Revolution, Hope and Tunisian Olive Oil

Raouf Ellouze and Karim Fitouri were drawn back to Tunisia at times of political upheaval and change. Now, they want to help Tunisia become known for world-class olive oil.

By Cain Burdeau
Mar. 12, 2018 11:29 UTC

This is the story of two very dif­fer­ent men drawn back to Tunisia at times of polit­i­cal upheaval and change, and how their desire to make great olive oil now uni­fies them in an effort to help Tunisia become a world-class olive oil nation. An Olive Oil Times reporter spent time with both men to learn their sto­ries.

We have big hori­zons. We have a unique qual­ity. We don’t use pes­ti­cides and for this, the qual­ity is unique.- Raouf Ellouze

Raouf Ellouze: A Gentleman Farmer Remakes the Tunisian Olive Plantation

Raouf Ellouze can be dri­ving along and on the spur of the moment be induced into song.

At one point, dri­ving through his home city of Sfax at the end of January, he breaks into Chuck Berry’s Johnnie B Good” and cracks a big warm smile.

Then his cel­lu­lar phone rings, and he’s car­ried off into one of his many busi­ness calls.

Ellouze, 64, is a scion of one of Sfax’s landed gen­try fam­i­lies – one of the grand familles,” as he called them – and as a con­se­quence also inher­its a large coun­try estate – an estate that spreads out for 21 square kilo­me­ters (8 square miles).

At the turn of the 20th cen­tury, it was com­mon for wealthy fam­i­lies from Sfax to start estates in the arid pas­ture land sur­round­ing the city and plant huge plan­ta­tions of Chemlali olive trees, which make a sweet and light olive oil.

That’s what his fam­ily did in 1910: They hired farmhands and, tak­ing water from shal­low wells dug in the sandy ground, and began plant­ing. The trees were kept alive thanks to well water brought by camels and work­ers car­ry­ing jugs.

He’s a reflec­tion of his upbring­ing. Ellouze is learned (as easy singing 1960s songs as talk­ing about world his­tory), enjoys refined tastes and comes across as a blend of cos­mopoli­tan moder­nity and tra­di­tional Tunisian val­ues and thought.

According to fam­ily lore, his ances­tors came from Andalusia in the 15th cen­tury, sell­ing almonds. Over the cen­turies they con­tin­ued trad­ing, he said.

He is now in the mid­dle of turn­ing his very own per­sonal blend of insights into his Domaine Chograne extra-vir­gin olive oil.

Ellouze is 16 years into a project to expand his fam­i­ly’s estate, prin­ci­pally by plant­ing thou­sands of new trees to cre­ate his own blend of polyphe­nol-rich extra-vir­gin olive oil made from new Chemlali, Chetoui and Koroneiki trees.

I was fed up with the sweet taste” of Chemlali olive oil, he says, speak­ing English with a French accent. I knew I could­n’t keep on with the bland taste (of Chemlali) to sell in Italy. So, that’s why I went for this project.”

Instead of Chemlali, which he says loses its pun­gency after a cou­ple of months, he is look­ing for a strong, aggres­sive taste — one that Tunisia’s robust north­ern olive, the Chetoui, is famous for. He now sells his bot­tles in France and the United States.

Becoming an impas­sioned olive oil afi­cionado, though, was­n’t always in the cards.

He stud­ied vet­eri­nary sci­ences at uni­ver­sity in Tunis and then found work as a breeder in the royal sta­bles of Saudi Arabia. I had a fab­u­lous time there,” he said. It was on the Red Sea. I went div­ing, snor­kel­ing, fish­ing.”


But then in 1987 some­thing big hap­pened back in Tunisia. A coup d’e­tat brought down the gov­ern­ment of Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first Arabic pres­i­dent after inde­pen­dence from France, and Ellouze said he returned to his home­land hop­ing that General Zine El Abidine Ben Ali would bring democ­racy.

I wanted to come back to Tunisia. I hoped for democ­racy. Everybody believed in that,” he says, nego­ti­at­ing Sfax’s inces­santly abra­sive traf­fic.

As it turned out, democ­racy was not in the winds. Ben Ali remained in power until Tunisia’s 2011 rev­o­lu­tion — the begin­ning of what has become known as the Arab Spring.

Nonetheless, Ellouze remained in Tunisia and began a new chap­ter in his life: Tending to his fam­i­ly’s estate far out in the olive groves of the Thirsty Valley,” as the exten­sive plains sur­round­ing Sfax are called due to the lack of rain here.

Today Ellouze is part of a new gen­er­a­tion of olive oil mak­ers in Tunisia. There is no future for the old plan­ta­tions,” he says.

The old plan­ta­tions of Sfax, planted as they were with Chemlali trees, need to fol­low his exam­ple and evolve, Ellouze says. He’s look­ing for more com­plex­ity in his oil. He believes more plan­ta­tions need to fol­low his exam­ple for Tunisia to become suc­cess­ful on the inter­na­tional mar­ket.

He says Tunisians should con­tinue cul­ti­vat­ing their unique vari­eties, but also exper­i­ment with native cul­ti­vars and expand the range of taste in their oils.

