Breakfast with Methuselah, part 1
The morning dawned bright and cloudless in Sfax, the largest city along the eastern coastline of Tunisia, fewer than 15 miles across the water from the nine low-lying Kerkennah Islands.
We had experienced a late arrival to Les Oliviers Hotel the evening before, and after another fabulous meal, plenty of Les Vignerons de Carthage Vieux Magon 2002, and stories late into the night with new friends, we were quite docile and subdued as we sat for 20 minutes in the half-light of our bus in front of the hotel, waiting for a pokey colleague. Our culinary and cultural guides chatted quietly with a few passengers in the front, and our tardy colleague sheepishly scrambled up the stairs to her seat amidst some gentle chiding and friendly jibes. We were off.
Settled since Phoenician times many centuries BC, modern Sfax was founded by the Arabs 1,200 years ago. Today it is a center of industry and trade — and is only a 30 minute drive to our next appointment with a 3rd generation chemlali olive grower named Slim, whose farm was established by his grandfather in 1911 with 50 mules. Today Slim manages 12,000 trees with tractors and produces both EU organic and USDA NOP certified olive oil. We can see him standing by the side of the road near his 4WD to greet us as our bus pulls up.
We gathered near his vehicle and could see a group of buildings a quarter-mile away; nothing else but olives in all directions beyond this one sign of civilization. Without comment the group began a slow irregular march past some sparsely planted fruit trees and amongst some knee-high thistle-like plants in the deep sandy soil…and not toward the buildings. We also had an afternoon appointment scheduled with the largest olive oil producer in Tunisia that same day, so I was in business attire and patent leather pumps. Word passed along that this was a two-mile hike. Uh-oh. As if on cue the 4WD scooped me up, and I enjoyed a zippy and bumpy ride — with the owner and two colleagues holding some amazing Tunisian pastries — through tall and widely spaced olive trees to the meeting site. Soon the owner was ferrying groups back and forth, and while we waited for the others to hike in or be ferried, we had a wonderful scene to ourselves.
A Bedouin tent had been pitched near the path and lined with colorful Berber carpets. Upon them was a table set with a traditional spread of desert food and libation: dates, olives, halwa shamiya, tahini, locally made chèvre and gruyere. There was a large bowl of a bulgar wheat into which had been mixed wild honey and extra virgin olive oil forming a dark and dense cereal, and there was the 14” platter of sweetmeats — familiar, yet exotic in their midst.
I was handed a glazed terra cotta cup filled with a clear, fresh and light beverage which was sweet and refreshing, and unlike anything I’d tasted. It was lagmi or legmi, the sap extracted from the trunk of palm trees and which is sometimes made into wine. The gentleman who served me stepped around the table and returned to his task, which was making al-malla, a bread baked in the sand and ash by people who live a nomadic life. I could hardly wait to pull apart some of it, hot from the sand, and have it with the farmer’s extra virgin olive oil.
The chemlali olive trees around us on all sides were about 25 meters (more than 80 feet) apart. We were in central Tunisia at the beginning of the desert, and water here is scarce. To my right two dozen more bright Berber carpets had been set under a small stand of olive trees with tuffets and tables. The sky was a brilliant Tunisian blue, the sand too bright, if you looked upon it for too long. A light wind riffled the leaves of the olive trees as I walked into the shade with a cup of lagmi to join my two friends, wait for our colleagues, and to finally meet Methuselah at breakfast.
Tomorrow: part 2, meeting Methuselah