Discover fine wines and fiery flavours on Tunisia's Cap Bon peninsula
From a seafood feast in Kelibia to spice shopping in Nabeul, Tunisia’s northeastern Cap Bon peninsula offers up a fiery fusion of culinary experiences.
Chef Gobji Mohamed is apologetic as he beckons me into Kelibia’s Marché Aux Poissons. “Bad conditions last night, so there isn’t as much fish as usual,” he says. “The fisherman couldn’t go out as far.”
He’s right about the weather, as the howling wind against my hotel balcony shutters testified. Nonetheless, resting on long beds of ice inside the chilly, white-tiled market hall is a smorgasbord of glittering fish, freshly caught overnight from the restless waters off northern Tunisia’s Cap Bon peninsula and delivered to Kelibia’s historic port about a half a mile away. We amble by densely packed sardines, bright baskets of pale orange langoustines and angular silver swordfish, while Gobji meticulously pokes and prods at almost every variety in search of the freshest and the finest. It’s a routine he’s been going through almost every week since he moved back to his hometown 10 years ago, following stints in Morocco and Paris.
Two hours later and we’re standing beside a crackling seafood barbecue on a smooth wooden boardwalk outside El Mansourah, Gobji’s shorefront restaurant. The morning’s low leaden clouds have given way to pale blue skies and this cinematic setting is a world away from the port’s symphony of blaring horns, rumbling male chatter and whirring engines, despite being just a 10-minute drive north. The restaurant sits on a rugged, rocky promontory flanked by golden beaches, while Kelibia Fort, a 16th-century stone citadel, looms above on a nearby hillside. The wind still lingers from the previous night’s storm, as the hissing barbecue sends out waves of smoke and sweet ocean aromas. Soon we’re served the fruits of Gobji’s labours: a platter of tangy red mullet, soft calamari, crisp and springy langoustines and succulent swordfish on a bed of ditalini pasta.
I can see why he returned to this extraordinary spot where, surprisingly, few tourists venture. “This beach was the first place that I ever swam,” he says, looking over his shoulder at the warm dunes of Plage de la Mansoura. “My father used to bring me here and now I bring my son. It’s a very nice place, maybe the best place in Tunisia.”
I’ll have to take Gobji’s word for it for now, but he certainly wasn’t the only one to think so. This lush corner of Tunisia has been coveted, conquered and reconquered mercilessly over the past 3,000 years, from marauding Roman armies to rapacious French colonialists via the Ottoman Empire. Ancient Carthage was a busy Mediterranean outpost of the Phoenicians, but the Roman brutality in the Third Punic War of 146BC means that almost nothing remains of Carthaginian life. Yet at Cap Bon’s northern tip, the last vestiges of this ancient civilisation are still intact. Just a 20-minute drive north of Kelibia, the coastal Punic town of Kerkouane and its necropolis are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and museum, and its ruined stone streets and shorn columns constitute the only surviving example of a Punic city in existence.
During a brief excursion there, I watch mellifluous waves gently break against large, cream-coloured boulders at Kerkouane’s water’s edge below and, while it isn’t visible on a hazy day like today, Sicily’s distant coast is less than 100 miles away. It’s an indication of how close these people were and how their gastronomy became intertwined. Italy is recalled again as we drive back south past hills of Aleppo pine, densely packed olive groves and rows of skinny cypress trees. I begin to see why Roman historian Pliny the Elder reportedly once described it as the ‘Garden of Carthage’.
The vineyards between capital Tunis and Cap Bon’s eastern coast have been home to wine production for more than 2,000 years and the Domaine Neferis estate even takes its name from an old Carthaginian city. But don’t be surprised if you’ve never had the pleasure of sampling its full-bodied Syrah red or floral dry Muscat, as Tunisian wine isn’t widely available across the UK. The estate’s technical director Rached Kobrosly is trying to change that, though.
“Around 90% of our wine is sold here, so 10% to Europe and America is nothing, really. It’s a challenge,” says Rached as he leads me around hulking metallic distillation towers, before we wander back through imposing stone gates to their 19th-century townhouse. “But it’s a stereotype that we don’t drink here,” he says, handing me a deep ruby red glass of 2019 Cuvée Magnifique. The wine has an intense and perfumed nose, while the long finish lingers with spicy notes. “We’re not a conservative country, you know. The culture of wine has existed here for thousands of years.”