Not every­one agrees, of course, among them his own father, who is 91. My father thinks I am crazy,” he adds with a smile.

Raouf Ellouze inspects olives at a mill in Sfax

His own evo­lu­tion took some time, too. In 2000 he went trav­el­ing to dis­cover how oil was made in other places, and his jour­neys helped him form new ideas on how to make high-qual­ity olive oil in Tunisia.

During that period, he trav­eled to Greece, France and Italy, tasted a vari­ety of oils and talked to a range of pro­duc­ers. In Greece, he found tastes that he par­tic­u­larly liked.

When he returned to Tunisia, he decided to plant thou­sands of trees of the Greek vari­etal Koroneiki.

He also wanted to fol­low the exam­ple of an Italian pro­ducer he met: That pro­ducer had a mill in Tuscany that made only 4,000 liters of oil, but it was of excel­lent qual­ity and sold for a high price.

I under­stood we could do like Italy — high-qual­ity oil at a high price,” he said. Over time, he grew more con­vinced about what he wanted to do. I wanted to cre­ate an oil that I like to taste,” he says.

As a national leader among Tunisia’s olive farm­ers, he is on his phone often, engag­ing in pro­mot­ing Tunisian olive oils on the world stage.

And he is san­guine about the future of his coun­try.

We have in front of us a huge …” he pauses and searches for what he wants to say. He finds it: New con­sumers.”

We have big hori­zons. We have a unique qual­ity,” he adds. We don’t use pes­ti­cides and for this, the qual­ity is unique.”

Ellouze is full of energy – and ideas. He wants to improve olive oil not just in Tunisia but every­where. He is a believer in the poten­tial for olive oil to become one of the world’s most uni­fy­ing ele­ments.

As he dri­ves toward his domaine, he points out the olive groves grow­ing in arid and sandy, dead-look­ing, soils.

Look at the sand. It is the best,” he says, caus­ing this Olive Oil Times reporter to mar­vel at his state­ment and the arid land­scape.

Why?” This reporter asks, incred­u­lous.


Why?” The reporter pon­ders out loud, think­ing about why sandy soils might be an advan­tage to a tree’s growth. The only obvi­ous rea­son could be that sandy soil might allow roots to extend with ease and thus find water.

Because the roots can go down?”

Yes, the roots can go down.”

The con­ver­sa­tion turns then to the issue of water.

Ellouze says water can be found even 10 meters under the sur­face, and that much more is found is found between 20 and 40 meters under­ground.

But what’s more inter­est­ing is this: 80 meters below where he is dri­ving there’s very good water with very low salin­ity, he says.

That’s the mir­a­cle,” he pro­claims as he dri­ves far­ther into a vast arid and sandy plain full of healthy olive trees, the heart of Tunisia’s olive oil pro­duc­tion.

Back in Sfax, a chaotic city with one of the Arab world’s most com­plete med­i­nas, the traf­fic is hec­tic.

Ellouze is again on the phone, incensed over neg­a­tive com­ments made about Tunisian olive oil at the recent olive oil fes­ti­val he helped orga­nize in Sfax at the end of January.

With firm­ness and a gen­tle­man’s can­dor, he puts down the phone and curses. He dri­ves on, and out of nowhere defended his city.

A lot of peo­ple say Sfax is dirty, with lots of traf­fic. But I love my city.” We drive into a city pul­sat­ing with life.

Karim Fitouri: Creating Olive Oil Made for Tunisia, and Talking Revolution

Karim Fitouri, a 45-year-old olive oil pro­ducer some are call­ing Tunisia’s olive oil ambas­sador, is dri­ving through south­ern Tunisia in a place not far from the Sahara Desert and he’s strangely ebul­lient.

Karim Fitouri

In this arid, dry and seem­ingly hos­tile land­scape of nude hills, sandy vales and scrubby plains he sees poten­tial: He says the future of Tunisia’s olive oil indus­try could be writ­ten here.

There is water,” he says with char­ac­ter­is­tic enthu­si­asm and deter­mi­na­tion in a soft English accent he picked up from liv­ing in London for much of his life. There is good water under the desert … I think the future of the tree is in the desert.”

He is not mis­taken. Scientific stud­ies have mapped large reser­voirs of water here.

Fitouri’s appear­ance in the desert, on the look­out for olive trees along with an Olive Oil Times reporter, and his sud­den rise to become one of Tunisia’s most promis­ing olive oil mak­ers actu­ally have ori­gins in a styl­ish lounge of a Four Seasons hotel half-way around the planet.

It was 2012. Tunisia’s long-time dic­ta­tor­ship had been over­thrown a year before and Fitouri, who’d built a very suc­cess­ful busi­ness in high-end chauf­feur­ing in London, wanted to take part in this new Tunisia.

I was­n’t sat­is­fied,” he says about his life in London. The rev­o­lu­tion hap­pened in Tunisia.”

The changes and the open­ing of the coun­try, he says, was spark­ing a con­struc­tion boom. When you build, you have to fur­nish it,” he says with the mat­ter-of-fact man­ner of a busi­ness­man.

