I don't remember when it was I first read about Argan oil. Must have been at least a year ago, probably longer. The story I read told how a rare and ancient tree grew at the edge of the Sahara. This tree, called the Argan tree, was a relict of Earth's Tertiary period - a living anachronism (although only 1.6 million years out of date - compare that to the California Redwoods which are something like 200 million). These shrubby, thorny trees grew stubbornly in the most dry and difficult climate, able to hang on for 200 years or so, but only viable in this small sliver of land so
Now the Argan tree bears a small green-yellow fruit. Not something humans would eat, but goats love it. And people have figured out a way to make use of this: The goats climb the Argan trees, nibbling on the leaves and eating the fruit. After ingesting the fruit the goats either (a) spit it back out or (b) poop it out (I've heard differing accounts). The core of the fruit and its seednut are not digested by the goat - much like the reknowned "catshit coffee". Locals then take this partially digested fruit, remove the seednut, crack it, roast it, and grind it. Once ground they knead and mix it with water until it forms cakes. They then squeeze the cakes and out comes the reward for this lengthy process - pure Argan oil. After tasting it, I can tell you that it is nutty and delicious. From what scientists are claiming it has more natural vitaman E then almost any other ingestible substance and all sorts of other healthful properties to boot. Because of these properties Argan oil has become all the rage with foreign companies buying up supply and using it for food, medicine, and beauty care products.
This whole story completely intrigued me - these ancient relicts living at the edge of the habitable world, the complicated procedure, and of course the goats. I dreamed of someday going to Africa and seeing it - but I figured it would happen one day in the indefinite and far future. What I didn't realize was that the main place in Africa where Argan trees grow is actually in Morocco, outside of Essaouria, at the northern edge of the Sahara desert. So when I found I, I was so excited and resolved that if Linda and I only saw one thing there, we'd make sure that we went to an Argan oil co-ops, see the trees, and hopefully see the goats as well.
On our second day in Essaouria we made arrangements through our hotel - the Riad Nakhala - to have a driver take us to one of th
e co-ops to see how the oil is made and purchase some. After that the driver would show us some local sights and hopefully help us find trees (lots of these) and goats (harder to find). We spent a bit on the half-day journey (400 MAD ~ 50 USD) but we definitely got our money's worth.
Our driver was Mohamed Elkhadir of La Arbah Rent A Car and he showed us a great time.
First we left town and stop at an overlook where we could see Essaouria and the surrounding areas stretched out before us in panorama. Then we took a drive to the Coopérative D'Argan Marjana. Now there are about a million co-ops selling Argan oil that have opened in the last decade. Most employ women (widows, divorcees, etc.), but Mohamed told us that this one was probably the best, owned and operated solely by the women for their benefit and that of the surrounding community. While there we met the women, who made the oil in the traditional way, by hand and got to taste the nuts (both roasted and unroasted( - boy were they strong and bitter (particularly the unroasted ones). I really enjoyed the zing the taste gave me. After learning a bit about the oil we went to the co-op store where they gave us moroccan mint tea (a bit lukewarm) and tastes of both the oil and Ambo - a delicious mix of Argan oil, local honey, and almonds. Both were delicious, but I liked the oil better and we ended up buying a whole liter of the stuff (cost us 450 MAD which was probably 150 to 200 above the market rate - but it was clearly highest quality and we felt like we were contributing to the community).
We left the co-op and went off in search of Argan trees and goats. Finding the trees was easy. They are all over the place - completely dominating the area. In many places all that grew was Argan trees, a bit of dried grass, and dirt. It's amazing to think that the population of trees is actually only half what it was two decades ago. The trees themselves are finicky - getting them to reproduce is something people are just starting to understand. Additionally, given how sensitive they are, climate change doesn't appear to have been good for them. Finally the people in this area are very poor. Argan trees were previously cut down to use for food, or overgrazed and killed by the goat herders. But know everyone realizes what a lucrative treasure these trees are and both the locals have become very protective as well as the government (it's a really big fine if you chop one down). So we stopped a couple of times to look at the trees, and look for their fruit (there was a drought the previous two years, this year finally raining, so few of the trees were fruiting). It was wonderful to see them up close.
But the real treat came when we found the goats. To do this, Mohamed drove us around for an hour or so, continually scanning the countryside as he drove. He took our request to see the goats really seriously. And finally perserverence paid off - we found two teenage shepherd boys with a flock of goats, 3 camels and some sheep. The goats were all over - different sizes, males, females, kids. All of them from the oldest to the youngest were climbing the trees (the little ones were really cute - being more tentative and less stable on the branches than their elders). Mohamed spoke with the boys and got their okay for us to
watching the goats antics. They would place themselves in the most precarious positions. One goat had three feet perched practically on the same place on thin branch while reaching with its mouth for an even higher and significantly thinner branch. It tried several times to brace its fourth foot against what essentially was a twig, but eventually thought the better of it (goats aren't stupid, at least not terribly so ;).
I even got in on the action climbing into the tree with the goats - although the first time I did this I spooked them, which led me to be more cautious and less noisy on my second more successful attempt (the first one had ended with me sitting in a tree alone, all the goats having abandoned ship)!
It was an amazing and fun experience. When we left we gave each boy a 10 Dirham piece (about 1.25 USD) which was apparently a great gift for them. We then headed home, stopping for soda at Mohamed's house (he invited us for dinner, but we already had plans so we declined). Mohamed did offer as well to get Linda tagines for cooking and CDs of music we had heard in the car. So the next day we stopped by and went shopping (got two tagines for 50 Dihram which is basically nothing - 7 bucks). While we had been watching the goats, Mohamed also showed me the type of foodwear that the hearders use. They make sandals out of pieces of old tires, cobbled together with short nails. When he mentioned that he used to teach poor children, I asked him if he could find someone to use the pair of old shoes I was wearing and he told me that he definitely could and thanked me for my generosity. This was a bit humbling for me - I was going to throw these shoes out, they weren't worth shlepping around anymore, it wasn't any sacrifice for me - rather I was glad to have the opportunity to see they did something more beneficial than end up in the wastebin. So in addition to a great time, big help shopping, and hospitality, I also got to get rid of an old pair of shoes and bluejeans in a useful manner. The whole business made me really happy.