Monday, November 29, 2010

E.T. Phone Home

In Tunisia, date production is mainly done in the desert, where a whopping 117 varieties are produced within various oases of the south.

30,000 tons of fruit are produced per year in the country, by approximately 7,000,000 date palms. 10,000 tons of these fruit are shipped to the European Union.

It takes approximately 8 to 10 years to produce the first dates after planting and a hand-pollinated tree can produce approximately 100 kg of yield in a growing season.

Harvest occurs in September and lasts approximately three months. I was lucky enough to visit a date plantation when I was visiting the country. I learned that the fruit actually ripens and dries on the tree. Often, plastic bags are placed around the growing fruit to protect them from insects, specifically mosquitoes and butterflies.

Young kids (I should call them workers), climb up the trees either to pollinate, bag or pick the fruit.

They don't wear shoes, fall arrest, or personal protective equipment of any type.

The dates are then dropped down to other workers at ground level.

The sweet fruit is then crated, packaged and shipped out.

The pride of Tunisian dates are the deglet nour, which translates to "fingers of the light". They are soft and sticky to the touch, have a translucent caramel-like colour and a distinctively sweet flavour.

Tunisians are quite serious about these dates, as they are a true reflection of their country's hard-working people.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Pain Tabouna et Salade Méchouia

Tabouna is a standard type of bread that is made throughout Tunisia. It calls for the use of wheat as the primary ingredient. Wheat happens to be a significant agricultural product that is grown in Tunisia and it is exported mainly to some southern countries in Africa.

Traditionally, the wheat would be ground into a fine flour, as being done by the Berber woman seen below. This method of milling flour is still employed today, in some parts of Tunisia.

A dough is created, shaped into round loaves and cooked on the walls of a traditional terracotta oven, called a Tabouna, where the bread gets its name. This method of making bread is very similar to making Indian naan (a type of flat bread), which is cooked in a tandoor (clay oven).

The tabouna bread has an almost nutty quality and must be consumed while fresh, as it takes on a rubbery texture when it gets cold.

To go alongside the Tabouna, Tunisian meals are often accompanied with salade méchouia, which literally translates to "grilled salad". This salad is more of an antipasto-type dish which is mainly comprised of grilled green peppers. It may also contain onions, tomatoes and/or eggplant. The dish is usually seasoned with the sea salt, garlic and coriander and is always served with a bowl full of olive oil. 

 I say, "Keep it coming!"

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Almond Joy

A handful of almonds is a healthy and tasty snack, but did you ever wonder where almonds come from?

Almonds grow on deciduous trees that become fruit-bearing after about five years. Harvest season is usually in the autumn. However, the harvest begins in the end of May-beginning of June in the North African country of Tunisia.

Central Tunisia produces sweet almonds (as opposed to the bitter almond variety) for consumption, as well as for the production of almond oil. The almond oil is exported, mainly to France. It is then used in the cosmetic and perfume industry.

Chanel No. 5 aside, almonds are great to eat!

Tunisians also use them in a type of tea that is aptly called "thé aux amandes".

Picture a Moroccan-style tea that is made with fresh mint leaves, honey and hot water.

Now add a handful of almonds.

This warm drink is perfect for those late afternoons were you feel parched and peckish. It has the perfect combination of soothing elements from the mint, sweetness from the honey, and crunch from the almonds.

Tchin tchin!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Extending the Olive Branch

Most of Tunisia's economy is derived, not from tourism, but from agriculture. A large part of the agriculture depends on the olive.

There are approximately 65,000,000 olive trees growing in Tunisia. (That is a lot for a country with 13 million inhabitants!) Tunisians plant their trees with 17-24 m between them, in order for other "soft vegetables" to be grown, i.e. garlic, lettuce, onions, etc.

It takes approximately 5 to 8 years to see the first fruit, once a tree has been planted.

Olives are a winter harvest fruit and approximately 300 kg of olives (on average) is produced per tree. Tunisians also prefer to hand-pick the ripe fruit, as it is commonly believed that machine picking damages the trees leading to lower yields in subsequent years.

20% of the olive groves within the country are government-owned, whereas 80% are private, like the one below that I was fortunate enough to visit.

Prices for the oil are also fixed by the government every year. This year, in 2010, the price for cold pressed, extra-virgin olive oil is 5 Dinars or €2,50 ($3.75 CAD) per litre.

Small factories gather piles of olives and send them through a machine process.

First, the fruit runs through a conveyor and is washed.

The olives are then drained.

Next comes the pressing...

...and a cloudy green oil is secreted.

This particular olive oil was not filtered or processed any further, leaving it with a very earthy taste. Since this type of olive oil is derived from a mélange of different varieties of olives, the flavour varies with each press.

It was, by far, the freshest olive oil I had ever had.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Silence of the Lambs

Eid al Adha is a Muslim feast celebrating the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son, by the will of Allah (God). In Tunisia, Eid al Adha is known as Eid al Kabir or "The Greater Eid". The story goes on to state that God intervened and placed a sheep/ram in the place of the son.

