As usual, we were having a party in the hotel room of our journalist colleague, Ye Jun. There were, as always, twelve of us. We met every year in the autumn, in various parts of the olive growing world. As guests of the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC), the twelve of us had, over the years, got to visit Spain and Italy during the olive harvesting season. We had seen tiny boutique operations as well as enormous operations where thousands of litres of olive oil were poured into gigantic vats that filled up entire floors of factories.
Ye Jun, from Beijing, loved his tea. And he was exceedingly generous with it. It was light years more superior to what Chinese restaurants in India pour free of cost. We had all brought our own mugs from our respective rooms: Ye Jun was providing the tea. It was our first evening in Tunisia’s capital city, Tunis, and all of us were exchanging first impressions of the country. We – mainly journalists from all over the world – were agog with excitement because it was our first trip to Africa. One aspect that struck the twelve of us about the country that we first got to see barely six hours ago was that it was far less African and much more Mediterranean than in our collective imaginations. Tunis, it seemed on first sight, was full of single and double storied buildings painted stark white, with cerulean blue doors. Date palms, laded with golden dates lined the footpaths.
Over the next few days, we got to see the by now typical pastiche of history, culture, factory and farm visits and cuisine that typifies
all IOOC trips. So we were taken to the Bardo Museum, famous for its stone mosaics. Our guide pointed out that the artist who envisions the painting gets to collar most of the cash, and the poor craftsmen who cut the stones to one inch square, colour coordinate them and fix them to the floor, wall or ceiling, get paid labourer’s wages. That is the difference between a sculptor and a mosaic artist, apparently. The museum had mosaics dating back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries – the apogee of the art. Even back then, olive oil and olive trees were a preoccupation, indicating that Tunisia always had olive groves.
It was an eye-opener visiting a South Mediterranean country. While the countries to the north of the Mediterranean Sea all fall into Europe, those to the south are either in Asia (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon) or North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia). All the north Mediterranean countries have olive trees side by side with grape vines. In Tunisia, we never got to see a single vine. Instead, there were date palms and cacti. Indeed, Tunisia itself is a distilled spirit containing the remains of Carthaginian, Roman and Punic civilizations, French occupation and an Arabic world view.
What was certainly unexpected was the strong link to Kashmir. The winter clothing consisted of a pheran-like garment called burnoose. It was every bit as baggy and shapeless as what the Kashmiris wear. It was in the souks that the greatest resemblance to my husband’s state was found. The souks – covered markets that are the antithesis of a lifeless mall – are in the Medina of every town. Packed from end to end with hundreds, if not thousands, of shops, they sell jewellery, tourist kitsch, irresistible freshly baked bread, and household items you never knew you wanted, but once having spied, you couldn’t put down.
The salesmen had their lines down pat, as we discovered in Ye Jun’s room over cups of superior jasmine tea. “Oh! You are from Canada? My best friend is from Canada! Come inside my shop. I show you his photograph!” or “My Serbian friend, I make good price for you. Not capitalist price! Serbian price.” And much more in the same vein. Some of us did have sob stories to relate, but there was usually a funny side too. Our Russian friend, Sergei, looked upon me as his personal shopper and would bellow out my name (which is a common enough one in Tunisia) and ask me if the silver bracelet/earrings/pendant he was planning to buy his wife/daughter/niece was indeed pure silver. By then, a whole battalion of shopkeepers would close ranks rather menacingly, willing me to prevaricate. I never did – half the time, Sergei would be drawn to brushed steel and I never failed to point it out, much to the fury of the shopkeepers.
If you ignored the hustling, there were some really wonderful shopkeepers as well. One wanted to know where I was from, and when I told him, he asked me diffidently if he could buy an Indian currency note from me. I gladly gave him a rather grubby tenner right away. He spread it on the counter, gazed at it like a collector (which of course he was) and started admiring the picture of Mahatma Gandhi and the lettering of all the major Indian languages. By the end of five minutes, even I was looking at our currency in a new light!
In yet another corner of the labyrinthine Medina of Tunis, I spied a tram-sarposh – the large platter at which four people sit to eat wazwan, with a cloche-shaped cover. For all I knew, I might have been in Srinagar’s Old City, with the elderly shopkeeper exhorting me to buy it.
