Thursday, December 1, 2016

Tunisian Olive Oil Trade is Booming

European Olive oil standards, rules, and labeling regulations have tightened but when an olive oil label says ‘made in Tunisia,' it is 100% Tunisian.  Tunisia has become one of the largest producers of organic olive oil.

Although Tunisia has been making olive oil since Roman times, the country’s extra virgin has always been in the background, exporting vast quantities of olive oil to giant producers in Italy and Spain. There, the oil would be blended with the local oil and sold as their own. Fortunately for the country’s economy, things are beginning to change. Even though Tunisia still exports to Europe, private companies now bottle and package the oil at home before selling to the international market.  The Tunisian olive oil industry is poised for success, finally being recognized for its excellent organic oil. According to the Olive Oil Times, Tunisia now boasts 2,987 organic farmers, 66% of which are involved in exporting olive oil.

A tax break granted by the European Parliament to Tunisia in March 2016 will further strengthen the economy of this North African country. Tunisians producers can now export up to 35,000 tons more olive oil in 2016 and 2017 without any additional duties. This is welcoming news for a country where olives and olive oil play a major role not only in the economy but also in the environment section as well as providing jobs at home.

Here’s how one of those olive oil producers from this Africa’s smallest country is making a difference.

Huilerie Anis is a small business situated some 90 kilometers, or so from the capital city Tunis: this is where the Ben Fredj family grows olives to produce 95% certified biological olive oil.
 Anis Ben Fredj speaks with passion and commitment when he talks about the importance of quality management:

"We are in total control from A to Z of the olive oil we produce and export.  We grow our olives,  have our own mill and ensure the best  storage conditions for our fine olive oil,  even for the most demanding and refined customer,” he says enthusiastically.

At Huilerie Anis they grow the two main varieties of olives found in Tunisia   - Chetoui and Chemlali, which are hand-picked at harvest time and processed the same day. The company produces the extra virgin olive oil brand-- Oliviera Bio-- certified organic by Ecocert the French certification body for sustainable development. Their extra virgin olive oil- Le Soleil de Carthage made from ripe olives has an acidity of less than 0.5%.

Anis explained that the olives are sometimes blended, a challenge they have perfected over the years.   “It all depends on what flavor profile the customer wants”. Huilerie Anis now exports to Canada where Anis says they prefer more delicate oil.
“They like oil that’s not too spicy, so we mix Chetoui and Chemlali accordingly,” he added.

Today the company produces between 3, 000 and 4,000 tons of oil per year depending on the harvest but most of it exported in bulk and marketed without even mentioning the country of origin. The family would like to change this.

 I asked Anis what he hoped the company would achieve in next five years.
In a gentle but serious manner he replied:
“To commercialize more under our own name, we export in bulk to Spain and Italy, but  the country of origin is not known. What we would like is to increase this amount a little more every year.”

Tunisia produces around 25,00O tons of biological olive oil every year. Out of this, the Ben Fredj family concern produces about 4, 000 tons, which represents 15% of the national product, good results from this small business with strong family commitments.

Encouraging too for the future of Tunisian olive oil is the interest from Japan.
In November 2016, JICA, the Japan International Cooperation Agency visited Tunisia  with the aim of promoting Tunisian food products and olive oil.   This discovery might soon have Japanese chefs making sushi with Tunisian olive.

This positive image in international markets is encouraging for local olive growers who already recognize that the most important ingredients for a  burgeoning olive oil production in Tunisia are great initiative, commitment, and passion. Africa’s smallest country is now set  for a prominent position in the global olive oil market.   

Anis Ben Fredj from Huilerie Anis

Monday, November 21, 2016

Appreciating olive oil can start at any age, the younger, the better

       Olive oil tasting is like wine tasting; it’s a sensory experience, an acquired taste. What’s different though is that the law clearly stipulates that only those who have reached the legal drinking age can pick up and savor a glass of wine. That law thankfully does not apply to olive oil. Learning to appreciate olive oil at an early age is an advantage to young adults; it puts them on the right path towards a healthy lifestyle later on.

