[Ed: Today is National Chocolate Chip Day and National Lasagne Day–the later being a repeat from only a week or so ago, and the former being boring. So I decided to adopt “Grab Some Nuts Day” from yesterday – while Sarah did a great job with National Watermelon Day, August 3rd has more to offer us…]

I was never really a lover of nuts, until I was fortunate to take a trip to Morocco a few years ago. It took transplanting me out of my routine, for me to give nuts a second chance, and I’m glad that I did.

I think my childhood memories of nuts can explain my previous apathy towards them. As a kid, my exposure to nuts-as-nuts (rather than, say, nuts as butter-tart ingredient) was limited to the bowls of nuts that were put out at Christmas, and the occasional tin of mixed nuts that my dad would get as a father’s day or birthday present. While as a 7 year old I liked the challenge of cracking the nuts out of the shells with the silver Christmas nut crackers, I only remember the taste of the walnuts being bitter and dusty. From there on out, I was ambivalent to nuts – sure, sprinkle a few on my salad, but they aren’t coming home with me from the grocery store as my treat of the week.

But then – well I made the acquaintance of the nut salesmen of Marrakesh. At night, Marrakesh’s square is littered with food sellers, and my favorite were the many many carts selling nuts, figs, dates and dried apricots. Morocco has that culture where you better be ready to buy (and bargain) before you even glance at something you’re considering buying. The businessmen of Marrakesh take their jobs seriously, and will use every trick in the book to make sure you don’t leave their cart/store/souk without something in your bag, and some of your money in your pocket. Don’t get me wrong- this isn’t a “hard sell” – this is consummate salesmanship. And “my nut guy” (i.e. the proprietor of my favorite nut stand) knew just how to hook me – he let me sample anything I wanted! Candied pistachios, smoked almonds, walnuts, etc. After nibbling my way across the cart, I would make my selections, and walk away clutching a thick brown paper envelope with my nutty treasures inside. Nuts had never tasted so good… or perhaps, I never new they could taste so good.

While I hate to pick favorites among my new nut friends, one of the best “nut” discoveries I made while in Morocco was Argan oil. Argan oil is an oil produced from the nuts of the Argan, a species of tree which only grows in south west Morocco. Now endangered and under protection of UNESCO, the Argan grows wild in semi-desert soil, its deep root system helping to protect against soil erosion and the northern advance of the Sahara. Amongst Berbers, argan oil has long been valued for its nutritive, cosmetic, and medicinal properties. Argan oil is rich in essential fatty acids and is more resistant to oxidation than olive oil. Argan oil from Morocco has received Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) from Morocco’s Commission nationale des signes distinctifs d’origine et de qualité (CNSDOQ). Other familiar products that have received such recognition include champagne, Charlevoix lamb, and Asiago cheese. Argan oil is the first African product to receive a PGI.

The oil is best used as a dressing after cooking (like truffle oil) – for example in a salad dressing, drizzled over BBQ veggies or couscous, or for a pita dip–as it does not have the heat tolerance for cooking. It has a toasted, nutlike flavor with sesame overtones and a hint of bitterness. A dip for bread known as amlou is made from argan oil, almonds and peanuts, sometimes sweetened by honey or sugar. It’s delicious… and I was told it has aphrodisiac qualities!

Most moroccan argan oil sold today is produced by women’s cooperatives. The cooperatives support reforestation projects so that the supply of argan oil will not run out and the income that is currently supporting the women will not disappear. The money is providing healthcare and education to the local women, and supporting the Berber community as a whole. If you come across argan oil from Morocco, I would encourage you to buy it to support their work (just make sure you’re buying COOKING oil – there is also argan oil available as a beauty treatment, and the cosmetic oils likely have additives).

… and, if you can’t find argan oil, go ahead a grab some (other) nuts. 🙂