You would be hard pushed to find a product more gloriously steeped in sunshine and more revered by today’s culinary cognoscenti than argan oil. It has been around for centuries, admired by Berber families across the Saouri plains – a triangular region between Safi, Essaouira and Agadir on the coast and stretching inland to Taroudant – yet it is relatively new in Western kitchens. Proven to have extraordinary anti-ageing properties in both culinary and cosmetic terms, it is now at the heart of what is known as the Liquid Gold Rush.

This new fascination with argan oil has already created a few myths. Like the controversial kopi luwak coffee that is said to achieve its uniquely musky flavour by first going through the digestive system of a civet cat, the argan nut is rumoured to go through the digestive system of a goat before being pressed. But if it did, the nut’s kernel, which produces the oil, would quickly be destroyed by stomach juices and its unique properties would be greatly diminished.

“Even the term ‘harvest’ is an untruism,” says Ulysses Müller, founder of the Sidi Yassine cooperative, which is the only officially recognised Fairtrade producer in the region. “The fruit must fall to the ground naturally. If it is beaten down like an olive or blown down in the wind – something we have a lot of in Essaouira – the kernels are not fully developed and you loose the properties of the oil.”

Liquid gold in colour and unctuously silky in the mouth, the oil has a sweet nuttiness redolent of vanilla beans. It’s no wonder chefs and food lovers are going mad for it. And Müller was one of the first on the scene.

Originally from Switzerland, he arrived in the Saouri plains with his Moroccan wife and family in 2005. He had tired of the corporate whirl of life in Zurich – he’d been the creative director of the advertising agency DDB for 20 years – and yearned for a healthier environment in which to bring up his children. They decided to buy some land near Essaouira, where they’d spent family holidays for many years, and began their new life by planting olive trees. But Müller was quick to realise that olives were not the way forward: with Spain just across the water, producing 60% of the world’s olive oil, they would have to be a huge business to make a living in such a crowded market.

Mulling this over one day on a trip from Agadir to Essaouria he came upon a distressed Japanese man at the side of the road. Assuming he’d broken down, Müller offered him a lift. In fact, the gentleman was a professor from Tokyo University who, having studied the properties of argan seeds at great length, was trying to set up an argan oil cosmetic business. This was his second disastrous attempt to enter the market – the day before his arrival the cooperative from which he had ordered kernels had sold half his order to an Italian businessman.

As they talked, however, he taught Müller a great deal about argan, not least that it is the strongest anti-ageing product in the world thanks to its huge vitamin E content, which regenerates cell structure. This region of Morocco accounts for 90% of the world’s argan forests (the rest are in Algeria, with a few in Mexico too). By the time they arrived in Essaouira, Müller was convinced that argan was not a fad and had the potential to provide a future for himself and his family.

Fast forward 10 years, and Sidi Yassine is a thriving business. It has grown from a production of just 800 litres per year to a current production of 4,000 litres of internationally certified organic oil per month, 70% of which is produced for cosmetic purposes and sold to companies such as L’Occitane and Weleda. The remaining 30% is lightly toasted to produce the high-grade edible oil that has become highly sought after by top-level chefs and food outlets. Through brand names like Arganic, several tonnes of Müller’s cold-pressed oil are sold each year to illustrious names such as René Redzepi, Yotam Ottolenghi and Selfridges.

Speaking from her home in London, Dana Elemara, Arganic’s founder, said:

“Attention to detail makes the quality of [Sidi Yassine’s] product second to none. Most significantly the oil is from one source, not lots of farms mixing their oils together, which results in lack of traceability, a lack of consistency and is often bad hygienically. One bad batch can spoil the rest. I met with endless argan oil farms and Sidi Yassine were who I trusted the most. I also liked that they made clear that they were not trying to be the biggest, they were focused on being the best. The details count and when I asked them if I could photograph the women they work with they said ‘why are you asking us, you should ask the women’ and this meant a lot to me.”

The situation elsewhere is not quite so rosy. The rise in popularity of argan oil has not gone unnoticed and these days if you take the road from Marrakech to Essaouira, about an hour before you hit the coast, you start seeing argan oil cooperatives shoulder to shoulder. All claim to be ‘cooperatives, organic, fair-trade’, with farmers and producers keen to claim a piece of the tourist pie. Roadside trees are rented by landowners to shepherds who then charge tourists for that iconic photo opportunity of a goat in a tree. Look more carefully and you’ll see that many of the goats are tied into branches plucked bare from seeds and foliage and unable to move. Tourist coaches are paid huge commissions to stop at the roadside ‘cooperatives’, while many of the women working in them have money deducted from their wages if they fail to make a sale, and much of the oil itself is topped off with inferior product. Clearly, there is a long way to go in terms of establishing an industry standard.

Sidi Yassine is, by contrast, an impressive outfit. Although there are only 12 people working in full-time production, Müller provides employment for some 700 women across the region who collect and prepare the kernels ready to be turned into oil. The company is able to identify the very tree each bottle of oil comes from. He explains:

“It takes 30 kilos of fruit plus 15 hours of work to produce one litre of oil, and it’s all hand made. The seeds arrive by donkey from farms all over the surrounding countryside and have a fixed price of MAD 250 to 350 per kilo of whole fruit depending on the quality. The fruit is then dried to a consistency known as ‘affiache’ (a little like the pulp of dates) and it takes 16 kilos of this to extract one kilo of kernels from the inner seed (the pulp is used for animal feed). Finally, two kilos of kernels are needed to make one litre of oil, which helps explain its shelf price of around MAD 250 or EUR 25 a litre.”

About 30 minutes from Essaouira, in pristine countryside of rolling hills studded with bushy argan and olive trees underscored by red African earth, Müller shows me his newest and most holistic facility, which will provide around 50 jobs for local women. The white-washed warehouse is sparkling clean and light-filled, with separate facilities for men and women in keeping with local traditions. Because it is set into the hillside it provides naturally ambient working conditions, cool in summer and temperate in winter. On the roof there is a kitchen and dining area, schoolhouse and playground, which allows the women who work there to bring their children to school. Müller puts 5% of profits directly back into the community, which goes towards paying a teacher’s salary.

Wages are also better for the women at Sidi Yassine. While the free market pays 50 dirham per 4 kilos of kernels, Müller pays 17 dirhams per kilo, about 20% above the national average. The pulp that is discarded from the seeds is also given to the women to take home for animal feed – a significant gesture in a poor, rural community. The shells, which are 16 times harder than any wood, are sold locally as fuel to provide eco-heating for hotels such as the Jardin des Douars, or to the kilns in Fès for firing pots.

The kernels themselves end up back at Sidi Yassine’s production plant next door to Müller’s family home. The production plant is a wonderful, wood-clad building and, like everything in Muller’s business, has been built as ecologically as possible. It is here that the kernels, which look like tiny almonds, are sorted three times by hand to ensure no stones make their way into the oil before the oil is extracted by state-of-the-art stainless steel presses, ensuring that 90%-95% of the oil in the kernel is used.

Müller keeps archives of each oil production for up to 10 years, but he says that any problems that arise are usually down to transport. The foreign market receives the oil in barrels flown from Casablanca (shipping is too risky for such a delicate product) and can expect it to have a shelf life of up to 24 months. As I leave, Müller tells me:

“The final oil is down to water, heat, oxygen and light, all of which can destroy the oil so you need tight controls on that. People often ask me ‘what is my secret’? But the secret is simply a good product to begin with – quality begins in the forest and ends with lots of loving care.”

Photograph: Mhobl

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