Argan Oil – Morocco’s Liquid Gold

Situated on the Atlantic coastline of western Morocco, the city of Essaouira is a popular tourist and holiday destination. With a history going back to prehistoric times, this city is drenched in tradition and culture offering visitors a truly authentic Moroccan experience.

Essaouira has a treasure of a different sort which tourists may not be aware of, but which reveals an interesting aspect of day-to-day life for a large number of local Berber women. Argan oil, which is often referred to as liquid gold, is believed to have age-defying and restorative properties and, as such, is becoming increasingly sought after in the multi million dollar beauty industry. This amazing oil is extracted from the nuts of the argan tree, which is found almost exclusively in the Essaouira area.

Argan oil is exceptionally high in essential fatty acids and vitamin E, and it is reputed to have therapeutic properties which relieve, and even cure, all manner of skin conditions including dry skin, eczema, acne and psoriasis, as well as softening wrinkles. Moroccans have long appreciated the unique qualities of argan oil, and apply it generously to their skin, nails and hair. It is also commonly used to moisturize the tender skin of their babies. Argan oil is a familiar sight in the kitchen and at the table where it is drizzled over couscous and salads, as well as being used, along with almonds and honey, to make a delicious, healthy spread known as amlou.

Approaching Essaouira along the road from Marrakech, visitors will note the signs indicating the various argan oil co-ops which are all run by Berber women. These friendly, hard-working women welcome visitors, who will often be invited to watch them work. In the majority of the co-ops, the older woman sit in the courtyard working in a very social setting, while the younger girls, many of them fluent in English, give visitors a tutorial about the argan oil extraction process.

The argan nut, which looks like a cross between an almond and a walnut, are picked from the trees dotted around the hills above Essaouira. Depending on the season, harvesters may have to compete with the local goats which deftly climb a tree and munch away on the nuts while perched precariously on a shaking branch. The nuts which will be made into salad oil are roasted over an open flame in a large steel drum. This roasting brings out its distinctive peppery flavor. The nuts which are destined for the beauty market are left raw.

The women undertake the arduous task of cracking the shells with sharp stones after which they grind the kernels into a brown paste between two large slabs of rock. The paste is then kneaded by hand to extract as much oil as possible before being sent to factories in Agadir to be mechanically pressed to further extract oil. Some of the oil becomes an ingredient in soaps, shampoos and creams, while the purest of oil is much prized, earning the name of “liquid gold”.

Moroccan King Mohammed VI has been greatly instrumental in setting up the co-ops and opening the way for world-wide export of argan oil, which has been of great assistance to the Berber women native to the area. The government of Monaco has backed this scheme which allows women to work half day, giving them precious time to attend to the needs of their families.

Western cosmetic companies are starting to make use of argan oil in their products as well as promoting the pure unadulterated product. For example, based in England, Liz Earle markets an organic skin-care line which promotes the benefits of argan oil that she sources directly from two of the Essaouira co-operatives. Analysis at high-tech laboratories in the UK have revealed that argan oil is extremely high in vitamin E, as well as phytosterols which are remarkably good for scar tissue reduction and a host of other skin rejuvenating processes.

Holidaymakers in Morocco often want to get to know the people that live in this fascinating country. A visit to the women’s co-operatives of Essaouira is an excellent way of gaining insight into the daily lives of these hard-working enterprising Berber women.