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Traditional Olive Oil Production in Tunisia

Jan. 1, 2015
Aldo Pesce

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Tunisia counts just under 11 mil­lion inhab­i­tants and is one-third smaller than California, but this year it is expected to be the third‑, or even sec­ond-largest pro­ducer of olive oil in the world. Despite its place in the inter­na­tional rank­ing, Tunisian pro­duc­ers are still strongly tied to old tra­di­tions.
In most of the coun­try the har­vest sea­son starts in late November, when olives start to turn black, and groups of women and men go to the fields with big green nets and lad­ders to climb and col­lect the fruits of the majes­tic trees.

One per­son might col­lect, with the help of only a rod or a plas­tic comb, up to 150 kilos of olives per day. When the day is over, the olives are loaded in sacks over carts pulled by a don­key or in the backs of pickup trucks.

The num­ber of con­tin­u­ous lines for olive oil pro­duc­tion has increased, but in 2012, 1,050 mills out of 1,707 ma’asara are still using the tra­di­tional press, accord­ing to the International Olive Council.

Farmers or bro­kers present the mill owner with a bas­ket with their name on it, filled with a sam­ple of their olives. The mill buyer inspects the olives care­fully, presses some of them by hand to ver­ify the yield and, once he decides to buy, starts to nego­ti­ate the price.

In the mills work­ing as con­tract extrac­tion facil­i­ties, a com­mon scene is long lines of pick­ups and sacks wait­ing their turn, and bored farm­ers smok­ing to pass the time. During a recent visit most farm­ers said they pre­ferred to give their olives to mills with tra­di­tional sys­tems because they believe that from old presses they will obtain a greater yield and a bet­ter oil. They seemed less con­cerned about hygienic stan­dards or oxi­da­tion.

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Hydraulic olive presses in a traditional Tunisian mill

The olives stay inside stalls, wait­ing their turn, like small, black moun­tains. When their time comes, the fruits enter the mill and are crushed by the stone to a paste that will be pressed into oil. The oil-water mix­ture exit­ing the press is sep­a­rated by grav­ity.

The whole process is mon­i­tored by the ra’is, the direc­tor of the mill who coor­di­nates the work­ers. At the end of the extrac­tion and sep­a­ra­tion process, the oil is stored in under­ground basins in order to pre­serve its qual­i­ties.

In a good year these oper­a­tions are repeated 24/7 from November to late April. Olive oil is the pride of Tunisia and con­sti­tutes a major source of work, ensur­ing some­where between 30 and 45 mil­lion days of employ­ment.

In time, a more mod­ern and mech­a­nized approach to the sec­tor will increase the com­pet­i­tive­ness of Tunisian olive oil, reduc­ing the costs of the har­vest and of the extrac­tion process. This could be the chal­lenge of the next gen­er­a­tion of Tunisian olive oil pro­duc­ers.


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