Harissa from Tunisia – my introduction to this country came by way of a spicy sauce that I have used for many years. Finally visited the country of its origin and of course there was more to Tunisia than Harissa!
Tunisia is also the country where we learned our lesson about arriving in a predominantly Muslim country at Ramadan. You will find little to eat as we did when found ourselves flying in to Tunis late at night in November. After John changed his money at the airport we fought our way through a heaving human barrier of taxi driver touts. We quickly cottoned to the fact that there are two pricing systems, one for locals and one for tourists. It was quite an effort but we managed to get a ‘local priced ‘ fare to our hotel. We ended up in our pre-booked hotel room that was devoid of any character or style but deemed it bearable for three nights. Next morning, since breakfast was not included in our rate we had to hit the streets looking for nourishment. Not easy at Ramadan. Amazingly we found a coffee and chocolate croissant mainly due to John’s efforts. He had risen early as usual and had gone out scouting – he is the hunter-gatherer of the family, and by the time I woke he had the place picked out. The downside was how far I had to walk to get breakfast as it was many miles from the hotel. Hunger does not adequately describe my state when I arrived at the coffee shop.
As usual I kept my eye open whilst tramping the streets for another hotel as we were planning to return to Tunis to collect our friend Meera who was joining us at a later date. I figured the 5 star Maison Blanche was more my style and we asked to look at a room and immediately made an advance booking, however when we returned a couple of weeks later, they had no record of our booking! Fortunately they had a room available so we were not on the street.
I had my first classic Tunisian snack called a Brik later that day. We walked to the old Medina and found it almost deserted, a most unusual occurrence but one that gave me a chance to take in the architecture without the usual clutter of crowds.
A Brik is made in a similiar manner to a crepe and cooked on a griddle and a slick of harissa inside coats the best part, the egg filling. Often as soon as you sit down in a restaurant a little snack arrives of tuna, tomatoes, cucumber and olives just to nibble until the main courses. In the street stalls we found peanuts coated in a lurid red sugary mixture, small grissini style breadsticks, french fries and short baguettes filled with hardboiled-eggs, anchovy and dobs of harissa.
At least Ramadan brought people out and about and cafes were open in the main street of Tunis. We noticed that children were dressed in lovely clothes and the women were very modernly dressed. We were often mistaken for French or Italians with people calling out Bonjour and Buongiorno as we strolled around.
We needed to organise a hire car for our ongoing internal travels so set off for the airport where we knew there would be greater choices since most of the companies have agencies there. In the end it was a long convoluted struggle but we did get one. But I won’t go into details but at the end of our tour the company tried to rip us off but fortunately our French-speaking friend Meera who joined us toward the middle of our visit was able to explain the situation and check they did not take advantage of us.
Bardo Museum in Tunis was next and it is almost worth a trip to Tunis to see the treasures of so many well-preserved and ancient mosaics collected from archaeological sites. As usual after a couple of hours of absorbing art, John is famished and we hunted for a food outlet. Luckily we found a tiny cafe not far away – it looked more like a dodgy bar but they had a few snacks available and we ordered a dense bread sandwich made of fresh curd cheese and Latva. I asked the young men running the shop to tell me what is Latva and they said it is a paste of pistachios. No wonder it was delicious.
Tunisia is an easy place to visit, you can do it on your own and almost book as you go along.
We loved the option to stay longer if we thought a certain place needed more time. We also enjoyed the road trip aspect, covering many miles to gradually absorb the country and its people.
We often stopped for lunch on the road when we saw a flagrant display of freshly slaughtered meat hanging out in the front of the shop that could be cooked whilst you waited. Sounds like a rabid carnivore’s idea of a food fest but it is the way the Tunisian’s do it. Sometimes the meat was goat and since they have hairy goats that look like sheep you had to look carefully. There was more chance of getting goat and sheep in most places than beef. In the south of Tunisia we did see camel meat being advertised by way of a head hanging on a post and offered for travellers. When Meera arrived she got us well and truly into the swing of buying our lunches this way as she spends so much time in Morocco where it is very common to stop and buy fresh meat to be cooked on an outside barbecue . I will do some more posts on Tunisia as there was far too much to cover in one post. Roz