A two-day conference entitled Femmes en Méditerranée was held at the magnificent venue of the acclaimed Hotel-Restaurant La Fenièrat in Lourmarin in Provence this summer. Meetings, tasting sessions, dinners, music, and talks about Mediterranean culture—with a special focus on women from the south of Italy and the Middle East, the south of France and North Africa. The latter’s culinary abilities are particularly worthy of attention, whether they have attained the heights of their profession like Reine Sammut, owner and chef of La Fenière, or whether they live in some humble abode in Africa, where they still learn how to make a virtue out of necessity and use local food products with invaluable skill.
But they also have enormously important roles for social life and agriculture, even though some live in countries where they are still subject to unbelievable discrimination. I am thinking of Morocco, for example, and particularly the women represented at Lourmarin by Professor Zoudiba Charrouf, leader of a group of cooperatives producing oil extracted from the seeds of the argan tree (Argania Spinosa). This delicacy is winning great acclaim in some of the top restaurants in Europe and is the result of a project set up by Professor Charrouf. She brought the women together so they could do worthwhile work which gave them self-respect, also managing to conserve plantations of Argan which were threatened by uncontrolled grazing and ever-encroaching desertification.
It is an exemplary story, where protection of biodiversity and production of traditional foods are accompanied by social benefits and monetary returns, all the more significant when it occurs in places where agriculture is under threat and poverty prevails. It is no coincidence that the Amal cooperative led by Professor Charrouf was a winner of the Slow Food Award for the Defense of Biodiversity in 2001.
I have said it is an example that should be emulated because it connects the difficult life faced by these women in the arid lands of southern Morocco with opulent Europe. Just a few weeks ago we heard the good news that Franco Boeri, a producer of extra virgin olive oil from Liguria and Giuseppe Matticari, owner of a seed processing company, had been over in Morocco to help these women improve the quality of their product. They followed the various processing stages from harvesting seeds to processing into oil and beauty products. They then wrote a detailed report indicating what needed to be done in order to produce a top quality Argan oil.
What they did was not of earth-shattering importance—and it certainly did not involve improvements that would radically alter the traditional methods—but consisted in many small modifications which only the professional skills and experience of Boeri and Matticari were able to identify. For example, the women should store the seeds in bulk before processing them, possibly in a fridge, or should try to press them as soon as possible so they do not deteriorate too much and lose their original characteristics. Then, the equipment should be cleaned a bit more frequently, a shield should be fitted to prevent oil being exposed to light while it is being extracted and one or two small aspects of filtration should be corrected. Boeri and Matticari also recommended buying different containers for the oil: different steels for the milky liquid and dark bottles to stop the product quickly deteriorating due to being exposed to light.
Just a few small changes, a little financial support and that’s it: all it took was for two technical experts to devote two days to these women, and Argan oil is set to become a much improved product with prospects of gaining greater acceptance on international markets. There are a lot of other products like Argan oil, and there are even more which do not need to find export markets at all since they would have excellent prospects on their domestic market. The abilities of our technical specialists could prove invaluable in many of these situations and would not involve much effort. These forms of cooperation are simple and ingenious; they cost very little and can improve the lives of a large number of people.
First printed in La Stampa on July 6 2003