When I saw the goats in argan trees, we were driving the 207 highway in Morocco from Ouarzazate toward Essaouira. Yes, this surprised me, but I wasn’t astonished. After all, just last spring I saw goats on a yurt roof in Coombs, British Columbia. With such sightings of goats in unlikely places, the one seemed to normalize the other somewhat.
Why are the goats in the trees?
In fact, the owner placed the goats we saw in the argan tree on little stands for visitors to photograph, which I obligingly did. But, if we’d taken the road a little further south toward the Anti-Atlas Mountains and into the lovely Souss Valley, we could have seen forests of argan trees. And if it had been June when the argan fruit is ripe, we’d have seen local goats thoroughly enjoying themselves in the trees without the farmer’s insistence. In September, however, the goats had nothing to eat and I felt kind of sorry for them having to stand there all day with nothing to do.
While the fruit of the argan tree is inedible to humans, goats love it. They are so eager to munch on argan fruit that, after eating the low-hanging fruit, the goats actually scramble up the spiny trees to reach the higher fruit. The nut contains the argan oil in a very hard shell, however, and the goats cannot digest it. The nut passes directly through the goat’s intestinal tract, excreted in the manure, and subsequently picked up by the argan farmers. This constitutes the traditional harvesting method, particularly used for cosmetic purposes.
These days, however, machinery often replaces goats in larger operations, especially those selling argan oil for food. Initially, I lamented the modernization. Then I learned that the argan forest was a UNESCO protected site and that the goats actually feasted on more than the ripe fruit. Their destructive habits in the forests softened my feelings about the machines.
Shortly after our goats-in-tree sighting, we stopped at a women’s cooperative that employs survivors of abuse in the production of argan oil.
Inside, you’ll see women busily shelling the nuts by hand to get to the meat inside, which contains the argan oil. The company pays the women directly, which allows them the dignity of earning money to provide for their own independence.
Below, you can see the spout of the stone grinder with the valuable oil dripping into a pot. The woman’s left hand covers the hole in the stone where she drops the nuts. They wear a head covering because the oil press procedure is done behind a glassed-in area to help reduce dust and other impurities.
The cooperative salespeople offered us a taste of the raw brown remains post-grinding. It has a bit of a gritty or maybe I should say chewy taste, earthy, gently sweet, and utterly delicious. From there, further processing turns it into Amlou.
Products made of argan oil
I had no intention of buying anything when we first stopped, but something about the humanitarian aspect of the cooperative touched me. Then, I tasted the oil as prepared in various appealing dips and dressings. I understand now why the west uses it in all sorts of cuisine.
Afterward, I tested some argan oil products on my skin and . . . . well . . . . you see those shopping baskets under the Amlou sign?
Here’s some directions in case you want to drop by.
After this introduction to argan, shall we see how you do on this little quiz?
Question #1: What do goats in argan trees and the city of roses have in common?
Answer: Morocco and cosmetics.
Question #2: What do goats and cosmetics have in common?
Answer: argan oil.
Question #3: What is Berber gold?
Answer: (a) the Berbers of Morocco are indigenous people similar to the First Nations people of North America. (b) argan is often called Berber gold. Berbers make up about 40% of the population of Morocco and their language constitutes one of three official state languages. Arabic and French for government purposes make up the other two.
Incidentally, we hired a Berber guide whose insights opened up fresh ways to experience Morocco. We’ll long remember Amine for his humor, generosity, and intelligent responses.
The valley of roses
The timing for the Festival of Roses varies according to the weather, but you’ll get about a month’s advance notice. Expect the event in early May sometime in the small town of Kelaat M’gouna, located in the beautiful Dades Valley. The festival opens with a blanket of rose petals covering the streets and continues for three days with dancers and musicians performing, and perfume afficionados buying supplies. It ends with the election of Miss Roses.
Since our visit to Morocco occurred in September, we visited an outlet for rose products. You can see I didn’t make it out empty-handed.
All those roses — another reason for a return visit to Morocco. Maybe I can time it right and travel from the roses to the argan forests and see goats munching nuts in the trees.