The harvesting process is a daunting one, families spending half a year collecting, heating, breaking and sifting pine cones to extract zgougou. Indeed, they were dire circumstances that first prompted interest in the seed as a food item. Agricultural lands were ravaged during the Mejba revolt of 1864, when Ali Ben Ghedhahem led an uprising in protest of Sadok Bey’s new tax policy; three years of famine followed, driving people to the forests in search of sustenance. Today, zgougou is a regular food industry overseen by the ministries of Agriculture, Commerce and Health. The seeds are sold in bulk by the kilogram or, as has begun in recent years, transformed into a paste and sold in 500 gram tubs, ready to be mixed with flour and sugar to make assida. Although the ingredient is but a flourish in the Tunisian diet, consumed once a year on the Mouled, zgougou harvest is an arduous six-month operation, often involving entire families who camp in the mountains through the winter.

Plenty of seed to go around, but prices on the rise

The Forest Exploitation Agency, a public enterprise owned by the Ministry of Agriculture, is in charge of leasing out forest to independent operators. The Agency’s current director, Mohamed Mokhtar, explains how the land designated for exploitation, some 68 thousand hectares of forest, is divided up according to surveys conducted by each governorate’s Regional Agricultural Development Office (CRDA). A call to tenders is held each year between May and June, and lots are contracted out to the highest bidders for exploitation. This year, Mokhtar reports, about 21 thousand hectares of forest have been parcelled out to some 70 operators who will harvest an estimated 345 thousand tons of zgougou by the end of April. Whatever was not sold this year will provision next year’s supply. With 157 thousand tons of zgougou currently on the market, national demand for the product, around 150 thousand tons, is more than satisfied.