April 16, 2022
This land, defined by its olives, ranks above in olive oil quality.
If you’re new to Tunisian olive oil and are wondering how it ranks in quality among a huge field of olive oil producers and brands, it’s very simple. This small African country has been a mecca of olive trees, producing a vast array of olive varieties for thousands of years. The result is quality, award-winning oils that come from the land and its people, built on tradition, culture, and sustainable, organic farming practices.
Tunisian Olive Farming
Olives are the thread that weaves through the fabric that is Tunisia. For nearly 3,000 years since the Phoenicians introduced them to this area, olive trees have been the landscape of generations, impacting everyday life and becoming a vital force of its culture. Over one-third of Tunisia’s agricultural land—nearly two million hectares—is planted with olive trees, which makes it the second country for the amount of land covered by olive tree groves with about 82 million trees. With more than 1,500 working mills/processing facilities, Tunisia is currently the fourth world producer. Tunisia’s olive trees grow in widely varied climatic conditions, more than two-thirds of which are grown under arid and semi-arid conditions. The northern region is the dampest; the southern region is the most arid. The different growing conditions give rise to the many olive oil varieties. The distribution of olive varieties in Tunisia is as follows:
· The north part of the country (about 15% of trees/planting density of 100 trees per hectare): Chetoui, Sayali, Ouestoui, and Gerboui
· Center part of the country (about 66% of trees/planting density of 50-60 trees per hectare): Chemlali and Oueslati
· Southern part of the country (about 19%/planting density of 17 trees per hectare): Zalmati, Zarrari, and Chemlali
Tunisian Olive Varieties
Though there is a vast array of olive varieties that have adapted to the climate and conditions of each distinct growing region, Tunisian olive oil production is most reliant on two main cultivars—Chemlali, which represents about 70% of olives, and Chetoui, which is about 10%. Oftentimes, these two oils are blended together. Tunisia also cultivates many imported olive oil trees, like the Spanish Arbequina and Arbosana, and the Greek Koroneki, but it’s best known for varieties grown by local olive farms, including:
· Chemlali- A mild, sweet, fruity oil with a green almond flavor, and a very slight bitterness. Good in salad dressings, baking, and seafood dishes.
· Chetoui- A green and grassy oil that is robust, peppery, and bitter. Good as a finishing oil, dipping oil, and in beef or lamb dishes.
· Oueslati- An aromatic oil with a fresh and lively flavor. Good with grilled fish, beef, and vegetables, as well as salads and baked goods.
· Zalmati- A green tasting oil, a balance of fruity green apple and bitter green grass.
· Jarbaoui- Sweet and slightly bitter with a touch of spice.
Tunisian Organic Olive Oil
Tunisia is the largest exporter of organic olive oil in the world. Its climatic regions are naturally suited to growing a variety of olives, which means Tunisian olive trees require very little use of chemicals, such as pesticides and nitrogen fertilizers. Because the olives are so well suited to their environment, the risk of disease is also very low. This is why 80% of farms managed organically are olive groves. Tunisia has more than 140,000 hectares of agricultural land that are farmed organically, with more than 3,300 certified organic farms. Even olive farms that are not certified organic rarely use chemicals, simply because they’re not needed. In addition, Tunisia is the first country in Africa to pass a law on organic agriculture as stringent as the European Union's. And, 95% of Tunisia's olive groves are organic and its exports of organic oil have grown from 21 tonnes in 2004 to 13, 500 in 2015, producing three times more organic oil than Spain, the world's largest olive oil producer.
Tunisian Olive Oil Quality
For decades, Tunisian olive oil was exported in bulk to countries like Spain and Italy where it was blended with local oils. While Tunisia continues to do so today, it is also exporting oil under Tunisian brand names and has received huge recognition for its quality and flavor. Tunisian olive oils meet or exceed the quality standards issued by the International Olive Council for all categories, including extra-virgin olive oil, the highest quality grade of oil. Essentially, this means an oil that is fresh, minimally processed, and provides an exceptional sensory and tasting experience.
