Olive production in Provence goes back a long way - back to the Ancient Greeks, in fact. On this page we explore this long and surprising history.
Click here to book a hotel in Provence
Click here to read our page on olive oil tourism in Provence, where we visit and experience an oil tasting with two growers and 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).
On that page we also review where and when to find olive festivals and museums in the region and profile Olivier Baussan, the founder of the L'Occitane en Provence beauty products empire and now probably the biggest olive oil enthusiast in Provence.
A THUMBNAIL HISTORY
Olive trees were planted by the Greeks when they settled here and elsewhere around the Mediterranean circa 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 archaeological 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.
That situation still continues. But more recently thousands of new trees have been planted in Provence: there are now nearly 300,000 around Aix alone, according to that city's tourist office.
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 growing 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.
In 2014 another bad blow was dealt to olive oil producers in Provence. An unusually warm and humid allowed olive flies to thrive, resulting in damaged crops.
Olive oil production was less than half that of the previous year, mirroring similarly poor crops in Spain and Italy. The only consolation is that, unlike 1956 when trees died, there will be no catastrophic long-term effects.
A new generation of oil producers has moved into Provence. Many of these small-scale local growers are entirely new to the art of olive oil. And they're 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 on sale at supermarkets 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 awe-struck terms as discussing fine wines: an oil might have notes of artichoke or almond, green apple, freshly mown grass or even chocolate.
The theory is that "el cheapo" olive oils will always still be used for everyday cooking: even in France itself, 88% of olive oil purchased comes from Spain or Italy. But gourmets will increasingly turn to the finer oils to finish special dishes.
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. 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.
Eight regions in France - mainly in Provence - enjoy an AOP (appellation d'origine protégée), a status awarded by the European Union which guarantees an oil's geographical origins and its conditions of production. These eight regions are the Vallée des Baux de Provence, Aix en Provence, Haute Provence, Provence, Nice, Nîmes, Nyons and Corsica.
A word of warning: 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.
France recognises three types of olive oil, fruité vert (green fruity), fruité mûr (ripe fruity) and fruité noir (black fruity). It's the only country officially to endorse fruité noir, a relative newcomer on the scene made of very ripe black olives which are allowed to ferment slightly before pressing.
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.
The label on a bottle of provençal olive oil is also likely to state the name of the château or domaine - though not the year. Unlike wine, olive oil doesn't improve with age and should be consumed quickly once the bottle has been opened. Ensure, too, that it is kept tightly stoppered.