Tunisia: Land of the Olive Tree

An Olive Oil Times reporter traveled to Tunisia to better understand this nation’s olive oil and learn about efforts to increase exports, which was the focus of the second edition of the Olive Festival of Sfax.

Photos by Cain Burdeau for Olive Oil Times
Feb. 8, 2018
By Cain Burdeau
Photos by Cain Burdeau for Olive Oil Times

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In the heart of the labyrinthine Kasbah of this bustling North African port city, there’s a revered mosque called Al-Zaytuna. It’s a place of his­tor­i­cal weight and famed as the Great Mosque because so many Islamic philoso­phers, jurists and poets walked, prayed and learned here.

In our Bible, the Koran, it says olive oil will cure 99 things. But it does not say it will cure all 100. Why? Because olive oil can­not cure death. It can­not bring you back to life- A Taxi Driver in Tunis

Most telling, in Arabic, zay­tuna means olive tree — and so, just as this famous mosque called the olive tree” lies at the core of Tunisia’s his­tory and life, the olive tree is rooted at the cen­ter of this nation of 11 mil­lion peo­ple.

Olives — and in par­tic­u­lar olive oil — are Tunisia’s unique and, oddly, unknown trea­sure.

An Olive Oil Times reporter went to Tunisia to bet­ter under­stand this nation’s olive oil and learn about its efforts to increase its exports, which was the focus of the sec­ond edi­tion of the Olive Festival of Sfax, an inter­na­tional event that took place at the end of January.

We use it for cook­ing, for sal­ads, for every­thing,” said Adel Ben Ali, a friendly and warm-smiled ven­dor in the Marché Central, a large cov­ered mar­ket in Tunis where fresh pro­duce of every color and taste is sold with great gusto and flare.
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Tunisia is a land of olives, a place where the olive tree over the mil­len­nia has become infused with the nation’s cul­ture, econ­omy, cui­sine, habits, rhythms, sea­sons. Some Tunisians even anoint new­borns with olive oil.

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Indeed, Tunisia is one of the world’s biggest pro­duc­ers of olive oil — a lit­tle-known fact to most peo­ple who aren’t olive oil cognoscenti. Across its land­scape, olives are found. There are about 1.8 mil­lion hectares of olive groves with 82 mil­lion trees — or about 30 per­cent of this North African coun­try’s cul­ti­vated land.

Photos by Cain Burdeau for Olive Oil Times

In the com­mon imag­i­na­tion, the mak­ing of olive oil can appear almost exclu­sive to Italy and Greece, where olive oil is poured onto all sorts of food with healthy aban­don. When peo­ple think of a Mediterranean diet, and the healthy olive at the cen­ter of meals, they think, with good rea­son, of Rome and ancient Athens.

And yet, in these notions of olive oil, the story of Tunisia and its ancient cul­ti­va­tion of the olive tree is left out of the pic­ture. Indeed, Tunisia’s his­tory of olive cul­ti­va­tion is ancient.

In the entrance of a mul­ti­story build­ing in a busi­ness dis­trict of Tunis hous­ing the Office National de l’Huile, a state agency ded­i­cated to olive oil, there’s a wall-sized paint­ing of the olive har­vest. It is a vivid por­trayal of farm­ing fam­i­lies in an olive orchard at the start of a new har­vest.

This is a tra­di­tional pick­ing of olives,” said Chokri Bayoudh, the agen­cy’s chair­man, dur­ing an inter­view with Olive Oil Times. It is a paint­ing by some­one who loved olive oil.”

It’s a com­plete scene: A woman in the fore­ground uses a thresher to sep­a­rate out olive leaves, twigs and dirt. Nearby, tea is brew­ing on a smol­der­ing fire next to a man wear­ing a tra­di­tional Tunisian hat, the deep red beret-like chechia, while his wife, her head cov­ered in sim­ple head­scarf, sorts through newly picked olives.

There is much more going on too.

People clam­ber on lad­ders in the back­drop, pick­ing olives, and a boy — per­haps the painter him­self? — appears enchanted at the cen­ter of the work of art. This boy is not lift­ing a fin­ger, con­tent as he is to muse on the moment of the great har­vest­ing, the con­tin­u­a­tion of a tra­di­tion.

