Djerba

Tunisian yogurt

The sky in North Africa isn’t clear blue. It’s subdued and hazy. One might say it’s laiteuse; blue with a touch of milk, or yogurt. Unlike the beaches of the Pacific, you’re not stunned by the sky as much as you are aware that it’s relentlessly bearing down on you. The heat can be intense and unlike Paris, where folks scramble to sit in any patch of sunshine that they can find even during the unfiltered heat of summer, in Tunisia, one is always fleeing the heat.

Tunisian crêpe creme caramel

Often that will mean resting in a café sipping a glass of fresh orange juice, or maybe taking a dip in the ocean, or refreshing with a glass of iced wine, all of which I can personally attest to as being equally effective means of beating the heat of Africa.

camel Tunisian door

During my visit to Djerba, a Tunisian island just off the North African coast, come afternoon, when the sun bore down fully on the island, I often found places completely desolate.

Shops roll down shutters and people retreat indoors. Or in my case, head to the beach, where I found myself under an umbrella with a good book, often nodding off while the gentle surf provided the soundtrack for a good snooze.

place d'algerie

It never occurred to me to go to Tunisia and most of the people I met there were confounded to meet a real American. It’s likely because there aren’t many flights from the states, and Morocco is the country in North Africa that most North Americans land in. I toured Morocco a few years ago, which was fascinating (especially Fez, which I’d love to go back to) but the constant harassing by local touts, affixing themselves to your side the minute you stepped out of your hotel, using every possible means of persuasion to get you to buy something you didn’t want (fake old coins, cheaply dyed carpets, etc), got old quickly.


I remember heading to the airport, strapping myself in to my airplane seat and thinking, finally, no one is going to hassle me anymore.

(I wonder how many more people would actually buy something if they were allowed to shop undisturbed? I know I would have come home with a lot more stuff.)

chef Djerba

A majority of the visitors to this large island come from France, since Tunisia is French-speaking, and there are plenty of flights that go direct to this beach-friendly île. I also met quite a few Italians who, although I don’t speak their language, try to make themselves understood, as always. It was an interesting mix.

Tunisian spices dates

Visiting the local villages, and strolling near the souks you can still get rooked if you’re not careful—one man gave an Oscar-caliber performance when we were at the market, coming over and acting as if he knew us from our hotel, chatting us up like old friends. And then offering to join us for a walk through Houmt Souk, the main city. The ruse often works because a majority of people are trustworthy and when someone says something to you, you tend to believe it. (Or at least I do.) Of course, thirty seconds into our “walk”, I realized he was leading us to some vendor of some sort, where he was sure to get his commission on anything that we bought.

tunisian amphoras

There’s lots of great stuff to buy, but once you even slightly express interest in something, even if your gaze barely lands on something, you’re in for a twenty minute back-and-forth that ends with you trying to figure out how you’re going to fit that clay amphora which the merchant swore he found in his grandparent’s attic and was from a family heirloom from the twelfth century, into the overhead bin.

As we ducked away, I decided that shopping was too stressful, and we decided to enjoy the city from the comfort of café chairs in the shade of the main square.

Djerba

I’ve learned a few things living in a foreign country and during my travels. One of the most important things is the experiences you can have if you take a moment to befriend the locals. (Except for the ones trying to sell you something, of course.) Asking at the local produce or seafood market for a good restaurant suggestion often yields better advice than hotel clerks, who are likely to steer you to somewhere touristy. I tell visitors to Paris to go to the same café each and every day so they get to know you. Make it your cantine during your stay. Then ask the people who work there where else to go in the neighborhood. It’s a strategy I’ve used over and over, and I’ve rarely been steered wrong.

Tunisian dishes amphora

Luckily for us, we got off to a good start as the cab driver that picked us up at the airport was friendly and honest. Romain has the unusual ability to befriend bus and cab drivers, waiters, and airline agents, and can transform even the most surly person into a friend. It’s a huge help in Paris, let me tell you.

stop mosque

So off we went with Karim (tel 98 573 476) on a loop around the island. We saw some of the sights, like the ancient mosque, one of the estimated three hundred or so on the island. The stone mosque was gorgeous, especially when set against the hazy blue sky, but using the aforementioned strategy, I was anxious to go to the local pastry shop, which Karim recommended as the best on the island.

beautiful North African pastries

Obviously Karim wasn’t used to people asking to visit a bakery (obviously he’d never met me…) and the unmarked building that he took us to was the highlight of my trip.

circular North African pastries bird's nest pastry

After stepping into the simple white shop with no sign or name and viewing the breathtaking pastries lined up, each one picture-perfect, I asked if it was possible to poke my head into the kitchen next door where they were making the pastries by hand. The saleswomen were shy, a bit timid to even meet my gaze, but Karim stepped in and asked if it was okay. I was pretty sure that they’d not been asked by anyone to go into their workshop before, especially an American with a fancy looking camera, and an appetite for Tunisian pastries.

making Tunisian pastries

When we walked in to the tidy kitchen, a grinder was hard at work, spinning and pulverizing toasted almonds into smooth almond paste. The almonds had been roasted just to the point where the edges were burnt; those last few moments of baking encouraging out the maximum almond flavor, no doubt. I resisted to urge to take one of the of almonds cooling on a rack and giving it a taste, to see for myself. The smell of toasted almonds, warm honey, and orange flower water lingered in the slight breeze and added a sweet smell to the workshop.

Each of the four or five tables had one woman presiding over it. The one that really caught my eye was where a woman was rolling out pastry so thin that it would make a sheet of newsprint look a phone book. (Remember those?) Another woman, not meeting our gaze but intent on her work, was hand-cutting triangles of pastry, layered with almonds, honey, and very green pistachios. After making sure with the woman who ran the kitchen that they were fine with me snapping a few shots, I moved nimbly around them, and quickly, because they were working so fast, as I tried to get a few pictures.

