It's impossible to imagine Provence without its silvery olive groves, or provençal cuisine without the rich, fruity olives and olive oils of the Mediterranean diet.
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The French writer Georges Duhamel once wrote, "Où l'olivier renonce finit la Méditerranée" ("Where the olive tree gives up growing, the Mediterranean ends") and his words are frequently quoted.
This is a complete guide to olive oil in Provence, taking in its surprising history, how it's produced, where to taste and to buy it, what to look for on an olive oil label and where and when to find olive festivals in the region.
We also visit two olive growers and oil producers in different parts of Provence: Castelas, in the valley of Les Baux de Provence, and the Domaine Terre de Mistral, near Rousset in the foothills of Mont Sainte Victoire (pictured below).
A THUMBNAIL HISTORY
Olive trees were planted by the Greeks when they settled in Provence (and elsewhere around the Mediterranean) around 600 BC. The trees thrived in the dry, stony, limestone soil and helped prevent erosion.
Hungry herds munched on their leaves and the oil supplemented the diet of the settlers - the evidence, in the shape of amphorae, or large pottery oil and wine containers, can be seen in most of the archeological museums of Provence.
At their peak during the Renaissance, provençal olive groves covered some 120,000 hectares / 297,000; acres, twice as much land as they do today. But just as wine production in France was dealt a mighty blow by the phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century, so did the olive groves of Provence suffer their own mini-disaster.
On 2 February 1956, after a relatively mild winter, temperatures suddenly plunged overnight to an unprecedented -20 degrees Celsius / -4 degrees Fahrenheit. A million olive trees died that year, a third of the total number in Provence. A further five million trees had to be coppiced (cut back to the stump). After that cruel winter many established producers gave up, discouraged, or turned to more profitable wine-growing instead.
According to statistics compiled in 2005 by the United Nations, 90% of olive oil in the world is produced by seven countries - and none of them is France.
Surprisingly a number of producers looked to Spain to replenish their olive groves. In Andalusia, centuries old trees were being chopped down for firewood. Why not import them to Provence instead?
These Spanish trees can be identified by their single, very thick trunk. Native provençal trees that grew back after the frost have, typically, several smaller branches gowing out from the base.
Olive oil production in Provence has more than doubled since the early 1990s and is now around 5,300 tonnes a year, claims the gourmet bible Gault & Millau - even if it's still a tiny fraction of the output of Italy or Spain and represents today barely 1% of world production.
A new generation of oil producers has moved in. These small-scale local growers, many of them entirely new to the art of olive oil, are reviving and modernising an ancient tradition with top-of-the-range gastronomic oils, packaged in fancy bottles and created in a range of subtle permutations.
The industrially produced olive oils of Italy or Spain can cost less than a quarter of the hefty prices commanded by the precious green-golden liquid made by artisans in Provence.
But connoisseurs speak of provençal olive oils in the same terms as discussing fine wines: an oil might have notes of artichoke or almond, green apple, freshly mown grass or even chocolate.
Olive oil from Provence is a limited crop and you won't find many of these oils on sale outside the region. Varied and distinctive, they're very different from the mass-produced olive oil on sale back home at your own supermarket. All the more reason to try and buy them while you're here.
Another new trend is for hobby farmers with a tree or two in their garden to bring their olives to one of Provence's 250 mills for a pressing of their very own house oil - though, since it takes five kilos / 11 lbs of olives to make, on average, one litre / one US quart of oil, most households will come away with a maximum of one or two bottles.
CATEGORIES OF OLIVE OIL AND HOW TO READ THE LABEL
The wording on an olive oil label is governed by complex regulations, which can also vary from country to country. But, put very simply, extra virgin olive oil is the purest available and also the highest in the anti-oxidants said to be beneficial to health.
A bottle of olive oil might sport an artistic label but inspect the small print carefully. If it includes the words Communauté Européenne (or the initials CE), the oil is almost certainly a Spanish import.
It is also not unknown for dealers to rebottle and relabel cheap oil as a provençal AOC - this applies especially to oil sold on market stalls - although the professional body AFIDOL (l'Association Française Interprofessionnelle de l'Olive) does its best to control this with anonymous inspections.
In an effort to stop restaurants from passing off cheap olive oil to diners, the European Commission also attempted to introduce a ban on refillable olive oil bottles (and even olive oil in saucers) in May 2013. Amid a general outcry, the plans were withdrawn a week later, however.
Still slightly controversial among olive oil producers, fruité noir is pressed in three areas: La Vallée des Baux, Aix en Provence and Haute Provence. Pictured: a bottle of black fruity olive oil from the Castelas mill.
OLIVE OIL MILL VISITS: CASTELAS AND DOMAINE TERRE DE MISTRAL
Many olive producers will show you around their workshops and offer tastings, though, if you want to see the olive harvest and watch the oil being pressed, you will need to come to Provence in November or December.
Catherine and Jean-Benoît Hugues, who founded Castelas, typify the new generation of provençal olive oil producers. They come from a very different professional background and have learned their art from scratch, out of a personal passion rather than a sense of dutifully following in a long family tradition.
