Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The ‘rare gift’ of Tunisia’s delicate date palm drink

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

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A man picks fruits from a palm tree, to be used for making legmi, a coveted date palm drink, in the southwestern Tunisian town of Gabes. afp

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

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 Ramadan 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”.

“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.

‘Prince’ of palm tree

At the Ain Slam roundabout, a 1.5-litre bottle sells for around 2.5 dinars ($0.87).

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. After God, there is the palm tree,” he said.

Perched atop an eight metre palm, cigarette between his lips, 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.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A customer buys bottles of legmi from a street vendor, a coveted date palm drink, in the southwestern Tunisian town of Gabes. MOURAD MJAIED/afp

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.

‘Young people’s game’

Other than fresh, or “living” legmi, a fermented, alcoholic version of the drink is produced, called “dead” legmi.

Back at the Gabes roundabout, Haithem described the alcoholic drink as “a young people’s game”.

“They don’t have a lot of money to get drunk, so you pay one dinar and get dead legmi . . . but it’s not good at all.”

In his youth, Haithem and others fermented living legmi for hours in a hut to produce their own alcohol.

“Everyday we tested it. We added herbs, mint . . . Until today, we don’t know which one was the best because nobody agreed. Those are good memories.”

Along with the harvesting, storing the drink is complex as it turns rapidly into vinegar.

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.”

Some residents see its fragility and limited reach as a positive.

Haithem said that some were afraid: “If there is a lot of demand, what’s going to happen? They’re going to cut a lot of palms and risk losing the oases.”

Moussa, the legmi producer, warned that “chemical pollution from factories is a threat to the oases”.

State-owned Tunisian Chemical Group has been processing phosphate in the area since the 1970s and has been blamed for putting the oases at risk. But for now, the future of legmi producers is assured.

“I taught my son this work so that this tradition stays in Gabes forever,” Moussa said.


  • Khmer New Year holidays postponed

    In an effort to halt Covid-19 infections in the Kingdom, Prime Minister Hun Sen has postponed the Khmer New Year holidays scheduled from April 13 to 16. While the people will not have their usual break, nor will there be any public celebrations or gatherings at pagodas,

  • Private schools struggling

    The Cambodian Higher Education Association has claimed that 113 private educational establishments are facing bankruptcy because of their inability to pay rent and staff salaries in light of nationwide school closures caused by the Covid-19 outbreak. It said the financial trouble started when the Ministry of

  • NA, Senate set for bill on ‘emergency’

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has requested the Senate to convene an extraordinary meeting to review the draft law that aims to put the Kingdom in a state of emergency after the bill reached the National Assembly (NA) on Friday. The draft law, which was approved

  • Temporarily laid-off workers to get just $70

    Prime Minister Hun Sen announced changes in the allowances for temporarily laid-off garment workers from receiving 60 per cent of the minimum wage to a flat $70 because factories cannot pay, he said. Workers will also not be required to attend training courses after more than 100 factories

  • Tourists can now prolong their stay

    The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation said tourists holding Visa T and arriving in the Kingdom after January 1 will be allowed to prolong their stay until they are able to return home. The decision comes as Cambodia and most countries take measures to

  • PM: Law likely next week

    Prime Minister Hun Sen said the draft law aiming to place the Kingdom in a state of emergency amid the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to be approved after the Khmer New Year, though he said there is a slim chance of enforcement given the current