The countryside west of Marrakech is known for its argan trees. These small scraggly trees produce seeds with an oil that is high in vitamin E, anti-oxidants, and essential fatty acids. It is touted as a miracle food/drug of sorts that is good for your health when eaten and good for your skin when slathered on your body.
Traditionally, Berber women were responsible for the labor intensive work of harvesting the seeds (which goats are also fond of harvesting themselves) and processing them to produce the oil. However, before they can be pressed into oil, the nuts must be removed from the fruit and cracked open to release the valuable seeds inside. The process can take a month (most of that is time needed to remove the nuts from the fruit) and requires about 130 pounds of fruit to get just one liter of oil. Although a lot of operations that process argan oil claim their oil is produced by hand, many have mechanized some or all of the process. Similarly, much of the oil is produced by women’s “cooperatives,” but it isn’t always clear how much the control and profits are actually held by the women associated with a coop.
The road between Marrakech and Essaouira is home to many argan trees and associated cooperatives. These cooperatives will demonstrate the process for visitors, extol the virtues of argan oil, and then offer to sell a variety of argan oil products. We stop at the Assaisse et Tamounte, where a couple of women working in a very dark room demonstrate the process for us and let me try my hand at grinding the nuts.
Now I understand why the oil is so expensive: producing it is hard work!
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