Tunisian pastry Pastries

Another tip I advise folks during their travels is to appreciate what you’re seeing, then take a picture. It’s easy to get wrapped up when seeing something incredible and wanting to immediately snap off a few shots. But there’s also something to be said for being present in that time and place. And for respecting what the people are creating, and respecting their privacy. (Whether you’re at the stall of a French butcher or an Italian gelateria.) The shrouded women at this shop I’m sure weren’t entirely comfortable with me in there, although they were nice enough to give me a quick peek at their handiwork, and I made sure to thank them profusely for their kindness and complimenting them on their astoundingly beautiful pastries. Then we went back into the shop and left with a box of pastries we’d purchased.

North African Almond Paste

One thing I’ve learned about traveling is that you should just enjoy what you have right then and there, and not worry about buying more, stocking up, bringing some home, or whatever. Just eat it there. As my friend Susan Loomis says, “You don’t need to own it, just enjoy it.” And I agree.

synagogue

We did stock up, but just enough to enjoy during the week. We did consider going back and getting more to bring home with us, but decided that we were satiated by what we’d had. And decided to wait until the next trip to go back.

(If you do come to Paris and want to taste exquisite North African pastries, one of the several branches of Bague de Kenza is the place to visit.)

pistachio pastries earthenware

There’s a lot of talk on the internet about whether we, as customers, have the right to take pictures indiscriminately in private establishments, like restaurants and bakeries. And I’m often asked by readers how I feel about that and what I do when I go into a place. My response it that for one thing, we need to be mindful that we’re in a privately owned place, and if they don’t want people taking photos, I don’t take photos.

Djerba woman 4 oranges

But more importantly, I don’t take out my camera if it’s going to have a negative impact on the experience, especially in less-developed countries where tourism and taking pictures can cause a situation that’s not always favorable. I usually bring a lightweight lens, take my camera out, snap a picture or two, then put it away. I think that’s the best way to get a good shot; when it’s a natural extension of the experience, when you’re not interrupting people’s lives.

mango juice

Like other North African countries, most of the cooking in Tunisia is done by women, in homes and in restaurants. And it’s hard to have ‘authentic’ regional cuisine unless you’re invited into someone’s home for a meal. But if you poke around, especially at the local market, you can find some unusual things to sample.

4 pears tagines

I’d never seen such little-bitty pears anywhere, which were called poires naines, a vague term for “dwarf pears”. Each one was the size of a grape, and they were pretty sweet, albeit a bit crisper than the juicy pears one might be used to. But piled into a big Tunisian pottery bowl, like the many I managed to resist at the market, they certainly were striking.

pears

We stayed as guests of the Djerba La Douce hotel, who were kind enough to take pity of my for having missed my last vacation due to the volcanic eruption.

cactus

Upon arrival they told me that the rooms did not have Wi-Fi, and to get on the internet I’d have to sit in the lobby. Of course, I freaked out. Having just got off the plane and dressed in my heavy jeans, shoes and socks, and a jacket, I must’ve growled a bit at the short blond woman at the counter, then wheeled my suitcase off to my room.

cocktails Tunisian beach

A few days later, dressed in shorts and sandals, recuperating after a long day of making sure my beach towel was in just the right position on the lounge chair, her and I were sipping drinks by the pool, and she said to me, “So—do you still miss your internet access?”

Romain water

I had to admit it was great just unplugging it all and only checking in once or twice during the trip. I’d managed to truly relax, which is no small feat, and it was funny to see subsequent guests arrive, dressed as I was and looking around nervously, while we dipped our feet in the sea and tried to make them jealous of how limpid we’d become.

chick peas couscous

Aside from those pristine Tunisian pastries, I managed to sample some wonderful Tunisian cuisine. One day I woke up and saw a line-up of lambs being roasted on spits, with gray smoke billowing around caused by the cook dumping water on the coals every once in a while, which I presume was to lend a smoky flavor to the spinning mutton.

roast lamb

Of course, I befriended the smiling chef as well (hey, I wanted the best pieces when it was time for lunch), and a little later, the lamb was cut up and served with couscous, Berber harissa (hot sauce), chunky vegetables, and the most amazing brik à la œuf: a spread of very thin dough, like a won-ton wrapper, enclosing a raw egg, then deep-fried. The crispy shell was weightless, and when you cut into it, a soft, just-cooked egg slid out and mingled with the flakes of the golden crust strewn about the plate.

lentils

I was shoveling in the food as fast as I could, it was so good. And I was (almost) a little sorry that I had filled up on the extraordinary bread that women were baking on flat metal griddles, which were torn into pieces and dipped in chermoula, a spicy paste made with chiles, garlic, and lemon. But here was a thick dip, made with peppers and tomatoes.

couscous figs

At times I felt explosively full. Aside from not having internet access, I didn’t realize that photo-sharing sites like Flickr are banned in Tunisia. I don’t know how photos could be so subversive, and I felt immediately lucky that I’ve never lived in a country that blocked access to websites.

Along with photo-sharing sites being banned, other things are interdit in Tunisia, too:

no abs

This young law-breaker I found combing the beach. And before I could alert the police about this scofflaw and his flat-stomach (when I showed this picture to a woman friend later that night, she starting stroking it on my camera screen and she looked a little teary-eyed), he rode off on the horse he came in on.

man & horse

Fortunately these young men also managed to gallop away to safety, although from their frocks, I couldn’t tell if they were sporting those dangerous tablettes de chocolat, as they say in French. I have to say after a winter of being housebound with nothing but a few kilos of chocolate to keep me company, I too have ‘tablets’ filled with chocolate. But of a less-alluring sort, unfortunately.

horseback riding in Djerba

Maybe if I rode around on horses all day?

riding horses coke

Instead of hanging out at the bar in the evenings…

Rum

Although I had to admit, cocktails weren’t really the order of the day for us because it was so warm. Icy rosé, as usual, was the answer. Someone asked me if the rosé in Tunisia was any good and I’d have to say that yes, it was.

