If you ever visit Marrakech you may well want to take a trip out to the charming seaside town of Essaouira for a bit of a break from the intensity of the big city. It’s a fairly dull drive but about one hour into the journey the landscape changes and becomes a desert-like, rock-strewn moonscape, studded with small trees which look quite a lot like olives, only not as lovely. You probably will not realise it but you have arrived at the edge of a little known wonder, the great UNESCO Arganeraie Biosphere Reserve, created in 1998 to protect a magical tree whose fruits give the most expensive vegetal oil in the world.
That tree is Argania spinosa, the unique species of the genus Argania: its golden oil has suddenly hit the big time and is highly sought after by international cosmetic companies who think you are worth it. Only problem is, this stubborn little tree is not keen to leave home and is proving difficult to cultivate elsewhere; which, for the moment, is great news for the local Amazigh people who know exactly how to handle its bounty. If you have a driver, he may pull over near a ragged little wayside tree for you to admire the goats beautifully arranged and standing stock still in its branches. Funnily enough, the main event around here is not the men surrounding the tree showing off their trunk climbing charges. They are just a bit of a side show, exploiting the natural behaviour of local goats to climb up into the canopy to graze on their leaves and pick off their favourite argan fruits. They ‘train’ some individuals by lifting them into a position which is a bit insecure from the goats’ point of view, so that they stand stock-still because they are not sure of their footing. Then a cute little furry kid is produced for you to stroke and the show is over. However, the real stars are not the men with their savvy antics but the Amazigh women who are uniquely permitted to extract the magic that is argan oil.
The Arganeraie reserve extends over a bit less than a million hectares, between Safi to the North and the fringes of the Sahara to the south and bounded by the Atlantic Ocean with the Atlas Mountains to the east. It is known to have been around in the earth’s Tertiary Period, is native to this area of Morocco and used to grow wild throughout North Africa and even parts of Southern Spain. The Amazigh call it ‘The Tree of Life’ because every part of the tree is useful from its very hard wood, which makes excellent charcoal, to its leaves which are fodder for goats and camels, to its amazing green, olive-like fruits, which provide an oil which is not only very healthy but is a marvellous protection for the skin from desiccating Saharan winds. As if this wasn’t enough, it is now known that the long and deep roots of this tree have a symbiotic relationship with microscopic mushrooms, a process known a mycorrhization, which feed nutrients to the roots in exchange for moisture. This healthy root system binds the soil firmly and forms a barrier to the Sahara. It also creates the conditions for a healthy eco-system which supports a whole raft of species of fauna and flora.
All this has been under threat in the last decades from urbanisation and the over exploitation of the trees for timber and fodder. However, the work of one woman, Professor Zoubida Charrouf has been hugely influential in reversing this trend. Her scientific research confirmed what local women always knew, argan oil has hugely beneficial health and beauty properties containing both antimicrobial and antioxidant agents. She wanted to find a way of keeping this natural resource in the hands of local people so she set up women’s Cooperatives and gained legislative and financial support from the Moroccan government. Local women are now the only people within the biosphere to be legally able to make argan oil. I went to see how they do it.
The bright green fruits of the argan reach maturity during June and July. They look rather like an outsize olive of around two centimeters in length and are beaten off the trees with sticks and gathered from the ground. Then they are left to dry outside until they form a dark crust and are stored until needed. The women at the cooperative form a ‘production line’ seated on the ground in the traditional manner. The fleshy husk is removed and used as a feed for goats. To get to the kernels, women crack the nut open as it has been done for centuries, between two specially shaped stones. The discarded shells are put to use as fuel for fire. Sixteen times harder than a hazelnut, argan nuts rank among the hardest in the world, and this first stage, cracking them open, is the most difficult part of the process. It seems that machines designed to perform this task often fail and the traditional way of cracking them remains the most effective to get to the kernels.
