Sonia Ayadi, 39, came to Buffalo from Tunisia with her husband in 2000 to attend D’Youville College where she earned a master’s degree in international business. But before she launched her business career she began a family with her husband Haithen Ben Jaballah, who is also from Tunisia. Their two sons are ages 8 and 11.
In 2008 Ayadi opened Trimex Global, an international trade company that imported olive oil from Tunisia. She started her olive oil boutique in 2012. Zetouna, located on Elmwood Avenue, is the Tunisian word for “olive.” In Tunisia, Ayadi said, olive oil is served by the bowl with lunch and dinner.
People Talk: Would you call yourself an adventurer?
Sonia Ayadi: I am, but at first it was very, very hard to adjust, to learn the language. Because when I first came here I didn’t know any English. I learned in three months. I came here in August, had some fun and then I started school in January 2001.
PT: Describe the Tunisian population in Buffalo.
SA: Very small. We are about 13 people.
PT: How did you discover olive oil?
SA: It seemed like a natural idea to me because Tunisia is the second producer of olive oil after the European union: Spain, Italy and Greece. I love olive oil. My husband’s family owns orchards of olive trees. I’m Mediterranean. Our diet is based on olive oil. Everything we do is olive oil. In Tunisia, people don’t buy a bottle of olive oil they buy a lot because they buy for a whole year. In 2010 I had my first shipments and I was selling through Premier Gourmet and Lexington Co-op. In 2012 I resigned from the company and opened my shop to sell my own olive oil.
PT: How did you come upon your company name, Trimex Global?
SA: The TR is trade. IM is import and EX is export. I tried the export first. It didn’t work well. I exported mosquito traps for big areas like one acre. Tunisia has a big tourism industry, but it has a lot of mosquitoes. I was looking for something to clean the area because every time we go for vacation we suffer from mosquitoes. So I found the company and I started to export and at first it worked well, but customer testing took a long time. In the meantime, I was thinking about import.
PT: How many olives does one tree produce?
SA: A lot. It takes 6 kilograms – or 10 pounds – of olives to make one liter of olive oil. The more you press, you’ll have more quantity but less quality.
PT: How many varieties of olives are there?
SA: In Tunisia there are 56 varieties, each with a different taste. The olives all start green and become purple and turn dark, almost black. The color changes as it matures. It stays on the tree about a year. In Tunisia the harvest starts at the end of October and runs to February.
PT: What makes olive oil extra virgin?
SA: It has to have maximum acidity of .8. All of mine are less than .5. Sublime, which won an award last year at a trade show in Japan, is .27.
PT: Which is your favorite olive?
SA: The chemali because it’s mild olive oil. The chetoui is very special, too. There are so many kinds of olives in Tunisia that I cannot even bring here because they are very strong.
PT: How healthy is olive oil?
SA: Very because it contains the good cholesterol. It was said that you should have two tablespoons of olive oil daily, but now it has been raised to four. It cleans your body, moisturizes your skin. It’s good for the heart, kidneys.
PT: How many tablespoons do you have each day?
SA: I cook everything with olive oil. The base of my cooking is a quarter-cup of olive oil.
PT: How do you harvest the olives?
SA: By hand using sheep horns on your fingers to protect the tree. If you use machines to shake the tree, you damage the tree, and you won’t have the same quality of olive.
PT: What makes a good olive?
SA: Lots of sunshine and mild weather. It’s not very cold. It’s mostly like springtime here. It rains. Summers are sunny and very hot – up to 113 degrees.
PT: What makes Tunisian olives so special?
SA: They are naturally fruity because olive trees are planted in one row and the next row could be apple trees, or almonds or peach trees. So the olive takes the flavor of the surrounding trees.
PT: Why has olive oil become so trendy?
SA: Frankly, it’s trendy here in the U.S. The olive oil industry has grown every year by 10 percent beginning in 1994. But overseas it’s not something that is trendy because it’s in the diet, especially in North Africa and the Mediterranean area like France or Italy or Greece.
PT: What else can you use olive oil for?
SA: Baking, for example. Anything that calls for a cup of butter you can use one-third cup olive oil. It’s fewer calories, healthier and lighter.
PT: Are there any other household uses for olive oil?
SA: Shining boots.
PT: Tell me a lesser known fact about olive oil.
SA: It can go rancid if exposed to oxygen. I never bring in olive oil in bulk, always bottled. When you bring olive oil in tins or plastic bottles and then bottle it, you expose it to oxygen. Olive oil is very sensitive to oxygen. It’s sensitive to heat, anything above 84 degrees.
PT: What was a good year for olive oil?
SA: Every year the taste should be a little different. Last year Tunisia had a great harvest. This year, there was 65 percent less harvest because of rough weather.
PT: What are you looking for in an olive oil tasting?
SA: Fruitiness, pepper, bitterness. All good olive oil must taste a little fruity.
PT: What’s the correct way of tasting olive oil?
SA: Without any bread or anything. You sip it, and there has to be oxygen in it. Swirl a little bit so it goes on your pallet. It makes like almost an embarrassing noise.
PT: If you don’t have olive oil in your diet, what happens?