On the Trail of "Liquid Gold" in Provence!
Updated: Dec 15, 2018
The phrase “olive oil tasting” doesn’t quite describe the experience if you’re tasting oil in Provence, France. It’s not just a dainty sip or swipe on a piece of bread. You hold a cup in your hand, swirl the oil around, take in the aroma. Then, when you’re ready, you bring a good amount into your mouth, breathe in, and swallow. Delicious! But you’re not finished yet… Wait for the first, second, even the third after-taste. And there’s a whole vocabulary that goes along with this ritual. Grassy. Herbacious. Peppery. Hints of artichoke, apple, or almond. And so on.
If this sounds like the description of a wine tasting to you, it’s no coincidence. There is as much connoisseurship associated with tasting serious olive oils as there is with tasting serious wines. And in Provence, France, they’re very serious about both.
Picture from the article: "Olive oil: the frauds, the good stuff, the recipes" https://goo.gl/ioZ0kd
What we think of as the “Mediterranean Diet” would not exist without olive oil. The Greeks planted olive trees in Provence and elsewhere around the Mediterranean when they settled here around 600 BC. Even then, the precious oil was a part of these settlers’ meals, and you can see evidence of this in the ancient amphorae, or large containers for oil, that are on display in many of the archaeological museums of Provence. https://goo.gl/z3bneh
A 1944 artist's rendering suggests how ancient Greeks may have harvested olives for oil.
The warm, mild climate in Provence, along with the chalky lime soil, provide the perfect growing conditions for these hearty trees, and their deep roots help to slow erosion along the windswept coastline and hills. At one time, Provençal olive trees covered almost 300,000 acres of land, twice as much as today. But much as the infamous phylloxera epidemic wiped out most of the old-growth wine grape vines in the late 19th century, in 1956 a sudden dramatic plunge in temperature destroyed a million olive trees, and another five million trees had to be pruned to their stumps. This catastrophe pushed many olive oil producers out of the business, and decades later, the small industry is still recovering.
In the south of France, the production of olive oil has more than doubled since the 1990’s, and there is no doubt that the future is looking very bright indeed for this beloved undertaking. Joining the older, established cultivators is a younger generation of Provencal oil producers new to the industry. They tend to be small-scale local growers, interested in reviving this ancient tradition.
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Today, just seven countries are responsible for 90% of the world’s olive oil, and France, at barely 1%, is not one of them. In comparison to countries like Spain, Italy, and Greece, France produces a relatively small amount. But the French know that bigger does not mean better! The strict controls on quality, varietals, and yield mean that the oil produced here, mostly from small artisanal operations in designated regions, is of the very highest quality. Whereas industrial olive oils from other countries can be found at relatively low prices in supermarkets, precious artisanal olive oil from Provence can command four times as much – and is widely acknowledged to be well worth the price. These days, people who care about food the world over increasingly recognize the dramatic difference that a finer oil will add to their dishes.
Graphic from the article "Is American Olive Oil About to Have Its Moment?" https://goo.gl/Nf8s2G
In 2007, olive oils from Provence were recognized by the Institut National de L’origine et de Qualité (INAO) as France’s only AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) region. Oils with this certificate are guaranteed to be produced in Provence and to be of the very highest quality.
Provence also boasts five AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) olive oil designations, a system used in the European Union to designate regional sourcing and production excellence. The five areas are the Vallée des Baux de Provence, Aix en Provence, Haute Provence, Provence, and Nice. It’s no wonder that the region is so proud of their olive oil!
Olive oil from The Moulin de Callas www.moulindecallas.com
When you see an “AOC” or “AOP” label on a bottle of provençal olive oil, you can be certain of its provenance. And like wine labels, you’ll often see the name of the chateau or domaine where it was grown and bottled. But unlike wine, olive oil doesn’t improve with age. It’s best kept tightly sealed in a cool dry place, away from heat and light. Even under these conditions, good olive oil should not be kept more than two years. But if you’re cooking in the style of Provence, a bottle probably won’t last more than a month or so!
Don’t be surprised if you’ve never tasted any Provencal olive oil before. Since production is so small and demand is so great, most can’t be found beyond the local area. All the more reason to dive in when you’re here, and to bring some home as souvenirs and gifts, if you can persuade yourself to part with any!
In Provence, the “Olivades” (Olive Oil Season) takes place between late November and late January. This is when the olives are harvested and the oil is pressed. There is a local saying that "A la saint Catherine, l’huile est dans l’olive" (On the Feast of Saint Catherine, the olives are ready to press.”) And so it is that if you are in Provence any time from St. Catherine’s day on November 25th through the end of January, you will be able to see -- and sometimes even join in – harvesting the olives and pressing the oil.
Festival of olives in Mouriès (13). Collecting olives.
