Argan Oil and Tree Goats

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.

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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.

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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 Now, in most places, the goats have been replaced by the local women, who (thankfully!)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.

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Unripe argan fruit

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.

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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.

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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.

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Next group was cracking the inner shell and taking out the kernel, which slightly resembles pumpkin seed kernel without a green skin.

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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.

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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. 

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Amlou, argan oil and honey (top)

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!

Camel Spleens and Sheep Heads

If you are willing to go beyond your regular restaurants catering to tourists, Marrakesh has some absolutely fascinating foods to offer. Not to say that the restaurants are bad, we’ve had plenty of interesting meals at the regular restaurants. We tried the infamous camel burger at the Cafe Clock, which is served with their homemade Taza ketchup and is absolutely delicious. 

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We really enjoyed incredibly fresh (and untolerably bony) grilled sardines at El Jardin.

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And we’ve had the best ever chicken with lemon preserve at the Bouganvillia Cafe. I wish I can just buy a giant bucket of that particular preserve and put it on every single dish I eat. 

But to really find interesting foods in Morocco, you have to go out and explore the streets. So, of course we had to do the street food tour. We started out at the Jamaal El Fnaa plaza, where we met with our group and the tour guide. Our guide’s name was Mohamed and he was a city tour guide in Marrakesh for a long time before he started doing food tours. There was a middle aged couple from the UK and a young girl from Estonia in our group. We started out by taking a long walk down to the very obscure part of the medina, to the tiny food stall at the “second hand” market where only locals go, partially because it’s well hidden from most tourist traffic, but mostly because tourists don’t usually buy second hand stuff in Morocco. But locals love this particular place, because they serve the best couscous, which is rolled by hand by the ladies who work there. Traditionally, couscous was rolled by hand, but nowadays the process have been mainly mechanized, so it’s rare to find proper couscous that is still rolled by hand. Couscous is a staple food in Morocco and many other African countries and, apparently, there are many kinds of couscous, including barley and corn. The proper couscous is light and fluffy, and it can be soaked with the vegetable or meat broth and spices. We were served couscous with a hefty helping of vegetables and vegetable broth, topped up with the tfaya: mixture of caramelized onions, golden raisins and chickpeas (yum!).

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We also had a small side of an eggplant salad and freshly baked bread to mop up the juices. Of course, we couldn’t get away from the Moroccan mint tea, which is made with the mixture of green tea and fresh mint or other herbs, depending on the season, and enough sugar to keep your wired till the end of the year. Mohamed said that the proper tea is made by pouring some out in a glass, and pouring it back in, so it’s properly mixed.

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After that we continued to the next place. Mohamed, being a former tour guide of Marrakesh, was a wealth of knowledge about all things Morocco. He showed us all the little secret places: local bakeries, where locals go to buy bread,

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real estate offices, barber shops, warehouses, fish mongers, best butchers in town, spice sellers, healers, woodoo shops, full of dried animal carcasses, potion makers and many more.

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Jojoba seeds
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Raw henna
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Absinthe and geranium (below) both used in tea
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Geranium

We tried some things on the way: prickly pear cactus fruit, which tastes sweet, somewhat resembling juicy really sweet apple or even a watermelon, with the texture similar to kiwi, but the seeds are giant and hard and evenly distributed throughout the whole fruit

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local doughnuts, sold hanging on a piece of a tied grass and eaten by dipping in sugar or honey.

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Then we made it to a place famous for its sardine kefta sandwiches. Kefta (or kofta) usually means ground meat. You would never think that ground sardines would be anything appealing, but when properly barbecued, mixed with the right mixture of olives, onions and tomatoes, on a freshly baked bread… Yuuummm… It was a real treat (even though it doesn’t look it…)

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As we were sitting at the sardine sandwich shop, we were watching a smoothie place across the street. It was closed at the moment, because the guy went to the prayer service, like a lot of muslims do, but there was a crowd of about 20 locals patiently waiting next to the window. The guy showed up, opened the shop and the crowd suddenly grew to over 100 people, all waiting patiently for their smoothies. There are hundreds of smoothie places in half a mile radius, but none has a line. What kind of crack is this guy putting in his smoothies?

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All those people, and a lot more, waiting for their smoothies…

On a way to the next place, Mohammed pointed out something interesting: a camel spleen sandwich. There was a guy on the street who had this giant spleen stuffed with spices and ground meat, with a little bit of a hump fat which he had slowly cooking in spiced ghee. After being cooked, the spleen is minced, mixed with ghee and served inside a bread, topped up with the spicy sauce. The brave ones in our group (not Bobby) tried it and found it surprisingly delicious. It had a nice creamy texture and a hint of something like a liver or kidneys, which wasn’t overpowering, but gave it a nice interesting flavor. I later found myself wanting to go back and have some more…

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After a spleen sandwich we went to try the lamb tangier (nothing to do with the city of Tangier). For the longest time I couldn’t figure out the difference between the tangier and a tajine (or tagine), but turns out, the difference is all in the type of dishware they are cooked in. Tajine is cooked on the large, relatively flat plate, covered by a conically shaped top like this:

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Tajine

And tangier meat is made in a tangier pot, which is more of a traditionally shaped clay pot, sealed tightly and cooked slowly in the heat of the hammam or bakery stove. It’s usually made with Moroccan lemon preserves and lots of spices. Some of the butchers offer tangier preparations, where they prepare the meat for you and take it to hammam. Those butcher shops usually have tangier pots hanging at the front.

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Tangier

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The shop that we went to try the tangier also does Moroccan goat barbecue. Moroccan barbecue is done in a stone pit that is dug in the earth under a shop and covered by a stone cover. I believe it’s called tandir, and it’s somewhat related to tandoor (South East Asian grill). The barbecue pit looks more like a well (pretty hot well at that) and usually several goat or sheep carcasses are put inside to be done in 2 hours.

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Inside the pit

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There is usually no seasoning or spices used during barbecuing and the lamb is eaten by hand, tearing pieces  of meat out and dipping them in the mixture of salt and cumin. Of course, the crescendo of the meal was the half of the sheep’s head, sliced through the center and served in the same manner as the lamb – with just a little bit of salt mixed with cumin.

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The skin was cleared, so we could try the cheek meat and the tongue. The cheek meat is very tender, fatty and almost gelatinous in consistency. I’m personally not a big fan of sheep meat, and I found the smell a bit overpowering. No one in our group dared to eat an eyeball.

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Then we continued onto the olive market, where houondreds of kinds of olives are sold together with lemon and other preserves and meat preserved in ghee, which is cut with scissors into small pieces and used as a seasoning. I found it interesting to see 20 vendors side by side, and one or two would have a long line and some have absolutely no customers.

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Meat preserved in ghee

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Almond butter with cinnamom and honey

We visited the date market, filled with hundreds of varieties of dates. Dates are often used in Morocco as wedding favors, they are beautifully packaged and ready to be picked up from vendors the night before.

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And of course, for dessert we had a big pile of Moroccan treats, which are ridiculously sweet, but deliscious nontheless. 

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