If you get a hankering for cheese in the western Maghreb, you may be stuck with an (imported) Laughing Cow triangle wrapped in tinfoil.
Morocco doesn’t have much of a dairy tradition, but there’s one exception that dates back centuries: It’s called smen, and it’s a stinky, fermented butter made from sheep, goat or cow milk.
Tucked away in the heart of the Fez medina, there’s a whole square dedicated to smen. Walk in, and you immediately get a strong whiff of butter. Vendors in Qaat Smen, or Smen Square, are part of families who have been making it for centuries. More recently, they’ve added honey, olive oil and khliyah — a rich, flavorful dried meat swimming in lard — to their wares. It’s sort of “preserved stuff” square at this point, but it was smen that started it all.
Like Indian ghee, smen evolved as a way to keep a tasty cooking fat around for a long time. But while ghee is clarified to remove the milk solids and moisture, smen is fermented — which gives it its funky, cheesy aroma.
Smen is sold widely in Morocco — including in mass-produced plastic containers in supermarkets. Moroccans use it in cooking (particularly for making couscous), spread it on bread and even put it in coffee. (No, the Bulletproof coffee folks didn’t invent that idea.)
Because it’s filling and energy-dense, it’s also much employed during Ramadan. Just like fine wine that’s been allowed to age, smen is also used during special occasions, including weddings and funerals.
So how did the Moroccans decide to ferment their butter?
Sandor Katz, an American fermentation expert and author of Wild Fermentation, tells The Salt that before pasteurization became the widespread technique to keep milk fresh, most milk quickly turned sour. But the acidity that forms in sour milk actually protects the milk — and butter — from bad bacteria.
That lactic acid is the very thing that gives smen its blue cheese-like scent, and it’s what keeps it from going rancid, says Katz. Adding salt also preserves it, as does storing it in airtight containers. (There’s a legend that Berber tribesmen would bury a clay jar of smen underground on the day of a daughter’s birth and unearth it for use on her wedding day.)
Abdelali Sheikh’s family has been in the smen business in the Fez Smen Square for 150 years. He operates a storefront in the square that’s lined with blue plastic barrels and outfitted with an ancient-looking brass scale to measure out his products. Sheikh, a smiling, gregarious sort who calls himself “the king of smen, wine and women,” gave me an abridged rundown of how to make smen in a small workroom at the back of the square.
According to Sheikh, you start by putting milk in a goat hide and kneading it until it turns to butter. You then wash it and add salt. Then, put it in a barrel and wait one or two years. The longer you let smen sit, the better — and the more expensive it gets (the average price is a few dollars for 5 ounces). The recipes for making smen vary from family to family, location to location and cook to cook.
The smen that was a couple of years old tasted a lot like sharp blue cheese. But the older “vintage” (six years or more) was, surprisingly, much smoother, with less of an edge in the nose. Of course, butter that hasn’t fermented at all is smooth, but the old smen had a sophisticated, stinky smoothness.
You can’t get the aged stuff at the supermarket, and the mass-produced smen’s texture is quite a bit thinner, and less rich — sort of like stinky whipped margarine.
Smen from Smen Square is assured to be free of artificial preservatives and made with pure milk, one of the reasons people still come here to buy it. Locals also know the vendors, and most important, perhaps, are the magical curative properties that people attach to smen.
Rachida Sbaee was shopping in Smen Square with her family the other day. In addition to the typical Moroccan cooking uses for smen, she also employs it to clear sinuses, cure rheumatism, heal her donkey when it gets sick, lighten scars and cast spells. Could a little plastic container of factory-made smen from the store do all that? Unlikely.
From Mint Tea and Minarets: A Banquet of Moroccan Memories by Kitty Morse.
Makes 1 pound
1 pound unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon coarse salt
1/4 cup dried oregano leaves
Place butter in a medium bowl. Set aside.
In a small saucepan, boil water, salt and oregano until water reduces by half, 20 to 25 minutes. Strain this “oregano tea” through a fine-mesh sieve directly over the butter. Discard leaves. Blend tea thoroughly into the butter with a wooden spoon. Let cool. Transfer to another strainer. The next day, pat mixture with paper towels to absorb moisture.
Set aside at room temperature in a covered bowl for two days.
Spread mixture on a clean cutting board. Using paper towels, mop up any pockets of moisture. Spoon the mixture into a wide-mouth jar or clay pot. Seal. Store at room temperature until mixture acquires a pungent, Gorgonzola-like aroma, at least two to three weeks, and then refrigerate.
Alex Schmidt is a freelance reporter and user experience researcher from Los Angeles, currently based in New York.