Tunisia looks to tap into its history and push its olive oil front and center

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During the olive harvesting season in Tunisia, laborers — mostly women — climb up on ladders and get to work. Using a small rake, they sweep every branch of the tree, making the olives fall on a net below them.

It takes five of them about half an hour to strip a tree bare. It’s hard work. But in Tunisia, it’s also a ritual and a celebration. Workers chat and laugh until a man breaks into a song. Women follow with ululation as if an impromptu back-up choir.

Three Italian clients visiting the grove as part of a business trip on that November day looked at the harvesters, amused and envious.

For Europeans, the scene is a throwback to the days when people, not machines, harvested olives. In Italy, Greece and Spain, the three heavyweights of the olive oil industry, olive harvesting is a highly mechanical process that involves tractors shaking entire trees — or, in a less drastic fashion, uses automatic rakes, the harvesting method of choice for higher-quality brands.

Besides nostalgia, though, there was another reason for the Italians’ envy this year.

“It’s so full of olives here!” one of them exclaimed. So full, the Tunisian supervisor quipped, that some branches were collapsing under their own weight. Meanwhile, across the Mediterranean, there was barely any harvest at all. Poor weather and insects ruined Italy’s crop, allowing Tunisia for the first time to overtake Italy in total olive oil production.

Usually ranking fourth in olive oil production after Europe’s three giants, Tunisia came in second, after Spain, in olive oil production this year with a 280,000-ton output. Even in an industry where production varies widely from one season to the next — Tunisia’s yields in 2014 amounted to a mere 70,000 tons — the industry figures mark a record season for the tiny North African country.
For Tunisians in the olive oil business, it’s kind of a “Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar” moment.

“We started before the Italians,” Chiheb Slama pointed out. Slama, the general manager of Slama Huiles, one of Tunisia’s leading olive oil companies, took over the business his grandfather started in 1930. Here though, Slama referred to something that took place a few thousand years before that, when olive trees were brought to North Africa from the Middle East by the Phoenicians.

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