Tunisian liquid gold: layers of history in a drop of olive oil
Issued on: Modified:
The rising star in the world of olive oil is not found in Europe but in North Africa-- in the small and often overlooked country of Tunisia where olive trees have been intertwined with its culture for thousands of years.
Olive oil production in Tunisia is considered to be the second or third largest in the world, depending on who you to speak to, and also one of the more underrated producers by comparison to Italy, Greece, Spain, Palestine, Syria and Jordan.
Tracking olive oil
The origins of olives is thought to be in the eastern Mediterranean, in countries that include southern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel.
Evidence of the crop’s existence has been found in artifacts from ancient tombs, such as tablets, olive pits and wood fragments that date back more than 6000 years.
However, there is a connection between Tunisian olives and the Middle East, and going back to the days of the Phoenicians, an ancient Semitic-speaking people who founded a civilization in 2500 BC that lasted until 300 BC.
They originate from what is now know as Lebanon.
Phoenicians and olives
In 814 BC, the Phoenicians established Carthage, which touches the northeast corner of Tunis, the capital of Tunisia.
Olives started to spread across the Mediterranean around 500 BC as a result of trade, principally by the Phoenicians.
As a result, olive trees slowly arrived inTunisia, where the land and climate offered ideal conditions for their growth.
The Romans invaded Tunisia in 146 BC and put an end to the Carthaginian Empire.
Their occupation of the area began by destroying all evidence of the Carthaginians and their history. One thing they didn’t destroy, however, were the olive trees which had been absorbed into the local culture by the native Berber people.
Olives and Tunisian culture
In the middle of the Sousse medina, I meet Ali Ghedira, who runs a cosmetics store based primarily on olive oil.
He maintains that when he was a boy, all aliments were cured with olive oil as medicines were too expensive.
“Caring for a sick person meant putting a bit of olive oil on his head or his stomach and all would be good,” Ghedira explains while showing me around his store displaying numerous soaps, creams and oils all made from products sourced in Tunisia.
Years ago he had other jobs but then decided to go back to his roots, to my childhood, "because olive oil is the best oil that exists in this world for eating and for curing," he Ghedira.
After losing his Museum of Olive Oil to vandals during the 2011 revolution, he decided to concentrate on cosmetic products based on olive oil and now has a large clientele.
Near the tourist hub of Hammamet on the Tunisian coast, Hammed Hajri, a sound and light producer who still lives amongst his family’s olive groves, shows me around an olive farm that is nestled in a picture-perfect landscape of distant mountains and olive trees galore.
“In our wedding, in our marriage ceremonies, it's [a] shame if you do not cook with olive oil. It’s [a] shame!” he said.
“In history, we used to exchange olive oil [for] tomato, pepper, potatoes from other farmers. So it was [used] as if [it] was a currency,” adds Hajri.
He also remembers his grandmother using olive oil to cure ailments.
“My grandmother usually healed the grandsons if they have [a] stomach ache or if they have fever; they just dip the baby in the olive oil.”
Olive trees are naturally very resistant to disease and weather changes, so they can live for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
In Tunisia there are two who have reached a venerable old age (and respect).
One 2500-year-old tree is found in Haouaria, at Echraf, in the north eastern tip of the country.
“Last year it gave something like one ton and 200kg of olives. Just one tree, which is a pride to Tunisian people,” Hajri said.
A second tree, called Zeitouna Lakarit, located in the south in the Berber village of Jouira, is 900 years old.
This olive farm RFI visited has 9,500 trees, which means a substantial olive oil production, even though olive trees only bear a full load of fruit every other year.
Jdidi Hala has been working here for 14 years. He explains that it’s impossible for an olive tree to produce an abundance of olives every year.
But throughout the year, he remains vigilant so come harvest time, in late September to December, the trees will be good to him. He also has to look out for thieves.
“They [the thieves] choose the most harvested one and they harvest the low parts. . . . So when you walk around this big farm, you don’t see it at first glance. But with experience we now know what to look out for,” explains Hala.
As the price of oil continues to rise, thieves now enter the groves at night and hack off a branch that has about 20kg of olives.
But that means the tree is wounded and won’t produce much in the years to come.
To stave off thieves, guards now circulate the groves at night and prickly pear shrubs mark the land as a way to discourage intruders.
The olives are picked when the temperatures start to drop-- that ensures the trees produce more oil to keep the olives alive.
When the olives start to change colour from green to brown it means they have a high oil content and that they are ripe for picking.
Hala explains that women are hired for the picking season and all 9,500 trees are harvested by hand, not a machine.
“We bought five machines, but we discovered afterwards that they harm the trees since they cut all the olives and branches and the leaves…since then we’ve come back to using hands," he said.
Once the olives are collected, the farmers send them off to an olive oil mill. There are more than 1700 of them dotted across the country.
Olive oil export is the country’s number one agricultural export, about 15 percent of the economy. Tunisia produces up to 14,000 tons of olive oil annually, explains Sonda Larouissi, an expert olive oil sommelier based in Sfax.
In the past five years, the country’s levels of production have become more competitive on the international market and its quality has started to receive more attention.
But with a weakened economy, especially since the revolution of 2011, the industry is having a hard time breaking into the international market.
Instead, the weak economy has meant more foreigners come to Tunisia to buy olive oil at local prices, which is then shipped back and resold under a different local label.
The result is that there is no mention of its Tunisian origin.
Buyers are able to do this by taking advantage of law 72, a loophole that has cost the country nearly 43 billion dinars, or about 13 billion euros between 2006 and 2016, says the Tunisian Observatory of Economy.
The law allows non-residents to invest in the country, in sectors such as agriculture. In exchange, these foreign companies do not have to pay any tax to the state.
In addition, if a profit is made in their destination country, the buyers are not required to pay anything back to Tunisia.
The farmers often have no choice to sell to foreigners in Tunisia if they can’t afford to get their products to take off in the international markets Sonda Larouissi added.
“The dream of an olive oil producer is to sell his olive oil in a bottle as a Tunisian product with his own label. But it's not so easy,” she adds.
In the meantime, Larouissi, Ghedira, Hajri and Hala all say Europeans, namely Italian and Spanish, continue to buy Tunisian olive oil in large quantities.
“I really hope that one day the consumer outside of Tunisia, outside the country, will really discover the real image of this Tunisian olive oil. All that they need is to come, see, and taste,” says Larouissi.
To listen to the podcast here or subscribe to the podcast by searching 'RFI Mid-East Junction'