Tunisian Rose

Which was a conclusion that I came to after sampling quite a few glasses. But it really is the perfect summer wine and stands up well to being poured over copious amounts of ice, which dilutes its force. For those who are shocked at putting ice in wine, well, get over it. It’s inexpensive wine, not a grand cru. And everyone was putting cubes in their glasses. Although because most of the other guests around us were French, I think they were just reveling in the generous amounts of ice in the buckets the waiters kindly put on all the tables. Because the dangers of ice cubes are well-documented back home, and only on vacation is one allowed more than one dinky cube of ice in a drink. Let’s not get too crazy, now.

horseback riding

After a week of lazing in the sun, avoiding anything to do with whatever was happening across the Mediterranean, it was time to head back home. I did manage to resist bringing home any souvenirs, although there was no shortage of things lying around to choose from.

amphoras




Relate Links and Recipes

Djerba Tourism

Feta-Cucumber Salad

Lamb Tagine

North African Pastry Recipes (Melissa Clark)

Moroccan Preserved Lemons

Tunisian Brik (Jamie Oliver)

Israeli Couscous with Butternut Squash and Preserved Lemons

Spanakopita

99 comments

  • What a wonderful article, David. Morocco sounds very similar to India with the relentless “offers” of help and the tricks used to get you to someone’s brother’s cousin’s uncle’s shop or restaurant. We’ve been considering a trip to Morocco but perhaps we need to find another N. African destination. Sounds a bit too stressful especially since we’ll have our 2 little girls with us. Think I need to research a bit more.

    I really can’t fathom how you resisted the souvenirs. Especially one of those dishes with the dwarf pears. That is self control. Love the photos of the arabic writing. Hope you go back to Africa again. Really love the topic – food, culture, all of it!

  • I remember heading to the airport, strapping myself in to my airplane seat and thinking, finally, no one is going to hassle me anymore.

    And there wasn’t a guy who strapped himself to the wing outside your window then tried to sell you carpets all the way back to CdG?

  • David, this is a wonderful article with exquisite photos. Excellent points about travelling abroad and respecting the establishments one is in and savoring the flavors in the moment.

  • I loved the look into Tunisia…what you did sounds perfect to me – lay on a beach, with a ton of books, and peek into as many pastry shops and kitchens as possible! Welcome back…er, or not. But you’re back now. I hope it’s not sweltering like it is in Milan! :)

  • Tracy: There’s a lot of talk online about people taking pictures in restaurants and elsewhere, and I think people forget that even though places may be open to the public, they’re still privately-owned establishments and the owners might opt not to allow photos. In this instance, they were just unfamiliar with anyone who might want to take a picture so I was quick and didn’t take pictures of anyone of the women working, since it was obvious they were timid. But aren’t those pastries gorgeous?

    A & katy: I’ve had people wait outside my hotel for me to re-emerge, hoping to try to lure my into buying something. On one hand, I do feel bad for some of them because they likely don’t have all that much money, but I do wonder how much more stuff people might buy (like me), if we could shop without being harassed.

    And it’s fairly easy to buy Tunisian pottery in France, at similar prices, so it wasn’t so hard to resist. Especially when you add in the ‘breakage factor’.

  • Great post from an amazing vacation spot. Your images bringback fond memories.
    Maybe one of the best Club Med locations we have been to.

  • I visited Tangier, Morocco, on a day trip, about 20 yrs. ago. I remember camel rides, a tour through the casbah, our lunch, but most of all the obnoxious street vendors. I was literally surrounded by them because I was naieve enough to buy a few trinkets from one seller. Within seconds there were about twenty others grabbing at me. They were in my face, shoving their wares at me and spitting, literally, while yelling to get my attention. My husband had to pull me out of the mob, we pushed and shoved our way back to the cab. The mob surrounded our cab and banged on the windows, it was truly frightening.
    If anyone finds themselves in Tangiers, do not buy anything from a street vendor, for fear of your life!!! These people are the most aggressive salesmen in the entire world!!

  • Hi David,

    I’m a new fan to the blog…just subscribed with my Google Reader and I love your writing! Now I want go to Tunisia and try out these amazing foods!

    Thanks for the great pics and for sure will continue following your blog!

    Gabi

  • what a fascinating adventure! the sweets do look enticing!

  • This is such a dream! Those guys stand-riding on the horses – awesome. I feel like I’m right there with you, though I wish I was actually there.

  • Wonderful post and photos, David! Getting to go places through your lens and writing is a heaping helping of awesome. Heavenly pastries and studly riders in the same post. Bliss! Thank you for the tablettes-de-chocolat laugh, too!

  • no souvenirs ? that’s plain and simple science-fiction for me :D. I want so badly the fatma hand appetizer plate you shown in the beggining of this post, and I don’t even went to Tunisia ! :D
    I know about the wisdom you mention at the end of your comment : easy to find somewhere else, breackage factor… but anyway I feel that crave deep inside for beautiful alien artefacts bought during such a nice trip. I don’t even mention the pastries. I simply w.o.n.’t .

    I love the last sentence of the post and the way you managed to target towards multiple subjects :D. I’m sorry to know that the nude torsos and flickr are not the only thing legally forbidden in Tunisia… And I hope that/wonder if, as those touristic dictatures often choose to do, police tend not to hassle gay tourists as often as they do for local night-owls workers.

  • Hi David,

    While walking along Saint Germain blv (106) we passed along a Tunisian store.
    Normally I would not give another look and walk on , but my husband insisted that I should come and see..
    Beautiful Tunisian cookies , brought to Paris by airplane every week.
    We bought a box full of them since they are quite different from what we have here in Israel…

  • What a great post! I think this has been my favorite and most enjoyable from your website so far. That lamb, and the description of the meal looks absolutely delicious. I can just picture the savory meal with the bleached white and blue buildings on the backdrop of a sunny and blue Mediterranean sea. Beautiful!

  • Dear David,
    Yours is my favourite blog ever! You have a wicked sense of humour and the entries are informative as well as entertaining. Thank you!

    BTW, which camera do you use for these particular photos? They are very nice and clear.

    Your fan,
    Ulrika

  • maureen: Yikes. Yes, they can be incredibly aggressive. I’d heard a while back that the government in Morocco had so many complaints (and were likely losing money) from tourists who had such a hard time, that they were cracking down on the touts. But I hired an official government guide when I was there because I was doing research for an article on the food, and he insisted we stop in shops to look at old coins, carpets, pottery, etc first.

