The Other Middle Eastern Oil Export: Discovering Tunisian Olive Oil

Moulins Mahjoub 1.jpgEarly in the fall, my study group for Global Immersion: Doing Business in North Africa made the somewhat serendipitous decision to study the Tunisian olive oil industry for our term project. We made this choice with little information — other than that olive oil is Tunisia’s largest export and that the industry is the country’s largest employer — but I couldn’t be happier that we got to spend the trip taking a deeper look at olive oil.

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On Wednesday, we spent the day at Les Moulins Mahjoub, a 70-year-old, family-owned olive oil producer about an hour outside of Tunis. Despite being a relatively small producer of 200,000 liters per year with no intention of increasing its outputs, there’s a good chance you’ve tried Les Moulins Mahjoub’s products, available in the U.S. at Whole Foods and as the house brand at Le Pain Quotidien. Now in its third generation, the business is co-owned by three brothers and seven sisters. One of the brothers, Abdel-Majid Mahjoub, who serves as the general manager, gave us a tour of the production press, explaining to us the cold press process, which still very closely resembles the ancient process.

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Les Moulins Mahjoub has no intention of increasing its production because it is happy with its position as an upscale, boutique producer.  It has no intention of competing with Bertolli, or of providing unbranded liters to European producers who will blend it with Spanish or Italian oil. Roughly 90 percent of Les Moulins Mahjoub’s oil is sold under its own brand, although the remaining 10 percent is sold under the brand (or in the case of Le Pain Quotidien, co-brand) of select partners. The company also sells Tunisia condiments, including its top product by volume, Harissa, which has recently exploded in global popularity.

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The highlight of the visit, which served as a microcosm for the industry overall, was eating lunch prepared by the family in their tasting room. We enjoyed olives and spreads, as well as numerous Tunisian dishes ranging from the familiar, shakshuka and cous cous, to the unfamiliar, breadcrumbs mixed with preserved lemons, garlic, harissa, and chickpeas prepared in broth. The third-story tasting room provided aerial views of the olive groves and farmland, which stretched into mountains in the horizon, a surprisingly beautiful setting reminiscent of Californian wine country.

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Despite its premium product, Tunisian olive oil faces two challenges in its luxury positioning: first, there’s a lot of olive oil labeled as extra virgin that isn’t in fact extra virgin; second, Tunisian olive oil lacks the brand recognition of olive oil from countries like Italy and Spain. Tunisia was featured at New York’s Fancy Food Show this year, suggesting the beginning of its improved global recognition, but there’s still a ways to go. After sampling numerous brands of Tunisian oil and spending a day at Les Moulins Mahjoub, Tunisian olive oil gained another 30 brand ambassadors in our class.

-Zoe Fox ’17

Global Immersion: Doing Business in North Africa

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