Monday, January 17, 2011

The Argan Tree and its amazing oil

Argan forest south of Essaouira

When I was in Marrakesh I would sometimes see carts with these large dark nuts that looked like big acorns, or giant olives that were being toasted to a dark brown.  I never asked what they were as I don’t speak French very well and virtually no Arabic or Berber, which makes me a bit shy sometimes, though you would never guess that if you were following me around.  Moroccans are very engaging at times and life here is very interactive.  At any rate, it wasn’t until I came to Essaouira, a notoriously historic port on the Atlantic coast that I found out what the nuts were.

Camel eating Argan leaves

I came to Essaouira with a man named Harold, who has lived in Morocco for 28 years. I met him a mutual friend who lives in Portland.  Harold goes back and forth between a place in the Medina in Marrakesh and an apartment on the beach in Essaouira.  We were driving across a mostly flat stony plain with a Spanish painter friend of Harold’s in the back seat with his spry 87 year old mother.  I had been dozing, but I woke up as if on cue as we entered an area of low hills forested with rather evenly spaced, thorny trees with multiple twisted trunks.  Harold said to me, I was just going to wake you to see the goats in the trees. Herds of goats can be seen standing on their hind legs eating the leaves, or even up in the branches having climbed them.  Goats seem to be able to eat just about anything.  The trees are called Argan, Argania spinosa botanically, and are a member of the familiy Sapotaceae which includes several other fruiting trees of importance in tropical climates.

The trees have very dark green foliage, tough little leaves in clusters amongst long spines.  In times of prolonged drought the leaves drop off, which may happen if they don’t get any rain this year.  There has been next to none and the rainy season is half over by mid January of 2011.  The tree can go in to dormancy for as long as 7 years!  The nuts, which are used to extract an edible oil require over a year to mature, and are harvested in the month of July.  The tree is a relic of the Tertiary period, going back 65 million years.  It grows anywhere from 15 to 30 feet tall and is endemic to the coast of Morocco and part of Algeria, the Canary Islands, and a small part of Spain.  The majority of the trees grow between the town of Essaouira and the city of Agadir.  In the past 100 years, half of its range has been destroyed by development, grazing by goats, and for firewood as the wood makes good charcoal.  It tolerates extreme heat, poor soils, and prolonged drought, and is extremely important in the desert climate of North Africa.  For this reason, in 1998 UNESCO declared it’s remaining range as the Arganeriaie World Heritage Biosphere Reserve in hopes of preserving this tree, so very essential to the environmental health of the region.

One of the methods of encouraging protection is the expansion of the use of the trees fruit as a source of Argan Oil.  Oil production is done exclusively by women, and the King of Morocco has encouraged the formation of cooperatives to create more jobs for women in the country.  This nutty tasting oil is similar in many ways to Olive oil, though it loses flavor when used for cooking and is thus used more as a flavoring oil.  The delicious taste has made it an trendy product in the gourmet food markets of Europe and North America.  The process of extracting the oil is a labor intensive one.  Traditionally, the nuts were fed to goats, through who’s digestive system the pulpy skin is consumed.  The remaining nut is then removed from the goat’s dung and cracked and roasted, bringing out the nutty flavor.  The roasted seeds are then ground in to a paste and mixed with water and then pressed, extracting the oil.  Since the oil is now being marketed commercially, the goat dung phase of the process is circumvented. Cultivation is essentially native, natural and organic unlike the production of many other kinds of edible oils.

Cracking Argan nuts after peeling them, and a stone oil press (right)
There is a wonderful shop in the Essaouira Medina (old city) called Planette Bio Aromatherapie, where Argan oil is produced and mixed with a variety of medicinal herbs to treat a wide range of ailments.  Women sitting on the floor peel off the pulpy skin and crack the nuts between stones in the traditional manner, the shells of which make up a carpet in the shop.  All of the waste product is used for animal feed.  The proprietor gave me a tour, explaining the various pastes and soaps mixed with herbs to treat arthritis, eczema and other skin conditions, and as a shampoo.  I bought the one for arthritis to treat the inflammation I frequently experience from the hard work I do with my hands.  He told me that frequent massaging of the paste can also straighten disfigured fingers, which is an affliction that my Mother suffers from.  I look forward to having her try it to see if it helps.  I also bought a bar of their soap as I tend to have dry skin, and a bottle of oil to use in cooking and for massage.  It smells wonderful!

Planette Bio shop in Essaouira.  Notice the nut shells carpeting the floor.

Medicinal Herbs
 The oil is rich in unsaturated fatty acids and is thought to have blood cholesterol reducing qualities.  It also has a high vitamin E content, twice that of Olive Oil, and is being used to produce soaps and wrinkle prevention creams.  Because of the labor intensive process needed to extract the oil, it sells for up to 50 dollars for a 500 milliliter bottle in Western markets.  It takes about 80 pounds of fruit to produce a liter of oil.  A traditional Moroccan dish called Amlou is made with a mixture of the oil with almonds and honey as an energy sweet, and is considered an aphrodisiac.  It is also used in Tajines and Couscous dishes, and as a dip with honey for bread.  It is excellent as an oil for salads.
Various Argan Pastes and jars of herbs, natural scents, and dyes
The tree is now being cultivated in Tunisia, Libya, and Israel and I found references to a few specimens surviving at the University of Arizona arboretum, where the trees have survived temperatures as low as 20 degrees.

They served Argan Oil at breakfast mixed with honey at the beautiful Riad I stayed in in Fez when I first came to Morocco and it is delicious, though I didn’t know what it was at the time.  Now I do.  Purchasing Argan oil products help insure the economic support that encourages conservation of an essential but threatened ecosystem, and the World can always use more of that.  The fact that the forests are native and productive agriculturally is significant as well, since native plants harbor native biodiversity that exotic crops do not.  So in it’s way, Argan can heal the environment while healing humans at the same time, which is holistic in the truest sense.

Argon Products being sold in the Medina


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