Harvesting Tunisia's liquid gold with artisanal olive oil producer Kaïa

On a 19th-century estate, Sarah Ben Romdane is trying to re-brand the country's best asset

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As you drive south from Tunis, the coastal towns and marshlands of Tunisia's population centre give way to vineyards and wheat fields first cultivated by the Phoenicians thousands of years ago. Those, in turn, slowly recede until nothing is left but olive trees. Tens of millions of them, stretching out in neat rows in the sandy soil for kilometres in every direction, the silent, stalwart core of Tunisia's agricultural might.

“Tunisia is the world's third or fourth largest producer of olive oil, depending on the season, but people in France or in America have never heard of Tunisian olive oil,” said Sarah Ben Romdane, the founder of artisanal olive oil brand Kaïa. In the imagination — and on the shop shelves — of most corners of the world, olive oil is strictly the territory of the Italians, Greeks and Spanish.

“That points to a problem — how can we be the third largest producer and no one knows about us?”

I'd driven four hours from Tunis to the governorate of Sfax to meet Sarah on one of her family's 19th-century olive estates to talk about her quest to solve that puzzle and put Tunisian olive oil back on the map as she founded her own business in the middle of the pandemic.

The family once pressed its oil in its own mill, which it opened in 1936. In the decades since the mill has fallen into disrepair, but Ms Ben Romdane hopes to renovate it in the coming seasons to have even more control of the final product.  Photo: Erin Clare Brown / The National

Ms Ben Romdane arrived to our meeting on a tractor, straight from the groves where she was overseeing Kaïa's second day of harvesting for the season.

Quote
It's about reclaiming a legacy, telling a story about the land, the history, the people that is not really told and deserves to be told
Sarah Ben Romdane, founder of artisanal olive oil brand Kaïa

Her phone rang — it never stops ringing during the harvest — and she wove in and out of French, Tunisian Arabic and English on the call as she unlatched the massive blue studded doors of her family's old mill.

Born and raised in Paris, Ms Ben Romdane spent summers at her family's ancestral home in Mahdia, close to another of their three olive estates that had been in the family since the 19th century. Olive oil runs through her veins, but the 28-year-old culture writer never imagined she would be taking over part of the family business — until Covid hit and jostled her out of her routine.

“I always thought I'd retire and come back to do olive oil, but when Covid happened I was like, actually, if I don't do it now I'll never do it.”

She saved up some money, quit her job, and persuaded her family to let her harvest from a few hundred trees in November of 2020 to try something they had not done since the 1960s: produce a single-origin, cold-pressed extra virgin oil and market it in Europe as a proud product of Tunisia.

“It's about reclaiming a legacy, telling a story about the land, the history, the people that is not really told and deserves to be told,” she said.

Many of the trees in the Ben Romdane estates were planted during the late 1800s. Erin Clare Brown / The National

As she offloaded crates of freshly picked olives from the back of the tractor, she explained that most Tunisian olive oil — including most of the oil that comes from her family estates — is exported in bulk to Italian or Spanish conglomerates, which blend it with their own oil to create a standardised flavour and sell it labelled as a “Product of Italy” or “Product of Spain” without mentioning its origin.

For farmers who survive on the slimmest of margins in an unstable market, it is an easier tack than navigating bureaucratic red tape and paying heavy tariffs to export to the EU with a “Product of Tunisia” label, but in the process “our identity is erased, even our terroir is non existent”, Ms Ben Romdane said.

Bulk export also rewards quantity over quality, pushing farmers to harvest at inopportune times and press their olives at high heat to extract more oil, leading to an inferior taste and a middling reputation for Tunisia's main agricultural export. Over time, she said, farmers felt resigned to the system.

“It's kind of like, why would I care about quality if nobody knows it comes from my land?”

Yet, Tunisian olive oil has much to distinguish itself: largely grown on organic, pesticide-free estates, the country's heirloom Chemlali variety of olives can produce an oil with smooth and balanced aromas that is incredibly versatile, something Ms Ben Romdane is attempting to capture in the oil Kaïa produces.

Ms Ben Romdane inspects a crate of olives. The fruit is pressed the same day it is harvested to preserve its flavor. Erin Clare Brown / The National

Her team, many of whom come from families who have worked in olive oil for generations, harvest the olives by hand from select trees across the estate's 400 hectares.

Younger men scale the gnarled, century-old trees and beat the fruit off the highest branches with batons; women use small hand rakes to strip olives from the lower branches into massive nets skirting the tree. The oil is pressed within hours of the harvest to preserve its flavour.

At noon, the team paused to share a meal of spicy pasta in the shade of one of the estate's oldest trees, planted in the 1800s by the French. The foreman, Taoufik, strategised with Sarah on which trees to harvest — a brutal heatwave in August stressed many trees on the estate, which relies only on rainwater for irrigation, and they would need to pull from different corners of the grove to balance the flavour of the oil they would press that night.

Many of the women and men who harvest the olives are part of families who have produced Tunisia's olive oil for generations. Erin Clare Brown / The National

Despite the stress of climate change and the variable market's impact her business, there is a joy and an abiding pastoral beauty to the work that fuels Ms Ben Romdane. But she is also wary of romanticising it.

She knows many of her crew members are baffled as to why she left her life in France, a place most of them dream of living, for one on the estate at a time when drought, economic instability and lack of political investment in the region dim the industry's prospects.

“These guys want to leave because there's no future for them, and I totally get it,” she said.

Kaïa is the first time the Ben Romdane estates have marketed an olive oil as made in Tunisia in nearly 60 years. Photo: courtesy Sarah Ben Romdane

Though Kaïa is a mere drop in the vast cruse of Tunisian olive oil — they produced about 1,000 litres of oil in their first year — Ms Ben Romdane is hoping to build a company that can provide a better living to the women and men who know the land best, and prove that agriculture can be a source of pride as well as a viable future for Tunisians of her generation.

“I feel like projects like this can be more of an answer in a way than just going to vote. The ambition is to figure out how I can, within my own scale, provide what I can to the people who share my vision.”

Updated: December 13, 2021, 8:09 PM
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