Argan: The Moroccan Tree of Life
(Argane d'Essaouira.com; Al-Bab.com)
Argania spinosa grows in the area due to a unique mixture of soil, strong sun and Atlantic climate. Though declining in number, argans can live up to 250 years through heat and drought in meager, stony soil. Attempts to introduce the species to other parts of the world have failed.
The argan's small habitat makes it virtually unknown outside Morocco and unknown to many Moroccans who live in different regions. The name "argan" likely came from the village of Argana, where the tree may have first been identified.
But there is more to the argan tree than meets the eye.
Growing to a height of 8-10m, the twisted and gnarled trunk of the tree enables goats to climb and eat its leaves and fruit. After the goats consume the green, fleshy, olive-looking fruit, they excrete the nut.
Argan nuts contain oil slightly darker than olive oil with a reddish tinge and nutty taste. Called Moroccan "liquid gold," the oil is extracted in a largely traditional production process that starts with farmers collecting the nuts left by goats.
Opening the nuts to remove kernels requires 20 hours of work to produce one litre of oil. The largely cottage industry is mostly performed by women, though it is possible someday greater popularity of the oil will lead to significant employment opportunities. One indication of the oil's popularity is a Swiss-Moroccan company, Argane d'Essaouria, now sells argan oil over the internet.
At the local level, the difficult oil extraction process from argan nuts yields an unexpected outcome: unscrupulous vendors and distributors. High-priced argan oil tempts many vendors and distributors to dilute it with cheaper oils. On the many roadside stands between Essaouira and Agadir, the oil's authenticity is not guaranteed and customers must be careful.
High costs lead to consumers generally only using argan oil in moderation to flavour dishes such as couscous, salads, vegetables, meat, and fish. People who make their own oil are more likely to utilize it for general cooking.
Argan oil is considered healthy because it contains 80 per cent unsaturated fatty acids like oleic and linoleic. Attributed health effects include reducing cholesterol levels and bolstering the body's natural defenses.
The oil is packed with natural vitamin E and is used as a skin care product. Argan oil's anti-aging effect on skin and ability to soften it makes it a popular ingredient in Moroccan cosmetics. There is also evidence the oil can protect against skin infections.
More than oil is made from the argan kernel. A brown-coloured paste called amlou is made from the kernel, sweetened and served as a breakfast bread spread by Berbers.
Besides the economic benefits that could be spurred by increased investment in argan products, efforts to protect and possibly increase the number of trees will help the environment. The trees' deep roots help bind the soil and prevent erosion.
With the capability of yielding tasty oil, skin care products, a sweet paste, and saving the environment, the Moroccan "The Tree of Life" earned a well-deserved name.
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