We often get a knock at the door of the campervan when I’m in my jammies, from people selling argan oil. I have to admit I’d never heard of argan oil: in recent years it’s apparently become a big seller in the lucrative cosmetic industry. That’s maybe why I’ve not heard about it, I often struggle remembering to brush my hair.
Argan trees are endemic to Morocco and the oil they produce is one of the rarest in the world. The trees, which used to grow all over North Africa, are now endangered and protected by UNESCO.
Known as the “Tree of Life” by Moroccan Berbers, it lives between 125 and 400 years. Longer than an olive tree. It has provided oil, food, shade and fuel in Morocco for generations.
There’s a small road, a little wider than single track which runs down the coast from Essaouira to Agadir. It’s worth taking the detour to drive through the argan plantations. The trees are spiky but goats and camels don’t mind. Thousands of new trees have been planted as part of a government initiative.
It’s a funny sight to see half a herd of goats perched in branches at the top of a tree. They love the fruit. One minute the tree is empty, the next it’s full of goats.
In the very centre of the fruit there are two or three kernels protected by a shell. The kernel is the valuable bit, pressed and used to make oil. The oil can be eaten or used in cosmetics.
Argan oil has an impressive list of chemical properties. It contains a hard-to-beat amount of “good for you” compounds; anti-oxidants, flavonoids (anti-inflammatory) and Vitamin E to name but a few.
Medicinal claims range from anti-wrinkle to anti-cancer.
What’s left after the kernels are pressed is used as camel or cattle feed. The shells are used as fuel for burning. Wrapped around the shell is a pulp and wrapped around that is a protective husk. The goats eat the whole thing. Long ago, it was the goat poop that was collected. From that the undigested pits were removed and pressed to make oil. The middle man (or goat) has been cut out these days.
The husks, pulp surrounding the nut, and leaves are used to feed animals. The tree itself provides shelter, for goats and for the donkeys waiting to carry the harvest of nuts back home.
Although the pressing is often now done by machine – it used to be women who manually extracted the oil; it took 10 to 20 hours of labour to make a litre of product – the cracking of the shells is still done by hand.
Much of the work associated with argan oil production is done by women. Female cooperatives make an important contribution to the economy of the area.
Argan is a useful tree indeed. It would be sad to see it disappear. Especially if we also lose the acrobatic goats.