You'll find goats on all angles of the argan tree. They circle the perimeter, collecting nuts from the parched desert ground with dusty tongues. The more ambitious of the flock climb, branch by unstable branch, to the heights, snapping the small walnut-sized gems between their teeth. Traditionally, Berbers would wait for the nut to return from their stomach, either through vomiting or the process of digestion. They would clean and crack the shell by hand, tossing the innermost nut into a basket, transforming it into skin oil or a snack.
The snack is what brought me to Coopérative Agricole Féminine Tagmat Aziar, 35 kilometers from the Pacific Ocean outside of Agadir. Being one of the few organic production houses in Morocco, the all-female work force utilizes modern machinery for processing, save the laborious work of extracting the nut by hand. Twenty-five women sat in a circle as I passed through the middle with my camera, the rhythm of their work hypnotic and unbelievably tedious. The music of their work keeps them going. Being an organic producer, there is no middleman goat; all nuts are hand picked.
Argan oil has been one of the trendiest skin products to hit American and European shelves over the past few years, though my interest was culinary. The unprocessed nut results in the skin tonic; roast it and you have cooking oil that tastes somewhat like toasted sesame oil, pungent and delicious. Pour it raw into a simple blend of honey and freshly ground almond butter and you have one of the most unbelievable snack experiences of your life, otherwise known as amlou.
If you've never been to Morocco, my suggestion is to visit the people for their food, not the tourist attractions. In my four times there, the most satisfying meals I've enjoyed have been due to the kind hospitality of the Moroccans I've met. Upon arriving at the cooperative, I was treated to a scrumptious spread of amlou and bread. Later, when the women threw down the nuts and picked up a bendir (frame drum) to play traditional Berber songs for me, I was touched in a way that's impossible to describe. Food and culture are hard to separate in rural Morocco – a fact you can literally taste with every fiber of your being.
1 cup almonds
½ cup argan oil
3 tablespoons honey
Pinch of salt, to taste
Preheat oven to 375° F.
Roast almonds for roughly ten minutes, until slightly dark. After allowing them to cool, grind finely with a mortar and pestle. If you would rather use store bought almond butter, make sure there are no other ingredients or oils (find one that you make in the store with a machine). Gradually stir in argan oil at a trickle. Traditionally, amlou is served with a thin consistency, though I have had it thickened, which I prefer. Add honey and salt slowly, adjusting sweetness as desired. Have freshly baked bread ready for dipping, you'll want to enjoy this spread as soon as it's done being mixed.
The argan oil industry is controlled exclusively by women (and can only be found there, as the tree is endemic to southwestern Morocco). It financially supports over 3 million citizens in a country that only boasts 30 million. Look for fair trade suppliers when purchasing the skin oil, and, if you're lucky enough to find an importer, the edible version as well.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter: @derekberes
Image: Jeremy Coture