Essaouria: Of Dung, Goats and Argan Trees

We’d never heard of Essaouria until we started planning our trip to Morocco but the walled medina, a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, with waves from the Atlantic ocean crashing against its ramparts, sounded too good to pass up. We also learned that this arid region around Essaouria was where goats routinely climbed trees looking for food. The bizarre video (below) shows 16 goats munching argan tree fruit 20 feet in the air. As we learned about where to see the goats, we also learned about the very versatile and useful fruit that they eat. We decided to hire a taxi from Essaouria and visit an argan oil cooperative and perhaps along the way see some goats climbing trees.

After negotiating a taxi for the four of us to visit the Marjana cooperative, we sped along the highway to Marrakech keeping an eye out for goats. The argan tree, which only grows in this part of Morocco, clicks all the right boxes when it comes to trendiness, health & beauty, women’s rights and the environment. It’s drizzled on salads in hip, cosmopolitan restaurants and it’s routinely sold in Provence markets alongside designer olive oils. It is high in vitamin E and essential fatty acids and is believed to help all sorts of skin conditions, such as acne, psoriasis, eczema and wrinkles and medical evidence suggests that the oil may help reduce cholesterol and prevent arteriosclerosis. The cooperatives are run almost exclusively by women; usually older women cracking, roasting and grinding the seed-nuts and younger bilingual women leading the tours. The tree is extremely hardy and helps prevent desertification of the region and virtually all the by-products of the production process are recycled (nut shells fuel the roasting process, discarded pith fed to goats, etc.). And if that resume isn’t impressive enough for you, local Berbers also mix it with ground almonds and honey to make amlou, a sweet delicacy reputed to be an aphrodisiac.

We arrived and asked for Fatima, the sister of a man we met near our small riad guesthouse. Fatima took us over to the work area where we were greeted by a loud ululation from one of the older women. The women wore headscarves and sat against the wall, all of them holding a smooth rock between their legs while working at separating pits from almond-like seed-nuts. Fatima explained that the pit must first be separated from the pulpy fruit matter, and then the "almonds" must be extracted by chipping away at the pit. It was at this point I asked about the goat dung. I’d read that as the goats climb the argan trees and ingest the fruit, they poop it out and the nuts are recovered from the goat dung. The goat’s strong digestive juices act to eat away the tough elastic coating over the pit. Fatima smiled and told us that this is the old process and they no longer do it that way.

The sound of rocks chipping away at the hard pits served as our syncopated soundtrack while Fatima continued. “Now, if you are making oil for eating, the almonds must be roasted.” she said. We watched two women in another room fanning the nut-shell-fueled fire to slowly roast the almonds. From there, we walked back to the first work area and watched a woman slowly grinding a roasted almond-and-water mixture until oil started pouring from her stone pestle into a plastic container. From here it was simply a matter of filtering the liquid so that all that is left is a clear golden oil. To make one liter of argan oil it takes 36-40 kilos of fruit, which produce 2.5 kilos of almonds. Fatima tells us that this process takes one woman three days to complete.

At the end of our tour we bought some argan shampoo, olive oil, wrinkle cream and amlou and headed back to Essaouria along the same road. About halfway back I did see a goat standing on a branch about 8 feet off the ground, but nothing like the video I’ve posted above. I’ve since read that there is a concerted effort to keep the goats from eating the increasingly valuable argan fruit. Next time we’ll stop the car and fork over a few dirhams to the goatherd boys and watch them climb up the trees.

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