Although Moroccan women have been painstakingly making Argan oil by hand for centuries, it is known by relatively few people outside of Morocco. Argan oil comes from nuts that grow on the Argan tree, and the only place in the world you’ll find Argan trees is in the southwestern part of Morocco, in an area that is only about 1.5 million acres in size.
That may seem like a lot of space, but it really isn’t, and despite the hardiness of the Argan trees and their ability to not only survive but thrive in the harsh climate of Morocco, their numbers disappeared by a third in the last century alone.
I remember my first glimpse of an Argan tree about five years ago when my wife and I visited Morocco. We were driving north from Marrakech to the coastal town of Essaouira and we had to do a double-take when we saw a tree by the side of the road that had about a dozen goats in it, literally standing on the branches of the tree and munching on the fruit. We later learned that although the goats eat the green Argan fruit (they look like olives, only larger and rounder), they leave the interior shell behind, and inside this shell are small kernels from which the Argan oil is extracted.
Nothing is wasted in the process of making Argan oil. Traditionally, the hard shells have to be cracked by hand, the kernels within removed. Then kernels are then crushed and mildy roasted and cooled before being ground by hand using a quern, or grinding stone. Later, the kernels are hand-mixed with water to form a dough, and it is from that dough that the oil is extracted (again, by hand.) Any by-product from this process is used to feed cattle…and the shells are crushed and burned as fuel.
Recently mechanical presses have been introduced to extract Argan oil. This process reduces considerably the time needed to do the job. Once the kernels are roasted, the mechanical press takes care of the grinding and extraction. More oil is extracted by machine than by hand, and since no water is added to press the dough, the oil can be stored longer without spoiling.
The most time consuming part of the process, cracking the nuts, is often still done by hand.
Argan oil is sensitive to heat and can spoil quickly, so once it is made, it is bottled, and once the bottle is opened, the oil is kept under refrigeration. You sprinkle it over salads, pasta, raw tuna, and other dishes at the last minute, just before serving.
It was only a matter of time before American chefs that visited Morocco would discover the wonderful nutty flavor of Argan oil and would bring it back home to use in their restaurants…and now, it’s all the rage.
In our visit to Morocco five years ago, we made a special trip to the Targanine Cooperative, where they gather local women to work together to produce the highest quality organic Argan oil.
The project has two objectives: to preserve what they can of the Argan forest by using sustainable harvesting methods…and to improve the social and economic status of the rural Moroccan women that make the oil.
As you can see in these photos, the women spend their days taking turns with different parts of the extraction process, sitting in a circle, and socializing while performing this tedious job. It’s no wonder that Argan oil is expensive…about $30 for 5 ounces here in the United States at gourmet websites. But, much like a fine olive oil or balsamic vinegar, a little goes a long way to flavor your food. And now Argan oil is becoming a popular ingredient in the world of cosmetics as well.
When you see the women of Morocco making Argan oil from beginning to end, and you realize just how much work it was to do it, the price is very reasonable. And it’s just another example of how often we take for granted what we can so easily buy on a store shelf or with a click of a mouse.