Much has been written about Southern Morocco’s unique product – argan oil – which has become much sought after world wide for culinary and, more widely, cosmetic purposes. Native to Morocco, the ancient argan tree (argania spinosa) grows essentially in an area covering some 800,000 hectares in the Souss Valley from the northern slopes of the Anti Atlas Mountain Range to the edge of the Sahara desert and from the Siroua mountain in the east to the Atlantic coast to the west. This argan plantation which numbers some 21 million trees was classified by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve Area in 1988.
The Argan , which can live for 250 years, is an important factor in the prevention of soil erosion thanks to its root system which grows deep into the earth and down to below the water table. The leaves and fruit it sheds and the vegetation that grows in its shade all serve to enrich the soil. It has been used over the millennia for fuel, timber, fruit and fodder, all essential to the development of a traditional agricultural system that has continuously met the needs of a dense population living in an arid region.
During the summer months, from June to August, the ripe fruit drops to the ground and is collected and laid out to dry in the sun for several weeks. Subsequently, the outer peel is removed (and used for animal feed) to expose extremely hard kernels. These are cracked by hand to obtain the oily seeds which are lightly roasted in a clay vessel at a precise temperature to rid them of their natural bitterness. (The cracked kernels are then used for fuel).
The roasted seeds are ground in a traditional stone mill and the paste obtained is kneaded and pressed by hand with the occasional addition of lukewarm water. This process yields the precious oil and a brown pasty residue which is formed into cakes and used for animal feed. Chemical compounds for use in cosmetic masks can also be extracted from the paste.
Argan oil has a unique, nutty flavour and is used to flavour salads, omelettes, fish and couscous much as one would use extra virgin olive oil. It is also eaten as is with bread or combined with ground, roasted almonds and honey to make a delicious paste known as amlou.
Unroasted kernels are ground to produce oil for cosmetic use. In traditional Moroccan medicine, argan oil is used to minimise scarring caused by acne, chicken pox etc. and as anti-ageing and moisturising treatments for skin and hair.
Over the past 100 years, the size of the argan plantation had decreased by one third as people had begun to uproot trees and replace them with what they considered to be more profitable crops and trees had been severely damaged by the herds of goats and camels which grazed on their leaves and fruit.
Between 1985 and 1991, scientist Zoubida Charrouf prepared her doctoral thesis on the argan tree and subsequently worked to help the local Berber population to exploit and preserve this precious resource. In 1996, Dr Charrouf began to organise the local women into a cooperative called Amal (hope) and other cooperatives followed. This enabled the local women to earn enough money to enable them to attend literacy classes, to educate their children and to become more aware of environmental issues. Membership in the cooperative is dependent on ownership of at least 1 hectare of argan trees. Women who do not own trees, work for the owners and receive a quantity of argan fruit in exchange for their labour.
The marketing of argan products, while helping countless families, has also created a huge demand and keen competition from industry which is, in fact, harming the plantation. Instead of collecting only fallen fruit, the trees are being beaten with sticks to make the fruit fall before it is quite ripe. Inferior and stale fruit is also being sold in rural markets.
Argan trees are hard to cultivate and apparently, most attempts at propagating saplings in laboratories and nurseries result in failure. It is therefore necessary to conserve and exploit this precious resource without risking it being irreparably depleted.
The increased wealth created by sales of argan products mean that the locals can buy larger herds of goats which also harm the trees through overgrazing. As the lower branches of the argan tree grow out from the base horizontally, goats find it easy to climb to access the leaves and fruit higher up. Tourists have found this fascinating and, as a result, the ever resourceful goatherds along the road from Marrakech to Essaouira, have taken to tying them high up on the trees on little platforms and charging tourists to take their photographs.
Westerners are also fascinated by the myth that the argan kernels are collected after having been swallowed and subsequently excreted by goats. Many women who earn their living from processing argan products have told me that they would never use excreted kernels as they have a strong and offensive smell and can therefore not be used to make oil.