It is sought after for its delicate flavor, its healing properties, and its rumored cosmetic miracles. Its price is equal only to the ever-growing list of its uses and helpful properties. It is one of Morocco’s most important products, because it can be obtained in no other country in the world. Argan oil, the vitamin-rich, amber-colored liquid derived from the kernels of the argan tree, is Morocco’s Liquid Gold.
The argan is a heavily fruiting tree that grows in the arid regions of Morocco. It grows mostly in the regions around Essaouira, the foothills of the High and Anti Atlas Mountains, and less abundantly in the Draa Valley area, up to altitudes of 4,900 feet. The trees are both wild and cultivated, yielding flesh-covered stones that are similar in appearance to olives. Within these hard stones are two kernels per fruit, from which a heavily scented liquid is produced. It takes well over 200 pounds of argan nuts, as well as ten hours of grinding them, to produce just one quart of argan oil. It is this painstakingly long process, as well as the scarcity of argan tress worldwide, that account for the dear monetary price of the precious oil.
Regardless of the cost, the demand for argan oil has only increased in recent years, as visitors to Morocco begin to discover the uses and benefits of this natural elixir. Moroccan men and women alike have long sought after argan oil for its hydrating properties in treating dry skin, as well as adding a lustrous sheen to hair. The oil is also rumored to sport anti-aging properties, and, somewhat ironically, reduce sebum production, resulting in less oily skin. It is even reported to encourage tanning, although perhaps that should come as no surprise, considering its own golden color. Medicinally, argan oil has long been used in Morocco to treat and cure a wide variety of ailments, from arteriosclerosis to chicken pox to rheumatism.
Medicinally, argan oil has long been used to treat and cure a variety of ailments, from arteriosclerosis to chicken pox to rheumatism.
Besides its more utilitarian purposes, argan oil is also a delight to the senses, most often in culinary aspects. Highly prized for its flavor, the taste of argan oil is reputed to be more subtle than that of olive oil, with a delicately nutty scent. Throughout Morocco, but especially in the south, it is used as a spread for bread or pancakes, or combined with ground almonds and other ingredients to make an entirely different spread called amalou. By itself, just a few drops are enough to enhance the flavor of salads and other dishes, and is sometimes served — again, most notably in the South — in a small dish at the table during dinnertime for just the purpose of seasoning.
More parts of the argan tree are used besides its oil. The tree itself is a hard wood, and older trees that are past their producing prime are often sought out for making charcoal. One of the most important, and unexpected, uses of the argan tree, however, is to feed livestock.
Argan trees rarely grow higher than 6 feet, and their braches are close to the ground. For an animal experience with climbing, this presents a unique opportunity for higher-altitude grazing, and the myriad herds of goats that populate rural Morocco know it wholeheartedly. Sure-footed and agile climbers, the goats make no bones about it when it comes to scampering up into the branches of an argan tree to nibble on its leaves. If one is lucky, he’ll actually get to snack on the tasty flesh that surrounds the stone, itself. This not only results in satisfied and happy livestock, but it also makes a harvester’s job easier when it comes time to pick the nuts from the tree.
Morocco has over 1.6 million acres of argan forests. Some twenty million trees grow in a 27 square mile area between Essaouira and Agadir, alone, which begs the question — who owns them all? Most of the forests are state-owned, but common law grants each family the right to own a few trees. For many of these families, those few trees are their only income, and are preciously guarded. An unspoken rule of the land, for example, deems that one family’s goats shall not climb the argan trees that belong to another family, and this is especially so when the trees are in bloom. In addition to the grazing and harvesting income the trees produce, their owners sometimes make a little extra income in a most clever way: at times, goatherds will purposely keep their flocks in argan trees close to a major roadway, providing a unique roadside attraction for travelers. As it is not unusual in Morocco to pay the equivalent of a few cents for the privilege of taking one’s photo, the goatherds hence raise their chances of gaining ‘tips.’
The importance of these trees is also handed down from one generation to another, which can end up in some tricky logistics. When the trees are inherited by the next generation, they are often divided, not unlike plots of land. Two trees are typically bequeathed to a son, and one for a daughter. When the daughter is old enough to marry, she brings her argan tree to the marriage, even if her new husband’s home — and land and any other holdings, including more argan trees — is far away. It is because the argan trees and their products are so highly prized that meting out the trees within and between families is a delicate business on its own.
Argan is one of Morocco’s most important products, because it can be obtained in no other country in the world.
The argan tree is an important crop to Morocco, both ecologically and economically. While its most important aspect is its oil, the many uses of the argan tree, and the ramifications thereof, make it a truly unique plant. Like the country itself, it can be found no where else. The natural wonder that is argan is a true Moroccan original.
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