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treasures of tunisia, an olive oil odyssey (this is a long one)

Rochelle | Jan 19, 200209:48 PM

this last thurs. melanie and i had the pleasure of being guests of ny chowhound, gary cheong, at a james beard foundation and international olive oil council sponsored conference on the olive oils and products of tunisia.

the day began with a delightful tasting of tunisian breakfast fare and tea. there were beautiful, tiny peaked pastry that tasted of russian tea cakes sans nuts, flatbread that was at once chewy and lightwith pomegranate seeds and dried quince, and an extremly dense miniature semolina wedge to be eaten with the modern quince jelly or the more antiquated capers. these had been prepared for us by chef taieb dridi, baker and owner of farmer's bakery in philadelphia.

we then began the conference with opening remarks from not only the president of the james beard foundation, len pickell, but also the international olive oil council (which includes 15 countries, including a consorsium of 13 european countries), the deputy ambassador of tunisia and others.

we then began our olive oil tasting. we had 4 oils set before us. as we learned, when they do professional tastings they use small,smoked, stemless snifter-type glasses to aid in the warming and olfatory parts of tasting. the smoked glass is to hide the color, which can range from a dark yellowy green and cloudy to bright yellow and, according to the experts, should have no effect on the quality of the oil.

the oils were from 4 different regions and different levels of fruit maturity. i was suprised to learn that unlike wine (although you taste it in almost exactly the same way), olive oil is graded according to it's defects rather than it's attributes.

one of the defects listed on the grading sheet above musty was fusty. anyone have any idea what that flavor characteristic might be?

the oils were quite interesting and very different than any italian or californian oils i've used or tasted. they were all extremely young, having only been picked, pressed and bottled in december. the oils made from young fruit had, as would be expected, light fruit, and low levels of bitterness and pungency (both considered positive attributes). as the fruit on the tree was left to mature you could identify a higher level of all three characteristics, tho the last two hit me as very bitter in the throat. the third was extremely peppery, the last had very much the flavor of the olive pit, unpleasantly so.

the question was brought up what purpose would the oils serve, cooking, salad? at lunch, after a delightful demonstration on the floor with paula wolfert of how to roll handmade couscous (SO easy), we found out. the strong, assertive flavors they use in cooking is a perfect match for the stronger, more bitter oils.

lunch, provided by chefs haouari abderrazak, joyce goldstein, joel fuillon, taieb dridei and rad matmati, was an amazement.

we began with leb-lebi; a chickpea stew served with coddled egg, harissa, olives, capers and extra virgin olive oil. the other items on the buffet included blanquit; grilled vegetables and tuna with vinagrette on baguette, slatit bisbas and fejel; a fresh fennel and radish salad, slatit ommuk huriya; a cooked tunisian carrot salad, bread of kairoun and tandura bread, handrolled couscous djerba-style with fish, mini briks; assorted savory pastries:cheese, tuna or meat, and finally, marqit zitun mishi with lubya; lamb stuffed olives in a white bean stew.

i must admit to being timid the first go 'round, but on the second, i was headed for the blanquit, couscous, mini briks and the maqit zityn mishi. this last dish also intrigued melanie, the tiny meatballs stuffing the olives tasted of lamb, not something supposedly lamb and the white beans in tomato sauce cooked just til soft. i believe we were both happy that so many of the recipes were included in the package we took home with us.

we had two wines with lunch, which melanie really should speak of.
the first, a muller-thurgau, 2000, was light and almost effervescent.
the second, a tunisian pinot noir reserve, '98, was, to my taste, far too soft, with no tannic backbone and little fruit.

after a quick walk around yuerba buena park to help our digestion we were back for a lovely traveloge (sp) with paula wolfert. her slides of the foods of the country were mouthwatering. earlier in the day we had watched some slides of some of the countries treasures, roman mosaics, all related to food. the detailing and ability to paint with tiles was astounding.

the day ended with cooking demonstrations. the most interesting to me were the harissa variations and the traditional tunisian flatbreads. harissa is very simple to make, it just has about 8 ingredients or variations thereof and can be made by hand or in a food processor and covered with olive oil can last up to a year in the fridge.

many thanks to gary for his invitation, and to melanie for her good company throughout the day.

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