We leave the narrow lane ways of Marrakech heading toward the west coast of Morocco in search of the allusive tree-climbing goat. Travelling in the signature transport for the region, Katherine, Chris and I are in a shiny aquamarine blue Mercedes. She is the prized possession of Karim, our fun-loving taxi teamster. His head is bopping and voice chorusing along to the 1980’s hits – Like a Prayer and Into the Groove, all the while encouraging us to join in. We cling on as Karim weaves his way around donkey-carts, police roadblocks, roadside stalls brimming with vegetables, languid village life and finally out onto the dusty plains of the Arganeraie Biosphere Reserve.
Known as a 10,000 square mile designated UNESCO protected region, the reserve is rimmed by the sea, yellow stained desert sands, hazy mountain ranges and dotted with Argan Cooperatives. It is home to the endangered Argan tree grown to produce the rich, velvety Argan Oil.
Oils go in an out of fashion as quick as diets, with the exception of this ancient oil heralded from the deserts of Northern Africa around Taroudant and not far from the wind-swept coast of Essaouira. Due to its multiple uses in cosmetics, beauty products and cooking, it’s proclaimed as one of the latest miracle ingredients for the culinary and beauty scene. As a result, Argan Oil is now one of the world’s most expensive natural oils, becoming popular through the Moroccan Hair Oil product range that caught on in Australia in 2011, while the European market, especially the French have been using it for a lot longer, due to their historical ties with the ancient coastal port.
We continue westward and sure enough, up ahead just off the roadside is a gnarly tree with some goats petering on its scant thorny branches, munching away at the yellow-green fruit. What a bizarre site. But there is no time to take in the moment as windows are down, cameras are ready and snap, a couple of quick blurry pictures are taken before we are accosted. “We can’t stop,” says Karim “they ask for money to see the goats in the tree.”
“So do the goats climb the trees naturally or are they put there for money?” I ask.
Karim simply smiles. The goats, history tells us, are the Argan Keepers, making sure that the harvest is protected. Considered the sacred custodians of the ever-prized fruit, goats are seen scattered amongst the Argan plains. Traditionally, the goats were an integral part of the oil extraction process. After eating the fruit of the Argania spinosa tree, the kernel containing the oil-rich seed would be expelled within the excrement and later collected to produce the oil. The goats, these days have mostly retired from the argan business and left the local women to take over with the kernel extraction process.
We pull into an Argan Cooperative and are greeted by a local lady who ushers us inside. “All the workers here are women from the nearby villages and native to the area,” she shares. A large board with all the womens’ names and work schedule verifies this. We wander inside the working room where some five ladies are cracking open the Argan shell with stones and popping the nut of the fruit into baskets.
It’s nice to see the purpose built co-ops giving employment to the local women, for aside from Friday nights out in Marrakech when the 18 to 80 year olds dress up in a special outfit, small heals and a little lipstick for dinner with their husbands; we have not come across any local women in our travels. More importantly, the opportunity to work plays a vital role within the Berber tribe by offering the women independence, a share in the profits to go toward their family health care and education, along with knowledge about the protection and value of the ancient Argan tree. Of all the 28 women who partake in the cooperative business, we learn, the husband of only one lady doesn’t like her working.
The Argan oil production process starts by removing the soft husk pulp, which is dried and fed to the animals. The shells are ground down and used as natural exfoliants and the seeds, intended for skin and hair products are left raw and cold-pressed while kernals destined for culinary purposes are roasted to bring out the nutty flavour. Nearby a lady demonstrates the traditional labour intensive extraction process where the roasted kernels are ground into a paste in a stone rotary quern. This is then kneaded and pressed by hand and rolled into patties. While drying, the oil separates and is collected leaving dry, black Argan cakes that are fed to the animals or ground up and made into the wonderful Moroccan black soap.
Scars, dry skin, bland bread, wrinkles, stretch marks, frizzy hair?—just put some argan oil on it. The Moroccans have been using this liquid gold, silky smooth, miracle wonder for just about everything – sparingly of course, given its high price tag. Packed full of Vitamin E and essential fatty acids, the nut, related to the Olive is said to assist with many types of skin conditions from dry skin to acne, psoriasis to eczema. In the kitchen too, the oil can be internally taken. Moroccans use it daily by drizzling it over cous cous or salads, stirred into soups, targines and even deserts.
Argan Oil contains three times the Omega 3s than Olive Oil, more vitamin E than Sweet Almond Oil and a host of cancer-fighting antioxidants. Scientific studies show that culinary Argan oil helps lower cholesterol, improve circulation, stabilize blood sugar, ease arthritic pain and other inflammatory diseases. It also has a place in boosting heart and brain health and regulating hormone levels. Plus, it’s tasty.
Applied externally, Argan Oil has rich stores of essential fatty acids (EFA’s) and antimicrobial properties to treat damaged skin, brittle nails and support scalp and hair health. As it is easily absorbed and regulates the pH balance, it protects against sun damage and reduces inflammation.
Our visit moves to the retail area where we get to see the final products lining the walls. There is massage oil, hand and body creams, shampoos, conditioners and face products, even lip balms and cosmetics based on Argan Oil. In the centre, we dab some Argan lotions on our skin and nibble on bread dipped in Argan oil, a Moroccan tasting peanut butter and my favourite, an addictive Argan-styled Nutella spread known as Amlou made with Argan oil, almonds, peanuts and a little honey.
Despite the dozens of Argan oil options in the retail area, the only product not on the shelves around us is Moroccan hair oil. Interestingly the world-renowned product I use weekly that’s sitting in my bathroom cupboard at home is made in Israel. Given the danger of Argan tree extinction, it turns out that there are a couple of other countries, namely Algeria, United Arab Emirates and Israel that grow and produce a revised strain of the liquid gold.
As one of the oldest drought resistant trees on earth having existed for more than 80 million years, with the hardest kernel shell of any fruit in the world, one could imagine that this plant known as ‘the tree of life’ is planning to stick around for a while. Although, between the stunted tree growth caused by goats and the 15 years it takes for the first fruit to appear on the branches, the future sustainability of this ancient tree to keep up with modern day demands needs to be considered.
How best can we support the Argan initiative? Back in Marrakech, you can’t walk 10 metres without falling over an argan vendor. Just be warned that some are little more than bottles of vegetable oil being passed off as a bargain. To best safeguard the authenticity of this ancient fruit – buy organic, eco certified and from the source. Purchase from an Argan Cooperative where you know that monies raised go toward the traditional Moroccan villages who have worked this plant for centuries and whose monies help fund and educate the Berber.
The end of our visit with the lovely local Berber women nears, so sufficiently oiled up, inside and out, we collect our newly purchased goodies and bid goodbye to the Argan keepers. Tonight we will be feasting on Moroccan-styled Nutella for dinner in the coastal port of Essaouira!