GUARDIAN I guessed argan was a rare gas or a spear-carrying lard-arse in Lord of the Rings. It is, I discovered, a slow growing thorn tree similar to the olive that’s found in just one place on the planet, southern Morocco’s coastal strip.
Apart from the unusual arboriculture – more of which later – you’ll also find Lalla Abouch here; a small farmstead-cum-boutique-guesthouse some 30km south of sleepy Essaouira. Its design is archetypal: solid stone outer walls surround a small white sun-shiny courtyard. Gaudy splashes of bougainvillea and the gorgeous bright blue paint traditionally used on doors and windows add to the effect.
Fortunately certain traditions go only so far nowadays – livestock, once resident in half the building, now dwells outside. Across the arid, dusty field surrounding the farm, just past the bee hives, is a caged off area filled with rabbits, chickens and ducks. The upshot is improbably Arcadian and hoppity, flappity, quackity cute. But cute fluffiness is no bar to me licking my lips and imagining duck on the menu, after all, this place has a reputation for home-grown grub. Lucrezia was mortified; her ducks have names. Pato and Madame Pato certainly weren’t for the pot-to.
Lucrezia Mutti bought the farm a couple of years ago with the intention of preserving traditional farming methods for those still working her land. She’s introduced some of her own practices too and harvests by the zodiac, apparently the full moon is excellent for olives and aromatics. But the agriculture isn’t just for show – the farm supplies the guesthouse with first class produce.
The concept is simple and works, literally. Some guests find the urge to press olives the old fashioned way (assisted by a dromedary running around a stone mill in circles) irresistible. Unfortunately the moon wasn’t full when I visited, so I didn’t get to witness the spectacle of a lunatic camel giddy with vertigo.
If I’m honest, I’m not cut out for farming – so I hopped in the car with my guide, Fathallah, and drove to Sidi Mbarek beach. I was blown away by 18km of raw red sand that was utterly deserted except for one dawdling fisherman… The crashing Atlantic was hypnotic, contemplative and reviving. The air, achingly fresh and filled with smells that reminded me of childhood holidays. I was bewitched.
On the way back to Lalla Abouch we stopped off to snoop around the market in Tidzi. It’s easily spotted: look for the donkey park filled with hundreds of hobbled creatures strapped into nosebags that look like gas masks. A few hoodied teenagers (think jellaba rather than Addidas) hung around in the still, cloying afternoon heat daydreaming of hot-wiring an ass and making a break for the bright lights of Essaouira.
Around the corner is the local argan co-op. The argan’s small nut-like fruit was traditionally eaten by goats and pooed out before being collected, crushed and made into salad oil or face cream. Today, goats have been usurped and the job of gathering and processing the fruit is left to women – thankfully without having to poo too.
The importance of this cottage industry shouldn’t be underestimated. Various regional cooperatives have assiduously promoted argan so it’s now become a vital source of income – and independence – for many thousands of local women. Arabic (some women only speak Berber), basic numeracy and literacy is also taught in some of the more remote co-ops; and they’re easily the best places to purchase the oil guaranteeing quality.
Apart from salad dressings and anti-wrinkle skin creams, argan winds up in other products too. At breakfast I ate a paste called amlou – a mixture of argan oil, honey and almond – on delicious home-baked bread. It’s reputed to be an aphrodisiac – I guess you’d call it hardon oil. Whatever, it set me up for the day, even though its priapic effect was noticeably absent.
I found it difficult to drag myself away from the farm’s plunge pool – picturesquely situated in a kitchen garden filled with the herbs you’d find were you going to Scarborough Fair as well as lavender and mint. But Fathallah had a trip lined up to visit a nearby spring. I left idling around the pool for a winding mountain journey past the ruined Kasbah M’Bark instead. The road is worth travelling in its own right, the views are stupendous.
The remote springs at Lain Nekafa have been used by locals and nomads for centuries – they’re reputedly curative, if a little grubby. A butcher at the small adjacent market agreed to cook up a goat tagine for a small fee – and we set off. Our walk soon revealed a contemporary aspect of Moroccan life I wasn’t expecting – a huge concrete dam development that looked incongruously James Bond-ish. It’s part of a nationwide building project that’s representative of the general modernisation of Morocco.
Lunch on our return brought us back to the old ways. It was traditional, rough and ready, squalid-fabulous, and not for the squeamish or faint hearted (the goat’s liver was served separately as a delicacy at the end – I liked it).
But Lalla Abouch wasn’t to be outdone in the culinary stakes. Dinner that night; in the candlelit, be-cushioned courtyard was a treat. One of Lucrezia’s fluffy bunnies had met its maker in my honour and was served up with couscous and sultanas – and very tasty he was too.
I pondered upon my trip after eating. Even though Morocco is rapidly changing, jewels like Lalla Abouch are still in tune not just with tradition, but with the environment. It felt as if I’d been to the back of a glorious beyond.