I absolutely love olive oil. I love it on tomatoes, on pizza, in a salad, with crusty bread, in a sauté with eggplant and zucchini…the list could go on and on. Olives themselves are a staple in my life. I love them in breads, in salads, in martinis (one of my favorite ways!) stuffed with blue cheese and by themselves. So when I found out there was an olive mill nearby, I knew that was a trip we had to make.
Olive trees and Provence go together like peanut butter and jelly; Laurel and Hardy; thunder and lightning. The olive tree has been a source of wealth and food for the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures for over 3000 years. This drought and disease resistant tree can live for many centuries. If cut down to its roots, it has the ability to regenerate itself. The olive tree is seen as a symbol of wisdom and peace.
A few summers ago, I read the book The Olive Farm by Carol Drinkwater. It’s a book of her memoirs of her and her husband buying an old olive tree farm and their joys and challenges of rebuilding it. This was the beginning of my obsession with living on an olive tree farm in Provence. Reality is ever present and I realize there will not be a farm in my future, but at least I can visit one.
The olive mill that we visited is located in the Alps-Maritime of beautiful Provence, just about an hour from the Cote d’Azur. Family run for seven generations (since 1848), this quaint little mill is one of only 14 that still remain in the region. Between the expense of making the olive oil and the current French environmental laws regarding disposal of the olive waste (what is NOT biodegradable about an olive??), the small olive oil producers are struggling. In fact, 43% of the world’s olive oils are produced in Spain, 27% in Italy, only 2% in France and the rest split between Greece and Portugal.
As we toured the mill, we were able to see the traditional and the modern way of producing olive oil. Olive oil is found mainly in the pulp and the pits of the olive. Extracting the oil involves crushing the olive. For centuries, this was done with huge granite slabs that are affixed to a base. This is now done by using a simpler and more effective process by using a mechanical extraction machine. Olives must be pressed within 3 days of being harvested in order to get the oil. They are harvested during the months of October and February.
All of this crushing creates a paste of pits and olive skins and liquid matter of oil and water. The oil is separated from the water and voila! olive oil is produced. I have much simplified this process so as to not completely bore you. It takes 11 pounds of olives to produce 1 liter or 4 cups of olive oil!
We then moved into the tasting room and boutique of olives, oils and culinary gifts galore. The oils varied in tastes from very fruity with aromas of fresh olives and cut grasses to smooth buttery flavors with nutty tones. Incredible! These olive oils were all EVOO-extra virgin olive oils-with an acidity between .2% and .7%. Any olive oil with an acidity higher than that can’t be an EVOO. In fact, most olive oils that are produced in mass quantities are actually virgin, not extra virgin.
Five olive oils and six olive varieties later, we were completely satiated. The old olive trees were gently blowing in the breeze and I was reminded of my dream of living on an olive farm. I may never live on an olive farm, but I will relish in the memories of being able to just spend one day on among the olive trees.