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Breakfast with Methuselah, part 1

April 8, 2010

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.

Mother and Daughter drive their two-wheeled mule cart past our bus. (Photo credit: Tagami)

Worker walks among blooming fruit trees with olives in distance. (Photo credit: Tagami)

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.

A platter of sweets. (Photo credit: Tagami)

Preparing Lagmi Palm Drink. (Photo: Tagami)

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.

Preparing al-malla desert bread. (Photo credit: Tagami)

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

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. Sarah Chironi permalink
    April 9, 2010 6:34 AM

    Cara Liz,
    Sounds like you are having a wonderful time soaking up Tunisian culture and experience. Your photographs are stunning and vibrant! I’m living vicariously and enjoying reading your posts.

  2. Al Hamman permalink
    April 9, 2010 8:02 AM

    This is good. Very good. You’ve launched a whole new career.

  3. Jaynet permalink
    April 9, 2010 8:46 PM

    I’m there.

  4. April 9, 2010 11:20 PM

    So great to be able to travel vicariously with you through your posts. Beautiful writing as always. I’m reading this while enjoying the view from the back deck of our water villa looking out at the Indian Ocean on a beautiful island in The Maldives. What a surreal life we lead, my friend!
    Can’t wait to hear about breakfast with Methuselah!
    Mike

  5. April 9, 2010 11:23 PM

    Wow, Mike. I was just reading about the Maldives today. I will be in Shanghai at the end of the month — maybe we can finally catch up! Thanks for following!

  6. Utena Treves permalink
    April 12, 2010 6:48 AM

    Liz,

    it is enough to say “wow”. Congrats, this reads truly nice and I can’t wait for more.

    Cheerio from today’s cloudy London (and who knows we may bump into each other again in Tunesia – will be there within the next month)

  7. Amanda White permalink
    April 12, 2010 1:47 PM

    Wow Liz, this is amazing!! I love learning/reading about your adventures and especially love the part about the two mile hike in patent leather shoes! 🙂
    Looking forward to reading about your next stop….

    Amanda

  8. April 12, 2010 8:46 PM

    Beautiful photos Liz and that dessert tray is amazingly fancy amongst such simple living.

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