It is a wonderful story where founding myths, family secrets, arts and traditions and a great determination are combined in savors and flavors. It is that of Moufida Aloulou Masmoudi, 77 years old, better known under her pastry brand of "Madame Masmoudi", venturing to the conquest of Europe.
Fate will make of her the heir of a great tradition, nurtured by an Orient with a strong imaginary and subtle know-how. Will and hard work are her drive. Like her other sisters, notably Mrs Zarrouk, Mrs Bouricha, she will add to the Tunisian pastry refinement and creativity, using in addition the innovations of the packaging design and powerful levers of marketing. Her stores in Tunisia and overseas are the delight of her fans.
To celebrate this success, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Maison Masmoudi, Yosra Aydi Achich had the idea to dedicate to her, with the support of the family, a book that was initially a book of art, but also a book of history and tribute. The project, designed in three languages (Arabic, French and English), is carried by a well-selected team. Nasser Baklouti and Youssef Charfi would write the texts, Amel Miled Chaker and Hela Chaabouni Fourati would provide the translation in English, Raouf Karray would bring his talent of well-inspired illustrator, with an eye steeped in our arts and traditions, and Hamadi Louati would photograph the tasty pieces of pastry.
The entire piece of work is pleasant to read and precious to preserve. From the first page, the great poet Hédi Bouaroui gives us a foretaste:
To Sfax, I come back ...
I carry you in me everywhere
Machmoum Yasmine at the front
Which illuminates and perfumes my life.
The reader is thereafter quickly carried away in the legend of the Pharaoh and the Amazigh warrior who restores the origin of pastry, before sailing between myth and history, then stops at Sfax; an evocation of founding legends, old traditions, festivals and celebrations too. We are then ready to penetrate the mouth-watering history of Mrs. Masmoudi and follow her phenomenal rise.
Then there are the secrets of the distillation of the waters of orange blossom, rosehip, roses, the selection of fruits and other ingredients that will be used to make pastries. Wittingly, Madame Masmoudi then delivers her wonderful recipes.
Who today, in Tunisia and even in Europe, hasn’t heard about Masmoudi pastry, this wide and fabulous range of cakes inspired by the pure tradition of Sfax and that smell of home fragrances!
What is less known for people is the moving story of a family gathered around the mother who has succeeded over the years in building a flawless reputation in such a sensitive area. It is the saga of a modest but exceptional woman, with an innate temperament of a tireless fighter; one would say today an activist. For almost half a century of hard work, she has succeeded in combining tradition and modernity, passing from a craft of a strictly familial character to an activity that preserves handmade work, but which requires industrial techniques to rationalize and improve the production. Proud of her fifteen springs, on the occasion of a memorable trip to Tunis in the late forties of the last century, she saw the night of Destiny unseal its doors to her (laylat al-qadr).
On the occasion of an unannounced visit to Emna Chérif, a native of Choura, a distant relative, better known as Mimi, who held a bakery downtown, on the present Bourguiba avenue, run by the trendy gentleman of the capital, she had a revelation: pastry will be her vocation. Emna Chérif, a native of Sfax, who had settled in Tunis some time ago, had perfected her know-how by learning from a chef pastry called Khadija Kahouagi. Moufida still remembers this first visit during which she received this illumination and made this fascinating discovery that allowed her to learn the craft, to penetrate its secrets and to pierce its mysteries.
One day she accompanied Mimi to the Beylical Palace of La Marsa; Mimi was the official supplier of the palace. There, on the occasion of Prince Slahedin’s wedding, she had the honor to greet His Highness Moncef Bey, the patriot monarch. These are indelible memories, engraved in the abyss of memory. She would return to the palace on the celebration of the birth of Azza, the eldest of the prince's children. On her third visit, she was disillusioned by the excessive appearance of the last of the beys, Mohammed Lamine.
Over time, Moufida eventually mastered the art of pastry so much so that it aroused the jealousy of her relatives, friends and even renown women in the trade. Today, she still remembers that premonitory vision where she saw herself in a small Renault driven by a man named Abderrazak, who drove her to what would be now Sfax Al-Jadida (New Sfax), at the spot of the building that would house her most important workshop. Abderrazak is a name derived from the Arabic noun rizq, meaning subsistence, though it connotes a divine gift. Back in her hometown, she got married at the age of 22, it was in 1957 and, as a way of occupation, she began knitting as many women would do at that time. But she soon grew tired of this monotonous task, and decided to renew her devotion to pastry and venture into a field that is still unknown to her, in an industrious city where women do not skimp on labor. But, deep down, it was more to answer the call of her vocation than to ensure a supplementary income to her small family.
