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How Moroccan Women Craft Liquid Gold: The art of argan oil-making

Introduction

Hello everyone, my name is Sam and I’m here today to share with you all about the wonderful argan oil and the process by which it is extracted from the argan fruit. Argan oil has gained much popularity in recent years for its numerous skin and hair benefits, and I have personally found it to be a magical elixir. In this post, I hope to take you through the journey of how this special oil makes its way from the argan tree to your cosmetic products and cooking needs. Let’s get started!

What is Argan Oil?

To begin, let me first give a brief overview of argan oil itself. Argan oil is a plant oil produced from the kernels of the argan tree, which is native to Morocco. The argan tree typically grows around 10-15 meters high and has thorny branches that provide protection and habitat for small wildlife. The tree produces small, green fruit pods that contain one to three almond-shaped kernels each. These kernels contain the precious argan oil inside.

Argan oil has been used for centuries in Moroccan cuisine and traditional medicine. It is prized for its high concentration of vitamin E and essential fatty acids that moisturize and condition skin and hair. Some key benefits of argan oil include improving skin elasticity, reducing acne, preventing scarring from wounds or surgeries, treating eczema, protecting hair from damage, and adding delicious flavor to foods. Its powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties also make it a popular ingredient in natural skin care products.

The Traditional Extraction Process

Now that we’ve covered a bit about argan oil itself, let’s dive into the traditional multi-step process by which it is extracted from the argan fruit. For centuries in Morocco, this process has been done exclusively by Berber women, who preserve the techniques across generations. Here are the main stages:

  • Harvesting the Fruit: In late spring to early summer, after the argan tree blooms and the fruit develops, local women hand-harvest the small green pods containing the kernels. They pick only fully ripe pods that fall naturally from the tree.
  • Drying the Pods: The fresh pods are sun-dried for several days to weeks, until the outer shell becomes brittle and easy to crack. Sun-drying helps preserve the kernels and concentrates the oil’s nutritional content.
  • Cracking Open the Pods: Using stones or mallets, women crack open each dried pod to remove the 1-3 almond-shaped kernels inside. This is an intricate process requiring patience and skill.
  • Roasted the Kernels: The kernels are roasted in traditional taboun (clay ovens) or over open fires to intensify the aroma and make the oil easier to extract. Roasting temps need to be carefully controlled to not burn the kernels.
  • Crushing the Kernels: Women use traditional stone mills to crush the roasted argan kernels into a fine paste. This breaks the kernels open to release the raw argan oil inside. The mills require significant physical strength to rotate.
  • Kneading and Pressing: The kernel paste is thoroughly kneaded by hand for 10-15 minutes to fully extract as much oil as possible. Then it’s placed in presses made of woven palm fronds or hide and more oil is extracted.
  • Filtering and Settling: The pressed mixture separates into two layers – a clear golden argan oil on top, and crushed kernel leftovers on the bottom. The oil passes through cotton filters to remove any remaining solids.
  • Storing the Oil: The precious golden oil is stored in traditionally decorated clay pots and labeled with the harvest date. It can be stored at room temperature for 1-2 years without refrigeration thanks to the natural antioxidants.

This entire traditional process may take 1-2 weeks to complete per small batch. The Berber women harvest, process and sell just enough argan oil to support their families throughout the year – it is truly an integral part of their culture and livelihood. I’m always amazed at their dedication and skill in producing this treasured ingredient despite the significant labor involved.

Modern Mechanized Extraction

As argan oil has grown in popularity globally, larger commercial operations have developed more mechanized ways to scaled up production. However, they still aim to preserve the quality and care involved in traditional methods. Here are the basic steps in a modern extraction facility:

  • Harvesting: Fruit is still selectively hand-picked at peak ripeness from argan forests. Larger volumes can be harvested and transported more efficiently.
  • Drying: Pods may be dried using solar or mechanical dryers that optimize drying time and conditions compared to sun alone.
  • Pod Breaking: Machines efficiently crack open dried pods and separate kernels without compromising quality. Some operations also use goats which can digest the pods.
  • Roasting: Modern roasters tightly control temperature and duration to properly activate the kernels without burning. Propane or wood-fired convection ovens are commonly used.
  • Crushing: Powered stone or hammer mills finely crush roasted kernels to extract oil without risking contamination. More advanced systems may use stainless steel.
  • Pressing: Hydraulic presses optimize pressure applied to extract maximum oil yield from crushed paste. Multiple cycles may be done.
  • Separation: Oil separators utilize centrifugal force to quickly separate argan oil from remaining crushed matter without additional filters.
  • Polishing: The extracted argan oil undergoes polishing cycles using absorbent clays which remove any microscopic residues to ensure purity and shelf stability.
  • Filling: Polished oil is packaged promptly in dark glass bottles or cans to protect from light oxidation, then labeled and shipped. Strict quality control is applied.

While greater volumes can now be produced more cost-effectively, modern facilities still uphold traditional standards of care, quality and sustainability. Argan trees continue to be preserved as a vital part of the landscape and economy in Morocco, as their deep roots prevent soil erosion. Sourcing also remains limited to designated argan forests only.

