This holiday season, we released our new Mortar & Pestle Trio Spice Gift Set, which features a handcrafted mortar and pestle crafted in a family-owned workshop located in the coastal city of Sfax, Tunisia. Olive-wood carving is a traditional art in Tunisia, and we are very excited to share a little bit about Tunisian olive history and culture.
Olives are integral to the culture of Tunisia. The first olive trees were brought to North Africa by the Phoenicians who founded Carthage thousands of years ago. The Carthaginians planted these trees all around the region. An olive tree in Haouaria, around 2,500 years old and still giving fruit, is a living legacy of their efforts. After the destruction of Carthage by the Romans, olive tree cultivation continued through the native Berber people who adopted it into their culture.
Currently, Tunisia is the world's 2nd largest producer of olive oil after Spain. As most of the cultivation is also chemical-free, they are the largest exporter of organic oil globally. Over 300,000 olive farmers and around 10% of working Tunisians are employed in the olive trade or related industries.
Although they rank high in production volumes, US consumers are mostly unaware of Tunisian olive oil, but there's a good chance many have already tasted it. Most Tunisian exports are sent in bulk to Europe and mixed with Italian and Spanish oils. However, this anonymity may soon change as the Tunisian olive oil brand Olivko was named the best extra-virgin olive oil in 2019 by the New York World Olive Oil Competition.
Olive oil is not just crucial to the economy; it infuses itself into Tunisians' daily lives. According to the Olive Oil Times, shortly after birth, many newborns are anointed with olive oil. The mosque in Kasbah is named Al-Zaytuna, which means 'the olive tree'. Olive oil is also an essential ingredient in traditional dishes and sprinkled onto most foods. The tree's wood is highly sought after for its durability, creamy yellow color, and beautiful grain patterns.
In the past, when olive cultivation was at a smaller scale, olive wood was scarce and a marker of social status or used sparingly as part of special occasions. Nowadays, olive wood is much more available and used by Tunisians in their daily lives in the form of cutlery, bowls, plates, and decor.
Since the olive tree is sacred and known for its longevity, wood crafters only source wood from olive trees that no longer bear fruit, a great example of sustainability. With knowledge passed down from father to son for generations, artisans use traditional tools to shape and sand this extremely durable wood. Each piece is then polished with local olive oil to reveal the beautiful natural color and grain pattern. These skillful artisans can transform parts of wood into various forms of cookware, serving ware, utensils, and figurines.
Taken care of properly, the quality of the wood will last a very long time. As the wood grain starts to fade slowly, a small dab of olive oil rubbed on the surface will quickly restore the beautiful wood grain patterns. Every piece is unique and a testament to the wood crafters' skill - no two are exactly alike.
Now that you know a little more about Tunisian olive wood crafting, what more would you like to know? Let us know in the comments!