The Good Oil

"Imma yargan igh ibbi neff mat ittarin" (Even when it is fallen, the argan tree will leave heirs). The evergreen, leathery leafed and spiny argan tree, also called Moroccan ironwood, is endemic to the Souss Valley and the lower slopes of the Atlas Mountains of southwest Morocco. Currently covering an area of approximately 8,000 sq. km (3,100 sq. miles) and numbering some 20 million, the trees bear fruit after 5 years, but only reach maturity at 60, with an average life span of 150 to 200 years, some living for up to 400 years. The olivelike drupes, or fruit, of the argan tree mature between May and July. The fruit is collectively gathered by hand in July and August, but this is only allowed after agreement within local councils; public criers relay the decision shouting from village to village "The argan is authorized!" Women gather the drupes (afiash in Berber) and dry them in the sun. They separate the nut from an outer white flesh, then crack open the nut to recover the kernels -- usually one but sometimes up to three -- within, which can contain up to 50% oil. These they roast and then grind to extract the oil. It takes 15 to 20 hours -- depending on skill -- to crack the 2 kilograms (4 1/3 lb.) of nuts required to produce 1 liter of oil.

The argan woodland is a major contributor to the economic livelihoods of some two million Amazigh, the indigenous Berbers of the region. The trees are of such value to the Amazigh that they are often specifically included in legal lists of the assets of an estate. They also provide important forage for camels and goats, which have learned to climb up to the leaves and drupes. On top of this economic value, the deep-rooted, heat-resistant trees provide an important ecological anchor against erosion of soil and the encroaching Saharan sands.

However, drought, overgrazing, and firewood collecting are endangering the trees to the point that researchers estimate the argan population has decreased by at least 40% over the last 100 years. This motivated Dr. Zoubida Charrouf, a chemist and researcher at Rabat's Mohamed V University, to take a look into the active ingredients of argan oil. She found it to be rich in vitamins A and E, antioxidants, and unsaturated fatty acids, including omega 6. Dr. Charrouf joined with local officials to persuade the government to declare 2% of the argan forest off-limits to grazing. In 1998, UNESCO took up the cause and declared part of the argan forest -- including the 338-sq.-km (130-sq.-mile) Souss-Massa National Park -- an international biosphere reserve.

Since women are the keepers of tradition, Dr. Charrouf turned to them and formed the Amal Women's Cooperative in the village of Tamanar, 70km (44 miles) south of Essaouira. There are now more than 30 argan oil women's cooperatives and a government body, the Mohammed V Foundation for Research and Argan Tree Preservation, that reports back to the king himself. There are two cooperatives south of Essaouira that are used to showing visitors around. Very few of the women speak English, but if you understand a little French, you'll be fine. Co-opĂ©rative Amal (tel. 0524/788141) is in Tamanar, on the main Essaouira-Agadir road (68km/42 miles south of Essaouira), and Co-opĂ©rative Tamounte ★★★ (tel. 0524/476591 or 0524/476092), opened by King Mohammed VI in 2007 and managed by the vivacious and vibrant Madame Taarabt, is in Tnine-Imi-n-Tlit (17km/11 miles east of Smimou, 39km/24 miles south of Essaouira).

Throughout most of southern Morocco, travelers can purchase a range of argan-based products including argan oil for cooking -- its light, hazelnut-like flavor is perfect sprinkled on salads, couscous, and even popcorn -- and massage; jars of an aromatic and delicious spread of ground almonds, honey, and argan oil called amlou; and soaps, lotions, and skin creams. Some roadside stalls are not selling the real deal, and may mix argan oil with cheaper olive oil or even green tea.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.