with “Olivence” Provence Olive Oils
Olive oil…….one of the most popular ingredients in the modern cook’s kitchen; we have embraced this fruity, green and very versatile oil with culinary zeal in the UK. It was Elizabeth David that is generally credited for introducing this “exotic” oil to Great Britain, when her first book “A Book of Mediterranean Food” was published in 1950; Britain was war-weary and still under rations; margarine and dripping were the main fats used in the kitchen, and olive oil was something you bought in the chemist to treat ear ailments, as well as being used as hair oil! Elizabeth breathed an aromatic breath of Mediterranean sunshine into people’s lives, and even though lots of the ingredients she suggested in her book were unobtainable in post-war Britain, or were hard to find, people were made aware that there was life after “mock apricot jam”, dried eggs and the plethora of boiled suet puddings that was on offer.
It’s hard to believe that what was once a “pharmaceutical” oil that was used for anything but cooking, in the UK, is now “drizzled”, “splashed” and “poured” over the vast majority of recipes we prepare and cook in the kitchen. And, I for one, am a HUGE olive oil lover, this luscious, creamy oil makes an appearance into nearly of my cooking, as well as salads, sauces, dips and in baking too. So, when I was approached by Olivence, the Provence Olive Oil Society, with an offer to visit Provence, I was delighted to accept this wonderful offer. Myself, and three other food writers and bloggers, were invited on an enjoyable three-day trip, to take in the beautiful landscape, enjoy numerous tastings of Provencal olives and olive oils, discover the delicious regional cooking, whilst pairing olive oil with the food. This was the first press trip offered to British bloggers/writers, and we all felt very privileged to attend.
Olivence is the Provence Olive Oil Society which brings together, for the first time, five producers from the PDO areas. In Provence, where olive oil is created in small craft units and in many cases still harvested by hand, Olivence members make unique oils with distinctive tastes and personalities, and all of the finest quality to give chefs (and home cooks) the chance to create their own signature dishes using deliciously different oils. The oils in the Olivence portfolio can be broadly categorised within three “taste bands” – Subtle, Intense and Ancient. We visited all of the five producers in the PDO area of Provence, where we harvested the olives, tasted the olives and the olive oil, cooked with the oil and discover beautifully prepared meals using the olives and the oil. All of the producers we met and visited are listed below.
Established in 1923 for olive and wine production, the Vignolis co-operative produces half of the PDO Nyons Olive oil as well as the famous Nyons black olives.
Based in the rocky range of Les Alpilles in PDO Vallée des Baux de Provence, Catherine and Jean-Benoit Hugues produce Olive Oils in the Intense and Fruité Noir categories.
Producing half of France’s ‘fruite noir’, the 17th Century Moulin Cornille is located in the heart of the PDO Vallée des Baux de Provence.
This is a family-run grove producing olive oil in the Intense category. They are currently converting their entire grove to organic status.
Based in Marseille, this company has represented many small growers across Provence since 1959, involved in their production, manufacture, packaging and tasting. They also offer private labels.
Our itinerary was busy, but was also fairly relaxed, as we were driven around the spectacular Provençal countryside; we started off our tour at Vignolis – this Nyonsais co-operative has a membership of more than 1100 growers, and collects and processes grapes from 1400 hectares of vines of Cru VINSOBRES, COTES DU RHONE Villages, COTES DU RHONE, Vins de Pays des BARONNIES, as well as olives from 600 hectares of olive groves to produce olive oil and black Nyons AOC olives. Olives Nyons are of the Tanche variety, and are small and slightly wrinkled, but with an intense, fruity almost sweet taste. The Tanche variety of olives are said to have been brought over in the 4th century by the Mallision Greeks. Their wrinkled appearance is due to them being picked a lot later than other olives – when they are over ripe, and they are a dual-use cultivar, being used for table olives as well as olive oil.
Next on our packed itinerary was a trip to the wonderful Domain Castelas, where we were met by Jean-Benoît Hugues and his wife Catherine, who run this mill at the foot of the Château des Baux. After living for 15 years on the wide-open plains of Arizona in the USA, Catherine and Jean-Benoît Hugues decided to go back to their roots, and they returned home to Provence to dedicate themselves to their passion: the olive tree. Today, Domaine Castelas produces olives on 110 acres of Appellation d’Origine Protégée groves in the Vallée des Baux de Provence, and in 160 acres on the Plaine de Crau.
