“Legmi” Palm Wine: an Illicit but Cherished Tradition of the Tunisian South
A Palm wine Station in Gabes
Palm tree sap, called Legmi, is an energizing sweet beverage, popular in the Tunisian south. Referring toboth palm juice and palm wine, some say that the word Legmi is Arabic, while others maintain that it is derived from the native, amazigh dialect. The drink is also commonly known by the monikers el killaw or Legmi mayeet, literally meaning “dead Legmi,” which is only used to designate the alcoholic variety of the beverage.
Over the centuries, people living in the oases of southern Tunisia have adapted their lifestyles to an environment with an abundance of palm trees. Traditionally, palm wine was consumed by men during marriage ceremonies, while women were restricted to the non-alcoholic version of the drink.
Today, palm sap is still harvested according to custom by the Laggama - the local name for the tappers. Tappers make horizontal incisions on the top of the palm trunk, allowing the sap to flow through a funnel into a bottle. With this technique, the tree produces several liters per day, and can be harvested for one or two months. Once a tree is tapped, it becomes unable to produce dates during the production season.
In the south, it is common lore that palm juice is medicinally beneficial for cleansing the stomach, particularly for those who have intestinal problems, and the ideal time to drink the palm juice is thought to be in the morning. Legmi is also used as a vinegar for culinary purposes, and the wine is often served as an accompaniment to lamb barbecue.
When it is fresh, Legmi has a sweet taste. Legmi ferments naturally when it makes contact with air, so it is advised to drink the juice as freshly as possible. If the liquid is not preserved in a refrigerator, it darkens and becomes sparkling. By adding yeast or wheat to the sap, the drink can be made stronger. Once Legmi is bottled, its effervescence makes it pop like a bottle of champagne.
“El Amma” is a popular refreshment station in the city of Mareth, located in the governorate of Gabes, where lower-income people go to enjoy palm wine. Though other types of wine are generally available, people nevertheless prefer to drink Legmi because it is stronger and cheaper – costing only 500 millimes per cup.
“A cup of Legmi is called ‘Saroukh,’ [or 'missile'] due to its strength,” said Ali, a 72-year-old man. Ali claimed that one cup of palm wine may get you drunk, while a can of beer in a pub won’t be enough.
Today, non-alcoholic palm juice can be found in the souk (market) in southern Tunisia. In spite of its popularity, palm wine is not legally commercialized and remains a semi-illicit tradition.
“El Amma continues to sell [palm wine] illegally, though there is no intention of stopping this activity. The police are always fining the station,” Ali stated.