Muslims all around the world celebrate this festival during the 10 day of the last month of the Islamic calendar, by sacrificing an animal in commemoration of this story. This year, the festival was celebrated on November 16, 2010. Sheep, rams, goats and even cows were present throughout the country on roadsides, streets, farms, highways and cities.

Many of the animals are brought in by Berber nomads to sell for consumption during the celebration.

A single sheep can be bought for approximately 200-250 Tunisian Dinars or 100-150 ($150-$190 CAD).

The sacrifice is usually performed at an individual's home. The meat is then divided amongst family, friends and others and eaten throughout the week.

According to Islamic law, the animal must be slaughtered in a manner in which to make it halal or "lawful". Halal is the equivalent to Muslims as kosher is to Jews. During the process, the animal is killed quickly and the all of the blood drained and discarded.

Fresh meat can be found readily at small roadside "restaurants" off main roads and highways.

One can simply drive up and select a desired chop of meat. The meat will then be weighed and paid for.

The restaurateurs will then proceed to chop the meat into smaller pieces.

The mutton is then the seasoned with sea salt and olive oil.

The meat is then grilled for a minimum period of time (approximately 5 minutes) and serve immediately.

I think this was the best grilled lamb I had ever had!

Eid Mubarak!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Gigandes Plaki

My obsession with Greek food continues with gigandes plaki or giant baked beans. Gigandes are also known as Greek lima beans, elephant beans or butter beans.

Begin with some dried gigandes.

Soak the beans in cold water overnight or for the equivalent time during the day.

You will notice that the large beans will swell to an even larger size.

Prepare a simple tomato sauce using olive oil, onions and garlic. Season the sauce with the following ingredients:
- black pepper
- oregano
- thyme
- salt to taste

Drain the gigandes and place them directly in the sauce.

Cover your pot and let the sauce simmer, on a low heat, for approximately one hour.

Transfer the beans into a casserole dish and bake for another hour. You may decide to drizzle a little bit more olive oil on the top right before baking.

Once the beans are done, you can serve them as a meze (appetizer) or as the main dish.

These beans are sweet and hearty.

- - - -

Note to Readers:

I am off to exotic Tunisia, in north Africa, to try their culinary delights. I will be back on the week of November 21, 2010 to report back!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Under the Tuscan Sun

Tuscany is a truly beautiful place with its rolling hills, olive groves and vineyards.

Tuscany produces many culinary products that are quite different from the ones produced in the rest of Italy. One of these typical products is called Cialde di Montecatini. They can be purchased from specialty stores throughout the province.

The Cialde are sweet, face-sized wafers that are golden in color. One piece weighs about 46 g and contains approximately 210 calories.

If you were to crack open one, you will find that two layers of wafer shell sandwich a layer of crushed almonds and sugar. This thin layering gives it a crispy and fragile consistency.

This delicate sweet is normally consumed with either:
- a liqueur (specifically with a dessert wine called vin santo - another typical product of Tuscany)
- coffee
- tea
- hot chocolate
- ice cream / gelato

If you ever find yourself in Tuscany, don't miss out on this wonderful dessert!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Carbonara au gras de canard

Carbonara is a tasty sauce served with pasta. It is normally out of reach for me, as the traditional recipe calls for the use of pancetta or bacon. As I do not eat pork or pork products, I have often wondered how I could create this dish without sacrificing its base flavour.

My solution was to use a combination of duck fat and bresaola. (This is by no means a healthy meal. It is all about full flavour!)

For this recipe, you will require the following ingredients:


Any pasta will do. To change it up, I decided to use a corn pasta made by La Veneziane. These pasta noodles taste great and are gluten-free.

Approximately 1/4 cup-1/2 cup grated, dry cheese. I decided to use Romano, but you can easily use parmigiano or perocino instead.

Approximately 1 tablespoon of minced garlic.

Two eggs beaten.

Some duck fat. (Also have some olive oil at hand.)

A handful of shredded bresaola. (For my entry regarding bresaola, please click here.)

Cook your pasta according to the directions to make it al dente. You may decide to cook your pasta slightly in advance. If you do, feel free to drizzle a little olive oil over it, so that it doesn't dry out.

In a pan, melt some duck fat with some olive oil.

Add in your minced garlic and let it brown slightly.

Now add your shredded bresaola and let it crisp up in the hot pan.

When your pasta is ready, drain it and add it to the pan. A little bit of pasta water in the pan is okay and will actually help with the sauce.

Give the pasta a quick turn in the hot pan, so that it becomes coated with the oils.

Remove the pan from the heat and add the eggs and cheese. Fold it in quickly, but do not let it cook.

Serve immediately and enjoy this hearty, rich and savory dish.

I'm sure you'll love it!