Returning home from Morocco last month with a bundle of treasures including indigo dye, jewelry made by the Tuareg Tribe, indigenous music with the craziest break beats you could ever imagine, fish skins for drums, pointy shoes made from lemon yellow leather, henna, eye kohl, and massive Moroccan castanets (qaraqib), one little treasure gave us a lot to talk about: the argan oil.
A small bottle of it, which my husband says comes from the bum of a goat. According to the people he’d bought it from, the argan oil is made from a nut off the argan tree. In order for the villagers in Morocco to grind the nuts into oil, it must first pass through the intestinal tract, and then the butt of a goat. Some people, he says, on religious grounds will not touch the stuff. But I’ve had it on a Sabbath dinner table with religious Moroccan Jews, who love to eat the precious, nutty oil, drizzled over tomatoes. It’s very special, and I am enjoying our own little bottle which cost a fortune in Moroccan standards, about $10 USD.
Argan oil, I would learn is a precious natural commodity from Morocco, and some villagers are building a cottage industry around it, while UNESCO is working to protect the argan tree. Sources I have read have mentioned that the nuts can be processed without the goat intervention, news which makes me sigh with relief, because I can just imagine what will happen to the world’s goats: being forced to eat argan nuts like foie gras geese who get feed pumped down their throats to enlarge their livers.
Apparently there are two kinds of argan oil: one kind is good for your skin, and the other, the kind I have, is argan oil suitable for eating. Wikipedia points out that the traditional methods of collecting argan oil are no longer in practice (well most likely not in practice):
Before modern times, the Berbers or Amazighs (indigenous people of Morocco) of this area would collect undigested argan pits from the waste of goats which climb the trees to eat their fruit. The pits were then ground and pressed to make the nutty oil used in cooking and cosmetics. However, the oil used in cosmetic and culinary products available for sale today has most likely been harvested and processed with machines in a verifiably clean and sanitary way.
The oil was sold in Moroccan markets even before the Phoenicians arrived, yet the hardy argan tree has been slowly disappearing. Overgrazing by goats and a growing, wood-hungry local population have whittled the number of surviving trees down to less than half of what it was 50 years ago.
Growing only in a few places in the world, efforts are being made to protect the argan tree, and along with it, the argan’s nutritious oil, which comes with a very good story.
Image: Green Prophet. Model: Itamar Borochov