    I ducked out as fast as I could. MoroccantourismFAIL

    I don’t know if you’re American, like I am, but someone once told me that if you carry a French newspaper, they tend to leave you alone. I haven’t tested that theory, but the guy in Tunisia did approach me rather than Romain, and he definitely looks more French than I do.

    krysalia: Was not sure why a photo-sharing site would be banned… I thought most of the photos on Flickr were about food : )

    Ulrika: Glad you like the blog! You can read a bit about My Photography Gear at the post I did, including my camera, which I love.

    amira: Yes, I’ve heard about that new Tunisian pastry shop. I’m pretty smitten with Bague de Kenza, which you should give a try on your next visit.

  • :D

    There’s certainly a lot of things à croquer on Flickr, but most are not suitable for what Tunisia claims as its policies :D.

  • Oh my heavens – thank you, David. What a glorious story/photo depiction of the diversity of North Africa! I love how you combine culture, food, personal anecdotes, scenery… you give such beautiful glimpses when you travel – it’s amazing.

  • Wonderful pictures! I remember my first trip to a market in the Philippines where similar sales techniques were applied. I was put off by the aggresive behavior then curious about being steered to other shops by the same insistant hawkers, only to find out later that the many sellers owned several booths up and down the market. I should have noticed that each booth was stocked with identical items..but so were most of the booths there! No wonder it was so competitive. These markets are not for the timid, that’s for sure!

  • While researching Paris for an upcoming trip, I found your blog which I love. Since I am fairly new to the blog… and prepping for a trip.. this comment made me wonder…

    Because the dangers of ice cubes are well-documented back home, and only on vacation is one allowed more than one dinky cube of ice in a drink.

    What are the dangers and what faux pas will I commit if I use them?

  • loved this post – thank you for sharing so many gorgeous photos and observations (as always)! reading it brought back many fond memories . . . my husband and i spent a couple weeks traveling in tunisia about ten years ago, and we still reminisce about the honey-soaked pastries and those delicious briks. i don’t have the self-control you possess when it comes to shopping for souvenirs . . . i actually bought the enormous bowl (different pattern, but same size as the pear bowl in the photos) and hauled it home on the plane, along with suitcases filled with other lovely pottery, rugs, and bottles of olive oil, back when such things were allowed. i flew all the way back to michigan with that bowl on my lap like an infant; it now sits in the middle of our dining room table where i regularly marvel that it traveled all the way from sidi bou said (and occasionally tell my 4 year old to quit messing around with it . . .). we are long-term planning a trip to spain in a couple of years with our two daughters, who will by then be 11 and 7, and are planning to spend a week or so in morocco at the same time; hearing stories of such aggressive touts make me a wee bit nervous. perhaps we’ll consider doing that portion of our little family adventure as a group trip with explore family or some other such group . . . maybe that would help? because i would surely be the one getting us into all sorts of trouble buying lovely things to fill our suitcases . . .

  • this post is stunning –all of it– stunning and quite sexy.

  • Thank you for a lovely post; it’s so nice to have someone do justice to this beautiful, often overlooked country. I had the incredible good fortune to visit several years ago for business and got to hit most of the major cities/sites – Tunis, Carthage, Tozeur, Sousse, Kairouan, Sfax, Tataouine – but sadly, none of the beaches. Dommage!

    It is a shame that it tends to be difficult and expensive to get to Tunisia from the US, because I do feel the need to return, especially given what you and others have said about Morocco being something of a hassle to tourists. The people I met were fantastically kind, hospitable, and proud of their country. And yes, the food was exceptional across the board.

  • I love your views about vacations and taking photos. I have never had any desire to visit Africa until now. Plus, I speak a little french, so that could help. So glad you finally got to take a non-volcano-interrupted vacation!

  • Oh my goodness, Tunisia looks fabulous. I had always planned to go to Morocco some day but – as many North Americans, it seems – had never even thought of Tunisia. Maybe I can visit there instead. . . or combine the two. Hm. You’re putting a lot of thoughts in my head.

    Also, I wish I had those pastries right now.

  • Thank you, David. I have spent 2 weeks at Djerba as a teenager with my family and loved it. Your report brought back wonderful memories.

  • Your post of Tunisia and the lush pastries definitely do it justice. My ex-boyfriend is from there and seeing all your gorgeous photography is quite lovely. Thank you!!

  • David, this is an exquisitely gorgeous post! I love the way you write about experiencing a foreign culture and the way you go about discovering its treasures. The pastries of that bakery look exquisite indeed! (I feel fortunate that we have quite a few immigrant bakeries here, giving us a glimpse of the bounty their home countries offer.)

    Regarding snapping away in shops and restaurants, I too feel that respect and good manners demand that we do not just barge in and steal some images, but ask for permission and show respect and interest, earnestly. Your blog is so utterly addicting because it is permeated by the respect you show about other people’s work.

    Thank you for sharing your travels and discoveries so freely. It certainly makes my day every time I come here.

  • P.S.:
    Your description of the North African sky immediately brought to mind Paul Bowles’ “The Sheltering Sky” – the New York Times published a review by none other than Tennessee Williams, sixty years and six months ago today:
    http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/05/17/specials/bowles-sheltering.html

  • One of my very best memories is of a trip to Tunisia on spring break from university in Strasbourg. In 1975. Believe me, there were very few Americans there then! I loved that & continued to visit different African countries. But my first important step onto the continent that would so influence the rest of my life, my career(s)–was Tunisia.

    As my photographs from then aren’t very good (& I admit they are fixed in my mind perfectly well), yours are quite a treat.

    Thank you.

  • Those desserts look splendid!! I can’t wait for you to recreate some of them!!

  • What a spectacular post, I wish I could be there experiencing it alongside you… this is almost as good! The pastries looked almost as beautiful as that shirtless horseman; I think you could write a romance novel based on that picture alone.

    Thank you for sharing your adventure with us!

