Our second day in Tunisia begins again with a rolling bus ride through unfenced fields of wheat and oats. Shepherds dressed in traditional North African garb tend their small flocks of goats and sheep.
Mighty storks build expansive nests in the arms of the electrical towers, rearing their young after flying from the very bottom of Africa.
It is beautiful, and I wish more olive oil aficionados could experience this pristine scenery.
Our destination is Ben Ammar,a biodynamic farm nestled above a series of great waterless canyons lacing up olive groves.
We meet the energetic sales manager, RAWIA BEN AMMAR, who seems to be in charge of more than sales. Her knowledge and authority and beauty seem to imply a great powerful force.
She and her brother in law Mr. CHAOUKI BEN AMMAR and their assistant ALI ELBORNI, explain that they wanted to be organic from the very founding of the business. They believe organic is the traditional way of their Tunisian ancestors.
Their preference is to call it olive juice, not oil. Their trees are relatively young trees with small production. It turns out that it takes olive trees 5 to 8 years of maturation to reach full Production. Someday they will attain a 20,000-liter capacity, but in the meantime, what they do produce is winning awards here in Tunisia and across the globe.
Just the evening before they took #1 in the 2018 Tunisian olive oil awards and in 2011 took home a gold medal from Italia.
We witness the state-of-the-art pressing facilities, large metal storage drums and laboratories. We learn that the seeds and skins from the pressings are turned into paste. The pits are burned, and the entire waste stream is blended with manure and turned into compost that feeds the whole farmscape.
Having been certified for seven years, they have rapidly turned the farm into much more than just olive oil production. They have incorporated animals, vegetables and grain production into a vertically-integrated organic, biodynamic farm.
They have the first (and only) certified organic free-range chickens in Tunisia. There is a good market for them in Qatar. We view the one-hectare open plots filled with 3000 happy hens and cocky roosters.
A friendly steer takes his shelter beneath an olive tree not comprehending his true Hamberg future.
Rawia explains that they once imported organic grains from Germany, but today they grow their own organic corn to feed the broods. They cultivate not only olive oil but tomatoes, artichokes and almonds between the rows of olive trees. They even bottle spring water rich with minerals from the mountain above.
After a spirited visit, hunger overtakes us, and we are led to a fine Tunisian feast. A few young camels chew vigorously below us as many courses are served forth.
And so, it begins with a hearty lamb stew thick with small barley and seasoned with fresh lemon.
Rustic Tunisian bread is served with a spicy grilled salad called Slata Mechouia. It is rich with grilled peppers, onions and garlic.
A traditional Mediterranean chopped salad cleanses the palate before the main course.
A platter is served before each of us with grilled (very) local organic chicken. There is a ruddy mound of Lilliputian couscous and next to that a curious fold called Brik– pronounced “breek.”
Brik is a crepe-like affair filled with veggies and one egg. It is folded much like an Argentine empanada but is eaten quite differently. You douse the entire triangular situation with lemon and bite soundly into its middle until the egg pours forth. It is delicious!
We finish with the elaborate but not too sweet Kaak Waarka—a donut-like treat with a glaze of sweet pastry over a lush almond interior. It is a Tunisian must for all celebrations.
Thus, it is washed down with Nescafe and traditional black tea with sweet orange slices.
We are satiated beyond repair and must move on lest we miss the final attraction. We say our goodbyes, befriend each other on Facebook and head off with award-winning olive oil under our arms.
The day ends with a visit to the Ancient Roman villa with the unpronounceable name of Thuburbomajus. Its roots go back to the native Berber peoples. They settled here because of its access to good water. The Romans overtook it and built a magnificent city. They erected columns and pillars, elaborate baths and latrines. Their mosaics paved the rooms like ornate stone rugs.
As the invasions rolled through the Byzantines and Vandals held court in this special place.
Of course, they planted olive trees and constructed giant stone presses with great oblong vats to store the special green juice.
We are the only living souls in this ancient city. As dark squalls of the thunder and lightning threaten from the north, I can hear the whisperings of Jupiter Juno and Minerva amongst the ruins.
I feel the heart of Tunisia, its antiquity, multi-cultural heritage and delicious flavors. Olive oil plays a role in all of these and is interwoven into the very fiber of the country.
The next time you buy olive oil consider seeking out a fine organic Tunisian brand.
You too can savor the rich flavors of this ancient place.