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The ancient taste of Morocco

Argan oil tree
[Photo by Kim Ouhirra]
The argan tree grows in southwest Morocco and has always been prized by the Berber people. It lives to be 150 to 200 years old, sends its roots 90 feet deep for water and acts as a shield against the desert.

By CHRIS SHERMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 17, 2002


Toasted organic argan oil, made from the fruit of a thorny tree found in southwest Morocco, is being introduced to this country by an Oldsmar couple.

I rarely use hazelnut oil, grapeseed oil, walnut oil or anything infused with red peppers or white truffles. Olive oil meets most of my needs.

But for a while now my pantry has happily included a precious taste of the past captured in a tall narrow bottle.

It is toasted organic argan oil, pressed from the "almonds" found deep inside the fruits of big thorny trees in an ancient forest in the southwest of Morocco. When drizzled onto simple lettuce or shredded carrots, argan oil wraps their raw freshness in the flavor of lost centuries.

Argan oil Okay, the actual taste is nutty, intensely nutty, and a little smoky, obvious as soon as you loosen the cap. What kind of nut? Not as bitter as walnuts, or as simple as peanuts, more like the delicacy of almonds, yet with depth. One teaspoon goes a long way. Although some people pick out fruits and mints on its edges, I cannot miss the taste of its history.

I first heard of argan oil last year when its amazing story won my heart and vote and those of other members of the jury of the Slow Food Award for Defense of Biodiversity.

The Slow Food movement, which celebrates foods that reflect and respect local culture and environment, gave special recognition to efforts to preserve rare seeds in India, the nere tree in Guinea, cacao in Tabasco, Mexico, and sea salt in Portugal.

The argan tree is especially fascinating. It was always prized by Berber people and a firm fixture of its landscape: It lives to be 150 to 200 years old, sends its roots 90 feet deep for water and forms a bulwark against the desert. Berbers used its oil for food, cosmetics and medicine, fed the shells to the animals and burned the brush.

The big forest tucked between the Atlas Mountains in northwest Africa and the Sahara has been shrinking. As villagers headed for the cities, trees were cut and the desert crept in.

Then a heroic professor, Zabida Charouff, mobilized local women and their traditional skills into the Amal cooperative, which produced enough argan oil to export. (Amal means hope in Arabic.) The work gave them new dignity and an income for schools and new development, which Slow Food hailed as a "virtuous circle" that benefited the women, the environment and their communities.

Finally, a few months ago I got mine to taste, and it came all the way from . . . Oldsmar.

Yes, this rare gourmet oil that has become trendy across Europe is entering the American market though the efforts of a young Moroccan-American couple in Oldsmar.

Kim and Hicham Ouhirra met in Gainesville when he came from Morocco to study at the University of Florida. Hicham, whose father headed the Moroccan navy, is now a pomologist working for the state as a citrus specialist, but he has kept his affection for the great tree of his homeland.

Kim came to share her husband's taste for argan when she visited his family in the Atlas Mountains and his grandmother served her amlou, a Moroccan spread made of argan oil, honey and almonds.

"It was incredible. Better than peanut butter. I wondered why we couldn't have this, and I started finding out what went in it. That's when I started finding out about argan," she says.

It was about that time that Charouff began the Amal cooperative with the help of international aid and curious gourmets who began experimenting with a broader variety of oils.

By 1999 the Ouhirras had formed Exotica Oils, determined to bring argan from Amal and other producers to the U.S. market. Kim became a full-time and passionate advocate for argan oil, fighting for it through business negotiations, customs rules and agricultural regulations. She designed the packaging, won organic certification and, of course, set up a Web site (www.exoticaoils.com).

They distribute two oils, which sell for $28 for 250 ml or $61 per liter. One is toasted and used strictly for cooking and eating, and the other untoasted, which can also be used by manufacturers of cosmetics and anti-aging creams. They are available locally at Mazzaro Italian Market in St. Petersburg and Palm Harbor Natural Foods.

One major task was to submit this primeval food to laboratory analysis, and the findings are strong. While it is a vegetable fat, it's quite rich in antioxidants, fatty acids, linoleic acids and sterols, conferring more healthful benefits than olive oil.

This is part of the pitch Kim makes as she calls on health food stores. She's also knocking on the kitchen doors of the culinary establishment, seeking out Moroccan cooks and gourmet chefs from small restaurants to Disney's gourmet hotels. She's won plaudits from the American Culinary Federation's magazine and honors at the New York Fancy Food Show, and she conducts seminars for professionals.

