I did not come to Tunisia merely to satiate my wanderlust and wonderful appetite. As mentioned in my Blog “Why Volunteer”, I am here as a representative of EISC on a mission to assist the organic producers to thrive by exporting to North America. So, despite all the colorful and delicious temptations still unexplored, it was time to get down to business.
I recruited four buyers from the North American organic industry to attend the mission, so bright and early Monday morning we were briskly trundled off in a spacious curtained van to the city center of Tunis. We were graciously greeted by representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture, The Commission of Industry and Tunisia Export (CEPEX). This was turning out to be a grand delegate of ambassadorial proportions.
We soon learned that organic agriculture is a shining light in the Tunisian economy. Producers have been following organic production methods here since 1984. The Ministry of Agriculture created a national commission, with a technical learning center, and passed organic regulations back in 1999. They developed a regional research center for organic agriculture in 2006 and have been collecting data and providing compliance guarantees with certification agencies. Their commitment to organic is world class! They even subsidize 70% of the costs of certification for the first five years. If only our Congress would step up and re-instate US organic certification cost share funding!
The Tunisian government’s commitment to organic has really paid off. In 2009, the country achieved equivalency with the EU and with Switzerland in 2011. Tunisia has the second largest organic area of organic acreage in Africa and is # 31 in the entire world. From only 16,000 Hectares in 2001 to 403,000 hectares in 2012, their organic growth is off the charts. Currently, over 2,300 producers use certified organic production methods to help preserve biodiversity, build the soil and protect the environment.
We said our goodbyes to the officiates and were promptly trundled back into the van for a trip to an Olive Oil producer in the country. (Over 51% of the organic acreage is cultivated in olive trees for the precious oil.) We passed the city center and entered the favelas where street vendors hawked containers, fine Tunisian marble and bathroom fixtures. Evidence of garbage and plastics was substantial and emphasized by the occasional fluttering bag festooning a bush. As we drove, the countryside opened up into rolling hills of orderly olive groves with ancient French farmhouses nestled on mountain tops. It was if we were transformed to the countryside of Italy or Spain.
We finally arrived at the village of Tebourba at the facility of Les Moulins Mahjoub. We were greeted warmly by the entire family and staff with effusive kisses on both cheeks. A truck was backed up to a small green dock with plastic containers brimming with harlequin colors of red, green and black. As I took them in my hands, Mr. Mahjoub explained the secret of his famous olive oil is four simple principles: 1) Harvest them by hand, 2) Pick them ½ black and ½ green 3) Bring them straight away to the facility for pressing 3) Cold press them with no heat.
The variegated olives were hand poured into a conveyor belt, sorted, washed and sent to a stainless steel vat containing two ancient granite rolling stones. These marbled stones churned and crushed the olives into a paste and they would be good at the job for the next 20 years. After this initial mastication, the paste was packed into fiber disks set one upon the other in an ancient process that literally pressed the oil out from the woven containers. The viscous green nectar dripped seductively into small containers. The aroma was intoxicating and the floors were slick. I did my best to stand steady and not swoon in a fit of olive desire. I dipped my finger in and tasted the sweet and buttery green honey: heaven on olive!
The precious green syrup was then set to rest in several stages so the sediment would settle; this olive oil was never strained or filtered. The process was ancient and took time and attention. In fact, the Mahjoub family follows a tradition that is thousands of years old. An ancient olive press from Roman times was excavated from the nearby countryside sits outside. It’s the same basic technology used in the Moulins Mahjoub facility.
After all the olive titillation I was ravenous for more. We were escorted outside to a lovely traditional Tunisian meal prepared only with native ingredients gown on the Moulin Mahjoub estate.
Local cooks offered steaming bowls of traditional country soup called Lablabi. Cooking over a olive wood charcoal fueled “Kanoun”, the soup consisted of rich chickpeas ladled over torn bread crumbs, dried lemon, garlic Harrisa and, of course, opulent squirts of olive oil. The flavor was rich and hearty with a piquant and spicy twist.
It was the perfect end to a perfect tour, and, once again, I have another Tunisian recipe to work on once I return stateside. You can follow Mr. Mahjoubs recipe published in the Wall Street Journal here. What a job!