Karim Fitouri claimed a Gold Award at the 2017 NYIOOC for his Chetoui monovarietal.

Winning entries at the 2017 New York International Olive Oil Competition (NYIOOC) included excep­tional olive oils from 20 coun­tries, with Italy top­ping the list with 123 awards, fol­lowed by Spain not far behind with 110. But national pride is prob­a­bly high­est in Tunisia for its first Gold Awards at NYIOOC: one for Olivko, and another for Zeet.

What mat­ters to me the most is the reac­tion of pride and warmth from ordi­nary peo­ple I meet, includ­ing the work­ers on our grove.- Karim Fitouri, Olivko

Olivko’s owner and founder, Karim Fitouri, was in New York to receive the award in per­son. He told Olive Oil Times how news of the win has been received in Tunisia:
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“We’ve had con­grat­u­la­tions from fel­low pro­duc­ers, from the author­i­ties, the olive oil indus­try, and of course the press, which has reported exten­sively on the news of the award. The thing how­ever that mat­ters to me the most is the reac­tion of pride and warmth from ordi­nary peo­ple I meet, includ­ing the work­ers on our grove. This award has made them feel like their hard work and the tra­di­tion have finally been rec­og­nized and rewarded, and this will act as a moti­va­tor for even bet­ter results in the future.”

The Tunisian Ambassador to the U.K., Nabil Ammar, congratulates Fitouri

Gold-​winning Olivko is organ­i­cally pro­duced and made with a Tunisian olive vari­ety called Chetoui, one of two major vari­eties pro­duced in the north of the coun­try. Fitouri’s farm is in the lush Dougga val­ley in the Beja region, which hap­pens to be an archae­o­log­i­cal site with UNESCO World Heritage sta­tus. Dougga is the site of the ruins of an ancient Roman city over­look­ing the fer­tile val­ley of Oued Khalled where olives were cul­ti­vated since the 8th cen­tury BC.

With such a long his­tory of olive cul­ti­va­tion, it’s not sur­pris­ing that olive oil is cen­tral to every­day life here, as well as to Tunisia’s econ­omy: olive oil is the coun­try’s largest agri­cul­tural export.

Fitouri’s farm contains an archaeological site with UNESCO World Heritage status

“For us, olive oil is in our DNA,” said Fitouri. “We have a rela­tion­ship of 3,000 years with this tree and with this fruit. Most fam­i­lies in Tunisia own their own trees, passed down through gen­er­a­tions, so most peo­ple get oil from their own pro­duc­tion, alone or pooled with their neigh­bors. It’s col­lected directly from the mill every year after the har­vest, enough to last until the next har­vest. We use it in every­thing, and maybe we take it for granted. Olive oil is extremely cen­tral to the diet and over­all per­sonal care. Tunisians use olive oil for every meal, and a typ­i­cal break­fast, for exam­ple, is made up of bread and olive oil, maybe with honey on top — and of course we also use it cos­met­i­cally, for the care of skin and hair.”

A fam­ily busi­ness, Olivko has been pro­duc­ing olives since 1928. Though the lat­est har­vest sea­son was not as plen­ti­ful as the pre­vi­ous year, Fitouri was glad they could make up for this with a high-​quality oil. “A great sea­son is always fol­lowed by a tough sea­son,” he explained. “That is the way our trees behave, very up and down, all this Mediterranean tem­pera­ment I guess. Last sea­son the trees were not very gen­er­ous with quan­tity, but they were gen­er­ous with qual­ity. We paid atten­tion to details to get the most out of the crop, and were glad to see that rec­og­nized by the award.”

Fitouri with Hichem Gassab

For Fitouri, the win rep­re­sents not only an impor­tant mark of recog­ni­tion for Olivko, but also the begin­ning of Tunisia’s trans­for­ma­tion from a bulk pro­ducer for the export mar­ket to a coun­try known for its high-​quality olive oil. He blames dif­fi­cult eco­nomic times and the polit­i­cal upheaval of recent years for the rea­son some pro­duc­ers “got greedy and lazy and were sell­ing their oil in bulk to Italy to be bot­tled there for dump­ing prices, hid­den under Italian brands.”

