Argan oil is one of the rarest and finest vegetable oil in the world, from a UNESCO protected Arganeraie Biosphere Reserve located in the South West Morocco.
Culinary Argan oil is a highly sought-after oil, prized for its unique nutty flavour and medicinal benefits. Extracted from a tree locally named “tree of life”, not only the oil is an important source of food and income for the local community, but it is also a vitally important bastion against desertification. Read more
Considered as one of the rarest oils and most unique vegetable oil in the world, the oil is extracted from the fruits of a woodland species (from the Sapotacea family) called Argania Spinosa (the botanical name of the Argan tree), which is found in tiny triangular South Western region of Morocco—the only geographical zone providing optimum conditions for its survival.
Often nicknamed “the iron tree”, the Argan tree has the particularity to be resilient to the harsh African climate and grows without the need of much cultivation. Because its roots network reach deeply into the soil, this ancient tree plays a crucial role as the ultimate warrior against desertification.
Declared International Biosphere Reserve by the United Nation Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizational (UNESCO) since 1998, Argan grove (Arganeraie forests) used to cover much of North Africa but they have now greatly reduced in numbers (covering now about 8,000 km2). Indeed, over the last 100 years, the Argan area has shrunk by about half (about 600 hectares per annum was lost), due to charcoal-making, grazing, and increasing unscrupulous over-exploitation of this natural resource. This decline is even more alarming knowing that it takes the tree about 50 years to reach fruiting maturity. Hence the price of this so rare and unique Moroccan oil.
A more disturbing observation is that with the Argan forest continuous reduction in number, the desert creeps forward which over time makes the land unsuitable for crops and causes the exposition of the soil to wind erosion.
Along this, one disturbing question frequently arises: Will this Moroccan nicknamed “iron trees” survive for another century? Read more
Only the future will tell…
For now, the best hope for the conservation of this Moroccan Cultural and Gastronomic patrimony—and UNESCO World Heritage—may lie in the recent development of a flourishing export market for Argan oil as a high-value product.
In fact, the increase in the value of Argan oil encourages better custodianship of the forest by local people who rely on it. Therefore, by directly connecting quality of life to the value of the tree, Argan forest may have greater chances to thrive and survive the creep desert beyond, living for as much as 250 years (same as it has managed to do for the past centuries).
Behind-the-scene work: A centuries-old traditional women artisan know-how...
Women plays a key role in the Argan oil industry. In fact, despite the usage nowadays of cold press machine to extract the oil, women remain the sole gatekeepers of the centuries-old know-how manifested in the tedious hand-processed stage that is inevitable prior the oil extraction. Hence, much of the country’s Argan oil is made by women artisans in rural production units (or cooperatives) located mainly in south western of Morocco, which gives these Argan women artisans the opportunity to blossom by working and earning money independently.
It takes 2 days of work to gather and press 35kg of fruits (which is roughly what one tree produces in a season) needed to make hardly 1 litre of oil.
The production of Argan oil is a long and intensive process and has the particularity to be a “traditional women expertise”. Read more
Argan fruits ripen and fall in the summer (they are never picked), announcing the start of the Argan harvest season. Unlike olive oil, in arid zone where the burning high temperature riches sometime 50C° in the shadow, the ripen yellowy-green fleshy fruits are sun-dried then the dry brownish husks are removed to revel the extremely hard nuts’ shells (each one carries 2-3 kernels inside, containing 60 per cent oil) which are then cracked open manually between two rocks (following a century-old traditional women know-how passed down over generations) to finally find the kernels.
Before extracting the oil, the Argan kernels are either lightly roasted (for the roasted grade) or kept raw without roasting stage (for the unroasted grade).
Lastly, the resulted kernels are then ground and pressed using top-notch machine that will preserve the full unique aroma and nutrients the Argan oil is praised for, while releasing the precious oil which is finally filtered.
Although machines have replaced women’s manual work for some stages of the process (special machine facilitating the removal of the skin of the sun-dried fruit as well as well as temperature-controlled machines for the roasting stage), the tricky and tedious nut-cracking step is still done by hand, nut-by-nut-by-nut.
It is worth precising that nothing is lost in the Argan oil process of extraction, the leftovers and residues are recycled and re-used: The dried Argan pulps become a notorious animal fodder and the shells are often either grounded and given a new life in the beauty sector (in soaps and scrubs) or they are kept whole and used as a type of coal for cooking fires.
Argan oil is produced mainly in rural area, scoring high illiteracy rate, with a population estimated at 2,2 millions inhabitants, and where there are not many opportunities for women. Thanks to the Argan production, the freedom of working and earning money has been a life-changing momentum for Argan women artisans. Not only the Argan oil production have immediate effect on improving the quality of life of these women, but their family also benefit from it (especially their children). With the money earned from their Argan work, women can now dream for a better future for themselves and their families and, most importantly, there is no more excuse to drop their kids out of school (to help the family with the money situation).