El Oula: preserving summer's harvest in Tunisia
The summer months in Tunisia represent an intense period of agricultural work because that is when many major crops are harvested and processed for preservation; from hard wheat to tomatoes to chili peppers and almonds. The traditional practice of processing harvested crops, also known as el oula, was born out of a need for survival. Indeed, el oula is meant to ensure families have enough food at hand to get them through the rest of the year. This processing comes in many forms depending on the ingredients at hand; curing, sun-drying, lacto-fermentation, etc. With the industrialization and urbanization of the food industry, this traditional and extremely labor intensive custom is becoming increasingly rare. Prior to the industrialization of the Tunisian food industry, most of the population was living in rather rural settings where such labor intensive practices were still deemed essential. However, now that the population is increasingly urbanized, much less are in a position to practice it. You can find most ingredients pretty much all year round, so why even bother?
Our maternal grandparents who live in El Jem, a relatively rural village despite the crazy development it has seen over the years, are still adamant about keeping those old customs going… and being able to see some of it in action is truly magical and therapeutic. Here are a few glimpses into the ‘oula life’ with our grandparents’ in their home of El Jem.
This year, our grandma Béchira hired a few ladies to help her with the hand rolling of rehydrated semolina flour through traditional sieves called ghorbel. These small pellets were then mixed with cloves, to repel pests while also adding flavor, and then left to dry in the hot sun on a clean white sheet during the day. Around dusk, she rolled up the sheets to protect the grains and let them rest overnight until the next morning whereby she exposed them again to the sun. This was a 3-5 day process and the result was lots of small, hard, individual couscous grains that were left to cool indoors prior to being stored in stainless steel drums.
Couscous grains sun-drying in our grandparents’ home
Our grandma Béchira rolling up the couscous grain sheets late in the afternoon
Couscous grains sun-drying in our grandparents’ home
M’hamssa grains are produced in the same way. In fact, m’hamssa grains are technically couscous grains. They are simply larger in size because the diameter of the ghorbel holes that the rehydrated semolina flour is rolled through are bigger. In the pictures below, you will see that some of the m’hamssa grains clump up, which is almost inevitable as some of the grains will be touching as they dry. Consistently checking and moving the grains as they dry is important in limiting the degree of this phenomenon. M’hamssa grains are used in soups and also as a stand alone grain flavored with broth just like many couscous or pasta dishes in Tunisia.
Bucket with ghorbel filled with unsifted m’hamssa grains & bag with ghorbel filled with sifted m’hamssa grains
Omi Béchira sifting out the the m’hamssa grain clumps and transferring the uniform grains into a bag to be taken to our mother
Clumped up m’hamssa grains sifted by the m’hamssa ghorbel
Our grandma owns an orchard that is mostly almond trees (with a few olive and fig trees scattered around) and the last weeks of June to the first weeks of July marked the time of the almond harvest. Unfortunately, grandma Béchira got covid right around that time which to her great disappointment meant that she could not help out. Like her mother Zwïta, she always wants to oversee everything that is going on at home. All good though, helpers were there and grandpa Ajmi made sure the work got done.
Baba Ajmi hand picking the almonds from the trees
Baba Ajmi and one of the helpers, Mohammed Slah, consolidating all the collected almonds from the tree
Mohammed Slah carefully whacking the almond fruits from the trees so that they fall onto the sheets below
Baba Ajmi taking a break under an olive tree
The almonds were picked off the trees by hand and stick, left to fall onto large sheets laid out on the ground, then gathered and poured into empty 50kg flour sacs. After harvesting the almonds and paying the workers in sacs of almonds, the sacs were loaded on a truck and taken home where they were sorted away from all the debris and leaves.
Top down view of one of the sacs filled with harvested almonds
The setup for dehulling of the almonds by hand using a knife whereby the shells are liberated and sorted into a bucket
Afterwards, the hull (soft outer green layer) of the almond fruits were peeled off and the inner shells left to dry in the sun. This is done to remove excess moisture and ensure they do not rot away within days. After sun-drying, the shells were individually hand cracked and produced kernels stored in large glass jars.
Baba Ajmi dehulling the almonds and collecting the shells
Top down view of the almond shell
Top down view of the almond shells sun-drying
Top down view of the almond kernels, three varieties; Porto, Zahaaf, Plato from left to right
Figs were harvested a bit later, around the period of late July to mid August. The figs were simply hand picked and carried back home in buckets. Those to be preserved are either turned into a jam or left to dry in the sun. Last year’s yield was quite low due to an ongoing drought so omi Béchira decided to just sun dry all her harvested figs for about a week before storing them in bags.
Top down view of harvested figs being dried out in the sun
Sun-dried fig, sliced opened (3 days in)
Sun-dried fig (3 days in)
Pickled chili peppers
Lacto fermentation and pickling are so important in Tunisia because pickled veggies are consumed everywhere, all the time. From olives, to lemons, and even a mix akin to giardiniera referred to as variantes in modern Tunisian vernacular. Our parents are obsessed with pickles so our mother will make her own from time to time. The process of lacto-fermentation is very simple and pretty much the same for all veggies; wash the veggies, place them in a sealed container filled and topped up with brine, and let the lactic acid bacteria do their magic. Felfel bar laabid, red chili peppers that are akin to cayenne peppers in shape and spiciness level are super popular and are used in cooking but also as garnish. Just like traditional harissa, you often find pickled goodies like felfel bar laabid at the table with bread to build the appetite. They also find their way in a variety of dishes from pasta, to stews, and sandwiches.
Jar of lacto-fermented olives preserved in olive oil
Felfel bar laabid undergoing lacto-fermentation
Pickled olives & peppers, served at the table
Jars of pickled olives preserved in olive oil, felfel bar laabid, variantes, and sun-dried chilis; from left to right
Kadiid (‘kah-deed’) is sun-dried and cured lamb (or beef). Eid el Kbiir* was in July this year so our grandmother Béchira used a few strips of the sacrificed lamb to make kadiid. She thoroughly cleaned, pat dried, salted, and left the pieces to hang and dry in the sun for about a week. The salt and sun facilitate the removal of moisture from the meat leading to very dry, hard, and salty pieces of meat that end up stored in glass jars.
Some families like to hot pack their kadiid in olive oil in order to preserve it but our family prefers the dried form of storage. Kadiid lasts a long time so even if it isn’t used within the year, it will still remain ok to use for a while. When cooked properly, kadiid adds a tremendous amount of flavor depth to a variety of dishes from sauces to soups, to shakshuka, and even couscous.
Lamb pieces, washed, sliced, and heavily salted
Lamb pieces after sun-drying is complete
Kadiid pieces in their jar
Jarred kadiid pieces in jar being sealed with a piece of cloth by omi Béchira
*“Eid el Kbir” in Tunisia, also known as “Eid el Adha” in other parts of the world is the celebration of Abraham’s loyalty to his god. The story is that god commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son in order to test his loyalty. At the very last second before he was going to do it, god stopped him and offered a lamb to be sacrificed instead. Abraham had passed god’s loyalty test and the lamb was received as a reward for his unconditional obedience to his command. This is the story behind the massive Muslim holiday celebrated all over the world.