Morocco: The good oil

By Graham Reid

Graham Reid finds flavour through goats and a stark desert where the West's latest beauty "must-have" grows

Oil from argan berries constitutes a lucrative export industry for Berber women. Photo / Graham Reid
Oil from argan berries constitutes a lucrative export industry for Berber women. Photo / Graham Reid

"So you will be seeing the goats in the trees," said the man in the marketplace. I laughed because I'd clearly misheard. I thought he'd said, "goats in the trees".

The other man patting a pile of bright yellow spice back into an attractive pyramid stopped and turned to me, "Oh yes, there will be goats up in the trees. You will see them, I guarantee."

"You guarantee it?"

"Oh yes, there are a lot of goats... and not so many trees," he announced with satisfied smile.

I'm still not sure about the first point, but he was certainly right on the second.

The road from Marrakech through Sidi Moktar to the wind-blown Atlantic coast of Morocco is largely bereft of vegetation, and people. This arid, low, rolling plain, through which an excellent sealed road bisects the scuffed-yellow desert, is occasionally punctuated by small villages, a few pitstops selling food, handcrafts and trinkets, and a couple of large towns.

But mostly there is not much on either side of the highway. Certainly not many trees.

The straight road has overcrowded buses and stacked-high trucks swerving around donkey-drawn carts heading for markets, boys on cheap motorcycles weaving like sidewinders across the lane and old men in hooded cloaks sitting in the dust at the roadside waiting for... whatever old Moroccan men wait for in throat-choking dust.

The rock-strewn desert stretches towards the horizon beneath a pale blue sky. It's 35 degrees and the road ahead disappears in a shimmer of blue heat haze. It looks like we're driving into a sky-pale ocean that constantly retreats before us.

Near the crossroad town of Douar Ouled Brahim where men hold up brightly coloured carpets for sale, we pass an impressive new building. It has minarets and those exotic architectural contours so familiar in this region, so I ask, "A new mosque?"

The driver glances sideways. "No. Supermarket."

That figures. Little is as it seems out here and beyond the town the landscape empties out even more. The parched land to the left between here and the fortified city of Ait Benhaddou has been the location for numerous films; marines in makeup scars and the Egyptian undead have walked here, then gone back to their hotels for drinks.

Doubtless they too saw the goats in the trees, because suddenly, just past Sidi Moktar, standing confidently on thin branches of stumpy bushes, there they were - six fat goats in one small, almost leaf-bare bush. Then there are more. And more. As the man said, not so many trees, and a lot of goats in them.

We pull off into a small factory-cum-shop, the hub of the Assouss Argane collective, and get the strange story behind tree-climbing goats.

This is the land of argan, a walnut-sized berry on these resilient trees that grow only in this forbidding, often inhospitable, climate. Goats climb the trees for the fruit.

Traditionally, seeds that had passed through the goats were collected, then through labour-intensive cracking and pounding were turned into a smooth paste from which oil was extracted. This oil is highly prized by the Berber people for its healthy, healing properties.

On hearing this, my wife and I look at each other and silently mouth "Bali" in private amusement. The previous year, while driving near Ubud, we'd stopped at a coffee plantation and sampled the odd-tasting luwak coffee. As we enjoyed the beverage, the view and the company, it suddenly struck us that this place collected beans that had passed through wild cats, and they used that for their coffee blend.

You have to ask: who first looked at the droppings of a civet cat and thought, "That bean in there might taste good if it was crushed and mixed with hot water"? That said, the Bali coffee was decent enough.

I have become a quick convert to argan oil as a nutty, delicious flavouring on a salad.

These argan collectives around the region, which no longer have to rely on picking through goat droppings but on more modern methods of extraction, are run by local women who welcome visitors and encourage them to try cracking and pounding. We're all hopeless, and the women delight in our lack of skill.

Day after day these cheery ladies sit and grind argan berries with large stones. I suspect out the back is a mechanised industry and this front-of-house stuff is for exotic show, because any time-and-motion analysis would say this is far too labour intensive to be productive. The woman on the cellphone might have been talking to her distributor in Paris - this rare argan oil is the fashionable beauty treatment du jour.

Also, the blend of argan oil, honey and almond for cooking is a locked-in guarantee of flavour. We bought some and use it sparingly on salads, especially when we have guests, who always comment favourably on the slightly nutty but sweet taste.

If we're looking for a conversation starter, or stopper, after dinner we mention our Balinese coffee, which someone invariably wants to try. It's a bit thin and slightly bitter, and few ever finish a cup. But they do ask where it came from.

Graham Reid travelled to England with assistance from Cathay Pacific but paid his own way to Morocco.

- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf05 at 28 Dec 2014 04:08:35 Processing Time: 375ms