  • David, thanks for this post, i definitely love your blog, you are bringing back old memories of many years ago when i used to go to Tunisia in May because i always love the low season with less tourists around and less harassment. And in May the sky is clear blue and actually intense blue and the air is fresh and breezy just an amazing contrast and also very dangerous for the skin not feeling any burning and yet getting scorched.
    Ah and the brik à la œuf is so delicious, just today, what a coincidence, my daughter told me that we can buy here in Italy the feuilles de brick so we can make it tomorrow!
    Ciao!

  • i don’t know how to thank you for making me really feel like i were there. for those of us who don’t have the opportunity to visit such lovely places, your generousity in sharing your experience is invaluable. a sincere bunch of thanks :))

  • I seem to remember reading somewhere that Djerba was the Island of the Lotus-Eaters in the Odyssey. Having seen your photos, I now think “lotus” must have been a mistranslation of “Tunisian pastries.” ;)

  • Wow.

  • A beautiful post as always!!

    Wow, if that young topless guy and his horse has shown up at my pony club, years ago, it would have solved the declining membership problem overnight!

  • Beautiful photos! I wasn’t able to capitalize on a free trip to Tunisia when I was in Morocco, so it’s pretty high on my “to go” list. I have few photos from my time in North Africa – I spent so much time trying to become a “local” that I always kept it stashed away.

    Morocco is a mixed bag – after living there for a few weeks, the only people I had problems with were the kids. I would say learning a few choice words in Moroccan Arabic (no matter what one’s French knowledge is) will go a long way: “shame on you”, “go away”, “your mother would cry if she saw you right now”…

    I’ve got to get back to Morocco to visit sometime soon, so if anyone needs a guide/haggler in Fès, just let me know, and I’ll be there! :)

  • Ah, memories of our trip to Tunisia years ago. You brought back the look and taste of brik for me. Thanks so much for a post that is award worthy – the article touches on so much about travel – why we do it and how it affects us.

  • Wonderful story. Wish I could go and visit.

  • The egg in the wonton type wrapper sounds heavenly.

  • Brilliant post!

  • Hi David,

    So enjoyed your Tunisian thoughts, photos, and travel tips. Thank you for sharing them.

    And I do hope you’ll give Morocco another try, specifically Fez-al-Bali. I lost my heart to that ancient medina… twice! Abeit both times I had my own version of your “Romain.” While being accompanied by fezcooking.com’s Lahcen Beqqi, I found hard-sell hawkers very respectful, allowing my senses to be delighted and titillated by all that this amazing medina affords. Lahcen was as indispensible as dirham and Moroccan whiskey.

  • i’m with Lisa on the wrapped egg thing. i mean, that sweet-looking young man and his horse made me smile, but my cravings latched onto that wrapped egg description. YUM, great post, as always!

  • Thank you for taking us on your trip with you. The descriptions and photos make me want to visit a place I’ve never thought of traveling to. Everything looks so clear and bright. It’s obvious that the sun shines brightly and — HOT, as evidenced by so much white everywhere. I guess that’s in an attempt to reflect the sun’s hot rays.

    The Tunisian pottery, the ones that look like tagines are the most colorful I’ve ever seen. I might have to take a trip to Tunisia just to get one to replace my boring, red, Le Creuset model.

  • I wonder what the taxi driver would have said if you requested to be taken to a grocery store? I always try to visit grocery stores when traveling, as they offer a glimpse a part of the food culture and provide a source of interesting snacks. (did you get to visit any?)

    I totally agree with you about shopping without distractions. A pushy salesperson pushes down my buying enthusiasm with great speed.

  • Fabulous post. Incredible photos! I agree with your travel tips on all counts – seeking authentic local food, trying not to be too intrusive, etc. etc. Looks like you had a wonderful time.

  • I want to go….Dubai is as close as I’ll probably ever get…you have written such an evocative article…perhaps travel writing should be your thang??

  • Thank you so very much for this delicious and evocative post, David! It actually reminded me of time we spent in Turkey, being constantly chased (and once even “kidnapped”) alongside the most hospitable people one could ever imagine. I’d never thought of Tunisia as a travel destination, but you’ve whetted my appetite!

  • I didn’t know either that Flickr was banned in Tunisia. Now that I started a 365 project, I should consider it before chosing my next vacation destination. Although taking in account our economic situation, it is likely to be a long time after I finish it anyway >.

  • Marc: There were a lot of small grocers on the island, but I like going to big supermarkets in foreign countries because you can really see some interesting products. In France, there’s a lot of North African grocers so we didn’t go to one on this trip.

    Ksenia: I think it’s important to remember that actions like banning Flickr are done by governments, not the people. Like other places, the actions of the government aren’t necessarily reflective of the public. And if we don’t visit these places because of that, our actions affect the people who live and work there, who don’t necessarily make (or agree) with those policies.

    Fran: I had one of those Le Creuset tagines and the first time I used it, I was lifting off the hot lid with oven mitts and the top slipped and broke because there was no flange to hold on to it, which was a design flaw. I called them and they refused to replace the lid, but I see they have changed the design of it. But I’m still irked about that : 0

    Deb: Yes, in Fez having a good guide is the way to go. It’s incredibly easy to get lost in that Medina, which is one of the most amazing places in the world.

    Merisi: The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles, is one of my all-time favorite books. It’s pretty amazing. Thanks for the reminder; I should probably read it again after being in Tunisia. (I was one of the few people who liked the movie as well. Have you seen it?)

    margie: Since I’m part Arabic, I’ve always wanted to learn to speak Arabic so I could surprise them in their own language. I do think most of them are pretty resilient, as well as persistent, but it’d be great to see the look on their faces…

  • wow, you touched upon so much here, just fantastic. even visited that lingering question of photographing food & people. i can just imagine how many 100’s of photos i have snapped with my eyes but didn’t actually take. as you said, respect for the culture and people around you is clearly of utmost importance.

    i really enjoyed this post, and am now thinking back to the month i spent backpacking around morocco a few years ago. the beauty of the pastries like you captured above was beyond extraordinary. and were those dates i saw above ? (j’adore ! you can see just how obsessed i am in my current blog post)

    lastly, a quick funny anecdote about appreciating what you’re seeing – and not from behind the camera lens. olivier always tells me that, not to grab my camera right away and just enjoy the moment. this weekend there was an air show by the swiss patrouille and what did he say to me, “QUOI?! you didn’t get a photo of that ?!” my reply, “mais non, i finally listened to you and just appreciated the experience.” :)

