Suitcase and World: The story of Argan.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The story of Argan.

Today, on our way to Essaouira, we passed through a region known as the Arganeraie Biosphere Reserve which was established by UNESCO to protect about 2,560,000 hectares of endangered argan trees.  The nut of the argan tree (Argania spinosa) is the source of the argan oil that Morocco is world famous for.   Argan oil is unique to Morocco and I had it on my list of things to bring back with me.

Normally, I don't like factory tours but I'm hoping we get one today so I can get a bottle of the precious from the source.  So excited!

 "Goats in a tree? "As Najib was telling us about the argan trees, the driver pulled the bus over and opened up the doors.   I stepped out.  There, in front of me, was a sight that I had never seen before in my entire life.  There were a handful of goats, standing on tree limbs and grazing.  I couldn't help but gasp in awe and smile at the same time. They were so cute!

The shepherd was standing close by and Najib instructed us to give the man some dirhams in exchange for photos.  This was one photo op that I was not going to pass on so I handed over a few coins and snapped away.

Before modern times, the Berbers would collect undigested argan nuts from the waste of goats which climb the trees to graze on the leaves and eat the fruits. The pits were then ground and pressed to make the nutty oil used in cooking and cosmetics.  Today, modern machinery is used to gather the nuts and process the oil from them.

The argan tree grows in the southwestern region of Morocco and in a few other places around the world.  It has been described as a tenacious tree that can survive extended droughts and can live more than 200 years.

Argan fruits, like peaches or mangos, have an outer 
fleshy part that surrounds a hard shell that contains 
the seed.  Once the seeds - the argan nuts—are 
extracted,  the shells can be burned as fuel for 
cooking and home heating. Nothing is wasted.  

                              Photo from Saudi Aramco World
As a result of overgrazing by goats and peoples need for wood to burn, the argan tree quickly became an endangered tree species.  But, because it had never been cultivated on a wide scale, when it started disappearing, alarm set in.  That's when UNESCO came to the rescue.

There is an interesting article on the New York Times website about the goats and argan oil.

"The story behind the oil "Today, argan oil production is done primarily in numerous women’s co-operatives in the southwest region of Morocco.  Therein lies another interesting story.

When King Mohammed VI took over the thrown from his father, he realized he had a problem. Most rural and nomad women were illiterate and they were restricted to the home.  It was accepted practice for the women to be pledged to arranged marriages when they were in their teens.  It was not uncommon for them to meet their husbands, who were often decades older, until the wedding and for the babies would start to arriving shortly after the wedding.  In the absence of birth control, women would easily have twelve or more live births. 

The king decided to put an end to this oppression of rural and nomad women, as well as he could. First, he made it illegal for anyone to marry under the age of eighteen, even those with the consent of both parties and their parents. The couple were required to take a family planning course and learn about the proper use of contraceptives, go through marriage and individual counseling, take classes on home economics and good nutrition and hygiene. They were taught their legal rights as husband and wife and the social benefits they qualified for.

Then, the king set up a series of rural “cooperatives” that would employ only women.   The women are required to grow, harvest, and process argan nuts the same way their ancestors had done it for millennia. What the government gives them is free land, no taxes, and support and education in building their enterprises.  What the cooperative gives them fair wage sand hours that are suitable to meeting the needs of their family and children. Many of the cooperatives also offer educational and childcare benefits and some offer the women a place to live.  All the way around, the cooperatives sound like a win-win situation to me.

We would get to visit the Cooperative d'Argan Marjana, which is one such cooperative. 

Our driver pulled the bus into the parking lot in front of the store at the Cooperative d'Argan Marjana.  We would get to go there later but first we would get to see the women at work.

The *processing* room was located in a separate building, nearby the store.   I could hear the chatter and laughter of women as we approached building.

 "Snap of the wrist, crack of the pestle, pop the nut "
Inside was a single room.  The women were all sitting on the floor and leaning on the walls of the building.  To our right and immediately in front of us were the women who were tasked with cracking the hard shell of the nut to retrieve the nut meat.  The cracker was basically a stone pestle.

Photo from Newtopia
As a young woman narrated, the women demonstrated their skill of cracking open the nuts.  One quick flick of the wrist to bring the stone pestle down on the shell of the nut and it was split to remove the meat.  Years of practice.  With split second timing and accuracy, each woman could crack a nut as fast as I could blink my eyes.  I know that they made it look easy to do but as a woman in our tour group showed, it was lot difficult than you would think.

Next, the nuts were ground using a stone grinder which reminded me of the one that my grandmother used to grind up peanuts with.

As the nuts were ground, you could already see some of the oil leaching out.

The last group of women were tasked with extracting the oil.  A few handfuls of the ground meat were mixed with a bit of water and essentially needed to extract oil  The liquid solution was then poured into a container for bottling.

As someone who often takes the manual route when preparing food, I can appreciate that processing the nuts and oil by hand produces a better quality product.  After watching the women at work and knowing that whatever I buy from their store goes right back to them, I was set on making a purchase.  No two ways about it, I had to have a bottle.

 "Something I truly appreciate "After we thanked the women for their demonstration, we made our way over to the cooperative's store.  Inside, the young woman led us to a small table in the middle of the room.  On the table was a basket of bread and two small bowls.  One of the bowls was filled with pure argan oil and the other with a mixture of ground almonds mixed with argan oil.  I took a piece of bread from the basket and dipped it into the pure oil.  It tasted nutty with a flavor a bit like hazelnut.  I then dipped it into the almond/argan mixture and surprisingly, that tasted like a finer textured peanut butter.

On the walls of the shop were shelves filled with argan products.  There were the oil based cosmetics, candles and pure oil for cooking.  The moment I saw the small bottle of oil, which I knew I could easily pack into by backpack, I grabbed it.  As a foodie, this is something from Morocco that I will appreciate greatly.   I scanned the rest of the shelves to see if there was anything else I wanted but the oil was it.

I went up to the counter to pay and I was surprised to find out that they took credit cards.  Although the cooperative has only been in existence for three years, it has done extremely well, growing from a small farm that harvested a few hundred gallons of argan oil a year into into a major manufacturer of cosmetics, candles, massage oil, health products, seasonings and cooking oil.  Not only do they accept credit cards but as the woman behind the counter informed me, they have plans to open up an online store.  Rural Morocco is not as rural as I thought it was :-)

Bottle safely tucked into my backpack, I got back on the bus.   Onwards to Essaouira!