Some time ago she was preparing some baklava and marzipan for her own use. And as the saying goes “everything happens for a reason”. Unexpectedly, a visiting relative tasted her pastry and was charmed; she ordered some pastry that she would offer as a present on a future trip to Libya. Apparently, this was her first customer; thereafter, her order notebook has not been unfilled; It was in the year of grace 1972.
Until the end of the sixties of the last century, the manufacture of traditional pastries in Tunisia, and in Sfax in particular, was a familial exclusivity. But the reputation of the high and exemplary quality of the confections of Moufida grew and soon revolutionize these culinary traditions. Soon, the neighbors, the neighborhood and then the whole town, seduced by the authenticity and creativity of her production, entrusted her with the preparation of their pastries for all kinds of joyful events, despite the sometimes-unhealthy competition. Thus, this woman became one of the main initiators of the pastry trade in Sfax. She constantly supplied Mimi, who often came to Sfax, with the delicious marzipans which had become her first specialty for her Tunisian customers; It was a real success. At this stage, it should be emphasized that the recipe of mlabbes consists in a highly advanced know-how and reveals a profound knowledge of the ingredients and aromas, even those coming from elsewhere. The icing of cookies is a delicate operation which requires the preparation of a meringue (beaten white egg) associated with two gelling agents: gum arabic (smagh gharbi), supplied by Arabian acacia and gum tragacanth (kthira) which exudes the stems of Astragalus, a herbaceous plant that grows in the Middle East. These two substances that allow the frosting to harden quickly are previously marinated overnight in rose water with a bit of blue dye to dress the mlabbes of an immaculate bright white.
For Moufida, better known now under the elegant name of Madame Masmoudi, the activities prospered at a glance. She was often obliged to stay late at night to satisfy her growing range of customers; She even solicited the help of her children as soon as they returned from school, who were asked to decorate and mower the almonds, to grind them or to supervise the cooking. Her husband, a chef, was also solicited on his return from work. It was an astonishing endeavor, but it was for the sake of this activity that will know, over the years, a phenomenal rise. From home-made crafts, the Masmoudi Pastries go into the workshop with the acquisition of modern milling and kneading equipment. As her work progressed, Moufida showed a constantly renewed gift of creativity and, from traditional forms, succeeded in realizing, besides baklava, gimblettes and marzipan, new creations: aïn sbanyouriya, Aïn ghezal, dawama ...
Mrs Moufida Masmoudi remains passionate about the particularities of her hometown and her pastry traditions. This natural inclination to the art of fine pastry, nourished by an exalted apprenticeship, allowed her to master ancestral recipes and processes, to excel and make her own contribution to the influence of this discipline of gastronomy. Tradition indeed works by the know-how accumulation.
The meticulous selection of raw materials is essential to the high quality of the Masmoudi creations, all the plantations of the region and even of the Mediterranean basin are constantly explored to ensure the supply of pistachios, almonds, gables ... from the best places. The scrupulous work of these raw materials, by hand, is like a work of goldsmiths making jewelry from stones and raw precious metals. The constant search for refined flavors, the careful work of aesthetics and forms, combined with these noble materials, create the harmony indispensable to the birth of these beneficent pleasures.
Having succeeded in transmitting the pastry passion to her already grown-up children, Mrs. Moufida Masmoudi decided in 1992 to found a family business bearing her brand and designed according to modern management standards. Practically, she entrusted her children with the heavy task of relaying and preserving the work, and taught them to work in harmony and mutual respect. It was thus done, so that the Masmoudi Pastries, which today have a rich palette of flavors, shapes and textures, enjoys a reputation far from being usurped, with several points of sale all around the country and in Canada.
These assets, together with a constant and rigorous effort, a keen sense of quality and an innovative spirit, have made it possible to bring together the conditions for an economic success, and hence an enhancement of the national pastry heritage. Beyond this constant propensity for professionalism at all levels of the production processes, and beyond the passion demanded by the pastry-making profession, the challenge is to conquer the international market. Ali Baklouti, a journalist imbued with "sweet Sfaxity", said so well and not without admiration: "Masmoudi Pastry celebrates in 2012 the fortieth anniversary of its existence. Ten years earlier, on their thirtieth birthday, they succeeded in entering the Guinness Book, making a giant baklava. The celebration of the fortieth anniversary represents an exceptional event that will crown a long journey made of generous and sustained efforts, successes and hardships, and dedicate and economic model based on the spirit of sustainability and the continuity of the family brand, but also on the quality choice which remains an invariable constant in the company's approach".