Earth Day in Tunisia and The Origins of Olive Oil

This year I’ll be spending Earth Day in Tunisia. Not planting trees nor marching for science but instead wallowing my way through delicious Tunisian olive oils. I go as a journalist to discover the nuanced flavors each producer’s earth, sun and care impart. I will visit centuries-old olive groves and commune with those who have husbanded these ancient arbors for generations out of mind.

Where the heck is Tunisia anyway?

Tunisia is a little country nestled between Algeria and Libya on the northernmost tip of the African continent. It’s not your typical African excursion; you can almost imagine it was once connected to Italy. In fact, the island of Sicily is a mere slow ferry boat ride from Tunis to Palermo. But that is another adventure for another time.

This place at the tip of Africa was strategic for the ancient trade routes of the Mediterranean. The spice trade, grain, beer, pulses, barley and ultimately the wine trade came through these ports of entry.

Many philosophical and democratic origins sprouted here amongst the conquerors and wayfarers of the Aegean. Their sturdy sailboats turned into the wind for the profits of Eastern trade while societies blossomed and kings and Caesars were born.

The one god emerged. Jesus, Jehovah, and Mohammed—all grandsons of Abrahim—Old Testament and New—these disciples of the original agricultural revolution traveled by this place on the tip of a continent. They mixed their religious identities and culinary flavors.

Food and trade unite the mixed culture of Tunisia.

The cuisine of Tunisia comes from a blend of Mediterranean seafarers and desert nomads. The dishes are culinary memories of ancient Carthage, Rome, the Arab conquest, and the Ottoman Empire. There are also strong French and Italian inspirations.

Many civilizations fought and conquered this land. The roving Romans and Vandals, the Byzantines, Arabs, Spanish and Turks, the saucy Sicilians, the finicky French, and the native Punics-Berbers, they conquered and ate, blending spices and savors.

Some there still say that a husband can judge his wife’s affections by the number of hot peppers she uses when preparing food. If the food becomes bland, then a man may believe that his wife no longer loves him…

So, the food in Tunisia is quite spicy as everything is mixed with the pepper paste harissa. This chili-based condiment is filled with cumin seeds, garlic, caraway seeds, coriander seeds, and smoked paprika and it’s HOT!

Why is Olive Oil so important?

Like all countries in the Mediterranean, Tunisia offers a “sun cuisine,” based mainly on olive oil. It is said that while the Phoenicians were dabbling in the first written word they were also planting some of the first olive trees in Tunisia thousands of years ago.

Tunisia is the fourth largest producer of olive oil in the world, and it nurtures almost 500 different varieties of olives. The land hosts 1,800,000 hectares cultivated with about 80-million olive trees. Some are centuries old, producing mild flavors and delicious nuances.

How does organic production play into Tunisian olive oil?

Almost 95% of olive oil producers tend their trees in the traditional ways since time out of mind. Much as the ancient Phoenicians did, they fertilize with cover crops and do not use herbicides or pesticides. Practically speaking almost the entire Tunisian farmscape is managed organically but all are not certified. The barrier is cost and effort to complete the organic certification.

I suspect that’s the reason I have been invited here, to highlight the great opportunity organic olive oil affords this little country at the top of a continent basking in the sun.

Why me and why Earth Day?

This Earth Day I will celebrate by diving deep into new cultures. I’ll uncover more about the history of Tunisian olive oil. I will drink and dip and swallow its essence, tangs and flavors. I’m promised conferences, ceremonies and visits to archaeological sites as well as olive tree fields and olive oil pressings.

I hope you’ll join me by reading my forthcoming blog on the trip. It should be delicious!

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