Times Colonist

Good oil, good cause — but you can keep the goat

- PAM FREIR Pleasures of the Table

Move over, olive oil. Make room on the shelf for a mysterious culinary oil that has been around since pre-history, is packed with essential fatty acids, tastes really good and has a secret past that’ll raise adult eyebrows and put small children in stitches.

I’m talking of argan oil. It’s made from argan nuts, the fruit of the argan tree. Argan trees grow in an area of Morocco that is so unusual it has been declared a biosphere reserve by UNESCO, called Arganeraie. Get it? Forget o-li-v-e, remember a-r-g-a-n.

The area is arid, almost desert, but argan trees thrive there and live as long as 200 years. For centuries the trees and the Berber people of the region have got on just fine. For the humans, the forest provides nuts, timber and firewood; for their animals, it provides grazing and shade.

That balance is slowly changing. The population is increasing, and the forest is decreasing. It is now half the size it was 100 years ago. One of many initiative­s that could alter this trend is a focus on argan oil, which until recently was hardly known outside the region, let alone outside Morocco.

It’s not an easy oil to extract. Argan nuts are the size of large olives; at the heart is an oil-rich kernel. The kernel is protected by an immensely hard shell, which in turn is covered by thick, tough peel. Working by hand, using rocks to scrape away the peel and crack the shells and a mortar to squeeze out the oil, it takes 15 hours of work to extract one litre of oil. Need I add that this is considered women’s work?

Now here’s the secret; it has to do with the goats. All goats will go anywhere for food, and eat anything when they find it. In Arganeraie, they climb the trees. How they get up there I don’t know, but once up, they balance on the branches, looking like laundry that has blown off the line, and munch away at the leaves and the nuts. The nuts, however, are too hard for even a goat to crack, so they swallow them whole. Eventually nature takes its course, and the nut is ejected from the other end of the goat, minus its tough outer peel, which has been digested.

The oil-makers of the past saw nothing wrong with gathering up the peeled nuts and proceeding to extract the oil. Today’s entreprene­urs, with their eye on discrimina­ting European and North American markets, do not share this attitude.

A few years ago, the New York Times published a sprightly report on argan-processing in Morocco that, through careless editing, implied that the organic and pure argan oils appearing in New York food stores had begun life in goats’ digestive systems.

Red alert! The women of the Tiatmatine Argan Oil Cooperativ­e attacked the Times with fury. A correction was demanded and printed. North America was firmly instructed that though some amateur Moroccan oil-makers might use a goat or two to speed the extraction process, their co-op and their sisters in 20 or more other oil-making co-ops simply wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing.

Argan oil is making its way steadily out of Morocco and into the world. One stream goes to the cosmetics industry, another, amber-coloured, nutlike and toasty, is heading for the food boutiques. In its homeland, argan oil is a tasteenhan­cer: it is sprinkled over cous-cous and brushed on breakfast bread. North American chefs do the same thing, only in a more eclectic way, drizzling the oil on Jerusalem artichokes or over exotic cheeses.

This is a lot of fun for cutting-edge gourmets, but for the thousand or more Berber women working in the cooperativ­es, it means much more: a decent wage, a degree of independen­ce and literacy.

So — would you pay $65 for a litre of argan oil? That’s how much this wonder-oil costs in Canada. I’m saving up my pennies.

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