Argan oil, a food oil from Morocco that has also attracted recent attention in Europe.
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Argan oil is an oil produced from the fruits of the Argan (Argania spinosa) a species of tree endemic to the calcareous semi-desert of southwestern Morocco. It is the sole species in the genus Argania. The Argan tree now grows only in SW Morocco. It is believed to date back 25,000,000 years and to have once covered N. Africa. Now endangered and under protection of UNESCO, the Argan grows wild in semi-desert soil, its deep root system helping to protect against soil erosion and the northern advance of the Sahara.
It was first reported by the explorer Leo Africanus in 1510. An early specimen was taken to Amsterdam and then cultivated by Lady Beaufort at Badminton c1711. Now only 8600 square kilometres remain in S.W. Morocco and these are declining at a rate of 500 km² per year.
The most labour intensive part of oil-extraction is removal of the soft pulp (used as animal feed) and the cracking by hand, between two stones, of the hard nut. The seeds are then removed and gently roasted. This roasting accounts for part of the oil's distinctive, nutty flavour. The traditional technique for oil extraction is to grind the roasted seeds to paste, with a little water, in a stone rotary quern. The paste is then squeezed between hands to extract the oil. The extracted paste is still oil-rich and is used as animal feed. Oil produced by this method will keep 3-6 months, and will be produced as needed in a family, from a store of the kernels, which will keep for 20 years unopened. Dry-pressing is now increasingly important for oil produced for sale, as the oil will keep 12-18 months and extraction is much faster.
Goats like the pulp of argan fruits and often try to climb the trees to get at them. They will digest the pulp, but shed the undigested seeds in their feces. As these have shells that are somewhat softened and easier to crack, they are occasionally used to produce oil for non-culinary purposes. An urban legend has it that all argan oil is produced this way. This myth seems to be based on the fact that occasionally, shrewd traders would have sold (and may still try to sell) such "non-food grade" argan oil to ignorant travellers or tourists. The fact that the nuts acquire a foul aroma in passing through the animal's digestive tract makes it easy to tell this oil apart from food-grade produce with its rich, walnut oil-like flavor (Nouaim 2005).
The oil contains 80% unsaturated fatty acids:
It is rich in essential fatty acids and is more resistant to oxidation than olive oil.
Argan oil is used for dipping bread, on couscous, salads and similar uses. A dip for bread known as amlou is made from argan oil, almonds and peanuts, sometimes sweetened by honey or sugar. The unroasted oil is traditionally used as a treatment for skin diseases, and has found favour with European cosmetics manufacturers.
Argan oil is sold in Morocco, sometimes to tourists as a £10 per 250 ml luxury item (although difficult to find outside the region of production), sometimes in ordinary shops and supermarkets for £10 per litre, and is of increasing interest to cosmetics companies in Europe. It was very difficult to buy the oil outside Morocco, but in 2001-2002 argan oil suddenly became a fashionable food in Europe and North America. It is now widely available in specialist shops and, sometimes, in supermarkets. Its price ($20-30 for 250 ml) reflects its status as a fashionable superfood, but a little argan oil goes a long way. There has been research into argan oil's viability in the treatment of psoriasis with promising results.