Memory lane: Tunis olive love

You know, growing up, I never encountered olives and olive oil was not a kitchen staple in North America back then. As far as I can remember, my first taste of them was on an academic research visit to Germany in the late 80s when a friend offered toast topped with butter, mashed sardines and sliced olives for lunch one day. I loved it and after that often made it as a light lunch for myself but of course the olives were the bottled supermarket variety. In 1997, arriving on the day of Diane’s tragic death, I took up an overseas work assignment in Tunis and a whole new world of olives opened up!

The local market was full of barrels of olives in brine… so many varieties! It was amazing! And olives were such a staple in the Tunisian diet that you couldn’t escape them even if you wanted to. Every restaurant, which all seemed to have the same menu, always offered a little dish of olives as a starter alongside harissa with olive oil for dipping your bread and, if in season, fresh fennel. The rest of the evening menu was usually the ubiquitous finely diced tomato and cucumber salad, chips and whole grilled fish followed by seasonal fruit, dates, figs and a little dish of fennel seeds. We did find a lovely little place tucked away in a side street off the main avenue Habib Bourgiba which did a most delicious shellfish dish, prawns baked in a clay urn with a slightly curried tomato sauce. So yummy. Lunch was more often than not tuna salad with tomato and olives on a French baguette or Brik. Tuna and olives! And gorgeous pastries!!

Brik (/briːk/ BREEK; بريك) or burek is the north African version of borek, a stuffed filo pastry which is commonly deep fried. The best-known version is the egg brik, a whole egg in a triangular pastry pocket with chopped onion, tuna, harissa and parsley.

according to Wikepedia

I was only there for 8-9 months but it was a wonderful experience and inspired a love of North Africa. Although I never lived in Tunis again, I was very fortunate to have had other assignments in North Africa which allowed me the opportunity to visit frequently over the years. It remains in loving memory perhaps also because it’s the last place I saw my father before he passed. He joined me for a little beach holiday on the southern island of Djerba and then spent some days with me in Tunis exploring the old Roman ruins of Carthage. I can still feel his hug before getting in the airport taxi. Miss him every day. In any case, Tunis and Tunisia… a most wonderful place. Great people, delicious food and so many interesting things to see and explore.

Although only there for a short while, I got around a bit. I discovered it was a short journey to both Carthage and to Hammamet by train and had lots of weekend day trips to the seaside. Around Christmas, I also took a local long distance shared cab south to the desert with a friend. What an adventure! 3 Senegalese people joined our cab south and I don’t know what oils they used on their skin but they smelled heavenly and laughed the whole way wrapped in their colourful cloths. We spent some time in and around Tataouine where they filmed parts of Star Wars – incredible place and landscapes – and spent a night in the below-ground “cave dwellings” of the native Berber people, designed for coolness and protection. These were giant holes in the ground with layers of caves, maybe 3-4 stories high, surrounded by rolling hills filled with wild rosemary. Stayed a few nights in other places on the edge of the desert too, eating couscous, huddled by the open fire listening to the drums. Such a special place the Sahara desert and I’ve been fortunate to spend time in it in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Egypt. I think it was also around the time that The English Patient came out which only added to the romance. The most spectacular memory though was a hot air balloon ride over the desert. This was in the late 90s so not a lot of tourism still and we just by chance got chatting to some French folks at a local cafe who said they did hot air ballooning. So calm and peaceful. It was like meditating, just floating through blue skies, across the golden dunes which stretched as far as the eye could see under the shade of the colourful canopy. We came to land on the outskirts of a tiny village and as we descended hordes of children emerged and started chasing us, laughing and calling out, surrounding us with their happy, excited faces as we landed.

One of the things I loved most about Tunisia was the blue and white architecture – lovely terrace cafes in Sidi Bou Said with views of the Med, old doors, turrets and veiled balconies in narrow cobblestone streets – and the arts and crafts. I’m not a big shopper but I do have a fondness for pottery and textiles and have collected a few pieces over the years. Of all of North African arts and crafts, the Tunisian ones have always seemed the most beautiful to me. The designs and colours seem to me just a little more delicate and fine than in other parts. Little treasures and reminders of a beautiful place!

Well… enough rambling! Thank you for accompanying me on this little meander down memory lane inspired by the olive harvest. A few photos below from my time in Tunis to add some colour.

Have a beautiful week making wonderful new memories – live well folks!