Organic argan oil is ‘the new olive oil’, increasingly used in hip restaurants around the world to season salads with its nutty flavour. The wrinkled argan tree is unique to this part of the world and, as a result, the argan forests of the Souss Valley and the Haha Coast south of Essaouira have been designated by Unesco as a biosphere reserve.
The argan tree (Argania spinosa), is resistant to heat and survives temperatures up to 50ºC, and so is an essential tool in the fight against desertification in southern Morocco. It has become vital to the local economy, providing firewood, fodder for the goats – you can see them actually climb into the branches – and oil for humans. Berber women harvest the fruits in spring. They then feed them to goats, whose digestive juices dissolve the tough elastic coating on the shell. The nuts are then recovered from the goats’ dung, and the kernels are split, lightly toasted, pulped and pressed.
To produce just one litre of oil takes 30kg of nuts and 15 hours of manual labour, done solely by women. In a recent change to this tradition, some cooperatives have decided to cut the goats out of the process and are hand-picking fruits from the trees to produce a more subtle-tasting oil.
The Berbers have long used argan oil to heal, and modern research suggests that the oil may help reduce cholesterol and prevent arteriosclerosis. In the kitchen its rich and sweet nutty flavour works wonders as a salad dressing, or added to grilled vegetables or a tajine. Berbers mix it with ground almonds and honey to make amlou, a delicacy believed to have aphrodisiac properties.
Cold-pressed oil from untoasted nuts is increasingly recognised as a prized cosmetic, particularly for the hair. The oil has a high vitamin E content, which makes it a great addition to antiwrinkle creams, and is sometimes also used to treat skin conditions such as eczema.
If you have your own transport and are heading south, consider stopping en route at Coopérative Al Amal, 70km from Essaouira, which produces and sells quality argan-oil products, including foodstuffs and cosmetics.