With chefs the attention-getter is flavor -- and the fact that it adds a different, savory exotic taste to a broader rendition of Mediterranean cooking that extends beyond Greece and Italy.

"It's a fun thing to work with. It makes you think because it's something special," says Eric Nery, executive chef of the Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa. He uses both kinds of oil, alone and blended with others, and wants to avoid overusing it as some chefs did with sesame oil.

Ouhirra has determined that argan oil's smoking point is extremely high, more than 400 degrees, which means a cook could fry quickly at high temperatures without causing a fire. So far few chefs are tempted to heat argan in their cooking, although Moroccans use it in cooked dishes such as couscous or tagine stew.

American chefs are inclined to savor it cold and sparingly on salads, pasta, fish or pastries. Nery drizzles a little of the untoasted version to lighten seafood dishes like sea bass with pea shoots, or mixes argan and olive oils in a cracked olive salad.

"We've got a portobello salad that's portobello, poached pears and castello cheese. It (the toasted version) is strong. They're all strong flavors. It's a home run, that combination," Nery says.

Such a grand extravagance contrasts dramatically with argan's humble and arduous origins.

Like oysters, truffles and other delicacies, the argan is hard to get at physically. The cooperatives and others who harvest the plum-sized fruits must remove the flesh to get to the hard nut shell at the center, which they crack open by hand. Inside this they find two or three small "almonds." These then are crushed by a cold press to make the oil, as with olives.

The process used to be harder and more primitive and may still be for some rural home consumption. Village women would wait for goats to eat the fruit and then eliminate the nut, which would be washed and cracked to remove the "almonds." The primitive way to make the oil was to pound the almonds into a paste, add water and wait for the oil to collect on top. While the argan oil technology has changed, the value of the tree has not.

"Its roots help hold all the soil. That's why the tree is so important. That's why Jordan and Egypt and Israel are all trying to get the argan to grow, to help stop decertification," says Kim Ouhirra.

Today, however, argan oil is a pure and distinct taste of Morocco, brought to us from deep in its Berber past.

By way of Oldsmar.

-- Exotica Oils Inc, may be reached at 838 Eastlake Club Drive, Oldsmar FL 34677; (727) 786-6213. E-mail info@exoticaoils.com.

Blush Grapefruit, Avocado and Fennel Salad

  • 1/3 cup fresh orange juice
  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 tablespoon minced shallot
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
  • 1 teaspoon grated orange peel
  • 1 teaspoon minced peeled fresh ginger
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 1 teaspoon toasted argan oil
  • 2 large pink grapefruits, peel and white pith removed
  • 1 pound fennel bulbs, trimmed, cut across ribs into paper-thin slices
  • 2 large avocados, halved, pitted, peeled, cut into thin slices
  • 2 cups arrugula

Whisk first 10 ingredients in large bowl to blend. Season with salt and pepper.

Using sharp knife, cut between membranes of grapefruits to release segments.

Spread fennel slices over large platter. Arrange grapefruit segments and avocado slices atop fennel.

Drizzle dressing over salad. Arrange arrugula atop salad.

Serves 8.

Source: Exotica Oils

Moroccan Vegetable Couscous

Stir some chopped fresh mint into yogurt for a cool topping on sliced tomato and cucumber salad, with warm pita bread alongside.

Pistachio ice cream on sweetened orange segments is perfect afterward.

  • 1/3 cup sliced almonds
  • 1 tablespoon toasted argan oil
  • 3 cups mixed cut-up vegetables (such as red onion, carrots, zucchini and cauliflower)
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1/3 cup golden raisins
  • 3/4 cup canned vegetable broth
  • 1 5- to 7-ounce box couscous and lentil mix or other couscous blend

Place almonds in heavy medium skillet. Stir over medium heat until almonds are pale golden, about 4 minutes.

Transfer almonds to bowl. Add toasted argan oil to same skillet. Increase heat to medium-high.

Add vegetables, cumin and coriander; saute until vegetables just begin to soften, about 3 minutes. Add wine and raisins.

Boil until wine is reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Add broth. Partly cover skillet; simmer until vegetables are tender, about 6 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, prepare couscous according to package directions. Mound couscous on platter. Spoon vegetable topping and juices over. Sprinkle with almonds and serve. Serves 2.

Source: Exotica Oils

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Moroccan argan tree
[Photo by Kim Ouhirra]
The argan tree grows in southwest Morocco and has always been prized by the Berber people. It lives to be 150 to 200 years old, sends its roots 90 feet deep for water and acts as a shield against the desert.