Bayoudh stood and admired the paint­ing.

And now, you can see this in every region of Tunisia,” he said, speak­ing English. We work like this, with chil­dren, with women, with wives, with all of the fam­ily.”

A man car­ry­ing a tray of clink­ing tea glasses walked by as he spoke. Outside, Tunis’ traf­fic honked and pushed for­ward. Bustling. A phone rang, urgently.

The olive tree flour­ishes here – despite Tunisia’s arid­ity and desert soils.

Establishing an exact his­tory of how and when the olive tree arrived in Tunisia is nearly impos­si­ble to deter­mine, accord­ing to Tiziano Caruso, an olive tree expert at the University of Palermo in Sicily.

It is very dif­fi­cult to say when the olive arrived.”

Nonetheless, the Phoenicians cer­tainly played a major role in cul­ti­vat­ing the olive tree and it was then spread by Carthaginians, who planted olives where and when they could, espe­cially in times of peace, accord­ing to Tunisian author­i­ties.

On the penin­sula of Cap Bon, the old­est known olive tree in Tunisia can be found. It dates back to around 2,500 years ago. The big ancient tree was planted dur­ing the Carthaginian reign and olive lovers to this day make pil­grim­ages to eat its fruit.

Then came the Romans.

Under Roman rule, olive cul­ti­va­tion was expanded along with irri­ga­tion and meth­ods of olive oil extrac­tion. The olive responded: Tunisia’s arid­ity and sun were just right for olive cul­ti­va­tion.

For cen­turies, the Romans watched it flour­ish and grew wealthy, build­ing stun­ning struc­tures in Tunisia: great palaces, vil­las, the mas­sive amphithe­ater in El Jem, cities, aque­ducts.

Olive cul­ti­va­tion largely ceased after Arab con­quests dur­ing the Middle Ages.

The olive orchards dis­ap­peared pro­gres­sively until the French col­o­niza­tion in 1881,” said Raouf Ellouze, a Tunisian olive oil maker and leader of Synagri, a farm­ers’ syn­di­cate. He said Arab nomads cut down olive plan­ta­tions to make way for graz­ing land.

Olive cul­ti­va­tion flour­ished anew under French rule, espe­cially after a series of dis­cov­er­ies by Paul Bourde, a colo­nial admin­is­tra­tor and jour­nal­ist who was also a class­mate of French poet Arthur Rimbaud.

In 1889, Bourde, as the pro­tec­torate’s agri­cul­ture direc­tor, trav­eled through Tunisia and made a series of remark­able find­ings. Big stones in the semi-arid steppes in cen­tral Tunisia, he argued, were left over from ancient Roman olive mills. Indeed, he argued that olive cul­ti­va­tion was pos­si­ble in the vast empty spaces of Tunisia.

Today, Tunisia is one of the world’s top pro­duc­ers of oil. Olive groves extend for miles and miles where a cen­tury ago semi-arid steppe reigned. Tunisians are proud of their olive oil.

Our olive oil is the best in the world,” a Tunisian taxi dri­ver said as he maneu­vered with ease through the hec­tic Tunis traf­fic, a flow of cars push­ing against one another.

The taxi dri­ver kept talk­ing. He was in his ele­ment: He was talk­ing about olive oil. He owns a small piece of land on the city’s out­skirts with three olive trees and his fam­ily picks its fruit together, a scene rem­i­nis­cent of the paint­ing at the Office National de l’Huile.

In our Bible, the Koran, it says olive oil will cure 99 things. But it does not say it will cure all 100. Why?” he pon­dered, fudg­ing a bit his cita­tion.

The streets flew by, as did cars, buses, motor scoot­ers, round­abouts, bumper to bumper traf­fic. A woman, her head swathed in a tra­di­tional Muslim scarf, drove past. A girl unbuck­led in another car stood in the back seat, watch­ing the traf­fic.

Because olive oil can­not cure death,” he said with a grin. It can­not bring you back to life.”


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