Berber Gold: Argan Oil

The Moroccan argan forest, which stretches from Essaouira down past Agadir and along the Souss Valley to the Anti-Atlas, is unique, as there is nowhere else in the world where the tree grows so well. As you travel across the region, you will see the short, spiny trees in fields and on hillsides.

In recent years, as the aesthetic properties of argan oil have been widely publicized, the Moroccan government has developed a strategy to support the creation of women’s co-ops to extract and market the oil, as well as to preserve the unique biosphere and protect against overuse. As prices have risen, argan oil has become known as "Berber gold," with leading beauty brands including it in their products and famous television chefs developing recipes to include it.

The difference between cosmetic and culinary oils is that the latter is the result of grinding the almonds found inside the argan nut after toasting, while cosmetic oil is ground directly.

Without a doubt, the argan boom has brought much-needed employment opportunities to rural areas, particularly for women. However, many establishments that claim to operate on cooperative principles (especially those on main tourist thoroughfares) often do not. Also, many co-ops that tout "bio" or "organic" branding may use nuts that have not been sprayed with pesticides, but few have actually been able to secure organic certification.

When buying argan oil, try to buy from a genuine cooperative to ensure you get the real deal and that your money helps rural women. The UCFA is a union created with aid from foreign development agencies to help professionalize and support women’s argan co-ops. They have a list of their members online at www.cooperative-argane.com.

If your concern is the oil being 100% organic, it may be that the production is less hands-on and more mechanized than in rural co-ops. The oils produced at Sidi Yassine outside Essaouira are widely exported and therefore rigorously certified. You can buy them at Histoire de Filles. www.sidiyassine.com

A great souvenir is amlou, a paste made from toasted almonds or peanuts, argan oil, and local honey. Often called "Berber Nutella," it tastes more like a kind of nut butter.

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