How Moroccan Women Craft Liquid Gold: The art of argan oil-making
How Moroccan Women Craft Liquid Gold: The art of argan oil-making

Benefits ofTraditional vs Modern Methods

Both traditional and modern extraction methods have their merits when it comes to quality and sustainability:

Traditional Methods:

  • Preserve Berber knowledge and heritage
  • Support rural livelihoods and local economies
  • Use natural sunlight and minimal equipment
  • Produce authentically aromatic small batches

Modern Methods:

  • Increase availability and affordability
  • Consistently meet growing global demand
  • Apply food safety and quality assurance
  • Harvest larger volumes more efficiently
  • Optimize operations and decrease environmental impact

In reality, a hybrid approach combining the best of both worlds seems ideal. Some operators partner with women’s cooperatives to apply traditional techniques at scale. And modern facilities still observe harvesting limits and give priority to women producers. This balanced model can maintain traditions while expanding positive socioeconomic impact – supporting both rural communities and the argan oil industry.

My Experience Producing Argan Oil

A few years ago, I had the fortune of visiting Morocco and volunteering on an organic argan farm. It was a truly unique experience getting to observe and participate in the full production process from start to finish. On the farm, pods were harvested by hand from their surrounding forests during peak season.

We helped with drying the pods in racks under the warm sun, then cracking them open to remove the prized kernels inside. Those kernels were roasted in a wood-fired traditional oven to bring out their aroma. Using vintage stone mills, we took turns grinding the roasted kernels into a fine paste.

Kneading that paste vigorously with our hands was a true upper-body workout! Then we loaded the mixtures into palm presses to squeeze out every last drop of precious oil. Removing the filters revealed the most stunning golden liquid I had ever seen. Watching that raw material transform across each stage was simply magical.

The farm owners sold their artisanal oil primarily at local markets and to higher-end buyers in Europe. However, observing their care and passion inspired me. Since then, I’ve started making my own small batches of argan oil at home using traditional methods whenever I can source fresh pods. There’s nothing like experiencing the real labor that goes into crafting this prized elixir. I deeply respect the women who have preserved these traditions for centuries.

Sourcing Ethical Argan Oil

With argan oil’s popularity booming worldwide, it’s important to consider the sourcing and sustainability practices of any products you purchase. Here are a few tips for finding ethically produced options:

  • Look for oils labeled “100% pure argan oil” and sourced only from Morocco. Blended oils may dilute quality.
  • Check certifications like organic, fair trade, non-GMO which indicate sustainable harvesting and fair wages for producers.
  • Consider brands partnering directly with Berber women’s cooperatives for maximal positive impact.
  • Avoid heavily discounted oils as quality may be compromised or trees unsustainably harvested.
  • When possible, buy directly from artisanal Moroccan producers vs mass retail brands.
  • Ask about regeneration projects like replanting argan trees for continued longevity of the forests and species.

Harvesting and processing methods

Traditionally, Berber women harvest the fruits by hand when they are ripe and start to fall from the tree on their own. Ladders are sometimes used for higher branches. The fruits are collected in baskets or sheets and transported back to their villages. Processing usually takes place communally by women in groups.

FAQs

How long does the full extraction process take?

The traditional Berber extraction method can take 1-2 weeks total to complete from harvesting the fruits to finishing the bottled oil. Modern mechanized processes can complete it in 3-5 days when larger volumes are being produced.

Are there gender roles in the extraction process?

Yes, traditionally the entire process from harvesting to sales has been done exclusively by Berber women across generations. In some modern cooperatives, roles may be shared more evenly while still empowering women producers.

Do the Argan trees get damaged during harvesting?

No, the fruit pods are always harvested by hand only when fully ripe and starting to fall naturally to protect the health of the trees. No branches are cut. Sustainable harvesting practices are followed.

How can you tell high quality Argan oil?

Look for a deep golden color and nutty aroma. High quality oils are raw, cold-pressed, certified organic and come from Morocco. They have a long shelf life without refrigeration thanks to natural antioxidants.

Can Argan oil be used for cooking?

Yes, Argan oil has a subtle nutty flavor that adds richness to tagines, couscous, roast vegetables and baked goods. Its high heat tolerance makes it suitable for sautéing and roasting. A little goes a long way.

What is the environmental impact of Argan oil production?

When done sustainably through harvesting limits and tree regeneration programs, argan oil production actually helps preserve the entire argan forest ecosystem in Morocco which provides habitat for endangered species. The deep roots of argan trees also prevent soil erosion.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the traditional yet evolving process of argan oil extraction holds cultural and economic significance for Morocco. What begins as tiny green fruits sourced sustainably from the argan forests is transformed through dedicated labor into a pure golden elixir renowned for its skin and hair benefits. Both small-scale Berber women’s cooperatives and larger commercial operations play important roles in meeting the premium product’s growing global demand.

With evolving technologies, efficiencies have been found while maintaining standards of quality, traceability and fair wages for producers. Partnerships between rural cooperatives and companies also help expand sustainable livelihood opportunities for women in argan-growing regions. Conscious consumption choices directly support community development and conservation of the endemic argan tree habitat.

The magical properties of argan oil have been treasured for centuries, and modern research continues to elucidate its antioxidants, fatty acids and potential health applications. As we enjoy this luxurious beauty aid and culinary ingredient, grateful awareness of its origins empowers us to make informed purchase decisions that honor cultural traditions and living landscapes. With harmonious global demand and responsible local production practices, the legacy of Moroccan argan oil will thrive for generations to come.

I hope this post provided insightful perspective into both the artisanal techniques and contemporary improvements that deliver this extraordinary natural product to the world stage. Please feel free to contact me if you have any other questions about argan oil extraction, sourcing or uses. It was my pleasure to share an appreciation for this remarkable process.

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