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FEMMES DE REALITES / Tunisia's First: Olive Oil Tasting Tour in Sfax

Olive trees and olive oil are integral to the culture and identity of Tunisia, especially the Sfax region. In the middle of December, we found ourselves amidst the traditional olive harvest.

"During our tour on the bus and the Sfax Oleo Tour, the olive trees' verdant green hues painted the natural and agricultural landscape. Did you know that the Sfax region is one of the largest olive oil producers in the country, spanning over 521,000 hectares?

A genuine olive grove, consisting of 1.3 million olive trees, where 440 production units refine olive oil and its derivatives, contributes to 30% of the national olive oil production. And this place is where some of the world's finest olive oils are produced!

The olive orchards in the Sfax region are also characterized by their historical significance, the antiquity of olive tree planting and expansion, and the quality of the soil used for agriculture, ranging from sandy in some areas to rocky in others. The prevalence of a semi-arid climate plays a significant role, marked by scarce rainfall and, in some cases, extended periods of drought, which is well-suited for rain-fed fields, especially olive trees.

Tunus'ta bir ilk: Sfax'ta Zeytinyağı Lezzet Turu
Tunus'ta bir ilk: Sfax'ta Zeytinyağı Lezzet Turu

"Olive oil is a true elixir filled with countless benefits, forming the cornerstone of the Mediterranean diets strongly present in Sfaxian gastronomy. In fact, it is an indispensable ingredient in all recipes.

To navigate the culinary cycle of olive oil in Sfax means not only experiencing flavors, understanding the traditions and history connected to olive oil production but also getting to know different regions, landscapes, cultural heritages, and the wonderful inhabitants. On the first day of December 2023, as we arrived at the splendid rural cottage of Lella Aicha in the countryside of Sfax, the clock had just struck 17:30, and the sky had already darkened."

"A perfect way to embark on the olive oil route is to start our break at the enchanting rural retreat, 'Dar Lella Aicha,' managed by the captivating Nejia Rhaiem, not far from the Tyna salt flats and surrounded by organic orchards.

Nejia and her brother Habib warmly welcome us with genuine smiles. A vibrant table is set with fresh almonds and lemon juice. Clay plates, filled with olive oil "Laklouka" made from grapes, sorghum, and dried fruits, adorn the table. On another side, a table features homemade dried meats and merguez sautéed in oil, accompanied by fresh farm eggs. But that's not all! A third communal table brings together Tunisian and foreign researchers and olive oil experts, creating a universal space of cultural exchange. Despite satiated stomachs, various delicious Sfaxian specialties are served! The evening unfolds in this cultural fusion until late hours, yet sleep is peaceful, deep, and infused with the scent of olives. Waking up to the rooster's crow the next day is akin to waking up to music!"

"Nejia was the first to rise, offering a beautiful coffee to enjoy in front of the table where the best breakfast was served. Brother Habib arrived as fresh as a bag of mandarins just plucked, exuding a unique fragrance! However, hitting the road for another stop reminded us that this abundance was just a part of our awakening. This was because Nozha Grati, the president of the Sfax Oleo Tour project, and the coordinator Sami Smaoui were meticulous in guiding us to the following stops. Indeed, delightful surprises awaited us at stops long before reaching the most modern oil factory."

"In Sfax, despite undergoing significant modernization, particularly in processing, the olive sector has seen traditional methods of olive oil extraction become increasingly rare. However, these methods continue to exist in the depths of rural areas. We discovered one such ancestral process during a morning olive oil extraction demonstration at the Ali Feki monastery. The demonstration, carried out by rural women from the Tyna region, showcased a method where two women began kneading the dough obtained by crushing the bright olives in front of our fascinated eyes using two-century-old granite stones, bursting the oil cells in the dough. This method is a legacy from centuries of tradition, and they emphasize its respect for the behavior of the olive tree. Indeed, this cold extraction system, without the risk of excessive heating, represents a highly suitable method for extracting high-quality olive oil. The process revealed an extraordinary oil that left onlookers in awe with its exceptional taste. There are multiple candidates corresponding to different stages of transformation (Ajmi, Ndhouh, Tfouh, etc.), each representing a valid and unique aspect.

Ali Feki, son of olive and almond trees, then explained the entire historical process of olive oil production, from the use of human and animal energy to hydraulic and mechanical methods.