So, he came up with the idea of going to China and import­ing Chinese fur­ni­ture into Tunisia, but while he was there his busi­ness sense told him that instead of buy­ing from China, I wanted to sell to them,” he recalls.

He racked his brain. What do we have in Tunisia? Olive oil, dates, salt, phos­phate,” he says, recall­ing his men­tal gym­nas­tics. So, I said, OK, olive oil.’ I knew noth­ing. Zero. I did­n’t even know there were vari­eties (of olives). This was four years ago.”

He man­aged to arrange a meet­ing with two exec­u­tives of a Chinese super­mar­ket chain to per­suade them to buy olive oil. For the meet­ing, he got some oil from a friend who owned a mill and he bought some bot­tles at a duty-free shop in Tunisia.

Armed with five bot­tles, he met the exec­u­tives – a man and a woman – at the Four Seasons hotel in Guangzhou, China.

The bot­tles looked good,” he says. They started sniff­ing it. They liked it. They said, This is good oil. Where is it from?’ ”

I said, Tunisia,’ with pride. Then he said: Oooh.’ I don’t buy from Tunisia.”

Why?” Fitouri asked the man.

Because I bought once from Tunisia. The sec­ond time they conned me and sent me a bad oil. Now I buy from Australia.” And that was that.

But not for Fitouri. On the air­plane ride back home, he was dumb­founded and more than any­thing offended and hurt.

What the hell was that?” he remem­bers think­ing. I know Tunisia has good oil. I was offended and that made me want to find out what the prob­lem was here in Tunisia” with its olive oil.

Fast for­ward to today. Fitouri’s brand, Olivko, won a pres­ti­gious Gold Award at last year’s New York International Olive Oil Competition, and his star has risen quickly in Tunisia.

Following his dis­as­trous ven­ture in China, Fitouri devoted him­self to under­stand­ing olive oil. He car­ries a set of olive oil som­me­lier’s glasses with him when he goes trav­el­ing.

Since return­ing from China, Fitouri has trav­eled through­out Tunisia, tast­ing olives, meet­ing farm­ers, hand-pick­ing vari­eties and crops for his Olivko brand — all in an effort to blend Tunisian vari­eties into excel­lent oils.

The road is long and straight. The semi-desert land­scape extends in all direc­tions. Every once in a while patches of olive trees are seen.

Then he spies the pro­file of a mas­sive tree in the dis­tance. I want to see it, it looks big,” he says.

He gets out of his car and clam­bers over an embank­ment and scrub, all the time admir­ing the big foliage-rich tree that is made up of a for­est of trunks. He is in awe. There are olives on it. He crushes them in his fin­gers and smells the pulp. It’s a pleas­ing fra­grance.

This is an old tree, this,” he says. This one must have thou­sands of years.” He climbs into its branches.

It has a lot of water,” he says, back on the ground. So it is deep. Fifty meters down.”

He puz­zles some more over the olives in his hand. This is a dif­fer­ent vari­ety,” he says. I have not seen this vari­ety before.”

This is the thing I want. Come down here. See it (when the olives are green). Press the olives,” he says. This would give you a good oil.”

He pushes on, won­ders out loud about bring­ing a mobile olive oil mill down here into the desert to make oil from these trees in the mid­dle of nowhere.

Look at this,” he says, dri­ving past scrubby arid plains. This is all a waste. You could plant 10 mil­lion trees here.”

The con­ver­sa­tion turns to whether Chemlali olives can be turned into a qual­ity olive oil. On the spur of the moment, he pulls over and goes to the trunk of the car and brings out a box with olive oil bot­tles and blue tulip-shaped som­me­lier glasses.

On the side of a desert road, he com­mences a tast­ing, his mouth noisy doing a strip­pag­gio to taste a Chemlali oil he made.

It cer­tainly is good.

When you process it cor­rectly, ship it cor­rectly, you can have a good Chemlali,” he says.

And he dri­ves on, talk­ing about how Tunisia can become the world’s best land for olive oil.

This is all organic. Untouched.” The desert goes on, and Fitouri does­n’t stop talk­ing.

I am cre­at­ing his­tory here in Tunisia. I am doing a rev­o­lu­tion here in Tunisia,” he says. Changing the image of Tunisia as a whole. Everyone will know olive oil from Tunisia.”

He sees him­self not only mak­ing olive oil but also help­ing Tunisia real­ize its rev­o­lu­tion­ary goals of trans­form­ing into an open and mod­ern nation.

Half the world thinks Tunisia is not safe. It hurts me. It is safe. We can stop any­where and talk to the peo­ple. I feel very safe,” he says.

Then it’s on to his new busi­ness pur­suits: Putting his oil into tuna cans (“Why should you have a lam­pante oil with tuna?”) and build­ing an estate for Olivko in north­ern Tunisia where peo­ple can learn how to make olive oil and adopt trees they can per­son­ally prune and pick.

Maybe it was always his des­tiny to be an olive oil man.

Indeed, he says in Arabic the word fitoura means olive paste” and kids jok­ingly called him that when he was grow­ing up on the island of Djerba, the son of a hotel man­ager.

You know,” he says, I love the bloody tree.”


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