Argan trees are very thorny, making them a nightmare to try harvest fruit from; they’re so prickly pickers don’t even attempt it. The traditional way of doing things is to wait for the fleshy green fruit to fall to the ground, then race to get hold of them before the local army of goats snaffles them up.
Moroccan goats love argan fruit, they can climb trees and they’re totally unfazed by prickles. Advantage, goats. But in a wonderful natural synergy, they cannot actually digest the parts the fruit that oil comes from. So when the ‘argan women’ (as they’re called locally) didn’t feel like racing the goats, they’d let the animals have their fill…and collect the proceeds afterwards.
Cracking the nut –always by hand – reveals almond-shaped kernels inside. They’re gently toasted, left to cool then ground in a stone ‘rotary quern.’ The next step is to mix the ground kernels with water to form a sort of dough, which is kneaded by hand to extract the oil.
It’s an intense process, needing 16 kilos of nuts to generate 2.5 kilos of seeds, which in turn makes 1 litre of oil.
Argan oil with no goats allowed
Modern methods involve fencing off the trees until July when the fruit falls to the ground, and harvesting them by hand.
As the world demand for argan oil has risen, due it its popularity as a hair and beauty product, there has been a strong desire to up production and mechanise the parts of the process – not least because a product passing through a desert goat on the way to your dining or dressing table is a turn off for many consumers.
The process has begun to use mechanical presses, which considerably reduces the production time. Once the kernels have been roasted, the grinding and extraction takes place with presses and centrifuges. It extracts more oil, and since no water is added, the oil can be stored for longer.
The most time-consuming part of the process, cracking the nuts, is still done by hand.
30 video showing you the rustic traditional way our Argan oil is made
The Argan tree plays a vital role in maintaining the ecological balance, too.
The Argan forest consists of about 20 million trees and covers 800,000 hectares (1,976,000 acres). The tree grows wild in the arid desert soil; its roots grow deep (up to 30 metres) in search of water. This helps retain the soil, preventing erosion and capping the ambitions of the advancing desert.
Tree wood can be used for building, the leaves and fruit as feed for animals (particularly goats and camels). The broken shells of the nut are used as fuel and the dough from which the oil is extracted is also used as feed – so no part of the tree remains unused.
For centuries Argan was a secret known only to Berber women, who used it not just for cooking but to their nourish skin, hair and nails
Although milder in flavour than sesame or walnut oil, the taste is distinctly nutty, with slightly bitter, peppery overtones.
In Morocco, Argan oil is mainly used as a finishing touch for tagines and couscous. It also adds a unique flavour to salads, soups and cheese and other North African dishes. Team with lemon juice for a refreshing salad dressing. For a real Moroccan experience, mix with honey and yoghurt like the Berbers do for breakfast.
In Morocco you can also buy amlou, which is a mixture of Argan oil, honey and crushed almonds. It tastes a bit like peanut butter and is great on a slice of toasted sourdough.
I first discovered argan oil on trip to visit one of our olive suppliers. They took me out to lunch and people were topping off tagines with it. I'd never had anything like it, it's got a flavour all its own.