Season 3 Episode 5

Karim Fitouri

1 Comment

This Week's Guest:

Karim Fitouri

Tunisian Olive Oil Producer and Certified Sommelier

Karim Fitouri is a producer who wants to see Tunisia recognized as a place that makes great olive oils. He spoke with Curtis Cord after a week in New York developing his tasting skills at the Olive Oil Sommelier Certification Course at the International Culinary Center.

Curtis Cord
I had the profound pleasure of spending last week with a group of olive oil enthusiasts from around the world at the sommelier certification course at the International Culinary Center. Among them was Karim Fitouri, an olive oil producer in Tunisia, who is determined to change the course of the Tunisian sector and get producers there the attention they deserve. It’s a long road ahead but if anyone has the drive to make a difference, it’s Karim who has inexhaustible enthusiasm for his country, its people and the oil it produces. He joins us today from London. Welcome Karim.

Karim Fitouri
Thank you for having me here and let me start by saying to all your listeners, it’s a … What you actually do for the olive oil industry is great and it’s … well basically, amazing. And I wanted to thank you actually for accepting me in your course. It has changed, really, truthfully, actually changed me as well the way I look at olive oil. The way … I think it actually helped me quite a lot how to pursue this, what you can call, a dream for Tunisia and to improve the quality of olive oil, of the extra virgin olive oil in Tunisia and to present the world, not just with olive oil. It’s with a bottle basically with a health as you know and all these kinds of health benefits. So, really we want to present the world with health … make it better.

Curtis Cord
So, have you recovered now after all of the oil that we drank last week?

Karim Fitouri
I think oil now is in my blood and I’m proud to have it in my blood. We … I tell you, we had … I mean that course, it was a perfectly designed and amazing how you come in. When I went down there the first day, I was a little bit cocky and I thought “you know it all.” I tell you what, I probably knew less than 35% of what I learned in that course. So, I would definitely recommend it to anyone, whether you’re a producer or not a producer or even from the normal public just so you can be healthy and consume some good olive oil.

Your team, truthfully, I have great respect for all of them. They just really know exactly what they’re talking about. So I’m very, very happy for that course and I do thank you again for it. I hope you carry on with this because really you need to teach the maximum possible you can to educate the people from all over the world about the health benefits for this olive oil and not just the health benefits. It’s the actual taste as well and after you know when you have a good food it gives you pleasure. For example, for me when I eat something nice my wife keeps saying “no you keep singing.” I don’t even recognize it you know? It immediately gives you that pleasure of eating something good, you know?

Curtis Cord
I was blown away by the people there, you and your peers.

Karim Fitouri
You know, this is another thing. I discovered this after two days from leaving your course all of a sudden I have a new family, from all over the world. You know we keep texting each other. We keep communicating. We’re trying to help each other. I tell you, I have a new family.

Curtis Cord
Let’s talk about Tunisia and what’s the story there?

Karim Fitouri
Well, it’s a country with 11 million people and we have about 18 million olive tree. But, for some reason or another we don’t have the credit for even … Most people don’t even know Tunisia actually produces olive oil, you know? And when you look at 2014, 2015 season we have … We had made about 340,000 tons and we had exported 310,000 pounds out of that in bulk to the rest of the world. And Tunisia today is the second largest exporter after the European Union, you know? But despite all that, we still … Most people don’t even know if Tunisia exists apart from this Arab spring and politics and stuff like that.

Now, we will get there. I mean, I’m not the only one. Thank you for that compliment in the beginning. But truthfully, there is a lot of people like me in Tunisia determined to improve the quality of the olive oil in Tunisia and to share it with the rest of the world, you know? So we are trying our best to do that.

Now the advantage we have, really, is the climate in Tunisia, which is allow us … I mean, truthfully, it’s about maybe 80% if not more of our olive tree naturally organic. It’s just … We don’t even need to treat it or do anything like that because of the heat and the harsh environment over there. So, we have not … We hardly have any problems with the flies and stuff like that. So did … And plus, on top of it, we do have some … A lot of … I mean, we have probably about 54 variety has been cataloged and we have some really good variety which only exists in Tunisia and they give some excellent olive oil. If it has been done correctly in the way I learned in your course, it will give a world class oil. I mean …

We take, for instance, like Chatwe, this is North of Tunisia. The polyphenol, the PPM on that, I mean you could raise to 621 PPM, you know? And the acidity is very low in acidity. We managed … I have seen it at 0.17 I think I’ve seen it and I’m sure it could even get to less than that. So we have some really, really good extra virgin … Like some good olive oil we can make down there. We just need to concentrate and really to push … to provide this good extra virgin olive oil and to try to expo … I mean, mainly we would like to export to the rest of the world. I mean, Tunisia at the moment like I said exports 90% of the olive oil in bulk and only 10% in bottles and stuff like that. So it’s a very, very small numbers you know?

