olive oil in bottlesIf you fancy a visit to an olive farm, an olive oil festival, market, specialist shop or museum, read on for our full guide. Click here to read our general introduction to the olive oils of Provence.

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A tasting at an olive farm certainly makes a fascinating change from the usual vineyard tours. On this page we visit two: Castelas near Les Baux de Provence and the Domaine Terre de Mistral in the foothills of Sainte Victoire. Click here to see our picture gallery of an olive oil mill using a centuries old cold press process in Puyméras, Northern Vaucluse.

If you want to see the olive harvest and watch the oil being pressed, you will need to come to Provence between late November and late January for what's called the olivades season.

The local saying goes, "A la saint Catherine, l’huile est dans l’olive" ("On the Feast of Saint Catherine [i.e. 25 November], the olives are ready for pressing". And it's from then on that most of the festivals and markets take place.

But if you're a summer visitor, never fear: many olive producers will show you around their workshops and offer tastings all year round.

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OLIVE OIL FARM VISITS

The Castelas olive mill, at the foot of the road leading up the hill to Les Baux de Provence, (it is the only oil mill near the village) is one of these. It caters to summer visitors interested in how olive oil is made with a little film that shows its machinery in action.

The process begins with the fruit being harvested: each tree is surrounded by a net and the ripe olives dislodged with mechanical combs or shakers. Some growers in Provence still pick the olives by hand.

Taken to the press, they are sorted, weighed and labelled by grove, variety and time of arrival. A powerful blowing machine puffs away residual twigs and leaves, the olives are gently crushed, along with their stones and the paste is mixed for about half an hour.

It then passes into a cylindrical spinner which rotates at high speed, using centrifugal force to separate the paste from the oil, which is finally channeled into a storage tank ready for bottling. At Castelas the pressing takes just one hour from start to finish.

The olive harvest at Castelas, Les Baux de ProvenceCatherine 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).

Castelas olive groves, near Les Baux de ProvenceThey started with just six hectares / 15 acres of olive groves and expanded little by little as local producers retired and decided to sell. They now own 45 hectares / 111 acres and some 9,000 trees.

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.

Catherine Hugues at Castelas oil millCatherine, pictured, explains that Vallée des Baux AOP olive oils have to be made from a blend of four local varieties of olive: Aglandau, Grossane, Salonenque and Verdale.

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 also offers olive oil tastings. 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.

The oil is presented in little blue cups, so that your assessment won't be influenced by the colour.

Olive oil tasting cups at the Castelas oil millPiles 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.

We sampled a green fruity oil, which has a fresh artichoke taste, and a rich black fruity with notes of mushroom, vanilla and blackberries (the estate makes a strawberry and mint jam which contains 20% of this olive oil).

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.

Where: Castelas, Mas de l'Olivier, 13520 Les Baux de Provence. Tel: (+33) 4 90 54 50 86. Website for the Castelas oil mill

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 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.

Terre de Mistral produces all three types of organically farmed, Aix en Provence AOP olive oil: green fruity, black fruity and ripe fruity. Three types of olives are used: Aglandau, Salonenque and Cayanne.

Unlike Castelas, Terre de Mistral is also a winery which makes 12 types of wine, all rather sweetly named, like its olive oils, after different members of the two families, the Davicos and the Gueurys, which own it jointly.

The Davicos have been making wine in Provence for generations, dealing with the local co-operative until the genial Serge, who runs this side of the business, decided he wanted to go it alone and develop more ambitious wines.

Denis Gueury of Domaine Terre de MistralThe 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. It also has a lively programme of regular special events such as open days and dinner jazz evenings and nocturnal walks.

Domaine Terre de Mistral receptionAs well as a tasting area and shop, its reception building includes an excellent, informal restaurant with superb views of Mont Sainte Victoire.

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.

Where: Domaine Terre de Mistral, chemin du Pavillon, route de Peynier, 13790 Rousset. Tel: (+33) 4 42 29 14 84. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Website for Terre de Mistral

 

OLIVE OIL FESTIVALS AND MUSEUMS

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.

Over in the Var, near Sanary sur Mer and Toulon, Ollioules holds its own long-established Fête de l'Oliver each year on the first weekend of October.

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.

Also in Aix in December 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.

Manosque in the Alpes de Haute Provence has its annual olive oil festival in late January and just north of Provence Nyons, in the Drôme, holds its one, called the Alicoque, on the first weekend of February.

One of the greatest enthusiasts of provençal olive oil is the aptly named Olivier Baussan. This wildly successful entrepreneur previously founded the L'Occitane en Provence beauty products empire and now specialises in selling olive oil from all around the world.

Baussan has also created the Ecomusée l'Olivier, dedicated to the olive tree, in his native Volx, in the Luberon National Park. A restaurant, Les petites Tables, is based in the Ecomuseum and you get free entry if you eat there.

Where: Ancienne route de Fourcalquier, 04130 Volx. Telephone for the restaurant at the Ecomusée l'Olivier: (+33) 4 86 68 53 14. Website for the Ecomusée l'Olivier

Baussan has written an authoritative book on olive oil, which is now available in English. Find Olive Oil: A Gourmet Guideimage! by Olivier Baussan 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 Franceimage! on Amazon.

 

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