The ‘gift’ of Tunisia’s delicate date palm drink

GABES, Tunisia (AFP) – As soon as the sun is up, people in southern Tunisia rush out to buy a glass or bottle of legmi, a coveted date palm drink that is too delicate to be sold far from the oasis.

At 7am, at the busy Ain Slam roundabout in the centre of the coastal city of Gabes, bicycles, cars and military vehicles are clustered around three men seated on plastic chairs.

Next to them are jugs brimming with the precious juice, a testament to the Gabes saying, “Even if the legmi attracts mosquitos, people will stick around.”

Favoured particularly during the Muslim holy month of Ramadhan for its high sugar content, this drink, typical of Saharan oases, is primarily consumed from March to October.

Many Tunisians enjoy legmi for breakfast, such as Akram, who has walked to the roundabout for the morning rush.

“We were born with legmi,” he said.

“My grandfather and my father produced it, my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter has already drunk it, and me, I have even written a song about legmi,” said the singer, in his thirties.

Another customer, Haithem, 30, described the drink as “part of our identity”.

A customer buys a glass of legmi, a coveted date palm drink, from a street vendor in the southwestern Tunisian town of Gabes. – PHOTOS: AFP
A man picks fruits from a palm tree, to be used for making legmi

“It’s something rare, it’s a gift,” he said.

A producer must have an expert hand and not be too greedy to draw the sap from the palm without killing it, he said.

At the Ain Slam roundabout, a 1.5-litre bottle sells for around 2.5 dinars (USD0.87).

One of the producers is Ridha Omrane Moussa, who describes himself as the “prince of the palm tree”.

Now in his sixties, he has harvested the nectar since learning the technique aged 14 from a relative in the Gabes oasis of Nahal.

“He who doesn’t love the palm tree is not Gabesian,” he said.

Perched atop an eight-metre palm, Moussa had just finished his harvest for the day.

To extract a daily take of 15 litres, he climbs the palms barefoot, using nothing but notches he made in their trunks.

He carefully cuts the bark to cause a reaction from the palm that makes its sap rise.

But “one must not touch the heart of the palm, otherwise it dies,” Moussa warned.

He has 25 palm trees but harvests from each for just two and a half years before letting them rest for four years, producing around 8,000 litres annually.

To keep it fresh, bottles of ice are placed in the can that the sap flows into overnight, then the juice is immediately frozen until it’s poured for sale.

This fragile process limits the consumption of legmi.

“Even in Sfax, there is none,” Haithem said, of the coastal city to the north.

“It has stayed organic, without any chemicals or ingredients for preservation, nothing.”