Curtis Cord
Yeah.

Karim Fitouri
Although, we do have … We do export to 54 countries at the moment around the world. So it’s a good number and we are getting there. And after 2011, after the revolution and all that the way the government has tried to … We have 20% of the money we collect from the selling in bulk is actually as a fund to help all the small producer or anybody who can make good quality olive oil to the rest of the world. So they do have a fund over there. They do help them financially and with information and everything to help all these small producers to make it in the outside … In the outside world, you know?

Curtis Cord
How many trees do you have Karim?

Karim Fitouri
I personally?

Curtis Cord
Yeah.

Karim Fitouri
Yeah, well … It’s not much. I mean, we have … So I’ve got 4,300 trees but then my neighbor has 4,800 and then my other … It’s all like friend and we have … I mean, I have a lot of friend, which is who we try to get as a union together so we can make it into the outside.

Curtis Cord
And so tell me about your farm.

Karim Fitouri
Well, the farm is actually in Western Oueslatia, which is um … It creates this … We have a variety in Tunisia is called Oueslati. And it only exists in Tunisia and it only contributes 3% of the whole olive oil in Tunisia. So, it’s a very small number. But this variety, it’s a very difficult to work with. Most of the big producers do not want to work with it because it’s a really very, very sensitive you know? It has to be, you know, collected properly and basically transported properly and pressed properly to give you this very good olive oil. And if you don’t do that, it doesn’t give you any good oil.

I mean, this year for example for me, I had a problem with transportation. I made a good maybe 4 tons out of it. I pressed and it did not give me a good olive oil. It was not done properly. So, I left it. I did not want to … I let it go. And I was late in the season as well, so it’s quite difficult. But your course has helped me a lot so the next season it will be a completely different story. You know, I know exactly how to get it perfect basically.

Curtis Cord
Well, you don’t have your own mill right? So you brought it to the mill. You didn’t like what they did and you told them to sell it off right?

Karim Fitouri
Yeah, what happened is, I used one of the best mills in Tunisia, which is about 300 km from where I am. So, easy talking about a five-hour drive just to get there. Plus, I had a problem with the rain … It actually rained so I had to wait and the people couldn’t work and they could not collect the … Because don’t forget everything is, in my farm, done by hand. So really, it’s very difficult to get the quantity and truck to drive 300 km just to be pressed in this mill. I mean, the mill is a friend of mine. He’s very good. His mill is bio-organics. It has a certification for that. So we do have … He’s a master of millers. He’s been 15 years doing very high quality.

So, I am willing to do that extra … I mean, although I have a mill next to me which is only like less than a kilometer away. But it’s just … No comparison. I only want the best quality I can give to my client. That is all I’m interested of. I am planning to actually get a mill hopefully … If I can manage to do it this year, that would be great. But at the moment, it’s more look like it’s gonna be definitely for the next year. And now I do have, through your course, I made some connections. Pablo, he’s one of your teachers actually really with a lot of good information. He’s trying to help me find the correct mill for the quality and he’s guiding me through this. Hopefully, it will work very well. I have a good feeling about it. And hopefully, we can do it.

Curtis Cord
So who are the best producers in Tunisia? The ones that are well-known for high-quality olive oil.

Karim Fitouri
Well, I mean, we can start with the one I am actually using at the moment. His name is Slim Fendri which is based in Sfax. Again, he started about 15 years ago and he only wanted quality and through his hard work he has managed to get a good quality … I mean, he didn’t have to take my olives just to press it in his mill. He actually done it just for encouragement for all these young people to come up and try to produce some good quality.

Curtis Cord
Last year we had 10 entries from Tunisia. I looked at the statistics and no winners at the New York International Olive Oil Competition. That’s not a very good success rate.