"We explored the exquisite creations made from olive wood by Ovarti in the evening and relished a delightful dinner. The night became lively with the 'Jelwa party,' where the young and beautiful wife of the tour coordinator, Sami Smaoui, took on the roles of a Sfaxian bride and groom. This event, reminiscent of their wedding, chosen as the best in Tunisia in 2017, brought back the memory and highlighted the rich and vibrant culture of Sfax. Taha, a researcher from Ankara, appreciated the folkloric attire reminiscent of Turkish heritage.

At dawn, Cemile, a charming and friendly woman like her husband Ali Feki, prepared the most beautiful breakfast for us. Her Tunisian side showed in her willingness to offer a meat-filled 'lablalabi' sprinkled with the newly harvested 'Ndhouh' olive oil. This also meant that the women outside were still in the process of preparing the meal."

"Sweet host Jamila, along with Nozha and Sami, insisted on allowing us to taste everything at any cost when they called, even if it meant delaying us. The tour was not yet complete. The couple, not wanting to part with their guests, went to the extent of getting behind the wheel of the bus, as if to prevent Cemile's driver from leaving, accompanying us until the very end.

We also had the privilege of visiting Hamed Kamoun, Sfax's oldest oil factory dating back to 1820, where history and tradition blend with the fragrant production of olive oil. The flavor revealed itself on our palate with the delightful semolina bread. A space filled with family history, photographs, and century-old objects like these containers or glasses. A functional record player still playing melodies from Sfax heritage. Hamed Kamoun took great pride in telling us that the oil factory is a legacy passed down from father to son. When asked if his own sons would take over the responsibility, he mentioned having only two daughters. To this, I said, 'Why not daughters?'"

"Hamed Kamoun, as if his heart weighed a little heavier, still proudly mentioned that it might be a bit challenging because his two daughters continued in the field of medicine and had already become doctors abroad."

"The secret recipe of Dalenda at La Dose Et D'mi."

We had the privilege of witnessing the preparation of the delightful 'Laklouka' crafted by the talented Dalenda at Direction Dose Et D'mi, and she proudly shared the secret that sets it apart, mentioning that the recipe belongs to her mother. This dish is Sfax's flagship meal, known for its 'charmoula' made with red onions and dried grapes.

"The day continued with a true journey through time as Italian Loriana felt somewhat at home in various Roman settlements near the seaside rural area and the magnificent history of Sfax. What can we say about this extraordinary ecological area in Menzel Chaker, 40 km away from Sfax? A paradise on earth where everything is about nature, nature, and more nature!

A break at "Amber Park" owned by Sofiane Rebai. Before the wood-fired dinner, a handmade wheel-less ceramic workshop was organized by the three sisters of "Sof Sellami." Croatian Isabel, Italian Loriana, Turkish Taha, Moroccan Muhammed, French Edouard, Lamia, Hamina, and I joined forces under the attentive eyes of the three sisters to create our first works."

"Sofiane and his wife are supported by olive trees and pine trees as natural as the land they inhabit, surrounded by cabins filled with olive trees. These cabins invite you to rest in complete tranquility. Unparalleled in the country, these rooms are insulated and heated, as if dedicated to lovers of the world. Moments spent outside of time and space."

"A comfortably nestled place in nature. It sits atop a pine tree, taking advantage of good durability and overlooking an olive tree-filled field just five meters away for a panoramic view. Inside, comfort is ensured with spacious mattresses and bay windows where you can enjoy the view even while lying down. The lighting creates a peaceful and romantic atmosphere. And if you desire a bit of privacy, the owner has thought of everything! In fact, packaged lunches are served using a system consisting of ropes and pulleys. Always original, we left, like others, with a clear mind, eyes filled with images, and bodies filled with virtues after a beautiful breakfast.

At Dar El Khairat or Dear Goodness oil factory, modernity has taken over advanced techniques for extracting high-quality olive oil."

"Under the warm shelter of a tent, Halime and Fatma enchanted us with beauty products based on olive oil in the heart of nature. We encountered these two young women again in Loud, which took us to Kerkenah.

They had come to Loud from rural Sfax on mopeds. Feisty women, utterly charming and with a certain defiance. Halime didn't forget to offer us small olive oil soaps shaped like seashells and fish. This gesture touched us deeply. In Kerkenah, where an extraordinary history still holds its relevance, we couldn't miss a delightful break at "Le Regal," run by the magnificent Najet, featuring the world's best octopus couscous. A true feast!

