Maison Ely Séide – from the land of olive trees and honey

14 Apr 2016
6 min read
With Italy and Spain having experienced bad harvests, poor weather and olive fly infestations, Tunisia has stepped into the limelight to become the World’s second largest olive oil producer during 2015. Even though Spain continues to hold the top spot, olive porduction has increased fourfold in Tunisia, making it a world leader for this liquid gold. FOUR speaks to Zena Ely Séide Rabia, fourth generation olive oil sommelier and producer from artisan olive oil makers, Ely Séide…

Can you tell us a bit about the history of Ely Séide?

My great grandfather bought an olive tree orchard on the edge of the Sahara desert in 1879 – he started cultivating it and his son Séide, my grandfather took over in the early years of the century. In fact, the name Ely-Séide is not simply a brand, it represents the orchard that has been in my family for four generations and named after my father Ely and my grandfather Séide.

My grandfathers’ love for the olive trees, the earth and an obsession for both traditional and innovative processes of production, led them to be amongst the most respected master olive oil makers of their time. Their way of farming was incredibly avant-garde; they had at heart to create an environment that would not be simply to produce olive oil but to respect the trees and the soil on which they grow. When industrialised techniques started to appear in the 70’s, my father took a stand and decided to keep his agriculture as natural as possible, keeping it at human scale and producing with people rather than machinery. At the time, they didn’t use terms such as organic or biodiversity but they used techniques that 40 years later proved to be not only optimum, but now they are considered the only way to preserve the highest standards. In a way, I’m glad they decided to stay behind their time in the 70s. And to this day, we use the same ancestral methods, we harvest totally by hand and we don’t allow any vehicle on the orchard to avoid any spill of oil or polluting emissions near the trees, pruning is with manual saws and ploughing is still with horses.

My father and myself then started to work on both the scientific and tasting approaches:The scientific approach is about how to increase the antioxidants of the olive oil we produce and elevate it to a powerful natural health booster. This has been a trigger for me to pursue a degree at the University of Montpellier in oleology and better my knowledge and capabilities in olive oil making.

Tasting on the other hand, is all about artistry on how to detect and to a certain extent create particular profiles of olive oil, understand the aromatic notes of the varieties we grow and share it with the world. That’s what makes me the happiest, I love talking about it, teaching about our processes and get people to taste and use olive oils in their culinary creations.Ely Séide is all about combining the science with the art of making the healthiest and best tasting olive oil.

What did you aspire to be when you grew up?

Oh that’s a tough question! I changed my mind every year or so. I was interested in so many things but particularly art. I always had a sense for aesthetic appreciation and for a long time I wanted to be an interior designer or an artist of some sort. And amongst all the different ideas that came to me, they all had a common denominator, I wanted to create! My father taught me to believe that life is a wonderful and limitless journey; the only prerequisite is to learn along the way. Also, there was this one day in my life, few years ago, that I realised that one does not need to stick with one thing, anyone achieve everything they want, we should just set our path and give each endeavour our fullest attention. That was such a good day for me, like a revelation, the sky is the limit, it felt incrediblyliberating.

How did you find your way into the world of being an olive oil sommelier?

I think being the daughter of three generations of olive oil makers, and involved in olive oil tasting since a very young age, the path pretty much materialized in front of me. Like a moth attracted to light, I think I just gravitated towards my destiny.

Today I have shaped a job that suits my lifestyle and that is very adaptable to my clients and the format of their events. They don’t need to travel to an orchard, to get the full experience I combine the skills I have developed as an olive oil grands crus sommelier and the food pairing experience to bring the orchard to them. It is very similar to a wine sommelier, matching a wine selection to the menu and taking guests in the story behind the origins and their gastronomic journey. I help people truly appreciate their olive oil tasting journey on its own and then use the olive oil varieties in a way that they become part of the menu; in fact, they are the menu! At the end of the journey, my guests have explored everything from neutral tasting to using the most formidable flavours of olive oil and how they’re used to deliver a unique experience – it’s certainly a different type of cooking experience.

What does it entail to be an expert olive oilconnoisseur at Ely Séide?

First of all, it all starts with my involvement in the production of olive oil. I follow a philosophy based on maximizing the health proprieties of olive oil. I experiment all the time. I am also interested in a balance between the healthy attributes and finding an optimum aromatic essence of the olive oil.Apart from the production aspect, my work has many applications to it. It could go from helping culinary school students or chefs on how to use olive oil in their preparations or help brands source olive oils with distinctive characteristics to develop their own range.

I also enjoy pure olive oil tasting experiences. Whether as part of small but eclectic dinner party, team building activities, or much larger events, I love educating people about olive oil and guiding them through the olive oil tasting journey. And when the guests start understanding the process behind each grand cru and take the time to taste as well as experience it in different foods, all of us enter an enchanted world where food pairing is at the centre of it all. Truly that is where I feel the happiest, I enjoy every minute I spend transmitting this wealth of knowledge. I love to see the fascination in their eyes when they find a particular aroma, or simply when it sparkles a discussion and a debate – it is truly a vibrant group dynamic and God…I love it!

What interesting trends/themes are going on in the olive oil world?

People are more and more aware of what they eat and the Mediterranean diet has proved scientifically to be one of the most beneficial to our health. As consumers become more aware of the health benefits associated with top quality olive oil they are starting to replace many of the lower quality and health value vegetable oils with olive oil. This is happening even in cooking with olive oil at high temperature, as quality olive oil has a high smoking point around 210C.

However most consumers don’t play with it enough from an aromatic perspective and are not aware of the whole experience around olive oil tasting. Many don’t know how to distinguish a good from a bad olive oil or that there are about 2000 varieties of olive trees in the world and each, as for a wine cépage, has its own characteristics and identity. Learning about all this is a fascinating experience for the epicurean souls who appreciate that it is much more than a simple vegetable fat. It is a culinary fragrance and a tasting experience that should be savoured.

What are your FOUR indispensable oil collection favourites?

There are three olive oils I simply love in my range – the first two were planted by my father in the 50s and they were so popular, especially with Italian chefs who lived in Tunis at the time. It reminded them of the olive oil from where they came from in southern Italy or Sicily and they were right, the climate and soil are very similar and therefore so will the product. One is called Taparura, a Chetoui cultivar with distinctive notes of tomato on the vine, a bit peppery and low bitterness. The other is Neptune, it is a Chemlali cultivar and its aromas are intensely nutty with hints of almond, with a balanced pepperiness and bitterness.

The third from my range has to be the White Truffle Edition of Byzacène, Ely Séide’s Grand Cru. For over 3 years, I tested through the three harvests to get the right equilibrium between olive oil and truffle aromas. I spent so much time on these tests, as a little aside, I almost went into truffle overdose at some point! Also, there is an outstanding organic olive oil I personally love from Domaine Fendri. It is also a Chemlali variety from the north of Tunisia. The reason why I love it is not only the amazing grassy taste but also because I know about the tremendous care that is provided to their trees and their pressing methods.

Do you cook at all? What kinds of things do you like cooking at home on your days off?

I am into very nutritious food and it is not that easy spending enough time in the kitchen when you travel quite often. So when I am at home, I cook as much as possible. I have a very particular philosophy when it comes to that, my meals are always Mediterranean and I favour eating raw vegetables, grilling my food, or any dishes that require minimal cooking time, all to make sure that I keep the maximum vitamins, nutrients, dare I say, the original flavour of the food. For me, it needs to be “super3”: super healthy, super tasty, and super quick! My emphasis is always on the initial produce quality.

Find out more aboutEly Séide olive oils and stockists here…