How magical argan oil is stopping the desert & raising women’s status in Morocco
Argan oil is something of a mythical ingredient for many chefs. It’s expensive, difficult to get and unique to one country: Morocco. That could all be changing as production is on the rise in a way that delivers a win-win for producers, consumers and the environment. The price is unlikely to fall though. Extracting the kernel from the argan nut is done by hand by Berber women and attempts to mechanise this have so far failed. Cosmetics conglomerates like L’Oreal even patented elements of the oil but now work with the co-operatives. Round one to the Moroccan women’s co-operatives.
From desertification to women’s rights and cancer prevention
Over the last 100 years argan tree density fell from 100 trees per hectare to 30 but production is planned to triple over the next six years. The trees multiple role is too important to ignore. The deep roots mean the trees act as a barrier to desertification; the wide branches help too by providing shade for other plants and livestock. Nonetheless the method of collection is arduous and the yield per weight is low but the efforts deliver an oil of unparalleled quality. Rich but lightly flavoured, the oil is used for both culinary and cosmetic purposes. Many also extol its health benefits as a cure for skin complaints and rheumatism. Indeed the European Journal of Cancer says : “as well as an aid in reducing is likely to enhance the cancer prevention effects of the Moroccan diet.”
A process for tough nuts
The nuts are gathered from the trees and then are normally allowed to dry in the sun before the shelling process begins. This is the traditional job of the Berber women. Co-operatives of women have been formed across Morocco and their success has helped enhance the status of women who normally hold a subservient role in Moroccan society. The model is now seen as a worthwhile endeavour amongst other producers.
The women sit with a large rock in front of them and crack the nuts individually, separating the kernels from the nut. These are tough nuts to crack, as the argan nut is 16 times harder than a hazelnut. The kernel is then crushed with water through traditional stone mills. If the nuts are to be used for culinary sales, the kernel is toasted before being ground. The mash is then pressed to get the oil with a yields as low as 30%, though this can raise to 55%, depending on the process. The oil is allowed to rest for a couple of weeks to separate the sediment.
In cooking it’s fair to say argan oil might be lost as an ingredient, especially with multiple flavours. It works best as a luxurious drizzle on a salad, as a dip, as an oil through pasta with one or two other simple ingredients, or perhaps as a dressing across freshly grilled mackerel.
How to buy argan oil
The phrase caveat emptor seems to be the economic force in all Moroccan commercial exchanges and argan oil is no different. There are lots of cheap things to be bought in the souks, but argan oil is not one of them. A 500ml bottle cost me 250 dirham or about €25 in the Assaisse et Tamounte Women’s Co-operative (in Douar el Mssassa, Centre Ounagha, Essaouira) that’s buying directly from the producers. The work is long and hard so the price reflects this. If you’re offered what seems like a bargain the argan oil has probably been mixed with vegetable oil and you’ll only discover this when you get home. The test is to heat it up and the two oils will separate. Too late to track down your Moroccan Del Boy and the flavour will be a mere shadow of the real thing.
An oil for the rich and the very poor
Curiously the oil is something ordinary towns folk are unlikely to consume as the price is prohibitively expensive. But away out in the countryside, it might well appear on the breakfast table as even those surviving a subsistence farming life will either be involved in the argon production or be close to somebody who is. (Shades of good poitín, decent boxy or a proper country turkey sent up from the Irish countryside for the city relatives.) The argan oil might be served either mixed with honey, combined with ground almonds and honey (called amlou) or even on its own as a dip for bread. I can vouch for the delicate flavours but I am not entirely sure if I can bring myself to share my precious bottle once I get home.
Coming up in the fnal blogs from Essaouira: Naima’s Moroccan soup; delicate Moroccan patisserie’s called ghriba with dots of strawberry jam; briwat, fragile filo pastry triangles of lightly spiced prawns, all from Naima Lewey of (www.cookingholidaysmorocco.blogspot.com), and finally a round up of a my visual gallery from Essaouira thanks to the hard work of photographer Darren Lewey (www.imagesinthesun.com/morocco-cookery). Follow me on twitter at @goldenshots for notifications all the tasty updates this week. #Essaouira