Tunisia has become the world’s top exporter of olive oil in the past year, overtaking Spain. Credit a bumper olive crop in Tunisia and poor harvests in Spain and Italy. The good news for Tunisia comes as a group of Tunisian workers, employers, lawyers and activists won the Nobel Peace Prize this month. Despite Tunisia’s climb up the global olive oil ladder, much of the North African country’s oil is made using traditional methods. The olives, for example, are hand-picked. The harvest often begins in late November, as it does here at the family-owned organic olive oil maker, Les Moulins Mahjoub, about 25 miles west of the capital Tunis.
Many of Tunisia’s olive oil makers remained attached to old traditions. According to the International Olive Council, 1,050 out of a total of 1,707 olive mills were using a traditional press in 2012 – versus more modern technology that permit continuous production.
Tunisia’s jump to the No. 1 spot as an olive oil exporter – and its simultaneous rise to the No. 2 spot for olive oil production – comes as the North African country is being called “a rising star” in the olive oil business. More and more of the country’s olive oil producers are bottling their oils and selling it abroad in places like the United States. That’s in stark contrast to the recent past.
Traditionally, Tunisian olive oil producers sold their oil in bulk to Italy and Spain, where companies blended it with other olive oils and repackaged it as non-Tunisian oil – i.e., “Imported from Italy.”
Olive cultivation in Tunisia dates back to the 8th century BC – to the Phoenicians, who were the first to introduce this crop to North Africa. Today, Tunisia is home to 80 million olive trees, stretching across the country from north to south and east to west. The two main olive varieties are Chemlali and Chetoui .