mutton, beef and usually a pen of live chickens. Ask for one of those and it’s weighed, killed, and plunged into a bucket of hot water to soften the feathers. A few cuts of meat are lined up, arranged on beds of fresh mint, with chunks of tripe, hooves, heads and other off-cuts spread out neatly nearby.
Moroccans love meat. Actually, I’d say that they adore meat, it’s even more than love… more like infatuation. And meat is expensive here. Even though we can afford to eat it regularly, there are some days on which we don’t eat mat at all. Rachana’s from India, where vegetarian food is regarded as a delicacy and not as an embarrassment as it’s been until recently in the West.
The other day I got talking with the butcher and he asked me what meat we liked best of all. I told him, and then I said that sometimes we didn’t eat meat, because we like vegetarian food as well, and I explained that in India veg food is very delicious indeed. The butcher’s face froze. He swallowed hard. Then blinked.
‘That must be a very strange country,’ he said. 
‘It’s strange in some ways but very interesting.’
‘But I am sure you get good beef there.’
‘Well,’ replied, squinting into the light, ‘that’s the peculiar thing. In India cows are holy, they’re not killed, but revered.’
The butcher had a cleaver in his hand. He chopped it down into the wooden cutting block.
‘To think of it,’ he said. ‘Were you to be a stranger, Mr. Tahir, I would think that you were not telling me the truth.’
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