I knew there would be goats.
I was at the tail-end of a brief stay in Morocco, where argan oil—touted for its rich, nutty flavor in cooking and its supposedly Death Becomes Her-caliber rejuvenating properties—is big business. You can't throw a tagine in a major Moroccan city without hitting an argan vendor. Adulterated and straight-up counterfeit oil is often hawked to oblivious buyers looking for a bargain.
The real deal, we were told, could be found on the long road from Marrakech to the wind-slapped Atlantic city of Essaouira, where these cloven-hoofed composters climb the thorny branches of argan trees and chomp away at their yellow-green fruit, almost entirely for the tourists. When we showed up to one such goat-stuffed tree, a shepherd even brought out a five-day-old kid, with which we could take photos for a few dirhams.
Traditionally, these goats were an integral part of the oil extraction process: The animals would eat the fruit, and a kernel containing the oil-rich seed would eventually come out the ass end. The culinary oil produced in the traditional method allegedly retains a little bit of its host's goatiness.
The goats, however, have largely been retired from the argan business. Now, it's local women who turn these kernels into liquid gold.
On the road to Essaouira, there are dozens of outposts of argan oil cooperatives, where an all-female workforce manually cracks open kernels and processes the oil. First, the husks are dried, removed, and used as animal feed. Using two stones, workers remove a small almond-shaped seed that contains up to 60 percent oil. The shells are ground and used as natural exfoliants and in pottery, and the seeds are either cold-pressed, producing a light oil for cosmetic use, or toasted and processed into culinary oil. The latter is often found in a tasty spread called amlou, an addictive almond butter spiked with honey and argan oil. More than one person referred to it as "Morocco's answer to Nutella."
Like many of the other collectives in these parts, the Marjana Cooperative near Ounagha leads visitors through the production process. A staff of 50 workers, split over two shifts, processes hundreds kilos of argan kernels each day; at intervals throughout the shift, the workers take part in each step of the process, since each is physically demanding in its own way. According to the UK-based company Arganic, it takes 30 kilograms of argan fruit and 15 hours of labor to make one liter oil.
While Berber women have long had a hand in producing argan oil on a small scale, it wasn't until the late 1990s that Rabat-based chemistry professor and activist Zoubida Charrouf helped to revolutionize the entire argan industry in Morocco by establishing the first female-only collective, where women were paid fair wages for their work.
"When I announced I was planning to set up the first co-operative, the men weren't too happy about their wives going out," Charrouf told Magharebia.com in 2006. "When the women began bringing home money, men started coming to me on their wives' behalf." While those men might have been initially uncomfortable with women earning wages, working with the argan collectives was and continues to be an important source of income for local families, allowing them to pay for home goods, school supplies, transportation, and other needs.
The Marjana collective still employs a manual process, but Charrouf introduced mechanization in her co-ops. Much of the oil produced with the latter process winds up in beauty products in the West, where it has become the headliner ingredient in moisturizers and hair treatments.
But there are limits to the demand. The slow-growing argan trees—which can take up to 50 years to produce fruit—are now considered endangered, but for once it's not big businesses' fault. The goats themselves actually stunt the growth of the trees, and locals sometimes cut them down to use for firewood and carving. During the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of hectares of argan trees were cleared to make room for other crops. (Though there have been some efforts to grow argan trees in Israel and the United Arab Emirates, the trees' call this arid landscape their home.) In an effort to protect the current crop, UNESCO designated a 10,000-square-mile stretch of Moroccan land as a "biosphere reserve," providing funds to preserve argan trees in their natural habitat.
The argan boom hasn't reversed this process, though Charrouf has helped to discourage the goats during harvest season. It has, however, given Moroccans who depend on the trees an incentive to preserve and expand the forest, especially as argan oil prices continue to climb.
It's a pity that argan oil's fame in the West has mostly to do with what it does to leathery skin, because it's also goddamned delicious. Pity, too, that —one of the best things made with argan oil—looks a bit like the product of a bowel disease.
It needs nothing more than a bit of bread as its vehicle, and a discreet partner who won't tell anyone that you just resorted to shoving spoonfuls of it into your mouth like a cretin. The flavor's almost sesame-like in my mind, but not quite—or maybe spiced and toasted hazelnuts.
Maybe it's just the barest hint of goat.