A visit to the Museum of Narjess and Abdelahmid Fehri, a couple who lovingly and passionately restored pieces, creating a museum in an old neighborhood overlooking the sea."

This museum is unique and the only one in the village in Kerkennah.

The location of El Abbassia on Chergui Island.

"As the museum also functions as a guesthouse known as Dar El Fehri, some guests of the Sfax Oleo Tour spend the night here. The owner of the house, Abelhamid El Fehri, and his sweet and hospitable wife were so delighted to welcome us."

"They enriched us with information about the gathered, classified, and preserved heritage. We were impressed by the ancient, ethnographic, artistic, and civilization artifacts in the museum. We also learned that the museum is under the auspices of the Cercina Mediterranean Islands Research Center, managed by Abdulhamid El Fehri. After capturing a stunning sunset and immortalizing this magical moment through photography, we set out towards 'Manaret,' another guesthouse run by Rahma Ben Hamida and her two sons, whom she rescued from unemployment. Another warrior, a former teacher, continues to work in front of the stove every day before going fishing in front of his house. It's worth noting that in Kerkenah, 'charfia' delineates sea plots of land for landowners just like a piece of land."

Another warrior, a former teacher, continues to work in front of the stove every day before going fishing in front of his house. 'I've rented a piece of the sea in front of my house.' It should be noted that in Kerkenah, 'charfia' delineates sea plots of land for landowners just like a piece of land."

"Charfia fishing bears witness to the ancestral wisdom of respecting the sea and its resources, benefiting from it while preserving its sustainability and healthy reproduction. Owning the sea plots, the only abundant wealth, is a local privilege. In the late evening hours, we drifted into sleep with our heads filled with beautiful stories, some spending the night at the construction site, others at Dar El Fehri. There was no jealousy; everywhere was the sea. As the beautiful sun illuminated the sea with a silver hue at dawn, we encountered authentic local breakfasts at Halima's and Narjess.

"We also discovered the extra biodynamic Zayatine oils area. Mr. Maazoul, the farmer who spoke to us as if he were talking about people rather than olive trees, explained the meaning of 'biodynamic.' When asked what 'biodynamic' meant, he confessed to embracing this term and concept, which now represents a philosophical view of nature."

"Both he and his lovely wife are enthusiasts of organic food and farming. All products, free from pesticides and fertilizers, are subject to the cycles of the moon and nourished with silica. 'We must follow the beautiful behavior of the tree, observe the serene olives on its branches.'"

"After the generous table consisting of 'Kmamen ya da bsissa,' rich in colored water and precious saffron, this wonderful couple offered us radishes, cherry tomatoes, turnips, Swiss chard, arugula, and organic delights! What can I say to thank this brilliant land, light, and lunar pair? Thanks to these shining entities! And what can we say about this afternoon where our incredible stay came to an end at the Mahassen Center? The cream on the cake, or rather, the olive on the Mahassen products."

"We felt an overwhelmingly warm welcome at Africa's largest beauty center. We were amazed by the extraordinary personality of the hostess Mahassen Keskes!"

"Everything was there at the entrance! The staff's smiles, music, rose water to scent the hands, the ambiance, and fresh fruit juices accompanied by the best Sfaxian pastries. To all the guests amazed by this generosity, relaxing massages with Moroccan hammam and olive oil-scented creams were offered.

It was time for a dream in the olive groves, with the passing of time feeling like the blink of an eye, signaling the end of delicious moments...

People and fellow travelers we find it hard to part with. In the final meeting with all the participants, we are invited to speak. Hamina Hannachi expresses her views on the circuit, thanking 'the tree that brought us together.' I share a passage from Erri de Luca: 'There are powers passing through us from bottom to top in nature. For example, fire, or the most beautiful figures growing upwards: trees starting to rise from the depths of the earth and organizing the open-air space upwards.' Whether during a long or short stay, 'Like the tree and fire, we are also here, having climbed up from below to gain a brief life above.

"As our colleague Hamina Hannachi pointed out, the meetings with women and men are very sensitive to 'ordinary heroes proud of their lands and work, young entrepreneurs who smile at the future and are not overly concerned about disappointing tomorrows.'"

"This tour, the first of its kind, will undoubtedly highlight the craftsmanship related to the olive tree, emphasizing the tree and extraordinary alternative tourism."

Nadia Ayadi


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