Karim Fitouri
That is almost well, zero. That’s nothing. This is it now. It’s me. I am going down there. I am telling all my friends about the competition in New York and I promise you we will have some entries this year and next year it will be a lot more. It’s going to be a lot more … and you know, not just entries. But people enter and actually win and through your course, I have learned how to win a gold medal and how to produce a good olive oil to win the gold medal. So I will teach, what you have taught me, I will share it with my colleague over there, with my friend over there, with anybody who wants to make Tunisia great again. As you know, we go back to 3,000 years of history you know? It’s a shame we have lost it, but we are determined as a people and a government to actually make it back again to our glory, you know? So …

Curtis Cord
It’s incredible that Tunisia is the second largest exporter but if you went out to the street here in New York and asked people “where do they produce olive oil?” Not one would say Tunisia.

Karim Fitouri
I completely agree and that is why I am here and that is why I personally will definitely make the change and I’m sure with the help of everyone in Tunisia and including the government, we’ll change that. And it’s only a matter of time before you see our olive oil in New York competition winning gold medals.

Curtis Cord
For example, in France, they make very nice olive oil too. Maybe few people out on the street would tell you that France makes olive oil but you know, France doesn’t make very much olive oil. They don’t have a lot for export. They use most of it at home but Tunisia is the opposite. You’re producing 300,000 tons. That is a lot of olive oil.

Karim Fitouri
For the last ten years, we’ve done 180,000 ton of olive oil and this is an average of the last ten years. And we export in bulk 90% of that. It’s almost … It’s a lot of numbers. It’s a lot of olive oil that gets exported. And we don’t get any recognition for the truth, which is … You know it goes in bulk. It has no name. Like you said, if you go in the street I mean … People don’t even know Tunisia, nevermind by the olive oil, you know? One of the problems we have, we need to really to work on our quality and we need to tell the rest of the world this is our olive oil. You know, this is a good olive oil. It has been produced in Tunisia. Just a matter of time. Just a matter of time.

Curtis Cord
And besides entering competitions and winning in awards, which is a good idea and can result in some publicity, what other ideas do you think there are to get the word out about the quality of Tunisian olive oil? Are you working with chefs, for example? Do you know if there are initiatives to work with Tunisian chefs around the world? That kind of campaign?

Karim Fitouri
The government already actually almost entered every single like we were and fancy food show. Tunisia has entered that. We have … They’re doing a lot of advertising and … But really I think we need to change just a little course and we need really to go back, sit at a table, and … Obviously, I don’t think it’s working. Truthfully, I mean, if you ask me, I don’t think it’s working. They do spend a lot of money on this kind of stuff and it is not the way we want it to be. So perhaps, we might need to sit down again at a table and have a different strategy how to promote this extra virgin olive oil from Tunisia.

But don’t forget, we do have … We do sell to Europe. Like 90% of bulk we sell to Europe. It is a good … If it wasn’t good, Europeans would not buy it from us. So, it is a good extra virgin olive oil. But what we’re trying to do now and what we’re trying to say … What I’m trying to say, for example, is we can produce premium extra virgin olive oil and we have the variety to do that … Capable of doing that. It just, we just need to do it.

Curtis Cord
One good example is Spain. You know, until not too long ago, Spain only exported its oils in bulk to Italy to blend with others. More and more they are putting their own brands on it and having great success.

Karim Fitouri
I have noticed that and I have seen that. And perhaps we might need to learn from them what they have done, how they’ve done it to move to that direction. And we do have a lot to learn. We are … Truthfully, just now where really the government are pushing and supporting and helping all these people to go for quality. I have a good feeling about it. We will make it. It’s not easy but with a lot of hard work and I’m not afraid … Look, in Tunisia, olive oil is in our blood. We love olive oil. We will make it.

I mean, like I said before, the olive oil in Tunisia it contributes 56% of our workforce labor of the agriculture, you know? And its 34% contributes to like from the whole agriculture in Tunisia. So, we were focusing on this olive oil. It is the #1 agriculture product in Tunisia and we will keep it like that. We have by 2020, we already signed on to plant 10 million olive tree and by 2025 we will double our effort to export in bottles to the rest of the world. And this is like … and hopefully, we can do more than that. But this is what the government has agreed to do and this is what they have signed to do.

