Last year, a member of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star movement stands up in the European parliament and brandishes a bottle of olive oil from his native Sicily. Ignazio Corrao is angry. Other members of the parliament regard him with mild bemusement. Corrao looks like an earnest, politically-engaged student from the 1970s: lank hair, spectacles and a pencil moustache. His weedy red tie sways as he becomes more animated, he lists more of Sicily’s products. But it is really olive oil he is concerned about. In particular, a decision to exempt imports of an extra 35,000 tonnes of Tunisian olive oil into the European Union from duties. An insult to Italian farmers and another example of Europe’s political mainstream not standing up for its workers says Corrao. Grillo himself writes on his blog a few days later, after the decision was announced, “E così muore l’olio italiano” or “So dies Italian oil.”
Of course, it’s no secret that the majority of Tunisia’s annual production of olive oil – around 80% by some estimates – goes to Europe, mainly to Italy where it’s sold to bulk packers and bottlers and often branded as ‘Italian’ olive oil. Olive oil accounts for a staggering 50% of all agricultural exports from Tunisia.
In some ways, things haven’t really changed since the Roman empire. Olives were already cultivated for oil in Carthage before the Romans conquered the city. As a Roman province, Tunisia sent huge amounts of oil to Rome for food, to fuel lighting and provide the base for cosmetics. Presumably without protests from any Roman satirists turned senators.
That’s all very interesting of course, but the real story for those interested in olive oil as something other than a commodity is that ten years or so ago only around 400 tonnes of oil bottled as ‘Tunisian’ was being exported by the country. In 2015 the figure stood at 20,000 tonnes. In other words, Tunisian olive oil is beginning to forge its own identity. And that makes sense because there are already some great oils coming out of Tunisia and a whole lot of potential for the future.
Chemlali and chetoui are the two varieties that dominate Tunisian olive oil production. Chemlali makes up between 70 and 80% of all production with chetoui accounting for most of the remainder. The chemlali olive seems to thrive in the hot, arid conditions of the country’s southern and central regions such as Sfax and gives oils that have lots of upfront, ripe-ish fruit but are otherwise quite delicate and mild. Some people compare it to Spain’s arbequina olive. Chetoui olives on the other hand are generally found further north around the country’s Mediterranean coastline, where it is greener and there is more elevation and rainfall. The Chetoui cultivar produces oils with greener fruit and a fair amount of bitterness, pungency and high polyphenol levels.
We caught up with Yacine Amor to talk more about Tunisia. Yacine runs The Artisan Olive Oil Company, an importer that has quickly built up its list to what must be one of the most impressive portfolios in the UK today. Amor’s grandfather owned an olive farm in Tunisia and Yacine currently imports oils from two of the most impressive estates in the country, Domaine Fendri and Medolea. Interestingly, Yacine says that he’s starting to notice other importers and international distributors are keen to have a Tunisian olive oil in their portfolios alongside the usual choices from Italy, Spain and Greece.
There are very good reasons why Tunisian oils are starting to garner more interest internationally. The dry climate means that, compared to the Northern Mediterranean, trees are less susceptible to disease. As a result, many farms practice very minimal intervention and are – whether certified or not – organic concerns. The widespread planting of the chemlali variety also seems to work well in the Anglo-Saxon markets where we still largely favour mild to medium oils. Labour is also more readily available and means that many farms continue to harvest their olives by hand.
That’s not to say that there’s no forward-looking producers in Tunisia. There’s been a trend for younger farmers to attend Italy and Spain’s world-leading agricultural colleges and apply technical knowledge to local practices. Innovation married to a more soulful, less corporate approach. Local varieties are being rediscovered and replanted. Yacine mentions oueslati and chemchali as two interesting cultivars that are starting to be more widely grown. Both are more at home in the central and southern regions of the country. Oueslati gives a sweet, highly aromatic oil, and chemchali medium green fruit olive with aromas of almonds and tomatoes. In addition, there is a whole lot more yet to be discovered by international markets, olives such as zalmati, zarrasi, jerbaoui, fouji, meski, tounsi, besbessi, jemri, sahli and fakkhari. All clearly with different regional characteristics.
We tasted two oils with Yacine.
Medolea, situated in the north of the country not far from Tunis in the green foothills of the Jebel Rassas mountain, was one of the farms that showed other Tunisian farms what olive oil from the country could be capable of. It was also one of the first to attract attention internationally. Cecillia Muriel, originally from South America, oversees a small olive grove of just a few hundred trees, mainly chetoui, that are pressed in the estate’s own mill within a few hours of a very manual picking process by a largely female workforce. The single bottle they produce, a monovarietal chetoui, is a great oil. Despite trying the 2015 harvest, it still exuded very powerful aromas of rocket, fresh grass and almonds with a very strong backbone of bitterness. The pungency had perhaps faded a bit but overall this was really impressive.
Domaine Fendri, on the other hand, is a nice demonstration of what the country’s flatter, more arid regions are capable of. Situated further south than Medolea, in the central Sidi Bou Zid region, the estate’s owner Slim Fendri transformed the family’s farm in the early 2000s, installing modern irrigation systems, a state of the art Alfa Laval extraction system and obtaining organic certification. Fendri makes a monovarietal chemlali which is tremendously fresh with lots of lettuce and herb flavours and some nice notes of tomato. As seems to be common with the chemlali variety there is very little bitterness or pungency, aside from a ticklish, warm note on the finish. It reminded me of a very good quality arbequina. Fendri’s oil has won a stack of awards in recent years, and was the only Tunisian entry in this year’s Flos Olei guide. It’s well worth getting your hands on as it’s probably Tunisia’s flagship oil at the moment and great value compared to what’s on offer from a lot of other countries.
As well as these two stand-out producers, there are some other interesting oils on the market (although some hard to come by in the UK). These include Zeet, a London-based company which distributes oil produced from chemlali and chetoui olives predominantly from a family-owned farm north east of Sidi Bou Zid. Zeet recently won an award in New York and its bottles feature some interesting design collaborations which, its owner Hamdi Daly tells me, is a particular family interest. Of the bottles I’ve tasted, they do an organic chetoui and chemlali blend which is very nicely balanced with some fresh tomato, grass and artichoke fruit as well as a more intense monovarietal chetoui which is a very robust oil, presumably high in polyphenols and with some quite pronounced bitterness.
Olivko, another new producer I believe distributes in the UK, also recently featured in New York. It may just be my impression but a lot of the most recognised oils seem to be chetoui-based. Other producers are Moulin Mahjoub, an interesting producer which uses entirely traditional methods – granite millstones and traditional presses – and supplies Le Pain Quotidien’s bakeries in the US and Europe as well as a range of other food; Terra Delyssa, a large bottling group that has gained a decent market share in the US; Tanit Mediterraneum, another larger group that seems to do well in France.
With plenty of investment going into encouraging the country’s farms to modernise and follow the lead of estates such as Medolea and Domaine Fendri, including a levy on bulk oil exports which goes back into assistance for smaller producers, Tunisia is going to have a whole lot more to offer in the years to come.
You can find Yacine’s oils, including Medolea and Domaine Fendri, on his website at the following link:
You can find more on Zeet’s oils here: