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by Habeeb Salloum

I had visited Morocco a dozen times, but I had never found out what the people had eaten for breakfast before the French occupation. Every restaurant and even housewives, served croissants for the first meal of the day - that is until my trip with a group of tourists to Essaouira - a dazzling-white Moroccan town on the country's Atlantic coast.

When we stopped at a restaurant for breakfast, I sat down next to our driver. Without even putting in an order, the waiter brought his breakfast. Looking at him scooping the syrup-like liquid with a piece of bread into his mouth, I asked, "What's that you're eating? He smiled, "It’s what everyone used to eat for breakfast before the French came." Handing me a loaf of bread he urged, "Try it! Join me for breakfast! Its only honey and argan oil - the best morning meal in the world." I had often heard Moroccans talk about the argan tree, but this was the first time I had ever tasted its oil. Not only was it delicious, but I had discovered what the pre-French southern Moroccans ate for breakfast. After we finished our morning meal, I told the driver how much tastier the argan oil-honey mixture - in northern Morocco olive oil and honey - and bread was when compared to the croissant - modern Morocco's morning food.

Invented by the Austrians in the 17th century after they lifted the siege of Vienna by the Turks, the croissant represented a symbolic gesture of consuming the Muslim crescent. The vast majority of Moroccans are practising Muslims and I am sure that if they knew its history, their morning enjoyment of the croissant would fade away and they would return to their honey and olive or argan oil.

Said to be the unofficial totem that symbolizes the mysterious and independent spirit of Morocco, the argan tree (argania spinosa), only grows in that country and Mexico. However, in Mexico it grows wild, but its fruit is not utilized. Until a few years ago, with the exception of Morocco, its oil is a virtually unknown food in other parts of the world.

An Argan Oilpress
A slow-growing spiny knotted thorn-tree similar to the olive, the argan is the basis of the sparse forests found in the High and Anti-Atlas Mountains of southwestern Morocco, mostly within a l60 km (100 MI) radius of the Sous Valley. From the capital of that Valley, Agadir, their domain only reaches to the edge of the fertile plains in the north and the Sahara in the south. Some 21 million trees grow in the 700,000-800,000 ha (1,729,000 to 1,976,000 ac) of argan forests in the area.

Argan trees cling tenaciously to the slopes of rough hills and seem to thrive between the rocks on poor soil. Growing up to an elevation of 1,500 m (4,920 FT), they only need annually from 100 to 200 ml (4 to 8 in) of rain. Unable to withstand cold, but an excellent resister to extreme heat and drought, they are ideal for the climate of the arid southeastern Moroccan coast. The argan, which regenerates from both seed and coppice, is more like a shrub than a tree, especially in its first few years of growth. It is a small bushy to medium-sized spreading tree - often with a twisted and gnarled trunk. Requiring no cultivation, it can grow up to 10 m (33 ft) high and live from 150 to 200 years. The roots of the argan go down into the earth deep in search of water, helping to bind the soil and prevent erosion. Its leaves are like those of the olive tree, but fuller in shape. Flowers appear in late spring, followed by the green olive-like fruit which ripens in March.

The fleshy green fruit, larger than the olive, is beaten off the branches and, in the past, it was fed to goats then the nut recovered from the animal dung. The nut, with an extremely hard shell, contains one, two or three almond-shaped kernels.

Today, in many cases, the fruit is gathered and the nut extracted by machines. The extracted kernel is roasted and ground, then water is added to the crushed seeds. Rinsing subsequently separates the floating oil from the water - about 100 kilograms of seeds are needed for just 1 to 2 k (2.2 to 4.4 lb) of exquisite oil - the rarest edible oil in the world.

When squeezed, the seeds produce a heavy amber to orange-coloured oil. This extracted tasty-rich oil is of great importance to the local inhabitants. Widely used as a substitute for olive oil and other fats, it is excellent for salads, cooking, lamp fuel and in their hand-made cosmetics and soap. In the past, only the peasants and the poor in the towns of peasant origin utilized its oil. The oil was extracted by animal power, then bottled by hand in used glass or plastic containers.

The Berbers of the area have always claimed that argan oil has various medicinal properties. Lately, their claims have, in many cases, been verified.
It has been scientifically proven that argan oil is rich in vitamin E and has properties which lower the cholesterol levels, stimulates circulation of the blood, facilities digestion and strengthens the body’s natural defences. In addition, the wood of the argan, amazingly indestructible by insects, has been used for centuries in carpentry, charcoal and construction. Strangely, the fruit and leaves can be consumed by camels, cows and sheep, but not by horses and mules. However, goats, which have the picturesque habit of climbing high into the tree, are the animals which thrive on the argan. Travellers often see them browsing in the top branches, plucking the fruit and the tender upper leaves. Of considerable curiosity to tourists they appear, at first glance, an astonishing and improbable sight. From the distance, seemingly like large black fruit in a foliage of greenery, they never fail to draw out the cameras. Rare is a traveller to south Morocco who does not return with at least a few photos of goats having a meal high in the argan trees.

The products of the argan have been slowly commercialized in the last decade. Companies are beginning to market the oil throughout the world. The Argania Company of Paris, has made this unique oil commercially available for the first time in North America.. Phillipe Schmit, executive chef of New York's Orsay, the first US restaurant to feature Argan Oil, elaborates "Argan oil is unique. It has a very powerful fragrance, almost indescribable, with a slightly nutty flavour." Argan oil has a silky and rich texture and intermingles intensity and smoothness. It combines the delicate taste of nuts and mild spices, exuding the culinary resplendence of Morocco’s aromas. It is a tremendous addition to salads, vegetables, fish, poultry, lamb and other meat.
For hundreds of years, the Berber women of the Atlas mountains have sworn by the argan’s, cooking qualities, and its moisturizing and replenishing properties. Now, that its fame is beginning to win the hearts of women worldwide, and it is drawing the attention of the cosmetics, food, and medical industries, the demand for this oil is expected to grow quickly.

Unfortunately, the argan, like many other trees in our modern world, is a threatened species. To save this rare tree and promote more research and development into its regeneration, Berber women have made considerable efforts to create and run argan oil cooperatives. Many of the cooperatives are administered by Moroccan experts, aided by specialists from organizations in the European Community and Canada. Working through their organizations, these women are making great progress in trying to save this tree - just becoming known to the outside world.

© Habeeb Salloum May 2003
Bio: I am a freelance writer and author residing in Toronto, Canada. I have travelled extensively to most parts of the world and have written comprehensively about tourism and the cuisines of the countries through which I have travelled.I have had hundreds of articles published about various types of travel destinations, food, handicrafts and other cultural subjects. In addition I have had books published relating to these subjects. My most recent history and travel books published are Arabic Contributions to the English Vocabulary (Librairie du Liban: Beirut, 1996), and Journeys Back to Arab Spain (Middle East Studies Centre: Toronto, 1994).
In the world of food, my newest publication is a cookbook entitled Classic Vegetarian Cooking from the Middle East and North Africa (Interlink Books, New York and Northampton, 2000, HB). I am also the co-author of another cookbook , From the Lands of Figs and Olives: Over 300 delicious and unusual recipes from the Middle East and North Africa (Interlink Books: New York, 1995 HB; 1997 PB).

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