What is a dramatic departure from Kashmir is the glazed tiles that fill each restaurant and teashop from floor to ceiling. Each tiled is patterned with geometric motifs, the colours used being mustard, cobalt blue and emerald green with black trim. You can tell when you pass a teashop in the souks because of the tiling. There are no teashops in Kashmir, where men can wander into and spend most of the day, but there is the rather curious preoccupation with watching the passers-by. This is done by sitting on the ledges that project outside shops in Srinagar’s Old City. Grown men of all walks of life, squat on the ledges and gaze at people going by, with apparent interest, for hours at a time. Quite apart from a criminal waste of time, what strikes me forcefully is that they get to see the same set of neighbours going about the same chores daily.
Well, it’s the same in Tunisia’s teashops, where there are hardly any plastic chairs inside, but they are clustered at the door, where tea and coffee drinkers solemnly watch the world wag by for hours on end. Both sets of men, let it be said, go about their business with a singularly dyspeptic expression on their faces, as if watching the world outside was the most painful business in the world.
If the souks call to mind the Arab world, Sidi Bou Said was almost Greek in its picture postcard prettiness. Built on a small hill, all its buildings were shocking white and the contrast they made against a cobalt sky matched the colour of the doors that had struck all of us so forcefully on our first day. God knows if people really lived in the too-perfect-to-be-true hillside that overlooked the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean Sea, but they must have craved for a bit of privacy: tourists tramped remorselessly up and down the steep streets, bargaining hotly for mortars and pestles made of olive wood and leather masks.
Our visits to the olive oil factories and farms too were rather different from what we had previously encountered. Olive picking here is completely done by hand: there are 70 million olive trees in Tunisia (the population is 10 million). In most parts of the country except the extreme south (in the Sahara Desert, which, sadly we did not get to see) there are only two varieties of olives: chatoui and chemlali. This is astonishing. Italy and Spain have more than a dozen varieties apiece. While Spain and Italy had enormous factories in pristine condition, spewing thousands of litres of olive oil, in Tunisia we saw only three, one of which was a boutique operation, where we had a superb lunch inside the ancient mill itself.
The difference was that on our trip to Tunisia, we met several officials who gave us fascinating insights into olive growing in their country. The most revolutionary of these was for uprooting the roots of an old tree, one third at a time, over three years, so that new roots grew to increase the fruit-bearing years of the tree. And the most mind-boggling scientific measure was a pilot study of a government controlled plantation where precise temperatures and rainfall were painstakingly recorded. Drip irrigation – a common enough phenomenon in the olive growing world – would be worked out, correct to the nearest drop of water! This data would be then given to farmers whose fields had the same climatic conditions. It all went to conserve the most precious gift in the sub-desert: H2O.
Tunisian olive scientists are rightfully among the most advanced in the world. I found their olive oil to be the perfect match to spicy Indian food. After all, Spanish olive oil has its own strong flavour, the better to be used as a flavour enhancer in the cuisine of that country. Italian oils are light and subtle and would be drowned out by Indian food. Tunisian olive oil, on the other hand, makes a perfect pairing with the pounded red chillies of the harissa that accompanied our every meal. Tunisia’s other spices: cumin, coriander and turmeric formed quite as much of a fearless foursome as our own spices.
The other aspect about olive oil in Tunisia was its complete absence in the local cooking. The twelve of us would try and discern as much as a whiff of the familiar fragrance of olive oil in the multitude of meals that we had, but none came. Then we found out: it was the locals’ little stash of gold to tide them over in times of need. If they started consuming it themselves, what would be left to sell?
Our meals followed an unwavering plan: a salad of grilled bell peppers and tomatoes with tuna fish topped by a few grains of chick peas. That was followed by couscous, always flavoured with turmeric and usually a bit of chilli too. You moistened the couscous with the gravy from the main dish that was invariably grilled or roasted lamb. Bringing up the rear were tiny petit-fours made of crushed almonds with sugar, sticky baklava or pistachio encrusted semolina delicately scented with rose or orange flower water.
None of us lost much weight in Tunisia. How we even digested it all is a mystery. Or perhaps not, considering that Ye Jun’s finest jasmine took us through it all.
How to get there: Emirates flies from Dubai to Tunis (the airport is called Carthage)
Best time to visit: October to March. Woollens are required; their extent is determined by where you choose to stay.
Places of Interest: capital Tunis is the largest city with an alluring Medina. Sousse, Kairouain, Hammamet and Sfax are all by the sea and attract middle-aged Europeans by the droves.
The Saharan section, in the deep south is the place to see for sheer exotica.
Languages spoken: Arabic (Tunisian dialect), French and English
Currency: Dirham (not accepted in other countries where the Dirham is the currency)
Things to buy: dhurries, leather bags, purses, pouffes, sterling silver jewellery, pottery for tableware. Take your bargaining skills with you. And a lot of patience and good humour.