A Roman holiday in Tunisia: Picnic like the Romans did

My most memorable food adventure in Tunisia was self-made: a group picnic that made good use of Tunisian foods, French cheese, Tunisian wine, and Italian cookies, set against the backdrop of an A.D. second century amphitheatre in which thousands of Tunisian citizens of the Roman empire must have done the same while enjoying a comedic or tragic stage production. Was ours a comedy or a tragedy? Read to find out!

From its plains made verdant by winter’s rain and wind to gently sloping mountains with terraced olive groves and vineyards, it’s easy to see why some of the ancient world’s most powerful civilizations made this region its breadbasket and home.

Centuries before the famed Punic wars between Carthage-based Hannibal’s brilliant north African armies (the ones with the elephants, if you have some vague recollection of history classes) were stymied in their attempt to colonize northward into southern Europe, came the Berbers, the Carthaginians, the Phoenicians. Trade with the Greeks and, later, Romans ensured an exchange of ideas and their signature architecture and urban planning. I can’t tell you what they ate, but I can tell you what I ate during a visit to the ancient Punic and Roman city of Dougga. Aside from some packaged cookies, European cheeses with more recent origins, and the plastic utensils we used to eat them, I would guess a middle or upper class Punic, Berber, or Roman woman could have eaten a very similar meal at various points throughout Dougga’s history.

If you ever studied the Latin language or enjoyed ancient history in school, you should make Tunisia and Dougga a bucket list item. Unlike ruins in southern Europe, Tunisia’s Carthaginian, Punic, and Roman ruins are better preserved (less wars and intentional mass destruction) and less frequently trafficked than what you’ll see behind glass walls and barricades elsewhere. Dougga, which is the best preserved Roman city, was my favorite. Though local farmers still own most of it (sidebar: seriously, how cool is it to say, “Oh that temple? Yeah, I own it.”), it was designated as a UNESCO heritage site not long ago in 1997. So I feel pretty privileged as a North American tourist to be allowed to wander around the city. My inner nerd definitely came out as I walked in and out of Dougga’s 1900 year old (2nd century AD) amphitheater, Caelestian temple, public baths (complete with a 12-seat latrine that made for a great photo op), a 22-room home (oh no, that’s not an error), less ostentatious homes, and the much older (9th century BC) Punic tower – the only building the Romans felt was interesting enough to not destroy and build atop it. And our picnic inside the amphitheater was definitely the most scenic I’ve had. How often can you say that you have tailgated where thousands of people have been tailgating and sloshing wine around for nearly 2,000 years?

In Berber villages outside of Tunis, you can create an entire meal through the shops that line a single street. One vendor may sell brined olives, chiles, and pickled vegetables; another, fresh meat; a third offers thick, warm rounds of spongy bread; another homemade butter and fresh cheese. The locals compare it to ricotta, but the texture ad flavor is much more similar to Indian paneer. All vendors in one village had an identical, interesting method of cheese making. Milk is cultured in 1.5 Liter water bottles, then placed in an aerated plastic mould, usually infused with a sprig of Rosemary. The use of old water bottles was slightly disturbing for a sterile American, but the cheese was absolutely fantastic, especially on fluffy Berber bread. On a stop in one small down along the drive from Tunis, we added to our Carrefour supermarket (a modern-day French occupation!) purchases with small-town bounty.

 

We stuffed ourselves while defending against blustery winds with our rotisserie chicken; round, spongy Berber bread loaves; local, fresh sheep’s cheese; imported Edam, Swiss, Camembert, and Brie cheeses; stewed apricots, fresh, local dates and oranges; and three kinds of Tunisian wines. I thought of it as our remake of the original, pre-theater meal! Someone asked if ours was a comedy or tragedy. I would say that it was both: We lost some food and overturned plates to wind, and wine was spilled like a blood sacrifice due to a colleague’s inexperience wearing her new (men’s) Berber cloak (which really looks like a Druid or Harry Potter character’s garb), it made for both frustration and a lot of laughs. For the record, I’m pretty sure we weren’t anywhere near the first or last group to spill wine in that amphitheater. And one of the feral dogs that are fixtures in Tunisia showed up as we were cleaning up, waiting for us to depart so that it could become a living garbage disposal for the bits of food that flew off our plates.

It was truly a dining experience for the memory bank and to share with others. If you ever make it to Tunisia, you will be well rewarded by the scenic 2 1/2 hour drive from Tunis.

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