Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Morocco: Essouaira

As my regular readers know, I don't like getting up early but can be enticed when unusual wildlife encounters are on offer. Today's fare: goats in trees.

We left Marrakesh at 7:30 and started west towards Essaouira, a former Portuguese city on the Atlantic Ocean and now a famed wind/kite-surfing and fishing destination. I snoozed for the first ninety minutes of the drive, waking as we made a quick bathroom stop before reaching our first destination: argan country!

Argan oil is made from the nut of the argana spinosa tree which only grows in the vicinity of Essaouira in Morocco. They've tried growing it elsewhere to no avail; it likes this area. As a result, the region's 13.5 million argan trees contribute 100% of the world's argan oil (also known as Moroccan oil), the latest cosmetic and health food fad. And for good reason - argan has amazing vitamins and anti-aging properties and is super rich with antioxidants as well as tasting great. Traditionally argan nuts were harvested once per year, fed to goats (who adore them), re-harvested from goat droppings, and then processed into oil. Most cooperatives skip the goats these days, since the digestive enzymes (which do a great job cracking the nut's hard outer shell) make it harder to preserve and not fit for consumption. Women do all of the argan processing, and it's estimated that two million people in the region gather an income from this thriving business. 

The trees have strong, twisted trunks and flat branches, which makes them easily climbable by the region's goats who are absolutely crazy for argan fruits! Our first stop was on the side of the road to see one such tree filled with goats. What a sight! No sooner had I stepped off the bus than a shepherd was handing me a tiny, fuzzy baby goat to cuddle. Day made. He nuzzled and cuddled and was a sweetheart before I passed him off the next person. Then it was time to photograph his elders in the tree. You really have to see the pictures to believe it - it was quite a sight. 

We stopped a bit farther down the road to inspect the fruits more closely. They're green on the tree and turn yellow when ripe and brown when dried. Once we arrived at the women's cooperative we were visiting we got to see firsthand how this oil is made. It's an arduous process!

The dried fruits (nuts? I get confused with the terminology) are pounded between rocks to remove the tough outer shell. Then they move to another rock station where the nut's tough outer shell is removed. The nuts are then either toasted (for food-grade argan oil) or sent directly to processing. They use the discarded husks/shells as fuel for the fires for toasting. 

The nuts (toasted or not) are put into a special device resembling a moving mortar and pestle where they are ground into a powder and some of the oil is extracted. Another woman then adds a tiny bit of water to this resulting mess and kneads it for two hours. At the end the ground/kneaded nuts form a cake-like patty that is pressed and the oil reserved. The cakes are made into black soap used as an exfoliant. I believe they said it takes 80 kg of fruits to get 5 kg of nuts to get 1 liter of oil. Or something ridiculous like that. It's time consuming and very hard work, but these ladies made it look easy. Before we were let loose in the store we had a chance to sample bread dipped in pure argan oil (deliciously nutty), local honey (about what I expected), and amlou - argan oil mixed with honey and crushed almonds. Amazing. I hear Whole Foods sells it. Worth every penny. We also sampled a few of the lotions and other byproducts before doing quite a bit of damage to all of our wallets!

From there it was off to Essaouira for a day by the sea. We had an orientation tour of the port where fishing boats bring in significant amounts of the world's sardines and anchovies and where fishing boats are made and repaired. The smell was overwhelming, but the cats and seagulls were in hog heaven and among the healthiest I've ever seen!

We wandered through the main square and the souqs en route to the sixteenth century Portuguese fortress with great views of the water and coast. From there we were on our own, and I was tired and hungry and cranky so roped a few people into lunch at the first halfway-decent looking place we could find. It turned out to be perfect, and my mood improved exponentially. Most of us had been waiting for Essaouira to do lots of shopping since the products are good, relatively cheap, and the level of hassle is relatively low. I wanted some Ramadan lamps and opted for two small square tabletop ones since I have neither a home of my own or room in my suitcase to bring back the big ones I love. A future adventure! I wandered a bit more but was pretty shopped out and felt good about what I'd bought already. I have some fun gifts for birthdays this year!

A couple of us headed back to the square where we met up with our tour manager and ate delicious gelato which hit the spot. It was a very warm, almost hot, day, and I'm once again so glad I'm doing this trip in January when the weather and tourists aren't extreme. 

Our group came together and shared shopping stories before boarding the bus to head back to Marrakesh. I was tired by the time we got back and opted to order in food and catch up on writing and emails before we head to Casablanca tomorrow.

Goats in trees!

I mean, really. How cool is this?

I got to hold this little darling as well. What a fluffy sweetheart!

Looking contemplative

Their minders are in the shade...

Argan nuts

Argan kernels roasting

Drying in the sun

Women hard at work.

An example of the rocks they use is on the right.

All stages of the process


The very fragrant port

Ships in dry dock awaiting repairs

Cigarette butts. The amount of litter was insane.

Baiting hooks/lines is a separate profession.

Some of today's catch.

Lots of fresh citrus juice.

Father/son hat knitting duo.

The son works nearby and just came by to say hi to Dad and show off.

Lots of shopping here!

1 comment:

nomadsbynature said...

The goats in the tree look like something from out of Dr. Seuss!