There’s nothing like a little competition to showcase quality. When it comes to olive oil, the largest, most prestigious contest of quality is the annual NYIOOC World Olive Oil Competition. Its list of award winners indicates the world’s best olive oils and their producers. Last year, Tunisian producers enjoyed the most accolades—an amazing 30 awards, including 18 gold awards—it has ever received. In addition, Tunisian extra virgin olive oils swept the rankings as part of the Extra Virgin Olive Oil World Ranking 2021 (EVOOWR). This non-profit ranking was created to promote the most awarded EVOOs to consumers worldwide. More than 80 different Tunisian olive oils, from mostly Chemlali and Chetoui, to Sahli, Koroneiki, and a variety of blends, were awarded last year.
Polyphenol Content in Tunisian Olive Oil
Taste is definitely a priority in olive oil. Just as taste can indicate a high-quality oil, it’s also a sign of a healthy olive oil. Behind olive oil’s unique taste is a group of naturally occurring compounds known as polyphenols. Found in plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, tea, and olive oil, polyphenols help plants defend themselves against threats, like insects and diseases by means of flavor and aroma that are toxic to their intruders. Similarly, polyphenols provide health-protective properties for humans. Some polyphenols, for example, have antioxidant activity, meaning they neutralize free radicals that can damage cells in the body and lead to conditions such as heart disease and cancer. Eating a variety of plant foods can therefore help fight inflammation and may help lower the risk of some diseases.
Tunisian olives are naturally high in polyphenols due to the varieties grown in arid desert soil. The trees have to work especially hard to thrive and protect themselves. Olive oil contains at least 30 different phenolic compounds, including oleacein, tyrosol, and hydroxytyrosol, to do so. Extra virgin olive oils will have the highest amount due to minimal processing. Studies have shown that high-polyphenol olive oils are more health-protective compared to low-polyphenol olive oils in heart health, blood pressure, and inflammation. Look for olive oils labeled with a phenolic content of 250 mg/kg or higher. This labeling is still rare outside the European Union, but it’s worth a look. Otherwise, the best
Indicators Of High-Polyphenol Olive Oil Are:
· EVOO-less processing preserves polyphenols
· Cold-Pressed-heat destroys polyphenols
· Press or Expiration Dates-fresh oils have more polyphenols, so choose oils less than a year old
· Dark Container-protects polyphenols from damaging light
· Check the Brand-search the website for certification of phenolic content
· Store Correctly-keep olive oil away from light and heat and consume within a few months
Women Step Up in Tunisian Olive Oil World
Used to be, female agriculture workers were the only women involved in the production of Tunisian olive oil. Women have been a source of cheap, seasonal labor as harvest workers every year. These rural women have traditionally earned a lower wage than men for the same work hand-picking olives from the trees. Times are changing. Driven largely by the uptick of organic olive oil, which has been growing over the past decade, women have been taking on, if not taking over, family olive farms. Using organic farm practices and earning the organic label for their olive oil brands, women are stepping up as producers of Tunisian olive oil.
They are not only managing many farms and cooperatives of major brands; they are engineers, chemists, marketing directors, certification agents, and more. An indicator of the expanding role of women is the Tunisian branch of Women in Olive Oil, an international organization launched in 2020 to bring women in olive oil from all over the world together to help and support their endeavors, from increasing production to marketing and new technologies in the sector. Women are joining men in olive oil production as well as earning awards for their oils.
Tunisian olive oils are high quality olive oil that reflect the land and its people. The tradition is enmeshed in Tunisian culture, its livelihood, and thousands of years growing olives and producing quality olive oil. There’s something unique and timeless about a product that is as much a result of its past as its present. Extra virgin olive oil is as much a staple now than it ever has been. The experience of tasting new olive oil varieties, learning to recognize what makes a quality olive oil, and discovering the many ways to use them is a wonderful experience of the senses.