Argan oil, golden oil from ancient Berber trees

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Back in August The Observer Food Monthly ran a series of articles about ethical and unethical food. One of the products mentioned as an "ethical" choice was argan oil. I was immediately intrigued.

Argan oil comes from ancient argan trees, a species indigenous to North Africa. The argan forests in that region have been a part of Berber culture in the form of fuel, timber and food, but have been heavily exploited to the point where they have shrunk by 50% over the last 100 years. UNESCO has declared the forest a biosphere reserve.

So off I went to the supplier web site that was mentioned in the article, visions of ancient forests surrounded by deserts in my head.

The price - 18.50 GBP (about US $40) for one 250ml bottle - gave me sticker shock at first. But I ordered one in the interest of research (and greediness) and lo, a couple of weeks later it arrived in my mailbox. (I was just a bit disappointed that it was shipped from the U.K. rather than straight from Morocco, but I guess that's where their distribution point is.)

Besides being from an endangered species of tree, argan oil is also supposed to be very healthyl. According to the little tag that was attached to the orange-tinted frosted glass bottle, extra-virgin argan oil is

..traditionally eaten for breakfast in North Africa, with freshly baked bread, as a healthy start to the day. Delicious sprinkled on salads, grilled vegetables, and soups, its health giving properties have been known for generations. High in mono and polyunsaturates (80%), linoleic acid (34%), and plant sterols, it is a wholesome as it is delicious.

But enough about the social and health benefits. How does it taste?

First I opened up the bottle and sniffed it. It has a very unique smell - nutty, a bit like sesame oil, but with an slightly strange hint of something else that I couldn't put my finger on - sort of a "raw" scent. It's not unpleasant, just very unusual.

I poured out a little into a small glass bowl. The oil is a yellow color, like a light colored olive oil, with just a slight orange tint. (The bottle is tinted so you may think it's a bright orange, but it isn't. That bottle by the way is made in "150 year old moulds" and is "frosted to protect the oil" from light.)

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I tasted it with the good old finger-in-the-bowl method. It has a very subtle but quite distinctly nutty taste. It's unlike any other nut or seed oil I've had before though. The closest to it is pumpkin seed oil, an Austrian speciality that I am rather addicted to. Argan oil has the same slightly spicy undertones, but is much milder than the dark, punchy pumpkin seed oil. It's not at all like olive oil, since it has no fruitiness or pepperiness to it.

So far we've only tried it sprinkled on salads (delicious) and on plain bread (even better). I tried sautéing some onions and garlic in it, and the smell was heavenly, but the flavor does dissipate a little (more than sesame oil does) when heated. So I think it's best used as a condiment, where you can get the full hit of flavor. It has a really addictive quality to it. Try drizzling a little on sliced or flat bread, sprinkling on a bit of sea salt, and then toasting the bread under the broiler. Yum. It's also great on grilled fish.

The only problem with ordering it again is the price. I'm wondering now if a trip to Morocco to bring back a suitcase full would pay for itself...

If you order 250ml or more from Wild Wood Groves, they will include a small pot of Moroccan spices too. Curiously though the recipe they include in the box is one for Chicken with Olives and Lemon that uses olive oil, not argan oil! There are other places selling argan oil (try Google, or if you are in the U.S. you may want to try the Amazon Gourmet Food store). Wild Wood Groves does specifically state that some of their sales proceeds go towards conservation efforts though. Wherever you get it from, be sure you are buying oil for cooking, not the kind for cosmetics...though the idea of slathering my ever-dry skin with this rich oil is quite appealing.

(Note: this is now attracting more and more argan or other oil selling spammer scum, so I've closed down the comments. If you are in the market for argan oil, be sure you are buying from a reputable source! And as for you spammers, go to hell.)

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