Curtis Cord
I have to tell our listeners a little story because you know our hotel rooms were across the hall from each other in New York last week. You waved me into your hotel room and you pulled out this case, like a secret case, you know. And inside of it were these scientific vials with oils inside and you put them under my nose and I smelled one and then I smelled the other. We didn’t taste it. We just smelled it. I have to say, they smelled very nice. Very fruity. What was that that you were showing me? Why don’t you …

Karim Fitouri
I tell you … look in Tunisia, like I said, we have about 56 of them cataloged. But we do have some variety … It will only exist in that place. So the rest is still a secret of Tunisia. It’s still … None of the outside world has seen it, you know, and has pressed it. So we do, I mean, I’m lucky enough to have one of my friend, my good friend, he has a PhD in olive trees and he’s a lover of olive trees. So he and I we go and like for 3-4 days in between trees just looking for different varieties and trying to catalog it and trying to pick it up and press it slowly in the lab and see what result we can get. You know.

I think next year you will see … You will see some … Very unique, I mean. Some of them I mean, look for example the one you smelled it’s … I can’t give you the variety at this second. But you have smelled a mango. It can be … Not like a … Maybe a mango or no it’s a clear cut … It’s a clear mango. Now, we do not plant any mango in Tunisia but it smells of mango. It tastes beautiful. And we have a lot of different unique variety over there which is a gift. A very excellent … It’s just, I wouldn’t say different olives than what we normally use. Hopefully, after we get stable, we can bring those varieties back into the market and let the consumer enjoy that olive oil.

Curtis Cord
How do you use olive oil in Tunisia? What kind of foods [crosstalk 00:20:41]

Karim Fitouri
I tell you, olive oil it’s not … Okay, I’ll give you a little story. Like you give a little story. I give a little story. My mother, she’s 1945 born you know, and have morning breakfast it’s olive oil, bread and her coffee. And that is … You can give her the best breakfast in the world, like salmon and whatever, she … That is her breakfast. It’s olive oil, bread and her coffee. Religiously, you know? And she is still, thank God, she is fit you know and healthy. I hope she stays like that. We use it in everything. In salads. In cooking. We have olive oil with almost everything really.

Curtis Cord
What is a typical Tunisian dish that you make in your region where the taste of the dish is really brought out?

Karim Fitouri
Oh, we have … I mean, I come from Djerba which is an island of Djerba and it’s famous for the called Riz Djerbien which is like a … It’s called the Djerbien rice. Like for example, if you live in New York you will say New Yorker Rice you know? Something like that. And that is specific to that area and well famous in the whole Tunisia. And we do use our olive oil over there with this rice. But you will know this kind of oil as you know in your course I learned in the South of France they pick up the olives and they leave it in containers a little bit longer just to give that … Is it the fustiness? Or the … Yes, yes. A little bit of that.

So in this region, we do exactly the same. I mean, it’s just we learned that through many generations and the people over there they get used to this kind of slightly taste. So it’s made from this olive oil and it for some reason, it might not be as healthy as we learned. But taste-wise, it does give a very, very good taste. What we call local taste.

Curtis Cord
So what’s next for you Karim? What’s your plan?

Karim Fitouri
Okay, let’s have my plan, let’s have my goal, my dream. I want to see Tunisia recognized as a producer of good olive oil but we just need to be … What we deserve to have … I don’t want favors. I don’t want … I just want, basically, we just need to be recognized as a world player in olive oil and this is what … This is what … This is my dream. This is what I want. I want to go in the street and they ask me “where you from?” and I say “I come from Tunisia.”

“Oh, you make very good olive oil down there.” If I can reach that, that’s it. I’m happy. I’m very happy.

Curtis Cord
When am I gonna see you again? Are you coming to the uh … To New York in April? Do you think you can make that?

Karim Fitouri
I think you have done a big mistake because you’re going to see me all the time now. You know, you’re not gonna get away from me. Look, I will be in April down there. I will definitely see you in April and hopefully, I will bring some of my friends from Tunisia. The top producer, the one I really think they are doing their very best for the quality so hopefully I’ll bring some of them with me as well if you can have them.

Curtis Cord
Well, we can certainly have them at the big event on April 27th when we announce the winners. Hopefully, they don’t be disappointed.

Karim Fitouri
Exactly. I don’t think anybody will be disappointed. What you’re doing is absolutely great for the olive oil. I have great respect for you personally and I, we do, wish you all the success you deserve to have. I really believe you will make a big change in the world regarding the olive oil.

Curtis Cord
Karim Fitouri. Thank you very much for joining us today. It’s been a real pleasure. I enjoyed meeting you very much and I look forward to keeping in touch with you in the days ahead.

Karim Fitouri
The pleasure is mine and thanks to your audience for listening. Have a great evening. You take care.

  • Frankie Gobbee

    Congratulation Karim . Very nice interview . I hope we meet each other sooner. !