The traditional way to harvest olives is by hitting the tree branches with long sticks. The olives fall onto nets that are spread on the ground under the trees. There are also some growers who still pick their olives by hand! Once they’re harvested, it’s crucial to press them as soon as possible. In fact, to qualify for the AOC label, they must be pressed within three days. Leaves are removed and the olives are washed, then ground into a paste, pits and all, using huge millstones. Because no preservatives are added to provencal oil, it’s important to include the pits, which contain a natural antioxidant. Different producers choose whether they filter their oil. Some say unfiltered oil, though cloudy in appearance, yields a better flavor. Again, as with wine, it’s up to you to decide what tastes better!
French cuisine, especially Provencal, relies heavily on olive oil – it’s used to sauté, and is added to salads, sauces, dips, marinades, and of course, tapenades.
Olive oil is also used for cosmetics, soaps, oil-lamp fuel and pharmaceuticals. Even ancient Roman and Greek doctors used it in their medicines, and to this day, it’s known as a remedy for a host of health complaints!
Hippocrates: Medicine Becomes a Science (Robert Thom)
Ready to explore the world of Provencal olive oil? The mild, sunny weather make winter a perfect season to take a tour of Provençal olive culture. Here are the most noteworthy provencal towns for those on the trail of the region’s “liquid gold.”
Les Baux-de-Provence is a very picturesque village between Arles and St Remy-de-Provence, and one of the official “Most Beautiful Villages” of France. It's very crowded here in summer, so visiting off-season (or, as we like to think of it, “high olive season”) is perfect. It’s also the epicenter of some of the very best olive oil Provence has to offer.
In Les Baux, the olive oil is made from a blend of different olives, and each producer has their own very well-protected secret blends. Official Vallée des Baux AOP olive oils must be composed of four local varieties of olives -- Aglandau, Grossane, Salonenque and Verdale -- and are subjected to a local jury of tasters each year.
You’ll find the Castelas olive mill on the road leading up the hill to the village. They offer free tastings, but places must be reserved in advance. The oil is poured in little blue cups so that the appearance of the oil doesn’t influence your experience. Along with their AOP blend, Castelas produces oils infused with various local produce and herbs. www.castelas.com
Within the quaint village of St. Remy, where Van Gogh lived and painted, is an oil mill called the Moulin du Calanquet. Sister and brother Anne and Gilles Brun, the owners, offer a video that shows the oil-making process, historical and modern, as well as a tasting area within their current production facility. They’re quite welcoming to visitors, and offer their own oils, tapenades, and jams for sale.
Stay at Provence Paradise in St. Remy de Provence and conveniently explore the local sites and enjoy it's culinary specialties.
"Within easy day trips are a full range of beautiful perched villages and hill towns to satisfy every age and desire for history, incredible restaurants, a full array of market days across the assortment of villages and the variety of experiences which make every day a new and satisfying event."
- Savvan Family
The Moulin de Callas is a small mill located northeast of Draguignan in the Var department. It’s been run by the Bérenguier family since 1928. The original mill, dating from 1746, is now the owner’s home, with a shop attached. They offer their own olive oil as well as complimentary tastings, and they still have the ancient millstone and oil-making equipment on display there.
The current mill, a more modern facility, is where today’s oil production takes place. Their specialty is the herbal, mild olive oil variety known as “fruité vert” (green fruit.)
Aglandau olives are planted extensively in the Luberon area, and they tend to produce smoother and subtler oils here in Provence than those grown in Italy and Spain. Andre, the owner of the “Clos des Jeannons” in the village of Gordes in Luberon, loves to share his passion for olives and olive oil. He offers tours of his olive fields and then demonstrates his oil-making process. At the end, he offers an oil tasting, and if you’re lucky, a picnic with wine in his fields.
Not far from St. Remy, in the small village of Maussane, the Moulin Jean Marie Cornille is an olive oil co-op that produces Vallée des Baux de Provence AOC olive oil. They offer a short film about olive oil production, as well as samples of various oils. They have a shop where you can purchase oil and other local products.
Near Saint Rémy de Provence, on the Route de Cavaillon, the wine-growing estate Château Romanin also produces beautiful examples of fruité vert and fruité noir oils. They practice biodynamic farming techniques, and offer their olive oils for sale on the estate.
There are plenty of other olive oil producers throughout Provence; this is just a sample of some of our favorites. Once you’ve picked some olives, pressed some olives, and tasted your fill of these special oils, why not treat yourself to an olive facial or an olive-oil massage? There are many spas in the south of France where you can pamper yourself with the fruit of the olive tree!
You can’t count on every hotel or guest house to be open in the winter months. One great choice near St. Remy is Provence Paradise. Its convenient location gives great access to all that Provence in winter has to offer. Invite your friends to join you for the weekend. There are many ways to get to this hidden gem. You can land in Paris, Marseille, or Nice, and take the TGV to Avignon.
Next time you visit Provence in Southern France, consider staying in an authentic townhouse rather than a hotel. For more ideas or for booking your own vacation rental, Click Here to find out more.