The kernels are passed down the line where they are crushed and then pounded in a hand mill called an azerg. Argan oil is destined either for culinary use or for cosmetic purposes: if the oil being made is to be used for the table, the kernels are roasted before they are crushed to bring out the nutty flavour. The milled nut paste is then mixed with water and repeatedly kneaded and pressed by hand to extract the oil, which is brought to the surface of the mixture. It is a strange sight, a sludgy, muddy product, with the added water being counter-intuitive to the idea of oil production. At the end of this very arduous process you are left with what the women laughingly called ‘goat chocolate’, fist sized lumps of a dried, almost black substance which, apparently, domestic animals can’t get enough of. And, of course, the precious oil. The following statistic helps us understand why this oil is so expensive: one hectare or argan trees can produce 800 kilos of ripe fruit, which will yield 40 kilos of nuts, which will produce 18 litres of oil; each litre representing about twenty hours of work.
There was, of course, a shop at the end of the tour but no-one was pressed to buy and having just witnessed what it takes to make the oil the high price made sense. It is worth remembering – there is no such thing as cheap argan – so don’t buy anything sold by the side of the road or in a market at a knock down price, it will not be a pure product. I love using it and am very happy to buy it whenever I am in the area – even more so now I know the story behind its manufacture. The industry has really helped women of the region in many ways offering regular employment at relatively good rates of pay which in turn have given them purchasing power and access to better health care and education for themselves and their children.
So, what exactly can this miracle oil do for us? When lightly toasted the kernels give a wonderfully tasty oil, rather like a mixture of hazelnuts and sesame seeds with fruity notes. It seems that edible argan oil has sterols that are unusual in other vegetable oils, including scotenol which has antitumoral and anticancer properties, and spinasterol, a compound that reduces intestinal cholesterol absorption. It is also rich in vitamin E and is believed to lower cholesterol levels, stimulate blood circulation, help digestion and reinforce the body’s immune system. It is known to be much better for us than extra virgin olive oil. That is all good news but it is its amazing effect on skin and hair which is encouraging the race by international beauty businesses to find a way of growing it as a crop in other parts of the world. Experiments are being carried out in Israel and Argentina to name just two possibilities but, as yet, there has been little progress and Moroccan argan is in huge demand. Here’s why. Argan oil contains high levels of anti-oxidants which help prevent damage to the skin by free radicals that age cells and even promotes cell proliferation. It is also very rich in Omega 6 and Omega 3 – healthy fatty acids which are essential in keeping skin pliable and play a role in reducing inflammation. Other interesting qualities come from the presence of Tirucallol which has an important role in healing damage to skin and Beta Amyrine which stimulates cells to generate and synthesise new collagen. This last is thought to be helpful in alleviating the symptoms of psoriasis. Then there is Butyrospermol, which has a powerful anti-inflammatory effect, which may even help internal inflammation problems such as arthritis and Lupenol, which has a strong antiseptic effect. The list of beneficial qualities is seemingly endless – and, as a final flourish. let’s not forget, local people believe it to be a strong aphrodisiac – I rest my case.
Although I have come to know the argan tree only fairly recently our association actually goes back several decades. Many years ago, a palm reader predicted that my husband would make a fortune from a tree which dripped gold but was hard to cultivate as it only grew in the particular conditions of a very restricted area of the world. All he had to do was find that tree and make it grow elsewhere. Obviously, we dismissed this as nonsense but I have never forgotten her words and it is satisfying to have at least found the tree – however, the fortune bit is still shrouded in mystery, a work in progress perhaps.
Post Script: The three images above are of Dar Boutazert, a guest house about twenty kilometres south of Essaouira. Peter Jordansson has created a garden in the forest integrating as many of the argan trees he found on the site as possible. I visited in its first year and it is fascinating to see how quickly the trees have responded to regular watering and care, despite being made to withstand the toughest of conditions. Note the forest stretching as far as the eye can see beyond the garden walls in image three.