  • David — beautiful photos, and wonderful stories, but I especially appreciated your thoughts on photographing private spaces and people. I don’t even have a blog, but I try to respect people’s wish for privacy, and the invasion of their space. I think in France it seems to also have a commercial aspect, that it is thought you might be exploiting the photos commerically — using them in books, or selling them to photo services. There are signs in some shop windows in the south of France prohibiting photos (of their public display windows!), a woman in the Nice market who refuses to let you shoot her beautifully displayed vegetables, and I was scolded for photographing the storefront of Maud Frizon (shoes) in Paris. Those aside, people usually seem pleased that you want to photograph them, their work, and their products…

  • David,
    I love the movie with Debra Winger and John Malkovich too! I didn’t mention it because I didn’t want to go on and on. ;-) Bertolucci really brought those sky and dessert colors onto the screen. If my memories serves me right, the movie was filmed in Tunesia.
    Could be that people who have not read and loved the novel itself may miss out on some of the finer points of the story.

  • David,
    I love food, I love Paris and I love your blog- the only one that I read religiously . You have such a gift for richly conveying atmosphere through your words and images. I had been planning to go to Morocco in the near future for a short break (I’m American living in Ireland) but now my thoughts have now been swayed towards Djerba. I was wondering if you could tell me which hotel you stayed at? I would love to watch those lambs being roasted on a spit!

  • I can’t believe I only recently found your blog. However, David, I think I am just subconsciously horribly envious of anyone who eats, drinks and lives in France… Heck, it is not subconscious envy…who am I trying to kid?? I am thrilled to have found your blog and I am now addicted.
    Merci!

  • wow! He does it again! Another wonderful post. Thanks, David, for sharing. As a few people above I have also never considered Tunisia or Djerba, but you are making me think again.
    And I agree with your photographing philosophy: Enjoy the moment and then perhaps snap a few shots. I’ve seen people stand in front something truly stunning, take a picture and, instead of taking in the beauty, look at the picture on their camera! What gives?!
    Your take on taking home and stashing is right up my alley too. So many times you bring stuff (food) home from somewhere in the world and, while it might still taste amazing, it is merely a shadow of what it was like eaten locally. The atmosphere can linger, sure, but it is always so much better enjoying it instead of hoarding. I like the Susan Loomis quote. That nails it nicely. And in the end you’re going to run out of your stash anyway…
    Many thanks again. I agree with some of the others here: This is one of my favorite posts. Seems your writing is taking off to new heights (but don’t call me an expert).

    Oh, by the way, I heard somewhere that in Muslim countries it is indecent for a woman’s gaze to meet that of a man.

  • Beautiful post, David.

  • I loved reading this! I almost got to go to Tunisia once on a cruise, but something happened and our port was changed to Morocco. It does sound like a fascinating place.

  • David
    This is so wonderful I am waiting for the book and the PBS series – when are you going to do one? Please Please do. I am writing to PBS today to request it.

  • David, you are so right about living in the moment and not trying to own the experience or stock up on the goods in order to relive the moment. Such wise travel advice.

    If anyone reading this post wants to experience Tunisia in a protected, family safe setting, I highly recommend the Club Med in Hammamet. On the resort, you have wonderful food, all day activities for kids and access to the lovely culture of Tunisia. We went last summer and had a lovely time with a 3 and 6 year old. Because my husband is French (and looks the part), the locals were pretty respectful and tended to leave us alone.

  • Merisi: A friend who likes the book as much as we do went to see the film and was so overwhelmed with emotion that she went into the lobby and passed out!

    stephanie & catherine: As mentioned in the post, we stayed as guests at Djerba La Douce, which like Hammamet, is part of Club Med. There aren’t a lot of hotel options on the island that I know of that aren’t large resort-style places. There may be some independent hotels, but I don’t know of them. Glad to hear that Hammamet was nice. Djerba La Douce was mostly Europeans (98%) and although the staff didn’t speak hardly any English, it wasn’t a problem and they were all very nice.

    If you live in Europe, Catherine, there are often ‘deals’ to places like Djerba that include airfare and hotel, which are quite reasonable as the low-cost airlines (like EasyJet, Tunisair, and Transavia, which we took, although the return flight they ran out and had no food, even for sale, and we were all starving). But do check and compare hotels, as prices and quality vary and the very low-cost ones may not be such a bargain when you actually see the resort in person, rather than in their glossy brochure.

    adrian: You’re likely right about meeting a man’s gaze. Islam is the official religion in Tunisia, although there are other practicing religions.

  • I was just wondering whether it might be a bit presumptuous to make a travel recommendation…? But since I don’t twitter or facebook I’ll ‘cross-topic’ here.

    Feel free to delete this, but I’m thinking you might really really like South Africa or the Cape in particular. You like good food, right? You love good wines and you love to travel? And you enjoy natural beauty? Well then you absolutely must head farther south. I personally wasn’t especially excited about going and ended up doing so to visit good friends. My attitude has definitely changed. No further rambling and raving here, but go you must ;-)

  • I concur with the other posts re: your photography!
    I went to Fez last year on a cooking excursion. While there, I heard it was better place to visit as a tourist than Casablanca and Marrakesh. Haggling was there but not to the extent as the other two cities. And, everything I photographed, I had to pay.
    When I returned to the States, I was happy to be free of olives, lemons, cinnamon, tagines….but only for about a week. I had to make my own preserved lemons and I hosted 3 Moroccan parties!
    Love your post David- exquisite! And thank you!

  • Great posting , as a travel photographer, I agree with your advice.

    ARI

  • Oh David the pictures look great! You make Djerba look warm and inviting, instead of scorchingly hot that you described. I can almost taste the pastries. And thank you for the photo of the man-child!

    P.S. Ditto on the slight inconvenience of shopping in Morocco.

