Argan oil – Morocco’s magic elixir

Argania spinosa, the tree from which we harvest the fruit that yields ‘liquid gold’, or, as we commonly know it: argan oil. A magic elixir that is reported to have cholesterol-lowering, anti-oxidant, anti-cancer, and a whole list of other medicinal benefits. As a cosmetic oil it has anti-ageing properties and helps to clear acne, psoriasis, and eczema. It will also reduce wrinkles, prevent hair loss, and even joint pain.

If you’re not using argan oil to reduce wrinkles, you can use it to dip your bread in, sprinkle over your salad or mix it with almonds and honey to make Amlou – a Morrocan delicacy spread on your breakfast bread.

And while some of the cosmetic benefits have been scientifically researched, others are based on local folklore. Which does not mean that it is untrue – it just means it has not been scientifically tested.

It’s pricey. In the region of about US $400/litre. But, when you understand the labour-intensive process involved in producing one litre of oil, you come to understand why.

The key difference between the cosmetic and the culinary versions appears to be that the culinary version is roasted before the extraction process takes place. This results in a much higher yield than what is obtained for the non-roasted nuts. But before we get to the roasting bit, there’s a lot of manual labour involved.

Let’s start with the fruit. The fruit which looks a bit like an olive when it’s green, takes almost a year to mature. When the fruit falls from the tree it is harvested. I read between the lines that fruit that appear to be ready are now also harvested direct from the tree.

Next the flesh of the fruit is separated from the nut. Then the shell is removed from the nut. For culinary oil, the nut is roasted before the oil is extracted. For some reason the yield from the roasted nut is twice as high as for the unroasted nut. Approximately four kilograms of unroasted nuts will produce one litre of cosmetic oil, while about half that quantity of roasted nuts will produce a litre of culinary oil. All of this used to be done manually: the separation of the fruit from the nut, the roasting, the slow hand-grinding process that would take about three days of turning a hand-mill to grind the nut into a paste (water is added to the grounded nut to produce the paste), and then the oil is squeezed from the paste.

Argan oil begins with the fruit
Argan oil begins with the fruit

Nowadays the grinding is performed mechanically, which reduces the amount of time a litre of oil is produced in considerably. The rest of the processes is however still being done manually. So, it’s no wonder that it costs as much as it does.

Argan trees are found along the Atlantic coast between Essaouira and Agadir and in the Tindouf region of southwestern Algeria. The trees grow up to ten metres high and can live for up to two-hundred years. Their trunks are gnarled and twisted and the branches are thorny, with the crown spreading out similar to an acacia tree. The scientific name of the tree (Argania spinosa) is derived from argan, the Shilha word for the tree. Shilha is a Berber language spoken by the people living in these areas. In medieval Arabic pharmacological reference works the plant is called harjān, a distortion of the Berber argan.

Camel feeding on tree
Camel feeding on tree

Goats can often be seen climbing in the trees to reach the leaves and the mature fruit. Barbara and I also saw camels feeding on the leaves. According to Habib, the argan farmer we visited on the recommendation of Yves, the owner of Dar L’Oussia where we stayed, the pictures you see with goats tamely watching you while you take a picture, only happens when there are tourists around. As soon as you’ve handed over a few notes to the goatherd, the goats are allowed to leave the trees and carry on with their normal activities.

Habib was reluctant to confirm that the nuts are traditionally harvested after the goats had consumed the fruit, and expelled the nut after digestion. He suggested that this is a less hygienic method of obtaining the oil. I certainly got the impression from him that the oil he produces have not come via a goat’s stomach.

Making Amlou – an argan oil delicacy

  • Roast your almond nuts for 20 minutes.
  • Grind the nuts into a powder.
  • Mix the grounded almonds with honey (to your taste)
  • Add argan oil to your preferred consistency

Enjoy with fresh bread.

Making your own cosmetics from argan oil

  • Morrocan women are said to rub some oil into their scalps, leaving it overnight, before washing out with warm water the next morning. It can also be used as a conditioner – rub a few drops into the tips of the hair after you’ve washed it.
  • Applying it to nails will apparently stop them from cracking.
  • Make face and body scrub by mixing argan oil with brown sugar and lemon juice.
  • Add a few drops to yoghurt and avocado to make a face pack.

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