We were able to witness some freshly harvested olives being pressed and also had a wonderful meal at the Domaine, which was based on their locally grown olives and olive oil. From tasty amuse-bûche to a surprisingly delicious olive oil ice cream, course after course arrived to tantalise our taste-buds. They also have a tasty selection of recipes on their site here: Domaine Castelas Recipes. I particularly loved their naturally flavoured oils, and they have a large collection on offer too.
After a very pleasant stay overnight at the charming Hotel Le Mas Saint Joseph, in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, we set off for our next producers, Moulin Cornille, as well as enjoying a guide historical tour of Maussane-les-Alpilles. Moulin Cornille is a charming old mill, with its old presses and ancient olive loft open to visitors, and it’s there that we had our “dégustation” of their olives and olive oil. Their “fruite noir” olive oil was amazing……with distinct flavours of cocoa, yeasted bread and artichokes – the oil was creamy and extremely fruity, their limited edition “Cuvée Traditionnelle Jean-Marie Cornille” is also presented in a beautiful perfume style bottle!
Our picnic lunch was taken in the olive groves of La Lieutenante, and was truly atmospheric, with crystal blue skies above us, and the long trestle table being set out beneath the heavy olive laden branches of the trees. Laurent Bélorgey, the owner and olive farmer, welcomed us; the olive farm is family owned and Laurant is the third generation to run the farm, which he does with a great deal of care and passion. After our picnic, we were asked to help with the olive harvest…..the table olives are picked by hand, but the olives that are destined for their award-winning oils, are shaken off the trees by specially designed machines. As well as their table olives and oils, they also make some delicious tapenades too.
We then set off for Marseilles, for our next tasting, with Maison CODEFA, which was dinner at the Michelin star restaurant, “Les Trois Forts” in Old Marseille; here we dined in the hotel’s penthouse restaurant. Les Trois Forts features subtle Mediterranean cuisine from Chef Dominique Frérard, with his famous breakfast of local products being very popular with guests. There we were met by Fabienne Roux, an olive oil expert, representing Codefa, who talked us through each course, telling us what oil was used, and why they were paired with the relevant ingredients.
For our last day, we were invited to cook alongside the Michelin star chef, Ludovic Turac, in his restaurant (and cookery school), “Une Table au Sud”. Ludovic runs the restaurant with his wife Karine, and the location is breathtaking, as the whole of the upper floor restaurant and cookery school have magnificent views over the old harbour of Marseilles. We cooked alongside him in the morning, using several olive oils from Provence, and locally caught Dorade and Provençal vegetables; we then ate the fruits of our labours for lunch, along with some wonderful paired wines and a specially prepared amuse-bûche and a fabulous dessert made for us by Ludovic.
After lunch we visited the Old Port of Marseille and the waterside Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (MUCEM), before flying back home from Marseilles airport. As an olive oil lover, I was very impressed with the quality and diversity of one of the smallest appellations of olive oil producers. I have always loved the table olives from Provence, but didn’t know much about the olive oils from the region; this was fascinating trip and being able to participate in the harvest, as well as visit the producers, only added to the enjoyment of the trip. ALL of the producers were VERY generous, and we all went away with lots of olives and large quantities of oil…….so, PLEASE do keep popping back to see some SPECIAL recipes that I have created using JUST Provencal olives and olive oil. Have a wonderful weekend, and I’ll be back soon with a new baking recipe. Karen
Disclaimer: I was the guest of Olivence, and all of my flights, accommodation and all of the activities mentioned above, were all included in my press trip. I’d also like to thank the following people:
– Alexandra Sineau (EOC International)
– Alexandra Paris, communications director, French Olive Interprofessional Association (AFIDOL)
– Laurence Puister, marketing manager, Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur Regional Chamber of Agriculture.
– Ms. Sophie Denis, director, Cornille Oil Mill and Cooperative, Maussane
– Ms. Anne Laurent, director, Vignolis Olive Cooperative, Nyons
– Ms. Fabienne Roux, olive oil expert, Codefa, Marseille
– Mr. Laurent Belorgey, director, La Lieutenante Olive Estate
– Mr. Jean-Benoît Hugues, director, Castelas Mill