  • After reading this amazing post I immediately started pricing tickets from the Bay Area. Then I realized it’s going to have to be relegated to my increasingly-long Someday list. Thanks so much for this post, it’s my first introduction to Tunisia!

  • I was eagerly looking forward to this post David and you most certainly did not let me down! Beautifully written and insightful. . You have the talent and the observational sensitivities necessary to become a great travel write . I see a parallel career as a travel writer.
    Hope you have opportunities to develop your obvious talent. Hope you get the opportunity to visit Turkey soon- it’s on my list of next destinations.

  • This is right up there as #1 in ‘my favorite David posts’ list, which gets rotated as necessary! Your emphasis on aspects of photography covering the fairly often mentioned respect of where one is and the much lesser mentioned (but coincidentally, discussed by a friend and I just yesterday) facet of enjoying the moment one is in, rather than just shooting it and having the mental state of being that now one ‘owns’ it (be it photos or food or whatever). You brought both of those out as nimbly as you moved around the bakery kitchen, but strongly enough to be heard. Bravo!!!

    A post to fill the eyes, the stomach and the mind. Right good stuff!

    And the men-on-horses…of course you knew we wanted to see more of that! Thanks!

  • How dreamy! I wish I was there–and not just because it’s probably cooler in Tunisia than it is in New York.

  • I am impressed by your friend’s unique approach to show appreciation – Bertolucci would have loved it. ;-)

  • Incredible pictures! That roasted lamb with couscous looks to be on another level of deliciousness!

  • Ahhhhh!

    Thank you so much for this loooong (a *good* thing in my book), beautiful, descriptive post. Vicarious travel at its BEST and it’s made my day.

    So did shirtless man up there. Whew. *fans self* That’s so hot it *ought* to be illegal! Heh! ;-)

  • If i post a question on an old post, will you get a notification about it and maybe answer it? Anyway, I’ll post the question here. It is about your stollen recipe you posted December 18th, 2009. You wrote “Pour the milk in a medium bowl and sprinkle the yeast over it.” In the ingredients list you’ve written that the milk is supposed to be at room temperature. Then my question is: isn’t the milk supposed to be around 37-40 degrees Celsius, depending on if it’s fresh or powdered yeast, when you mix it with a liquid?

    PS: Can’t wait to taste your ice cream the 22nd:)

    Many people don’t proof yeast in warm liquid, the reasoning being that as the dough rests and gets kneaded, it comes up to the right temperature to activate yeast. When I worked at Chez Panisse, we never proofed the yeast for the pizza dough, adding cold water, which gives it a slower rise and gives the dough a better flavor due to the slower fermentation. But people unsure if their yeast is active can and do proof it in advance, or use warm liquid. -dl

  • Hi David,

    very interesting article, I’m Tunisian born in France and I live in Paris but rise in Tunisia and it’s really true that it’s not usual to see Americans in that country,
    I’m very happy that you liked it, even if Djerba (the island) it’s really touristic, next time you go back, you should try the desert and other cities, there is a lot to see, and so many nice people to meet, concerning Tunisia, you can do or wear whatever you want, just don’t talk about politics that is the only problem, it’s still a fragile democracy but it’s getting better, and I hope it will get as soon as possible to the same level in europe or USA

    even if it’s an Islamic country but you can find topless women on the beach,
    you can also walk hand in hand with your girl friend with no problem, specially in touristic cities, and a lots of other examples..

    I’m going for a few days in 2 weeks, can’t wait to be there for some pastries, good food and of course the beach

    I just discover your blog, and I already put it in my bookmarks ;)

  • Sounds like a great place…
    I was in Morocco for a week in May and, while your comments are accurate, we had a great time. It’s true that you can’t just walk around some areas and be left alone – and that’s too bad. But there were some things we figured out. First, it does help to have someone local walking with you. They don’t even have to do anything, but it sends a ‘taken’ message to people there. Second, outside of the main areas things were much more mellow. We spent a day up in the Atlas mountains, and once there, the interactions we had with people were really quite warm. People just wanted to stop and say hi and wish you well, as opposed to sell you anything.
    And it’s hard to say enough good things about the food there.

  • Looks amazing, David. Lord, and I thought Mexico was an adventure. Looks like I will have to find a way to escape to North Africa. =)

  • Wow , what amazing photos…I never had thougth of Tunisia before as a place to visit, but now I will.
    David, I really appreciate your comment “appreciate what you’re seeing, then take a picture.” … I have been taking photos since I was 10 and I have noticed when I travel ( and even at home) that with the ease of digital photography that a lot more people are taking pictures….but they are not really looking at what they see.
    Don’t get me wrong, I love the convenience and inexpense of digital…but it is not the same as traditional film photography. I think film photography made people more judicious with each photo they took ( i.e. do I want to waste film and processing on this?).

    Thanks for the great post, and those pastries do look delcious!

  • David, this was by far one of my favorite posts. I loved the photos, your experience and especially what you quoted “You don’t need to own it, just enjoy it”. I was in Morocco a couple of years ago and I want to see Tunisia even more. Not sure what it is I want to see there, just want to be there. Just to be.

    On a side note, I feel the same about shopping as you did in Fez, only I feel that way here in the US. Pesky salespeople drive me out of the store when they ask if I need any help. Fun is magnified when three or more of these same salespeople ask the same thing within a few minutes of walking in the door.

  • One small correction which comes from my youth as a daughter of an English professor….

    It’s there’re, not there’s if its more than one thing you’re talking about (oops, ended sentence with preposition!): Otherwise you’re really saying, e.g.:

    “There is many things to do in Tahiti”

    End of rant.

  • Years ago, we were in winter, my wife and I spent three weeks in Tunisia. We stayed in Sousse and the weather was perfect: 25C so we could walk for miles on the beach. We used a lot the louage, a shared tax, a very inexpensive way to travel in Northern Africa so we visited a lots of places. At El Djem, we saw an amphiteater almost the size of the Coliseum! We were moderately harassed but we tried to get the best out of it. In a Berber market somebody took us to a seller who had the most wonderful hand made rugs. We bought one and it costed so little that we even gave the middleman a tip. Later in Kairouan a chap approached us. He was curious about us but very kind. He took us around the city: we went to beautiful coffee shops where we drank strong turkish coffee. We walked through great food markets and tried any kind of street food under his supervision. Then he took us to his family home where we were invited for a meal and shared the food beautifully placed on a rug. Some of the almond pastries had geranium flavour.
    One day we decided to visit Carthage but when in Tunis, you wouldn’t believe me, it started snowing so we headed back to the south.
    Later we discovered a local liqueur made with figs, a bit sweet but very pleasant.

