I awaken to morning prayers resonating from the nearby Mosque. The sound is beautiful as the sun rises. Sfax, a city of 350,000 souls founded in 849 AD, it is nestled beside an important Mediterranean port of export for Tunisia. Over a breakfast of Tunisian sweets called Makroudh (a delectable combination of fried semolina, sugar and dates), we meet with several young entrepreneurs hoping to sell their artisanal organic products in the US. It’s a kind of business to business round table over pastries and tea. One young woman offered up lavish organic almond syrups, another proffered a dietary supplement made from dried olive leaves that she purported would cure everything from high blood pressure to parasites. Each one of these young people had been trained by the IESC experts and the University of Texas business school, funded by US aid intended to help them bring new foreign products to the US market. They were showing us their wares as well as their business wiles in hopes of making a good living with organic Tunisian products.
Our next stop is the Sfax City chamber of commerce, just blocks from our hotel. The Executive Director and Director of Exports greet us with warm handshakes, steaming cups of black Turkish coffee and, once again, trays of candies dotted with real silver and donut shaped almond cakes.
As we speak, I realize that the city of Sfax has a unique story to tell regarding the history and unique flavor of olive oil in the region. The olive trees are ancient here; that’s partly because olive trees take 10-12 years to produce fruit. To achieve some income in the meantime almond trees were interspersed between the olive trees and perhaps mingle their pollen during the spring. It is said the olive oil has a slightly almond resonance to it, making it sweet and exotic. This is the story Sfax city and Tunisia needs to tell!
Back into the bus we go, winding our way to the outskirts of Sfax and into a sort of industrial park ringed with olive groves. It is here that we visit Tunisia’s largest and most successful olive oil producer, crusher and exporter. CHO group is family owned and began in 1996 as a single family olive oil mill. It’s since grown to a capacity of 4,000 meter tones, supporting several hundred small growers in the region.
They market olive oil in Europe, the Middle East, China and North America. They even make beautiful olive oil soup from their precious sweet elixir. CHO Company packages 24,000 bottles per hour with lines specifically dedicated to organic and extra virgin olive oils. It is an impressive and magnificent display of hard work, ingenuity and belief in their product.
The fact is the story and flavor of Tunisian olive oil has never really been told. Because many oils from other countries can be bitter, exporters there often mix their products with the sweet Tunisian oil. Then they label it as being from their country of origin, leaving Tunisia as the unsung hero in the olive oil world. I think it’s time that Tunisia had its fair share of the glory. After this visit, I want to run out and tell the entire world how good Tunisian olive oil really tastes! I guess that was the purpose of this trip: to weave flavor and antiquity into a story that people could find meaning in. Well this company gets it!
After an extensive tour of the acres of state of the art facilities, we were trundled into the company dining area and served a delectable meal of couscous, mutton, soup and salad. The meals always end with a ceremonial offering of fruit. Separate utensils are dispensed, and everyone plucks perfectly curved mandarin from a bowl, cuts and peels it and then offers it to their neighbor. Fruit is the perfect holistic ending to these heavy exotic Tunisian lunches. I am happily satiated and feeling quite plump at this point. At the very end, we offer gifts of fine green soap and sweet majestic oils before we are trundled back into our bus.
We drive several hours into the night. We pass groves and rows of mandarin and lemon trees. I feel as if I am in the central valley in California. Because Tunisia does not use many pesticides and herbicides these groves could be certified organic very easily. What an opportunity!
It is dark and we are tired as we enter the gates of the Boudjebel Date Company. American and Canadian flags are flying at the gates in our honor. Workers are streaming out into company buses that will safely take them home after a hard day’s work. We have arrived at the home of the king of Tunisian dates! The company Boudjebel was established in 1982 by the Boudjebel family. Since then they have focused on becoming the leader for processing and exporting Tunisian Deglet Noir dates.
We were suited up in hairnets, white coats and booties to assure food safety standards. We proceeded to tour the largest date processing plant I have ever seen. The plant alone provides much needed jobs for over 1,200 local people (mostly women). The dates themselves are grown in fertile oases’ in the Sahara desert by hundreds of small growers. This company has joined together these small organic producers and provides logistics, traceability and a fair trade premium. Despite my fatigued state, I am enlivened by the fact that this date company provided so much opportunity for so many in Tunisia.
Back in the bus and back to Tunis the capitol city for last the day. I have learned and experienced so much here. The primary message is that organic agriculture is good for the environment and organic trade can assist people in developing countries to attain a higher standard of living. When you see Tunisia as the country of origin, know that the producers are true and the quality is high! Enjoy the nectar of olive oil and the sweetness of dates, and think of Tunisia!