Travelling to the land of golden oil: Sousse

Considered sacred by the people of the Mediterranean for thousands of years, the olive tree continues to fascinate and maintain its hold on our imagination. 

The precise origin of the olive tree (in latin Olea europaea) is shrouded in mystery. Persia, greater Jordan, and the Valleys of the Nile each have their advocates. Some also contend that the cultivation of the olive began around 5000 B.C. on Crete and the neighboring Greek Islands. What we can say with certainty is that cultivation began a very long time ago, somewhere in the Near East and spread slowly westward across the Mediterranean Sea. All major civilizations of the Mediterranean have played a part in the dissemination of the olive throughout this region: Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans.

The ancient Greeks believed the olive tree was a gift from the goddess Athena and began using olive oil in their religious rituals. Homer, the immortal Greek poet, called olive oil “the golden liquid” and the Greek Laws of Solon, during the 6th to 7th century BC, prohibited the cutting down of olive trees on the punishment of death.

A 1944 artist’s rendering suggests how ancient Greeks harvested olives for oil

According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations, in 2014 the world production of virgin olive oil was 3.05 million tonnes, a 9% increase over 2013 global production. Spain produced 1.7 million tonnes or 56% of the world production. The next four largest producers – Italy, Greece, Tunisia and Morocco – collectively produced less than half of Spain’s annual total. In all the Mediterranean countries there are specific regions producing olive oil. However there is one country where you can find olive trees from Nord to South: Tunisia.

Combining success and tradition, Tunisia is one of the few countries to perpetuate manual harvesting techniques. Inherited from the old Roman Carthage, the legend says that in peace time (no war with Rome) Hannibal lead his army to the Country of the Sahel (Sousse and suburbs) to farm Olive trees so that to keep ready for any circumstance.

Nowadays, Tunisian olive trees are present everywhere in the country. Tunisia’s olive oil resources are estimated at more than 65 million olive trees, cultivated on 1.680.000 hectares of which 75.000 are dedicated to organic farming. The olive sector employs 57% of the country’s farmers and accounts for 45% of agricultural exports. According to the campaign 2014/2015, Tunisia was 1st world exporter of olive oil.

Fact is that everywhere in Tunisia you can find an olive tree. However, there is one city claiming to be the hub for the production of olive oil: Sousse. This city is located 140 kilometres South of the Tunisian capital and it’s the third largest city of the country, after Tunis and Sfax.

Although the city is known as a touristic destination, the most important olive oil manufacture and industries such as Huilerie Loued are located there too.

The history of Huilerie Loued goes back to 1928, in Moknine, in the Sahel region of Tunisia, when Abdessalem Loued Senior officially turned his father’s small manual olive oil mill into a promising business and called it M’asarat Al Wed. In other words, Huilerie Loued. Since then, this family never stopped branding the Tunisian olive oil.

According to Nouha Louedi, Marketing Manager of Huilerie Loued, the key secret of Tunisian olive oil quality is in respecting tradition. “The olives are carefully picked by hand at their optimal degree of maturity. No pesticides are used. Harvest is manual to get healthy fruits, to avoid harming the tree, and to preserve the aromatic flavours of the olives in order to guarantee the production of a premium olive oil” she said.

Tunisian olive oil always suffered from the strong competition European producers. We all heard the tale that Tunisian olive oil is sold to Spain or Italy and is then rebranded as Spanish or Italian. It is important to underline that Tunisian olive oil is the main agricultural product exported to the European Union.

Aside the hard competition, “there is still an insufficient branding of our products” explained Mrs. Louedi. “We are still taking baby steps to improve the layout and presentation of our products and also to exchange best practices. For instance, last April, Sousse welcomed for the first time an international salon exclusively dedicated to olive oil” she concluded.

Good to know:

Where to find top quality Tunisian Olive Oil in Brussels? La petite épicerie bio
Address: Chaussée de Waterloo 42, 1060 – Brussels