    David, thank you for your beautiful post. It fills me with nostalgia.
    Regards
    Enzo

  • A simply wonderful post full of life and advice, which I hope to use when I travel place to place next year. In order to get the complete experience, the authentic atmosphere, you need to immerse yourself with the locals, culture and food! At times it can feel so unreal. But I cannot think of any other way. Thank you!

  • thank you for this nice post. makes me wanna visit Tunisia, specially those pastry shops and these pastries pictures…!!!! greatness….

  • I loved this travel essay, it made me feel as if I was there…..and certainly that I hope to go there one day. It was truly lovely!

  • You have no idea how happy this post makes me. Just a great little glimpse into that part of the world. I was born in North Africa (in Tripoli), but have not had the chance to return since I was a baby. One day…

    I am curious about the rule against shirtless men. While I understand the rule, it seems odd for a beach resort town. What about rules for women? Are they allowed to wear bathing suits – one piece or bikinis? Or must they cover their shoulders/legs?

    Glad you had a chance to unwind and unplug. I’m so envious, but at least I can live vicariously through your blog. Merci! :)

  • David,
    In one of the pics, there is a plaque reading “Place d’Algerie”, in the background you can see some nice colored dresses (and a bit wild I’d add). By any chance did you see the women/girls dressed in those? I’m guessing, along with the horse riders, they would have been quite a sight!

  • marvelous photos, david! those pastries make me salivate!

  • Fabulous travel post. Loving your pictures as well, the beautiful camel and tagines are my faves, although they are all excellent.

    What is the green spice in the picture with the tubs of spice please?

  • Wow!! SO glad I found this review. We have booked 10 days in Djerba staying in a villa starting on 20th August and I am going to send your post to all the friends that are coming. What glorious photos.

    Thank you so much,

    Sarah

  • Hi David, what a surprise to read your piece about Djerba. I go there regularly and have never seen this amazing pastry shop ! Can you share the address with us ?
    Thanks

  • Nawel: As mentioned, the building was unmarked and unnamed, so I don’t know more about it. It’s near the old synagogue and locals will most likely know where it is and how to get there.

    Kelly-Jane: I don’t know what that spice was, since the bin was unmarked.

    (Must be a trend in Djerba not to mark things!)

  • I have been to Morocco three times in the past five years. (I had friends working in Rabat.) The only place where I was harassed and to where I would never return is Marrakesh, where one vendor told me “F— you” after I ignored him. Yeah, that’ll make me more likely to eat at your restaurant.

    Casablanca, Rabat and Fez were fine, although my husband and I did buy rugs in Fez that we were not planning to buy because our guide took us to a “rug museum” and we fell in love with two of the rugs we saw. We have not seen rugs like that since, so it wasn’t a total disaster, but we learned to tell the guide that we weren’t interested in a place. You just have to be strong!

    As far as the cost of getting to North Africa – we went to Madrid on frequent flier miles, then paid for the flight to Casablanca, about $200 each. It takes too many FF miles to get to Africa, almost twice as many as to Europe, if I recall. There may be a similar price disparity in ticket costs to Africa vs Europe.

  • We flew on Transavia, a new low-cost carrier (owned by Air France and KLM). Each ticket was €250RT from Paris, although fares are less (or more) depending on when you book.

    Our outbound flight was 6:40am (!) although it was from Orly, which is a lot more civilized and closer to Paris than Charles de Gaulle Airport. The return flight was nearly empty, but our flight was delayed and when the plane showed up, they hadn’t stocked it with any food (which was dumb, because they charge for it and that’s how they make their money as well) and since we’d been at the airport in Tunisia since 4pm for our 6pm flight, which arrived in Paris at 11pm, everyone on the flight was so hungry we were eyeing the armrests to decide if they were edible!

  • David,
    The creme caramel in one of your first photos looks amazing–different from most flans I’ve seen. It looks more dry, which is appealing to me. Do you know why that is? Or have a recipe knocking around that you’d point me towards?
    Thanks
    Rachel

    It’s likely that it was made with condensed milk, sweetened or unsweetened, which has less-moisture than fresh milk. I didn’t see it being made, but in Mexico, the flan is often made as such also. -dl

  • What a wonderful trip. I’ve always dreamed of visiting Tunesia. Thank you for the vicarious vacation!

    On my last trip to Paris, this spring – when I was stranded there, per the volcano, rather than gallivanting around Nice and the French Riviera – I stayed in the Marais, as I always do, and met the lovely man who runs the cute little crêperie (sky-blue painted exterior) on the rue des Rosiers. I had one of his crêpes or a cup of his tea nearly every day, and when I got sick with a bad cold my second week there, the tea started to come compliments of the house. He was so nice. Tunesian, he told me about his family and his country, and that if I ever went he could put me in touch with his mother and sister and even put me up with them as a guest.

    So you’re right, of course. Pick a cafe or some other establishment and become a fixture and you’ll feel at home anywhere, in no time.

  • I hope you enjoyed your trip on our island :)

    Unfortunately you came to our island when the sky was hazy. Djerba has often a beautiful clear sky!

    I was watching your Flickr Gallery ! Be welcome again :)

  • Djerba has a very beautiful sky !

  • Yes Djerba is a wonderful island. Very nice pictures and article. We need more english/US people to come in visit us, as the most of tourists come from Europe, so it’s good to see english people writing about Djerba.
    Come back whenever you want, you’re welcome !!! :)

  • thanks for sharing your thoughts and photos…I lived there 84-87 and visited in 89…loved the people. food, drink, sun and sea…and all that went with it… glad to that things have changed, yet much remains the same…