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Market Offers Variety Of Treats, Taste Of Morocco
By CLAUDIA VAN NES   Courant Staff Writer    December 26, 2005   From

OLD SAYBROOK -- Inside a square block of brick and looking like most of the other convenience stores dotting Route 1 from Maine to Florida is one that's not the same.

Tissa's Country Market sells cigarettes, lottery tickets, candy bars, and grocery staples, and makes ham sandwiches, but open up that ham sandwich and, along with the provolone and lettuce, you'll find a layer of Kalamata olive tapenade.

Analyze the tuna sandwich and you'll find it's flavored with olive oil, fresh squeezed lemon juice, wasabi oil and roasted artichokes.

This convenience store, which also features three small tables with mosaic tops where you can dine, and a 14-month-old baby who waves to customers from her playpen, has a definite point of view. Moroccan.

Tissa is a town in Morocco where store co-owner Mohammed Benjdid was born and raised on one of the country's largest farms, helping care for the family's cows, sheep, chicken, lemon and grapefruit trees, and 1,500 olive trees.

Last week, Benjdid and his Niantic-born wife, Kathleen, hosted Priscilla Drennen, a representative from an olive oil company who stood transfixed as Benjdid, from firsthand knowledge, explained how olives are grown, harvested, pressed and squeezed into the oil she sells.

It is safe to say that Tissa's was the only convenience store on the East Coast that day where you could dip pieces of just-made hasha, a semolina-based Moroccan bread, into samples of eight different olive oils.

The saffron added to the mayonnaise, the imported tins of hummus from Morocco on the shelf next to the ketchup, the complex spice mixture, rass el hannuth, added to certain dishes, is only the beginning, said Mohammed Benjdid, who figures he's the only Moroccan around these parts.

The Benjdids, both in their 30s, met when they were working at the Mystic Marriott - she was getting off the night shift as a desk clerk; he was coming in to cook breakfast. They'd share coffee and, after a while, dreams for the future, a marriage, a baby and the purchase last summer of a defunct convenience store business in a building that began life as a Cumberland Farms.

Tissa's, the Benjdids plan, will pretty much depart its Cumberland Farm roots and become over the ensuing months - as time and money allow - a Moroccan oasis in a sea of macadam and traffic, hamburgers and fried chicken.

Actually, Route 1 in this town is more eclectic than it tends to be elsewhere, with a range of businesses, some upscale, others grubby. This promise of diversity attracted the couple to Old Saybrook, which looked to Kathleen "more international, with a customer base that's sophisticated about food."

They bought Delight Foods, a failed convenience store business in a building with a checkered past. The one-story brick structure had been purchased from Cumberland Farms some years ago and neglected to the point that its metal roof threatened to cave in. The town had to prop up the structure on concrete blocks and put up warning signs not to trespass.

The building eventually was repaired, but is a no-frills affair the Benjdids will doll up Moroccan style, with lots of rich, tropical-looking plantings, an outdoor patio and a full selection of Moroccan dishes.

Customers seem ready. "It's wonderful - what an addition to our quality of life here," said Wilma Asch, the town's economic development director. Asch became a Tissa's regular after sharing a Mediterranean burger that Elaine Seaforth, an assistant in the selectmen's office, was enjoying.

"I stopped there one day for a newspaper, I think," Seaforth recalled, "and I end up with something with eggplant in it. Delicious. I love the place."

"They're crazy sandwiches - apples, sage, the seasonings ..." said Kevin MacCallum, who sells Hershey's Ice Cream to Tissa's and stays for lunch when he comes by.

"It's very nice. I have pretty simple tastes. I just have the roast beef sandwich," said regular customer and resident Dr. Bernard Sheehan.

Perhaps the doctor should do a more thorough examination. That "simple" sandwich contains spinach, roasted peppers, sun-dried tomatoes and cream cheese jazzed up with cilantro.

Copyright 2005, Hartford Courant


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