Sometimes eating is about filling the belly. Maybe even most of the time. But sometimes it’s about the preparation, gleaning cultural insights and the history of a particular dish. Which is why it is such a thrill to spend an afternoon baking bread in the desert with Amazigh shepherds — the way they’ve been doing it for eons.
Many people associate the process of baking unleavened flatbread in desert sand with the Tuareg people, a nomadic tribe who call it taguella. The shepherds don’t have a name for their bread, but a quick online search produces names like “Berber bread” or “Berber pizza.” A word of caution though: The Amazigh themselves consider “Berber” to be a derogatory term. Still, what they bake is fundamentally the same thing, save a few ingredients.
It’s astonishingly easy to make bread in the middle of nowhere.
In Food Cultures of the World Encyclopedia, Volume 2, author Ken Albala says “Libyan Berbers” spice their dough with sesame seeds, fennel seeds and aniseed before carving a hole in the center and baking. They then serve the bread with a “thick green or black tea.” In Tunisia, they prepare a stripped-down version of this, a bare-bones mixture of semolina, water and salt that is no less toothsome.
It’s astonishingly easy to make bread in the middle of nowhere. In southern Tunisia — not far from the Matmata caves where Star Wars was filmed — a shepherd named Salem mixes unmeasured quantities of the above ingredients in a simple clay dish, kneading the dough as dozens of goats and sheep look on. In the meantime, the other men build a small fire a few feet away — making the process a communal one. When the fire simmers down, the dough is ready for burial in a sand bowl covered with coals.
If life is more about the journey than the destination, then waiting for the bread to bake is every bit as satisfying as the end result. Sitting under an ancient olive tree with a group of quiet-spoken men whose lives under the sun are etched onto their skin, miles away from the nearest water point, you will either experience sheer panic or a renewed sense of connection to the earth.
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After about 30 minutes, a hot, heavy loaf emerges from its grainy oven. Hard on the outside but soft inside, it is salty and scrumptious. It’s no sourdough, but its delight lies squarely in the incredible simplicity with which it is made. You’ll feel like the Indiana Jones of gastronomy.
Like me, you might worry about eating dirt. But it wasn’t gritty at all. Through a translator, the shepherds say the trick is to bake the bread in loose sand with no debris, and to make sure it doesn’t get too hot. They normally eat theirs in the morning with milk and freshly made cheese.
Even more divine than the bread itself is the bakers’ kindness. Azzedine Antol, a senior man with cataracts in laughing eyes, tells me, “In our civilization if you come to visit once, you must come again.”
GO THERE: Bake Bread in the Tunisian Desert
- Location: A tiny slip of a place, Al Zraoua Nouvelle is not easy to find, largely because it is written in Arabic script on Google Maps and the road in has no name. It’s 285 miles from Tunis and 14 miles from Matmata Nouvelle, the next-closest town. Traveling west from Matmata Nouvelle, if you reach the old Matmata, you’ve missed the sign on the right-hand side of the road pointing to Al Zraoua Nouvelle. (I learned this the hard way).
- Meeting the shepherds: This is not an official tourist destination. However, if you wish to meet the Amazigh shepherds, Tarek Laabidi, a local photographer and explorer, will be happy to guide you — you can find him on Facebook under the name Tarek Laabidi II. (He recommends you contact him in advance and plan to camp. And you’ll need your own vehicle.)
- The bread: While the shepherds were so generous to bake bread for me using their own flour, I humbly recommend you bring a bag of semolina flour with you, as they will be insulted by offers of money.
- Pro tip: As with all things desert, it’s best to arrive early in the morning. And you’ll want to give yourself plenty of time for way-finding.
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