As you drive south of Tunis, the coastal towns and swamps of Tunisia’s population center give way to vineyards and wheat fields first cultivated by the Phoenicians thousands of years ago. These, in turn, slowly retreat until only olive trees remain. Tens of millions of them, sprawling in orderly rows across the sandy soil for miles in all directions, the silent and sturdy core of Tunisia’s agricultural might.
“Tunisia is the third or fourth world producer of olive oil, depending on the season, but the French or the Americans have never heard of Tunisian olive oil,” said Sarah Ben Romdane, founder from the artisanal olive oil brand Kaia. In the imagination – and on the shelves of stores – in most corners of the world, olive oil is strictly the territory of Italians, Greeks and Spaniards .
“This indicates a problem: how can we be the third largest producer and no one knows us? “
I had driven four hours from Tunis to the governorate of Sfax to meet Sarah in one of her family’s 19th century olive estates to talk about her quest to solve this puzzle and put Tunisian olive oil back on the market. card as she founded her own business amid the pandemic.
Ms. Ben Romdane arrived at our meeting on a tractor, straight from the groves where she was overseeing Kaia’s second day of harvesting for the season.
Her phone rang – it never stops ringing during harvest – and she switched to and from French, Tunisian Arabic, and English during the call as she unlocked the huge blue studded doors of the old mill of his family.
Born and raised in Paris, Ms. Ben Romdane spent her summers in her family’s ancestral home in Mahdia, near another of their three olive estates that have been in the family since the 19th century. Olive oil runs through her veins, but the 28-year-old cultural writer never imagined she would take over part of the family business – until Covid knocks her out and shoves her out of her way. routine.
“I always thought I would retire and come back to make olive oil, but when Covid happened I was like, in fact, if I don’t do it now, I don’t. never will. “
She saved money, quit her job, and persuaded her family to let her harvest a few hundred trees in November 2020 to try something she hadn’t done since the 1960s: make some extra oil. single-origin cold-pressed virgin. and market it in Europe as a proud product of Tunisia.
“It’s about reclaiming a legacy, telling a story about the land, the story, the people that isn’t really told and that deserves to be told,” she said.
As she unloaded crates of freshly picked olives from the back of the tractor, she explained that most Tunisian olive oil – including most of the oil from her family estates – is exported. in bulk to Italian or Spanish conglomerates, who mix it with their own oil to create a standardized flavor and sell it labeled as “Product of Italy” or “Product of Spain” without mentioning its origin.
For farmers who survive on the thinnest margins in an unstable market, this is an easier tactic than navigating bureaucratic bureaucracy and paying high tariffs to export to the EU with a “Product of Tunisia” label. , but in the process “our identity is erased, even our land is non-existent,” said Ms. Ben Romdane.
Bulk exporting also rewards quantity rather than quality, causing farmers to harvest at inappropriate times and press their olives at high temperatures to extract more oil, resulting in an inferior taste and a poor reputation for the crop. main agricultural export of Tunisia. Over time, she said, farmers felt resigned to the system.
“It’s kind of like, why would I care about the quality if no one knows it’s from my land?” “
Still, Tunisian olive oil has a lot to distinguish itself: widely cultivated on organic estates and without pesticides, the ancestral variety of olives of the country Chemlali can produce an oil with sweet and balanced aromas that is incredibly versatile, which Mrs. Ben Romdane tries to capture in the oil that Kaia produces.
His team, many of whom come from families who have worked in olive oil for generations, harvest olives by hand from selected trees on the 400 hectares of the estate.
Younger men climb the gnarled, hundred-year-old trees and tear the fruit from the tallest branches with clubs; the women use small hand rakes to pluck the olives from the lower branches in massive nets along the tree. The oil is pressed a few hours after harvest to preserve its flavor.
At noon, the team stopped to share a spicy pasta meal in the shade of one of the oldest trees on the estate, planted in the early 1800s by the Ottomans. The foreman, Taoufik, worked out with Sarah a strategy on which trees to harvest – a severe heat wave in August stressed many trees on the estate, which depend only on rainwater for irrigation, and they reportedly need to pull from different corners of the grove to balance the flavor of the oil they were squeezing that night.
Despite the stress of climate change and the varying impact of the market on her business, there is a constant pastoral joy and beauty in the work that fuels Ms. Ben Romdane. But she is also wary of romanticizing her.
She knows that many of her crew are perplexed as to why she left her life in France, a place most of them dream of living, for one on the estate at a time when the drought, economic instability and lack of political investment in the region are worsening. industry outlook.
“These guys want to leave because there is no future for them, and I totally understand,” she said.
Although Kaia is only a drop in the vast jug of Tunisian olive oil – they produced around 1000 liters of oil in their first year – Ms Ben Romdane hopes to start a business that can offer a better life for the women and men who know the best land, and to prove that agriculture can be a source of pride as well as a viable future for Tunisians of his generation.
“I have the impression that projects like this can be more of an answer than going to vote. The ambition is to understand how I can, at my scale, bring what I can to people who share my vision.
Updated: December 11, 2021, 05:19