Earlier this year we splurged on a bottle of Moroccan argan oil, and it sits in our pantry like a bottle of liquid gold, used sparingly and savored deeply. At first we were merely curious about the intensely nutty flavor of this oil, which we had associated with cosmetics more than cuisine. As we learned more, we were captivated by the details of its history and production involving rare trees, goats, and the Berber women's cooperative movement.
Argan oil comes from the fruit pits of Morocco's argan tree, which is now endangered and protected by UNESCO. For hundreds or even thousands of years, the local Berber tribes collected these pits from the waste of goats that climbed up into the trees to eat the fruit (a bit like the process for collecting civet coffee). Berber women ground and hand-kneaded the kernels into a rich, nutty oil used for cooking and cosmetic use. We like using argan as a finishing oil for salad, couscous, and soup. It's also delicious drizzled on yogurt or mixed with honey as a dipping sauce for good bread.
High in antioxidants, essential fatty acids, and Vitamin E, argan oil gained international popularity in the 1990s when European and American companies started using the "miracle ingredient" in skin and hair care products. After a period dominated by private companies that mechanized the processes and took control from the indigenous Berber people, a movement arose to establish local co-operatives. Today these women-run co-ops provide social autonomy; a fair, steady income; and educational opportunities. They also focus on sustainable harvesting and preservation of the trees, which prevent desertification, provide shade, and are a food source for animals.
When purchasing argan oil, it's important to learn about the producer/distributor and whether they use fair, sustainable practices. The oil won't be cheap, but you'll understand why and appreciate every drop that enriches your food.
Buy it: Organic Fair Trade Argan Oil at Argand'Or
Related: Food Budgeting: When to Splurge, When to Save
(Images: Flickr member ZiLiv licensed under Creative Commons; World Artisan Guild)