Argan Oil is currently (2007) the darling oil of foodies, the slow food movement, and environmentalists.
It comes from a shrubby, thorny evergreen tree (Argania spinosa) that grows in the south-western part of Morocco between Essaouira and Agadir. It is related to the olive tree.
The tree is propagated by seed and can live 150 to 200 years. It grows 26 to 32 feet (8 to 10 metres) tall, with a twisted sloping trunk and small green leaves. Its roots grow far down, up to 98 feet (30 metres) in search of water. The tree can grow so slanted sideways that goats are able to climb the trees.
In a drought, the tree won't die, but rather will just drop its leaves and go into dormancy for several years until normal moisture is restored. But, it won't tolerate any cold.
The tree starts to bear some fruit when it is 5 years old, but doesn't really get into the swing of things until it is 50 years old. The fruit looks like a quite large green olive, up to the size of a plum, and ripens from lime green to bright yellow. The hard nut at the centre of the fruit has seeds inside.
Traditionally, the fruit was gathered in one of two ways. It could be allowed to fall to the ground, and gathered there. Or, goats were allowed to climb the trees and eat the fruit. The hard nuts inside would pass right through the goats, and be collected from their droppings.
Now, the fruit is beaten off the trees to speed things up.
The fruit is gathered, then allowed to dry out in the sun. When dried, the dried flesh around the nut is removed, and fed to livestock.
The nut inside is brown, round, and about 1/4 of the total weight of the fruit. Its shell is 16 times harder than that of a hazelnut. It is cracked between two stones. Even commercially produced Argan Oil still has this cracking done by hand.
Its the kernels in the nuts that are sought after, up to 3 almond-shaped kernels in one nut. Because they are bitter when raw, they are toasted, then ground with some water in a large mortar and pestle-like object to make a paste. The paste is then kneaded by hand until the oil starts to separate from the paste after many hours of kneading. The leftover paste is used to feed livestock; the shells are burnt as cooking and heating fuel.
A women's cooperative called the Amal Coooperative has been formed in Tamanar to produce the oil commercially (there are also other commercial processors now.) Now machines are used to toast them, and mechanical presses are being used to knead the paste, though the cracking is still being done by hand.
The oil ranges from an almost colourless pale yellow to somewhat darker than olive oil with a reddish tinge. It is not as thick as olive oil, and tastes like a blend between hazelnut, sesame and pumpkins seed oils, with no aftertaste.
It takes 100kg of fruit to yield 1 litre of oil, and by manual methods, around 20 hours of labour. It is quite expensive, about £ 10.00 / $20.00 US (2005 prices) for 250 ml, too expensive for most Moroccans to use themselves.
Compare the production of Argan Oil with that of Civet Coffee.
In the West, it is recommended as a finishing oil. It is suggested to use it as a table condiment or in small amounts in salad dressing, or for stirring a few drops into cooked couscous or lentils, or for stirring into soups and stews at the end of cooking for flavour.
Argan trees are native to south-western Morocco, though efforts are currently (2006) being made to cultivate them elsewhere in places such as Australia, and in the Arava valley of Israel, where efforts started in 1986. Reports of the tree also being native to "parts of Mexico" or "a tiny part of Mexico" appear to be erroneous.
Rerhaye, Narjis & Chantal Schryer. Amal' as in 'Hope': An Argan Oil Cooperative is Changing Women's Lives. IRDC Reports Magazine, 16 March 2001. Retrieved online April 2006 from http://reseau.crdi.ca/en/ev-5416-201-1-DO_TOPIC.html.
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