When my mom and I planned a trip to North Africa for her sixtieth birthday, we anticipated the haunting ruins of Carthage and the endless dunes of the Sahara desert. But we never expected how Mediterranean much of Tunisia would feel--nor how much countries like France and especially Italy (only about a hundred miles away across the sea) had influenced its culture and cuisine.
Breakfasts often consisted of Italian coffees and French or Tunisian pastries, while lunch and dinner began with soup, followed by brik or salad or tajine as a second course, followed by a couscous dish, meat, or fish and vegetables. The most common ingredients included tomatoes, olive oil, tuna, eggs, dates, and honey.
As beautiful as the dishes we tried were the ceramics in which they were served--like this matching set of hand-painted plates and bowls at a farmhouse on the Cap Bon peninsula in the north of the country.
The ubiquitous brik is made with egg, parsley, and often tuna wrapped inside thin pastry and fried. We also tried a similar dish called Fatima fingers (named after the daughter of Mohammed), thin rolls made with mashed potato wrapped in crispy phyllo dough.
In Tunisia, couscous is prepared in a double boiler, with the vegetables and meats cooking below, and the aromatic steam rising up to cook the couscous in the pot above.
Though we never tasted it, camel meat is available for eating. Here pieces of a camel (including the head) hang inside a butcher shop. Lamb, chicken, and beef are more popular, however.
We visited a fish market on the island of Djerba and watched as local men auctioned off the freshly caught fish.
Bread was a constant accompaniment to our meals. The foods of the Sahara include this Bedouin flat bread, which was cooked in the sand, with hot coals from the fire raked over it. It was served still steaming hot, and we could feel the distinctive crunch of sand grains between our teeth.
April is orange season, and we ate these unusually sweet fruits every chance we got--especially at breakfast and at the end of meals.
Mint tea is a popular drink, made by steeping green tea leaves once, discarding the tea, then steeping a second time and adding fresh mint and lots of sugar. The variety shown here was served with toasted almonds in the glass in place of mint leaves.
Our favorite sweets were the corne de gazelle (horns of gazelle) made with almonds, pistachios and sesame seeds wrapped in pastry and flavored with cinnamon and orange blossom water.
And I would be remiss if I did not mention the spicy harissa made with ground chilis (visible in the upper right corner above) and served at every meal. Tunisians pour a little olive oil over top and dip their bread in it. It's also used to flavor meat and couscous dishes.
Nor can I forget the beloved date, grown in desert oases. The date palm is an ancient plant that appears in the Quran, and its harvest is very important to Tunisia. These little finger-shaped fruits are so highly caloric that it is said six dates a day can sustain a human being. We were too busy eating other things to test that theory.