      How soon then can our taste our taste buds start recognizing flavors and distinguish between excellent, mediocre and bad olive oil?
    Research carried out in Greece on 190 high school students show that teenagers once they are made aware of the sensory properties, and the analysis of extra virgin olive oil can distinguish between extra virgin olive oil and defective oil.  The results also showed that the young adults aged between 13 and 15 years old were able to recognize rancid and muddy sediment in olive oil.
    The participants come from Messenia one of the most common olive oil producing regions where olive oil culture is deeply rooted, curious and expansive:  they are used to consuming olive oil in their daily diet.
    Vasilis Demopoulos, Anna Milionis and Panagiotis Skouras from The Kalamata Olive Oil Taste Laboratory carried out the studies. Trained in sensory evaluation, they are part of a team of 14 professionally trained olive oil tasters lead by Dr. Vasilis Demopoulos, all volunteers from the wider community of Messinia involved in sensory evaluation since 2011. The self- funded laboratory offers sensory analysis services to producers and conducts educational seminars to olive oil professionals and aficionados.
    Here’s what the students had to do with the five oils they received from the trainers:
  •      Decide which of the five oils were extra virgin and which oils were defective
  •      Rank the extra virgin oils according to intensity, decide which were robust, medium and       delicate
  •        Indicate which oils they preferred

  The results:

  •       The students identified the most common defects of olive oil
  •       Students often assessed robust and delicate oils as defective
  •       Discrimination of EVVO's according to intensity was a challenging task - not suitable for           young adults or untrained panel

Students preferred at large medium intensity oils to robust and delicate oils - similar to other consumer studies.

Commenting on the results Anna Milionis who was responsible for the educational material and training of the students said:
         “While the ranking of intensity was a challenging task for the students, their preference for medium to delicate olive oils over the robust sample nevertheless showed an awareness of intensity distinction but at the same time the need to re-educate ourselves in the appreciation of bitterness and pungency – hence the health benefits of olive oil.” 
   The study was funded by the Captain Vassilis and Carmen Konstantakopoulos  Foundation, a private non-profit foundation, founded in 2011 to honor Captain Vassilis and Carmen Konstantakopoulos. Its aim is to establish Messinia as a model for sustainable agricultural development, by supporting and promoting related projects. So far it has supported a series of activities, varying from research on local seed varieties to seminars on local gastronomy and products, as well as the promotion of local products' export.
   Dionissis Papadatos, the project manager of the Foundation, said: “The purpose of this action was to introduce the concept of the quality of olive oil to young people who are potential future olive oil producers. Taking into consideration that olive oil quality is directly linked to agronomic, extraction and storage practices, our goal was to highlight the critical points that will give added value to the olive oil of Messinia. The new generation of producers is those who will determine the future of olive oil production in our region.”
   If anything, this study shows that appreciation of olive oil and cultural traditions do not necessarily go hand-in-hand.  Knowing how to recognize the freshness of olive fruit by smelling and being able to appreciate bitterness and pungency in olive oil is not only a challenge for us adult consumers but more so for children.
Greek  high school students at an olive oil  tasting session 

My thanks to Anna Milionis for her input and photo.  

Friday, October 14, 2016

Olive Growers in the South Welcome Rain

Olive trees may appear sturdy, but climate and healthy trees are vital for a successful harvest. The recent rain we’ve been having after a very long period of dry weather will hopefully save this year’s olive crops here in the south of France. Thankfully olive farmers in Provence did not suffer as much this year from the dreaded olive fly disease as
 Olive Oil Times reported two years ago.

The local and regional newspapers were full of gloom earlier this month. Headlines such as Droughts threaten Olive Production and “Exceptional Bad Weather will result in Poor Harvest” are far from inspiring, but optimists say that the change in weather conditions and a late harvest in mid- November might still save this year’s crops.

You can understand the frustration of olive growers. They’ve been carefully managing  their groves for the last six to seven months,( the growth and development period)  pruned the trees, cleaned and mowed the inter- rows but in the end, the weather can ruin so much. They all want their fruit to be the best quality, certainly not bruised or damaged because the flesh of fruit will determine the quality of the oil, not the skin. Olive trees like the fertile grounds in Provence but they thrive so much better producing more olives with a certain amount of rain. If the weather is too dry, the olive fruit doesn’t grow, and some olives will even dry up on the trees.

What the other ongoing danger olive growers everywhere have to face is the olive fly, one of the most dangerous insect pests. The olive fly is about the same size as an ant but can hit and devastate whole olive orchards. This is what happened in the south of France in 2014, a tough year for many owners. The female fly lays its eggs inside the fruit as it develops, totally invisible on the outside. Weather conditions were slightly different that year; temperatures were high in the spring, and the summer was relatively cool. No one wants fly damaged olives and olive oil. L Association Fran├žaise de l'Olive (AFIDOL)the interprofessional association for olive oil in France devotes considerable time through practical sessions and workshops informing growers and producers on the best methods to deal with the bug.

Granted it's still early but we are all looking forward to a good healthy 2016 harvest.

Gilles and Brigitte Stalanq from Provence anxiously checking their olives