But he is sure of Tunisia’s poten­tial: “We have 80 mil­lion trees, a young and dynamic work­force, and an active dias­pora. But we need to be dar­ing, take chances and go out there with our name and our brands and be proud to be sell­ing our oil openly as a Tunisian prod­uct, a prod­uct of high qual­ity.”

During the 2014/​2015 crop year, Tunisia had an excep­tional olive har­vest, pro­duc­ing a record 340,000 tons of olive oil, which put it in sec­ond place after Spain. It also became the world’s largest exporter, with 304,000 tons exported that year. According to International Olive Council (IOC) fig­ures, Tunisia is cur­rently the world’s third-​largest olive oil exporter and fourth largest pro­ducer. Tunisia’s Office National de l’Huile (National Oil Office) lists the largest cus­tomers for Tunisian olive oil: Italy, Spain, the United States, France, and Morocco. Tunisia also exports refined olive oil to 39 coun­tries.

Tunisian Tourism Minister Salma Elloumi Rekik thanks Karim Fitouri of Olivko for his achievement in winning the Gold Award at NYIOOC 2017

Fitouri believes that the time has come for Tunisian pro­duc­ers to focus on qual­ity and not quan­tity to finally get the recog­ni­tion it deserves. When asked what needs to change for Tunisian pro­duc­ers to achieve this, he evoked the need for more edu­ca­tion and invest­ment.

“Unfortunately a lot of pro­duc­ers are not up to speed on the lat­est tech­no­log­i­cal advances,” he pointed out, “so they need to be edu­cated to reduce waste and qual­ity lapses. And they need to be edu­cated to be proud of this crop and to sell it under their own name and the Tunisian flag, instead of in bulk to Italy to bot­tle. To be able to do that, there needs to be an invest­ment in infra­struc­ture for the pro­duc­tion, so even small pro­duc­ers are able to har­vest and bot­tle and export their oil on a level play­ing field with other coun­tries.”

“And after that, of course,” he added, “we need sup­port in mar­ket­ing and sell­ing the prod­uct because qual­ity can only be sus­tained if the effort is suc­cess­ful and there is money com­ing in. So in my case, for exam­ple, a small pro­ducer who just won a pres­ti­gious award for the qual­ity of his prod­uct, I need sup­port from the state bod­ies to reach retail­ers and new mar­kets that will open up to my prod­uct first, which will of course also pave the way for other Tunisian pro­duc­ers.”

Following Olivko’s achieve­ment in New York, Fitouri has been invited to a slew of con­grat­u­la­tory meet­ings with Tunisian offi­cials in London, Brussels, and Madrid before head­ing to Tunisia for media inter­views. He has also been given a vote of thanks in the form of a per­sonal award from the Tunisian gov­ern­ment in appre­ci­a­tion of his suc­cess and for putting Tunisian olive oil on the world map of qual­ity pro­duc­ers. Next up are meet­ings in Russia and Australia, before Fitouri heads back to New York for the Fancy Food Show later this week.

After spend­ing 24 years liv­ing in the U.K., Fitouri is happy to return to Tunisia car­ry­ing the cov­eted NYIOOC award and opti­mism for the future of the coun­try’s olive oil indus­try. “I came back to Tunisia to lead the peo­ple in the olive oil indus­try to make per­fect olive oil juice and change the Tunisian image for­ever. We are mak­ing his­tory here at the moment and I see this award as a his­toric moment for our com­pany and for the Tunisian olive oil indus­try.”

“But it’s only the begin­ning, and we need to keep the momen­tum. Tunisian oil can com­pete in the inter­na­tional arena and stand proudly on the podium with world class oils from pow­er­houses like Spain and Italy but we need to keep work­ing hard, talk­ing about qual­ity, break­ing down peo­ple’s mis­con­cep­tions, get­ting them to try it,” said Fitouri.

“So to any retail­ers and sup­pli­ers world­wide read­ing this on Olive Oil Times — write to me and ask for a sam­ple of Olivko, or invite me over to your coun­try to do a demon­stra­tion. Open your mind and allow this prod­uct that we made with so much care to trans­port you to the Dougga val­ley under the Tunisian sun. Give us a chance, we will sur­prise and amaze you.”



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