Spices are a way of life in Tunisia

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A rooster crows as I sip my last cup of black Tunisia coffee in Nabeul, looking out over the turquoise blue of the Mediterranean. There is no wind this morning, the sea is calm and my senses are sated from a two-week adventure in a land where spice is a way of life, not something relegated to tiny jars or tins in the smallest drawer in a kitchen.

There are spice vendors in every neighborhood here, and multiple vendors in the old central medina in each city. The markets are easily found as they are marked with strings of dried red peppers, gourds, figs and bins full of date branches near the doorways. Spices are heaped in large bins, burlap bags, tall urns, hand-painted ceramic bowls — even plastic buckets — and are purchased and used in volume, not in pinches.

The woman in front of me at Lotfi’s Epice (the busiest market in Nabeul) purchased a kilo of garlic, a half kilo of sweet paprika, and a quarter kilo of cumin. The Tunisian people purchase spices the way we buy flour and sugar.

They also show serious respect to the pepper. There are sweet and hot pimenton (paprika), hot chile, dried harissa, packaged harissa paste, harissa arabi (fresh pepper paste which is commercially produced) as well as the “house blend” of Salata Mechouia. The vegetable vendors and fresh markets offered a half dozen different varieties. The harvest of one chile, similar to the Hatch variety of New Mexico, was in progress. There were pickup trucks on the roadways piled 8- to 12-feet high with burlap bags stuffed with the peppers coming into the city from all directions. That chile was served roasted, either split or whole, on every savory dish I had during my visit.  I’ll take a roasted pepper with amazing flavor over parsley any day.

Salata Mechouia is a main element in many local dishes and was the culinary discovery of Tunisia for me. It’s a flavorful twist on salsa, tapenade or bruschetta, and is made from charcoal-roasted peppers. I’ve adapted the traditional recipe to be made with the broiler in the oven, but a charcoal grill adds a dimension of flavor that is not replicated in the comfort of the kitchen.

Ras el hanout is a blend of  anywhere from 15 to 30 spices, including cardamom, cumin, clove, nutmeg, allspice, chile, fennel, paprika, ginger, peppercorn, rosebuds and grains of paradise. The name translates to “top shelf” or “head of the house” as each vendor grinds and blends their own versions and sometimes offers variations for fish, poultry, lamb goat or beef. This spice blend is the perfume of the region.

Tunisia is a small country at the northern-most point of the African continent just a three-hour ferry ride away from Salerno, Italy. The wine history of the region dates back to the 8th century B.C. during the time of the Phoenicians and the city of Carthage. Vineyards and agriculture have flourished in the north, where there are both fertile soils and water resources as well as calcareous (limestone) soils that grapes thrive on. The wines are refreshing and crisp, much like those from the vineyards on the other side of the Mediterranean, and were exceptional with the local fish and delicacies such as octopus, squid and mussels.

The region has a fascinating history of invasion, migration and assimilation and the foods and cultural traditions of many contributing entities are tangible. There are intact mosaic tile walkways, amphitheaters, and a coliseum in Tunisia that rival those in Rome. Even better, there were no lines of tourists and unparalleled views from the ruins over the Mediterranean.

As Rome fell, power switched to the European Vandals, then the Muslim conquest which transformed Tunis with the immigration of Spanish Muslims and Jews through the end of the 15th century. The Turkish empire was next, followed by the French. Tunisia won it’s independence in 1956 but retains very close ties to France — easily seen in the culinary traditions.

I know I’ll come back. I was fascinated by the markets and layers of history. I was also charmed by the people and artisans. Next time, I’ll get an apartment with a kitchen so that I can do more than take photos of the fish vendors.

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Beverly Calder owns BELLA Main Street Market in Baker City and BELLA Mercantile in La Grande.

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