Side dishes of sweet olives and crunchy pistachios are served, though I imagine a red as fruity and full-bodied as this would go equally well with dark chocolate. Kobrosly then explains that his wines have won awards in France recently, though his incorrigible home crowd remains the most important judge: “In Tunisia, you can put 100 medals on your bottle but if the customer doesn’t like it, they’ll tell you!”
While Tunisian wine is still making inroads abroad, other Cap Bon products have become ubiquitous with this country’s cuisine. Tunisia is the largest exporter of harissa, the unmistakable crimson paste of roasted baklouti chilli peppers, often blended with garlic, caraway seeds, salt, lemon juice and coriander. Whether served as an appetiser paired with olive oil-soaked tabouna bread or as a fiery accompaniment to classic couscous dishes, harissa is so vital to the identity of Cap Bon that Tunisia submitted an application for the condiment to be considered for UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2020.
After a fascinating behind-the-scenes tour at the rural Zgolli processing factory, the hunger for harissa leads me to Nabeul, a town on Cap Bon’s south coast. I’m about to be led around its chaotic local souk by Rafik Tlatli, a wisecracking avuncular chef wearing a dark flat cap and a white chef’s jacket with sleeves decorated with bright red peppers.
Dodging scurrying stray cats and weaving mopeds as we enter, I’m entranced by the endless boxes of gleaming olives and multicoloured pyramids of paprika, cumin, black sesame and myriad other spices lining the busy stalls. Chilli peppers and garlic cloves hang from the redbrick ceiling. Tlatli turns to me and remarks with a grin, “What is it you say? An apple a day keeps the doctor away? Well, a garlic a day keeps everyone away!”
Rafik’s jocular personality is one reason why he’s become something of a celebrity chef in Tunisia, doing everything from hosting radio shows to judging TV cooking competitions. But he’s most comfortable back at his elegant restaurant Slovenia in the heart of Nabeul — and it’s there, after our market tour, that he demonstrates how to cook ojja merguez, a Tunisian breakfast dish, similar to shakshuka.
With his searing hot frying pan spitting olive oil and a series of small white bowls laden with fresh ingredients, Rafik is in his element, as he drops in diced tomatoes, green peppers, sliced garlic cloves, tomato puree and, finally, chunky cuts of spicy merguez sausages. A generous dose of red harissa is stirred into the mix before Rafik cracks two eggs and brings the ojja to a bubbling, aromatic crescendo. “Et voila!” Around the table a few minutes later, the sizzling ojja is served alongside torn loaves of tabouna. The rich tender merguez melts in my mouth while the fire of the harissa dances on my tongue. It’s symbolic of Cap Bon’s cuisine; like so many of the dishes I’ve tried here, it’s food laced with flair and flavour.
Three restaurants to visit
1. El Mansourah: During summer, the outdoor tables at El Mansourah are laid out in spectacular fashion across the craggy cliff it sits on and you can practically touch the lapping Mediterranean below. Head chef Gobji Mohamed’s focus is on locally sourced seafood, and the seabass with fresh mushrooms in truffle cream sauce pairs perfectly with a glass of local Selian rosé. The restaurant also offers a good-value breakfast and brunch, too, but with views as spectacular as these, you might well be tempted to stay all day. Mains from TND 45,000 (£12).
2. Le Barberousse: Le Barberousse is as popular with locals as it is with visitors. Its Mediterranean menu doesn’t offer too many surprises, but the breezy beach setting is seductive and the wine list extensive. Try and grab a table as close to the seafront as possible and order some of their exceptionally presented seafood, such as the wonderfully named symphonie de la mer platter, alongside a bottle of dry white Muscat. Mains from TND 34,000 (£9).
3. Bon Kif: Ceramics are sold on almost every street in Nabeul and the city’s ornate tiles and colourful mosaics are put to wonderful effect in Bon Kif. The white and sea-green decor is evocative of Greek islands and the menu is a delicious mix of Mediterranean seafood and traditional Tunisian cuisine. Start with a seafood-stuffed brik pastry before moving on to the John Dory fillet on a bed of couscous for an indulgent taste of Cap Bon. Mains from TND 30,000 (£8).
How to do it:
Tunisair flies twice-weekly from Heathrow and weekly from Stansted to Tunis-Carthage Airport, with returns from £190. From there, it’s just over an hour’s drive to both Nabeul and Hammamet. Double rooms at the Magic Hotel Manar resort in Hammamet start from £82.
More info: discovertunisia.com
Published in the June 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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