In a small farming town in the green Mejerda Valley, the Mahjoub family produces world-class olive oil--and the Mahjoub sisters quietly perfect what may be the best home cooking in all of Tunisia.
I have seven sisters," Abdel-Majid Mahjoub told me, "and they are the best cooks in Tunisia."
"All seven of them?"
"All seven." He looked me straight in the eye, and I could tell he spoke from experience as much as from loyalty.
Abdel-Majid is an eloquent young man, so much so that his friends call him the Shakespeare of olive oil. He looks, and talks, like an eager graduate student. But in fact he runs the family company, Les Moulins Mahjoub, and travels the world promoting the lusciously sweet, apple-green extra-virgin olive oil and the olives, sun-dried tomatoes, capers, marmalade and other foods that his family produces on its farms in northern Tunisia. And while he has eaten in some of the finest restaurants in Paris, Melbourne and New York, when he really wants to eat well, it's to the verdant hills of the Mejerda Valley, west of Tunis--and to the cuisine of his seven sisters--that he returns.
The Mahjoub sisters have names that ring like the verses of a Koranic chant: Ftima (the eldest), then Khalthoum, Aisha, Zeineb, Rkaya, Yamna and finally Khadija, the baby, now a 41-year-old woman with children of her own. They form a close-knit, gregarious clan, most of them having settled within shouting distance of one another in comfortable houses around the family olive-oil mills in the small town of Tébourba. Their widowed mother, the 79-year-old Zakia, still lives in the family home, with Zeineb.
The green Mejerda Valley, its rolling uplands carpeted with silvery olive groves and punctuated by wetlands where European storks find a winter refuge, is a long way from the arid, sand-clogged Tunisia of The English Patient; it often reminds travelers of Italy or southern Spain. It's not surprising to learn that this part of North Africa was settled some 600 years ago by Moorish refugees who had been expelled from their beloved al-Andaluz after the Christian reconquest of Spain. The Mahjoubs, like many of their neighbors, are quietly proud of their Andalusian origins, though it would take a dedicated culinary historian to ferret out the Spanish elements in their cuisine. Still, there's something about this family and this region that reminds me of the exhilarating way Andalusians combine the pursuit of good food with the pleasures of thoughtful discourse. And Abdel-Majid is right: These Mahjoub sisters are very good cooks, as I found out for myself recently when I spent a day in Tébourba going from kitchen to kitchen to watch as they cooked, chatted, gossiped, traded affectionate barbs, lifted the lids of one another's pots and stuck in their noses or their fingers to test the aroma or the texture of a sauce.
The dishes they taught me how to make are not, alas, ones you'll find on most Tunisian restaurant menus. Professional cooks here are usually men, and restaurant food is predictable: couscous, mechouia (a salad of grilled onions and tomatoes), kammuniyya (stewed lamb in cumin) and fish stews. This cuisine can be good, but few restaurants match the caliber of the acclaimed Dar El Jeld, the beautifully appointed restaurant set in a palace in the heart of the Tunis medina (the old, non-European part of the city), where several exceptionally gifted women prepare traditional food. Throughout most of North Africa, the best place to experience the glories of traditional cooking is in private homes. (Tunisians are generally genial and friendly; if you're lucky, you may be invited for a meal.)
I began my lesson with Khalthoum, who showed me how to make a Mahjoub family specialty called marqat zeitoun: big green olives stuffed with a little meat and cheese and sautéed. Then I crossed a sunny courtyard and stepped into Rkaya's kitchen, where, surrounded by her watchful children, she produced mubattan, deep-fried balls of artichoke puree mixed with a little ground meat and served with a tomato sauce. In keeping with the Mediterranean traditions that are still cherished here in Tunisia, these recipes called for very little meat, used almost like a condiment.
Then it was Ftima's turn; she began putting together a shakshuka, a stew of fava beans and artichokes. But Ftima is also in charge of the local hammam, the village baths where women go for a thorough scrub, soak, steam and gossip once a week, and in the middle of cooking she was called away by a group impatient to start their weekly indulgence. Never mind: Khadija took Ftima's place.
Zeineb made the most complex and perhaps the most interesting dish, treating pasta as if it were couscous. She had prepared the little squares of semolina pasta herself, she told me, and dried them in the sun outside her kitchen; she then steamed them in the top of the couscoussière over a deeply aromatic chicken stew. While Zeineb was stirring green olive oil from a recent pressing into the steaming pasta, Yamna showed me how to put together an easy, hearty soup using the bulgur wheat and dried fava beans that are a staple of every Tunisian pantry. ("This is much healthier than what Zeineb is making," Yamna assured me confidentially.) Then Khadija, the youngest, stepped up to the stove and quickly assembled a cauliflower tagine, a dish quite different from Ftima's shakshuka; instead of being stewed on top of the stove, cauliflower, eggs and sun-dried tomatoes are baked in the oven, resulting in something like a Spanish tortilla or omelet.
Tunisian pantry shelves hold seasoning mixtures prepared by the cooks themselves, who add them with a judicious hand throughout the making of savory dishes like these. The most familiar to us is probably the hot-chile sauce called harissa; each family has its own variation on the national standard. There is also tabil, made from sun-dried onions and chiles, garlic, coriander and caraway seeds ground to a powder; and bharat (which simply means pepper), a mixture of such exotica as dried rosebuds and cinnamon combined with black pepper. A family's dried-spice mixtures lend an instantly recognizable flavor of home. When Abdel-Majid walks into his mother's house and smells Zeineb's tabil or bharat, he knows, in a powerful way, that he is en famille.
As my long day of tasting drew to a close, it was time to cross the street once again--this time to Aisha's house, where I was treated to khubz al-abrash, a griddle-cooked semolina bread something like a thick pancake, stuffed with a puree of dates flavored with dried orange peel and cinnamon, usually served for breakfast or as a mid-morning snack. "But you could stuff it with orange marmalade, too," Aisha said as she showed me a jar of the newest family product, a thick and brilliantly colored jam made with the bitter oranges grown in the valley (whose intensely fragrant blossoms, incidentally, still perfume the springtime streets in the Andalusian city of Seville). Watching the sisters together, I had the feeling that they step as easily in and out of one another's lives as in and out of one another's kitchens, going back and forth so often that the town of Tébourba should consider putting up a yellow sign: CAUTION! MAHJOUB SISTERS CROSSING.