Ari Weinzweig got a front-row tasting of Tunisian extra virgin olive oil five years ago, while visiting a sun-drenched Tunisian family farm that’s been making oil since 1891. How did it taste?
“Delicious,” says Weinzweig, co-owner and founding partner of Zingerman’s Delicatessen, now part of the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses in Michigan. “It’s kind of buttery with a little bit of pepper at the end. It doesn’t really overwhelm the food. It adds complexity and flavor.” Weinzweig likens the flavor to southern French oils, “or in a way to the gentle but full flavored oils of eastern Sicily.”
Today, Zingerman’s is among many U.S. retailers selling that oil, from Les Moulins Mahjoub, operator of a 500-acre farm about 25 miles west of Tunis. It’s among a number of quality Tunisian olive oils increasingly landing on global store shelves — this from a country that is the No. 2 olive oil producer, behind Spain.
A break from the past: from barrels to bottles
A decade ago, much of Tunisia’s olive oil was sold in bulk — think barrels — to Italy and Spain. There, it was blended with other olive oils, and resold under non-Tunisian labels. That’s changing.
Tunisian olive oil makers, many of them artisanal producers, are bottling and labeling their oils. They’re winning medals at international competitions — and giving Tunisia needed hard currency. “This is the future for Tunisia,” says Malek Labidi Debbabi, brand manager at Safir, a Tunis-based provider of olive oil.
It’s happening in a nation that underwent a revolution in 2011. Protesters ousted an autocrat. He was replaced with an elected government. The uprising inspired Arab protesters elsewhere, and put Tunisia on the map. Now, Tunisian olive oil companies aim to capitalize the nation’ new-found attention. It’s about branding. “This is what we are looking at — a brand that says: ‘Made in Tunisia,’ ” says Ikhlas Haddar, a director at Tunisia’s Ministry of Trade. (Full disclosure: The Tunisian government paid for my trip.)
A global olive oil producer
This year, Tunisia became the world’s No. 2 olive oil producer, displacing Italy. Credit a bumper olive crop — output quadrupled — and a poor crop in Italy. Much of the oil is sent abroad. On average, Tunisia exports 150 thousand tons of olive oil a year, including 16 thousand tons of bottled oil, according to the government. In 2006, exports of bottled olive oil accounted for 1% of exports, according to government officials, who want that percentage to rise to 30% within a couple of years.
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The government says 80 Tunisian olive oil brands are exported. They go to the United States, Europe, Japan, Russia, South America and elsewhere. Cecilia Muriel, owner of Medolea, an award-winning producer about 20 miles south of Tunis, says: “I have a label. I have an identity. I have a story. … Things are changing, and we have better and better olive oil.”
In the United States, retailers selling Tunisian olive oil include Dean & Deluca, Trader Joe’s, Cost Plus World Market, Amazon.com, Kalustyan’s and Food Town. Quality brands include Terra Delyssa and Rivière d’Or.
Tunisian olive oil in the kitchen
Melissa Kelly, a James Beard award-winning chef, is a Tunisian convert, using Les Moulin Mahjoub oil in her Rockland, Maine, restaurant, Primo. “I really love the flavor — the spice to it,” Kelly says.
At Primo, Kelly uses the oil to garnish whipped ricotta served with focaccia and fava beans. “It balances out the sweetness of the ricotta,” she says. Similarly, Kelly drizzles the oil on pasta sauced with a red pepper and pork ragù: “The oil’s peppery note balances out the sweetness of the red pepper.”
An olive oil-centric cuisine
The ingredients for “Brand Tunisia” include: 80 million olive trees dating back 3,000 years; a climate ripe for olives; and an olive oil-centric cuisine. Think of the spicy chili paste harissa — great on anything, from meat to veggies — and the poached egg and spicy tomato dish shakshouka.
“You can’t imagine that food without olive oil,” says Mediterranean food authority Nancy Harmon Jenkins, author of “Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil.” She notes Tunisians use their oil for frying, baking, garnishing and making many dishes — from couscous to fish soup. “It’s the DNA of the cuisine.”
Majid Mahjoub, Les Moulins Mahjoub general manager, says: “All of our cuisine is built around olive oil. The olive oil reveals all the tastes.”
Olive oil primes the economy
Olive oil exports account for 40% of Tunisia’s agricultural exports, and 10% of total exports, according to government data. The olive sector accounts for 20% of agricultural jobs.
Olive oil employs about 270,000 people, says the U.S. Agency for International Development, which has helped Tunisian olive oil companies switch from bulk to bottles. The agency says olive oil is Tunisia’s No. 5 source of foreign currency earnings.
“It’s a pretty substantial sector for the country’s economy,” says Fariborz Ghadar, professor of global management, policies and planning at Penn State’s Smeal College of Business.
Tunisian Orange-Olive Oil Cake (Gâteau à l’Orange)
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 50 minutes
Total time: 1 hour 5 minutes
Yield: 8 servings (one 9-inch cake)
From “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook: A Delicious Alternative for Lifelong Health” (Bantam, 2008), by Nancy Harmon Jenkins. Reprinted with permission from the author.
This delicious orange-olive oil cake is a favorite recipe from the Mahjoub family, makers of very fine extra virgin olive oil and other traditional products in northern Tunisia. The Mahjoubs make it with a blood orange called maltaise de Tunisie, which gives the cake a beautiful red blush color, but when I can’t get blood oranges, I make it with small thin-skinned Florida juice oranges. (Thick-skinned navel oranges won’t work.) It’s important to use organically raised oranges, since the whole fruit, skin and all, is called for; otherwise, scrub the oranges very carefully with warm soapy water.
Butter and flour for the cake pan
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 small organically raised oranges, preferably blood oranges (about ¾ pound)
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 large eggs
1 ½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Confectioner’s sugar (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Butter and flour a 9-inch springform cake pan.
2. Sift together the flour, baking powder and baking soda.
3. Slice off the tops and bottoms of each orange where the skin is thick and discard. Cut the oranges into chunks, skin and all, discarding the seeds, which would make the batter bitter. Transfer the orange chunks to a food processor and pulse to a chunky purée. Add the olive oil, pouring it through the feed tube while the processor is running, and mix to a lovely pink cream.
4. In a separate large bowl, beat the eggs until very thick and lemon colored, gradually beating in the sugar. Beat in the vanilla.
5. Fold about a third of the flour mixture into the eggs, then about a third of the orange mixture, continuing to add and fold in the dry and liquid mixtures until everything is thoroughly combined.
6. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and bake for 20 minutes, then lower the temperature to 325 F and bake 30 minutes longer or until the cake is golden on top and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
7. Remove and let cool. Then invert on a cake rack and dust lightly, if you want, with confectioners’ sugar.
Main photo: A Tunisian woman picks olives in the fields. Credit: Copyright Les Moulins Mahjoub