Across the valleys of South Western Morocco we camped amongst vast plains of dark, twisted, prickly trees extending from arid soil and bearing hard, oval, bright green fruit. These fruits contain a nut, at the centre of which is a small, hard kernel that produces a rich, nutty oil when crushed. Argan oil is one of the world’s rarest oils as a result of the small area in which the trees are found. Extraction of the oil is still carried out arduously by hand, traditionally the nuts were collected after being consumed by goats but the current method now avoids this processing step. The kernels are roasted if the oil is to be used in cooking, first producing a brown paste similar to peanut butter, then a finer oil which bread is dipped into.
Over the last few years the use of Argan oil in the cosmetics industry has soared, hairdressers are swearing by this new ‘Moroccan oil’ and beauticians are raving about its skincare gains. Here in Morocco the benefits run further than skin deep; the production and sale of Argan is largely controlled by government-supported women’s cooperatives, now so successful that other areas of agriculture are looking to adopt the model. We visited one such cooperative in the Ourika Valley, where the women explained that many of the employees were either divorced or widowed, therefore giving them an opportunity to be self-sufficient and independent. Many women are able to afford to educate themselves and their children with the income resulting in a positive impact on the socio-economics of many rural communities. From an environmental perspective, the trees are now so valuable they are protected countrywide; consequently protecting the surrounding desert habitat and wildlife.
Leaving the pasta and noodles in Bee-bee, I was invited to join a Moroccan chef in his restaurant kitchen to learn how to prepare two classic Moroccan dishes; Tagine and Couscous. ‘Tagine’ is actually the name of the conical-shaped earthenware dish that the meal is served in, similar to a ‘Casserole’. The fish tagine is made with red mullet, potatoes and olives with a tomato based sauce prepared with cumin, parsley, paprika, garlic and pepper. The lamb tagine has a ‘sweet’ sauce created with ginger, cinnamon and saffron and presented with caramelised prunes topped with toasted sesame seeds. Nothing is measured exactly; olive oil is glugged and water splashed into the pan with rough handfuls and pinches of spices thrown in; the importance is to taste throughout the cooking and adjust the ingredients to your liking. There is no ‘leave to simmer for an hour’ while you put your feet up; constant stirring, adding water, tasting and seasoning is only interrupted by a quick mint tea break.
Forget your Ainsley Harriet ‘add boiling water and stand for 4 minutes couscous’; the authentic version takes around 2 and a half hours. The couscous is steamed slowly in the top part of a ‘Kaskas’ pan as the vegetables cook underneath. The traditional couscous which families share on Fridays contains 7 vegetables and is beautifully presented in a circular, symmetrical pattern on a huge shared plate with chickpeas in tomato sauce sprinkled over and topped with a mouth-watering caramelised onion and sultana ‘T’fia’.
Drive through any village at meal times and Tagine stalls flank the street, the decorated terracotta pots lined up on charcoal grills along the counter. Those with a tomato placed on the top have been ‘reserved’ earlier in the day. Couscous is eaten in the tiniest hole-in-the-wall cafes to the swankiest 5 star restaurants across the whole of Morocco. A huge “Shukran” to executive chef Younes and his chef Sommaya from Hapimag Marrakech for their expertise and teaching in Moroccan cuisine. To have a go at Moroccan cooking we have attached some home made PDF recipes below. Bon Appetit!