Two notes by Andrew Dalby first published in Petits Propos Culinaires

1. A NOTE ON ARGAN OIL

Readers of the Oxford Symposium Documents will remember the front cover of the 1986 volume, The Cooking Medium, illustrated with a drawing by Soun Vannithone. It shows an enormous, spreading tree under which goats and sheep are browsing meditatively. Closer inspection reveals that some of the goats have climbed quite high into the tree, attracted by something to be found among the branches.

The tree is the arganier (its French name) of southern Morocco. It flourishes in the neighbourhood of Taroudant just south of the High Atlas. The picture accompanied a short 'Note on Argon Oil' by Caroline Simmonds.

This was possibly only the third time that argan oil had been mentioned in English. I believe it remains quite unknown in Britain, but it is known, at least by a select few, in France, which once ruled Morocco and has a Moroccan emigré community. The powerful aroma of the oil - nutty, one might say; earthy, some would aver - suits it for use as a dressing; its high price, at least in Paris, deters anyone tempted to cook with it.

Thanks to a neighbouring pharmacist, Olivier Lasfargeas, a connoisseur of edible oils, I can now add a little to Caroline's information. She described the extraction of the oil thus: The inhospitable nature of the foliage renders harvesting of the fruit ... well-nigh impossible. Luckily goats roost (or whatever goats do) in the tree, and obligingly shake down the ripe fruit, from which the grateful locals press the oil.

This, I am assured, must have been a bowdlerised version. The first sentence is spot-on: the second seriously underestimates the contribution made by the goats. They climb the tree not to sleep in it, though for all I know they may do this as well, but to get at the fruit, which is a favourite with them: so much so that they eat it greedily, stone and all. The stone passes more or less unscathed through the caprine digestive system and is, in due course, retrieved by ladies of the Women's Cooperative of this district of Morocco. They break the stone to get at the oil-rich kernel, which is finally pressed. Can anyone else confirm this description of the process?

Incidentally, Stephen Facciola lists the arganier as a source of edible oil in Cornucopia (1st edn, 1990). He gives the botanical name Argania spinosa and the English names 'argan tree, Morocco iron-wood'. He refers to three additional sources of informatioCouscous and Other Good Food from Morocco (1973).

Note: some misspellings have been corrected

2. Argan oil again

The response to my note or query on argan oil in PPC 65 almost overwhelmed me. Thanks to Gert von Paczensky (PPC 66), Mark Nesbitt and Ruth Hajioff (PPC 67) and also to Joan Rundo, Ove Fossa, Vanessa Harrison and Michel Chauvet who wrote to me on the subject. Since so much has already been expressed, this piece is intended merely to mop up a few puddles.

What's it called in French? Huile d'argan the oil, arganier the tree, arganeraie a stand of argan trees.

What do the botanists call it? I have seen in print Argania spinosa (apparently preferred), Sideroxylon argania, and Argania sideroxylon Roem. & Schult. Michel Chauvet points out that the botanical family to which the argan tree belongs, Sapotaceae, includes other edible oil plants. The best known related product is shea butter (karité in French), which comes from Vitellaria paradoxa (syn. Butyrospermum parkii) of tropical Africa.

How are the fruit stones collected? It is sadly true these days, as Gert von Paczensky asserts, that not all the fruit stones enjoy a preliminary passage per capram. The confidence expressed by my own sources that the oil bought in Paris has been obtained in this special way may be misplaced. To cloud the issue further, the following quotation kindly supplied by Ove Fossa from Edible Nuts (FAO, 1995: online version) leaves it uncertain from which end of the goats the favoured stones emerge: 'Fallen ripe fruits dehydrate and pericarp becomes tough, wrinkled and difficult to remove. Fallen fruits are eaten by goats, who digest the subacid rind and eject the hard seeds during rumination, when they are gathered up.' Ove adds an enticing note about a kind of coffee, kopi luwak, made from beans which have undergone 'a similar process' in the digestive systems of Indonesian civets.

How is the oil obtained? Mark Nesbitt and Ruth Hajioff in PPC 67 have described the process fully, and see below.

Can you read more about it? Oh, yes. To the references already given by Mark and Ruth let me add, with thanks to Ove, that at least four scientific papers on the argan tree - treating it specifically as a new crop for the Negev Desert - have been published by the well-named A. Nerd, his latest being the following: Nerd, A., Irjimovich, V. & Mizrahi, Y. 1998. Phenology, breeding system and fruit development of Argan (Argania spinosa, Sapotaceae) cultivated in Israel. Economic Botany, 52(2): 161. Vanessa Harrison tells me that argan oil was mentioned, with a sidelong glance at kopi luwak, in Christopher Hirst's column 'The Weasel' in The Independent, 21 October 2000, almost at the same moment at which my original piece appeared in PPC 65. Selfridge's were currently selling argan oil in their Moroccan promotion. This may have provided Christopher Hirst's inpiration, but not mine!

Joan Rundo gave me a reference, which I wasn't immediately able to follow up, to a book called Cuisines d'Orient et d'ailleurs, written by the staff of Langues'O in Paris, edited by Michel Aufray and Michel Perret, published by Glénat in Grenoble in 1995. It wasn't widely distributed, I gather, but a neighbour turns out to have been a contributor and gave me a copy last week, impelling me at last to settle accounts and write this note. On p. 283, above a pretty photograph of a grove of arganiers, with goats riding high, is a description of the traditional oil extraction process complete with Berber technical terms. Here's the original text and here's a translation:

The argan tree ... plays a large role in the local economy of southwestern Morocco. Its forests serve as pasture for goats and as the source of firewood. From the fruits is extracted the oil which forms the basic element of the diet. The production of this oil depends on skill and knowledge handed down from one generation to the next. Work begins with the collection of ripe fruits afyyash which are stacked in the house. After long exposure to the sun, the nut irg is separated from the now-dried outer flesh alig which will be used as animal fodder. The women then break the nuts on a stone assarg using a hand-held stone amrrag. The fragments of shell serve as fuel. The kernels tiznin, thus extracted, are roasted on an earthenware platter afflun. After roasting, the kernels are milled in a hand-mill azrg, adding a little warm water from time to time. The resulting paste ils uzwrg is turned into a large basin tazlaft, then kneaded and sprinkled with warm water until it begins to separate or curdle and the oil very gradually oozes out. The lumps of curd eventually form a paste tazgmut which is fed to animals. An almond paste amlu is also made in southern Morocco. A local delicacy, it is made by an identical process to that of argan paste. At the end of the process a little argan oil is added to this almond paste.

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