TABARKA, TUNISIA (AFP) : A Tunisian entrepreneur growing edible flowers says she is surprised by the appetite for her home-grown product in the North African country and hopes to see a “new culinary culture” bloom.
Ms Sonia Ibidhi, a 42-year-old journalist, turned to organic farming of the niche but in-demand product “out of love” for working on the land.
Among the flowers she grows are borage, a blue star-shaped flower that tastes like cucumber, chive flowers – purple blossoms with a flavour similar to onion – and nasturtiums, bright yellow to orange flowers with a radish-like taste.
“I thought the flowers would be for export and of no immediate interest to the local market, but I’ve been surprised by the growing demand, in particular from some top-end hotels,” she said.
After bringing back 42 seed varieties from France, Ms Ibidhi began planting around a dozen types of flowers.
She said she chose the mountainous Tabarka region in the country’s north-west for its humid climate and abundant fresh water, and now uses her own seeds.
“I do something that I love, that is beautiful and colourful,” she said proudly.
She said she hoped her flowers would spark “a new culinary culture in the country”.
Tunisians already use certain flowers in their traditional cuisine – some sweets feature dried rose petals, while lavender is an ingredient in a spice mix used in couscous recipes.
But fresh flowers, which can be used for dishes from soups to salads as well as teas, are a novelty.
In a luxury hotel in Gammarth, an upscale northern suburb of the capital Tunis, chef Bassem Bizid uses nasturtiums for his fish tartar and accompanies other dishes with a flower-leaf salad or a sorbet garnished with fresh violets.
Clients are “very satisfied to discover something new”, he said.
The hotel’s master chef, Italian Alessandro Fontanesi, said that during the coronavirus pandemic, the flowers went beyond introducing a new look and flavour.
“Not only are we using a rare Tunisian product, which makes the plate more attractive and adds a special taste, but it can take our clients on a culinary journey,” he said.
Ms Ibidhi launched her business in 2019, after four years of planning.
As well as needing to do an “enormous” amount of paperwork, she said she had to repeatedly explain to the forestry department “what edible flowers were for”.
She sold her car to help finance the business, and later received a grant from the African Development Bank, she said.
She now pays the state 1,400 dinars (S$687) annually to lease five hectares of land.
But Ms Ibidhi now fears seeing her business wither.
As well as edible flowers, she has planted a large quantity of strawberries, selling both the fruit and the leaves, which can be used for herbal teas.
But the authorities say growing strawberries is in breach of her lease agreement.
Ms Ibidhi said she risked a large financial loss were she to uproot them.
“My flowers have become my world,” she said. “I will fight tooth and nail for my project.”