After sunny and chaotic couple of weeks in Marrakesh, we decided to take a road trip to the small coastal town of Essaouira. Of course, no trip to Essaouira is complete without a stop at the argan forest, where the world famous tree goats can be seen sitting on the trees.
Yes, they are just as adorable and quirky in person as they are on a photo. At the first glance they almost look fake. I suspected that someone maybe have tied them down with a rope to the tree branches. But they seem to be perfectly content to be sitting there, chewing on the thorns. There was a couple of goat herders nearby and they let kids play with the baby goats.
But the goats are not there to simply entertain tourists, they have work to do. Traditionally, the goats were a part of a production cycle of an argan oil, world’s most valuable edible oil, according to some sources. Argan fruits were eaten by the goats and then pooped out to be cracked open and the oil sqeezed out of the seeds used in cosmetics or food. Now, in most places, the goats have been replaced by the local women, who (thankfully!) instead of eating and pooping them out, just crack the shell and take the seed out by hand.
Argan forest is a pretty special place. The argan trees are endemic to the south-west of Morocco and known as “Trees of Life” to the Berbers. Argan oil has been used by the Berbers as a part of the women’s beauty rituals for ages and they pride themselves on their youthful appearance, thanks to the magical oil. The oil is used as a protection from the harsh climatic conditions – burning sun and gushing winds, healing over chicken pox spots, treating eczema and acne, preventing stretch marks and treating arthritis and many other things, including cooking. All the parts of the oil production process are done by hand, exactly the same way it was done for hundreds of years.The process is very labor-intensive and hadn’t been mechanized yet, but it does create a lot of jobs for women in the area, which is great for the economy in general. According to Wikipedia, argan oil production supports 2.2 million people.
Of course we had to stop at one of the cooperatives to see how the oil is made and buy some too. You can buy it in Marrakesh and other places in Morocco, but most of the time it’s diluted with other oils of unknown quality. Edible oil has to be fresh and locals usually recommend buying it at the cooperatives. We pulled over to one of the cooperatives on the way to Essaouria and were welcomed by the nice young lady, who lead us through the whole process, explaining all the details.
The fruit is mainly harvested in July and August, and then dried for several weeks.
We were lead to the production area, where we got to meet the ladies, seated in a large room, separated into production groups. The first group was cracking the hard outer husks (the ones originally digested by the goats) buy crashing them with a stone. Every woman has her own personal stone, and apparently, they are very particular about those. Nothing is wasted in the production, the husks and the shells are later ground and fed to the animals.
Kids got to participate in the oil production also. The ladies were very sweet and they quickly rounded kids up and started showing them how to crack the shell.
Next group was cracking the inner shell and taking out the kernel, which slightly resembles pumpkin seed kernel without a green skin.
After that some amount of kernels is taken out and roasted to be ground into an edible oil. The unroasted oil is used for cosmetic purposes. All the kernels are hand ground in a stone grinder and after that the water is added to the paste to be squeezed by hand to extract the oil. The leftovers are used in the production of Moroccan black soap, that is used in all the hammams and spas throughout the country.
Apparently it takes about 100 kg of ripe fruit to become 30 kg of dried fruit to become 3 kg of kernels to be made into 1 liter of oil after cold pressing. The process from fruit to oil takes about 15 hours.
After that we were taken to the tasting room, where we got to taste freshly squeezed edible argan oil. OMG, the oil tastes incredible. It has a very nutty, rich taste, slightly reminding roasted sunflower kernels, making you just want to chug the whole bottle of it.
We also tried an amlou – mixture of almond butter with honey and the argan oil, with a little bit of cinnamon, used in cooking many Moroccan dishes, including delicious pastilla, the pigeon pie. We also tried the multitude of cosmetic products they made at the coop. We left loaded with two giant bags of stuff we just absolutely had to have, including 2 jars of amlou. Yum!