The Hugues ran a micro-electronics engineering company in Phoenix, Arizona, in the United States for 15 years before deciding in 2000 to return to their roots (Catherine is from a wine-making family in Châteauneuf du Pape and Jean-Benoît comes from Saint Rémy de Provence).
Many of these have four or five main trunks rather than just one, a result of the coppicing that had to be carried out after the destructive frost of 1956. Pictured: one of the Castelas olive groves.
The Hugues practise organic farming with no pesticides; kaolinite is used to protect the trees from infestation (lavender growers in Provence are also using kaolinite to guard their own crops). Annual production at Castelas ranges from 50,000 - 90,000 litres / 13,000 - 24,000 US gallons.
These varieties ripen at different times and the exact proportions vary from year to year. A jury of trained local tasters has to determine whether each vintage conforms correctly to the Valleé des Baux type.
Castelas offers olive oil tastings twice a week, at 10am on Tuesdays and Thursdays. They last around 90 minutes and are free, though capacity is limited so you need to reserve in advance. Naturally, having spent so long in the United States, the Hugues speak excellent English.
Piles of crisp green Granny Smith apples sit on a shelf: you're advised to eat a slice of one, or a piece of bread in between tastings to cleanse your palate.
Castelas also produces oils infused with flavourings such as lemon or various herbs. We tried an olive oil blended with fresh ginger, which sounds strange and certainly wouldn't go with everything, but proved extremely good.
The Castelas oil mill and its three olive groves boast beautiful settings in the heart of the Alpilles. The groves of the Domaine Terre de Mistral, which the Insider has also visited, are stunningly located too, just below Cézanne's beloved Mont Sainte Victoire, where olive trees were planted long ago. Today the estate commands 22 hectares / 54 acres and some 4,200 olive trees.
The Gueurys, by contrast, are another example of newbie oil producers: Denis Gueury, pictured with Madame Gueury, was an engineer until he resolved to pursue his fascination with olives.
The Terre de Mistral offers tours of the wine cellars and oil mills and tastings on most days during the summer, including visits in English. There's a small charge for these tours.
Specialising in cuisine using its own produce (there's a farm and kitchen garden on the estate as well), it has a small, constantly changing set menu chalked up each day on the blackboard. It's open for lunch, and on some evenings.
For the last half century the small town of Mouriès in the Alpilles has held a Fête des Olives Vertes in late September to celebrate the newly ripened Salonenque green olive. There is plenty of folklore on view here, with traditional costumes, decorated horse-drawn carts and music.
But it's from December onwards that most of the winter olive oil festivals take place. The new season's pressing is celebrated with a Fête de l'Huile d'Olive Nouvelle. Tastings, music, wine, cookery demonstrations, local food (often an aïoli) and general revelry are to be expected on such occasions.
Many villages in Provence hold their own little version, but one of the main ones is in the Valley of Les Baux de Provence, where a Festival of New Olive Oil has been held for over two decades in early December.
In Aix en Provence, the Festival of New Oil traditionally takes place shortly before Christmas and offers tastings, an aïoli, the sale of olive products such as tapenade and olive-wood artefacts, and more.
The centrepiece of the weekend is the bravade calendale in honour of the pompe à l'huile, the olive oil-based brioche which is one of the essential 13 Desserts of Christmas. The bravade takes the form of a procession with costumed dancers, music and banners.
And, just north of Provence, Nyons, in the Drome, holds its own olive oil festival at the beginning of February.
One of the greatest enthusiasts of provençal olive oil is the aptly named Olivier Baussan, pictured. This wildly successful entrepreneur previously founded the L'Occitane en Provence beauty products empire and Oliviers & Co, a chain of stores selling olive oil from all around the world.
Now he has created a chain of stores, Première Pression Provence, which specialise in olive oils from Provence - its slogan is "l'huile d'olive de Provence surpasse tout" ("Nothing beats olive oil from Provence").
The wares of some three dozen olive oil producers are sold in these outlets, as well as tapenade, truffle flavoured terrines, vinegars and other delicacies. The stores, paradoxically, are almost all outside Provence in Paris and on the Côte d'Azur, and their mail order service will only send packages within France. Website for Première Pression Provence
Where: Ancienne route de Fourcalquier, 04130 Volx. Tel: (+33) 4 92 72 66 91. Telephone for the restaurant at the Ecomusée l'Olivier: (+33 4 86 68 53 14. Website for the Ecomusée l'Olivier
And Baussin has also written an authoritative book on olive oil, which is now available in English. Find Olive Oil: A Gourmet Guide by Olivier Baussin on Amazon.
In the Gordes area, the Musée du Moulin des Bouillons just outside the village has an oil press - reportedly the oldest surviving example in the world - made of a massive oak trunk plus exhibits on the production of olive oil. Read more about the Musée du Moulin des Bouillons.
Olive fans might also be interested in Carol Drinkwater's best-selling book about buying and running an olive farm in the South of France. Find The Olive Farm: A Memoir of Life, Love and Olive Oil in the South of France on Amazon.