I find myself once again in Tunisia—the people are goodhearted—almost innocent—it feels safe here.
The people are so honest that the handmade ethnic baskets are left outside the hotel store at night—no one touches or lifts the precious items from their corner.
In this whitewashed, stucco, sun-splashed landscape, the dust of the Sahara nestles and rests in the nooks and crannies of almost everything.
I travel with journalists and photographers on a long drive through rolling hills—the city falls away to rows of silvery olive trees.
We arrive in Segermes, a place once noted on Roman maps of Africa. Here we meet M. Mounir Boussetta, the proprietor of BioLive Company. The Domaine of Segermes is the site of his organic olive oil production, harvest and pressings.
He takes this name as the label for his world-renowned, single-variety, cold-pressed virgin olive oils.
An ancestral olive tree of two centuries stands guard over what was once a Roman temple and then an early Christian church. The marble columns were unearthed in a nearby field along with Roman olive grinding stones.
This place has been planted with olive trees for 15 centuries; the Romans and the Byzantines all harvested, milled and pressed their liquid gold here.
M. Boussetta’s father is a recent actor in this ancient play, having purchased the land in the middle of the last century. It came with 5000 well-rooted trees, and over the years they have fostered another 10,000.
As M. Boussetta greets us, he reminds us that “this place belongs to everyone for someday we will all disappear. So, for now, we bring the traditions of the past into the flavors of our oils.”
We tour the elegant facility built in 2015. Here we see the state-of-the-art press from Italia. We learn that the olives must be pressed within hours of harvest to extrude the finest quality.
They must be relatively cool—no easy task when the outside temperatures can soar above 40 Celsius—when pressed at temperatures below 28 Celsius, you can immediately smell the grass and minerals. Pressing this way, you lose a little oil, but you maintain the highest quality.
We pass under looming steel drums where the oil rests inside with a hat of nitrogen to cap its flavor.
Upstairs in the tasting room, small shot glasses appear, and the Chemlali variety is poured. The taste across my tongue is soft and sweet with hints of perfume.
The next round of Chetoui is more bitter and green. I can imagine it served in a sauce over a fine fish or massaged into a green salad.
The third variety has no name. It is simply called white olive oil, and it comes from seeds processed through the stomach of a bird. The olives that grow from such a tree are smaller, but the taste is sweet and buttery. In the mouth, you can feel its opulence.
After the rigors of such internal lubrication, it’s time for a few bites of food all made with the delicious oils.
Before us is laid a spread of traditional Tunisian delicacies. I sample the Omok Houria or Roman carrot salad, a fine purée of carrot, olive oil, garlic and vinegar.
I ladle local honey atop the Tabuna bread and smother it with the buttery oil. This makes a traditional breakfast for many a hungry Tunisian.
Hearts of artichoke finely sliced are bathed in lemon and oil. The spinach frittata is moist and soft with it.
We end the visit satiated with the local flavors of this ancient place. We make the trek back to Tunis with bottles of oil, the likes of which have been savored for centuries.
I am grateful to understand more about the deep rich history running through the veins of this country.
If you want to make Omok Houria salad it is simple! Simmer 1lb carrots for 5-10 minutes in lightly salted water; drain, set aside and puree. Heat 2tbs olive oil in a frying pan on medium heat. Add the carrots, 1/2 teaspoon of harrisa, 2 cloves pressed garlic, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon caraway; cook about 3 minutes. Mix in 3 tablespoons minced parsley and remove from heat. Transfer to serving bowl and toss with lemon juice and pepper.