Culture(s) and terroir. Tunisia rediscovers its authentic tastes
Adel Habbassi - 17/09/2012
The Laboratoire des Études Maghrébines, Francophones, Comparées et Médiation Culturelle has organised an international symposium entitled “Taste and disgusti,” on the 13th and 14th of July in Monastir (170 km away from Tunis). Representing several Tunisian and foreign universities, the speakers have shown how disgust is basically a subjective and/or intellectual kind of interface of tastes that blend our cultures. This conference is a continuation of two previous editions that have addressed various issues related to “taste”. The choice of this theme led to the establishment of an International College of Taste and a partnership with the National Institute of Nutrition. The master of these scientific meetings, Professor Habib Ben Salha, is also, since spring 2000, the founder of a competition rewarding the best preparation for a local dish whose history is as rich as old.
Speeches and taste recipes
In his capacity as Chairman of the above-mentioned Laboratory and honorary president of the Association for the Protection of the City of Lamta, Mr. Habib Ben Salha has managed to organise an original competition inspired by and based on the works of this series of seminars. The competition takes place in Lamta at the heart of the Tunisian Sahel. It is actually the “Bsissa” Fair in Tunisia, now in its thirteenth edition. The food that is at the centre of the event is completely natural as shown by its ingredients: cereal flour, sugar and some aromatic products. The ingredients are then mixed with water and / or olive oil. Several participants in the official competition have proposed various bsissa recipes. A jury made up of experts from the National Institute of Nutrition choose the best preparation of this dish and declare the results of the competition. The tasting sessions have allowed the participants of conference (especially the foreign ones) to discover our country through the plural flavours of this very special dough.
The Association for the Protection of the City of Lamta, organiser of the festival, is housed in the fort of the city centre, the main venue of the festival. An Aghlabid monument of the late ninth century, this “ribat” is in a perfect state of preservation. “This festival has become a unique opportunity for the bustling city, not to mention the fact that it creates jobs and income for a number of poor families,” stated Mr. Ben Salha. However, as a visitor, I noticed how this festival valued the efforts of women and men who have always worked in the shadows and margins of large surfaces.
Bsissa and its ingredients as metaphors of “terroir culture”
Thus, when the Tunisian revolution is struggling to manage its waste, tourism and local culture are trying to occupy their proper place in a democratic process that creates the most opposite passions. The thirteenth meeting place for healthy food lovers featured a “bsissa cultural tour” allowing visitors to admire the architectural charms of Lamta before going to taste bsissa and other delights at the Terroir Products Fair. An old oil mill built in 1889 facing the sea was used to host an exhibition of paintings were done by students of the ISBA Sousse and an artist born in Lamta. The magic created in this space comes from the chemistry between the laborious vocation of the place that still bears the signs of the hard physical labour and the fruit of the artistic work introduced by the works hanging on the thick walls of this building.
Issam Guerfal, president of the municipality of Lamta, highlighted “the importance of this year's festival took place between the end of harvest and the preparations for Ramadan during which many Tunisians eatt bsissa”. The occasion is ideal to list the nutritional qualities of this food that is rich in fiber and vitamins. Moreover, the pedagogical challenges of this terroir culture also raise awareness on the quality of the environment in which man lives, eats and creates. A citizen petition calling for the protection of the beach of Lamta was signed by thousands of the festival participants: a giant banner has been coloured by the “fingerprint” of women and men that are aware of the seriousness of threats to this part of the Tunisian coast.
Culture of taste
In the old oil mill converted into an art gallery, a “School of taste” was organised. The idea was simple: several children presented bsissa and described the ingredients and their beneficial health effects. The questions raised by Mr. Tahar Gharbi, president of the jury of the official competition, often insisted on comparisons between pastries, sweets industry, fast food, etc.. and bsissa that is consumed on a daily basis. Even if the young candidates did not always reveal that they were tempted by industrialized products full of saturated sugar, salt and fat, the usefulness of this game-competition was guaranteed: the new generations have thus become more familiar with this type of food that was so important for their ancestors and its health benefits. Moreover, the idea of combining the flavours of bsissa to ancient monuments and increasingly rare traditional costumes was designed to introduce younger generations to the authentic taste of things. In the chaos of this wild globalization, the attachment to the diversity of our culinary heritage and affirming the traditions they perpetuate help fight against the standardization of our dreams and the forfeiture of our imaginations.
Translated from French by Elizabeth Grech