Argan oil gives life in Morocco

Djemaa el Fna, the most famous square in all of Morocco, if not the whole of North Africa, is a hive of trade and activity.

Morocco's Djemaa el Fna square. Photo / Supplied
Morocco's Djemaa el Fna square. Photo / Supplied

In Djemaa el Fna, jugglers toss their balls, acrobatic monkeys perform tricks on soapboxes while the sound of the Muezzin rings out across the city, summoning Muslims to prayer.

At the same time, little clouds of smoke drift up into the cloudless sky. It smells here of herbs and freshly-fried food. The cookshop aroma comes from the medina market in the old fortified city where tourists haggle over the price of coriander, ginger and ground cumin, all of them decoratively piled high.

In front of a set of shelves filled with tins and bottles a woman sits on a wooden stool with an oval-shaped stone in her hands.

She is hard at work, crushing the shell of the thorny argan tree between two stones and extracting the whitish-yellow kernels of the fleshy fruit, each of them no larger than a sunflower seed.

"They are a gift from Allah,'' she says and holds up a fruit to the light. The proprietor of this small roadside shop invites passers-by to try their hand at cracking the argan nut.

The first blow makes no impression on the shell, the second sends it skidding away and on the third attempt the shell shoots off but the kernel has been reduced to a fine powder.

The dexterity of the Berber women comes as no surprise. For generations they have been cracking open the nuts of this Moroccan "gold'' and pressing out the edible insides.

The fruits are harvested in the southern part of the country and the manual work involved is as strenuous today as it has been for centuries.

Busloads of tourists stop every day to watch the women working at the oil cooperative in Tahanout in the Ourika valley not far from Marrakesh. A woman welcomes the visitors at the entrance and takes them on a tour of the premises.

It smells of almonds. The women sit next to each other on spread-out carpets, cracking nuts and kneading the thick, chocolate-covered paste. Fatma stands at a small mill where the paste oozes out. Her neighbour presses out the oil from the kernel mass by continuously adding lukewarm water.

The 30-year-old earns enough working in this cottage industry in order to pay for her housekeeping, finance her children's education and buy clothes for her family.

The women spend their mornings preparing the hand-pressed oil, which is used for general cooking and also for salads because of its high quality.

Because the women are members of a cooperative that ensures that their oil is sold at sustainable prices, they are able to spend many afternoons in classes where they are taught to read and write. Business is booming, especially since the cosmetic industry has also discovered the properties of this product with the rich, nutty aroma, and Fatma toils alongside some 30 other local women.

Their efforts pay off. Argan oil is revered for its high concentration of vitamin E and is beneficial to human skin and hair. It is said to stimulate the cells and is regarded as a natural anti-ageing compound.

There is scarcely a luxury hotel in Morocco which does not offer an Argan Oil treatment of some kind at its wellness centre. Gourmet chefs meanwhile use the oil to refine couscous, fish dishes and salads.


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