Where to taste and buy the best olives & olive oil of Languedoc
Since I moved to the Med I’ve gained a greater understanding of olive trees. Indeed, you can hardly miss the things: their silvery grey-green leaves shake wildly in the Mistral and Tramontane winds and provide shade on sultry summer afternoons; their fruit is sold in practically every street market, in umpteen variations (the number of different olives and oils is staggering), offered as aperitif snacks in most bars, baked into savoury cakes or turned into tasty tapenade spread and produced at picnics.
There is no escaping the ubiquitous olive tree and its crop, and if ever there was a symbol of the south of France, the humble olive - be it black, green or pressed into precious golden oil - is it.
Although production of olive oil in France is a drop in the ocean compared to Europe’s total output (Spain and Italy are the major players), Languedoc and Provence boast an impressive variety of olives - lucques, picholine, verdale, bouteillan, negrette, rougette and aglandeau are some of the names you will come across - and the wide range of tastes and styles, from light and fruity to rich and spicy, means there is something to suit every palate.
See, smell, taste and touch: getting to grips with olive cultivation (or oléiculture, as they say in France) is a wake-up call for the senses. If you want to learn about an all-important aspect of life in le midi, a trip to an olive farm or olive oil cooperative is just the ticket.
3 of the best places to taste and buy Languedoc olives and olive oil:
Domaine de l'Oulivie, Combaillaux
Situated between the villages of Combaillaux and Saint Gély du Fesc, the Domaine de l’Oulivie is the largest olive farm in Languedoc’s Hérault département. A family-run business since 1958, this 17-hectare plantation is farmed by brothers Pierre and Roch Vialla, and the fruits of their labours are many: visitors to l’Oulivie or its sister outpost in nearby Aniane can sample and purchase an impressive range of olive-based food stuffs (think oil of many kinds, plus purée, tapenade paste, olives in oil or brine) and, more unusually, top quality beauty products, including hand creams, body oils, moisturizers and soaps.
Visit during late autumn and you may witness the prized olives being lovingly harvested, using electric tree-shakers, little plastic rakes and buckets, and nets to catch the fallen fruit. Just don’t make the classic faux-pas of nibbling an olive straight off the tree - they’re terribly bitter – and do call ahead to check opening hours.
A short drive from Languedoc’s regional capital, Montpellier, l’Oulivie is the place to discover secrets of the gastronomic kind, but for those not within striking distance, selected tasty tit-bits can be ordered online, courtesy of www.tablesud.fr, a collection of Mediterranean food, wine and heritage sites brought together to form a one-stop shop for the southern French lifestyle.
Domaine de l’Oulivie
+33 (0)4 67 67 07 80
Accent d'Oc, Capestang
Accent d’Oc is another French family affair that makes the very most of olives. Based in the town of Capestang (Aude), Marie Neirac rules in the kitchen while daughter Delphine handles sales. Between them, they cook up a storm, creating culinary condiments with the full-on flavour of the beautiful south.
Their olive jam with lemon peel (confiture d’olive avec zeste de citron) is a knock out with fresh goats’ cheese or smoked salmon, while a dash of their aniseed and fennel oil will have you dreaming of pre-dinner Pastis; pistou oil is flavoured with basil and garlic, and red wine is blended with black olives to create tapenade du vendangeur.
The Accent d’Oc website has serving suggestions that make the mouth water, and ordering online is straightforward. If you’re in the area, stop and shop in person; an Accent d’Oc boutique, restaurant and book shop, called Au Soleil, recently opened in the Languedoc town of Béziers, and it’s perfect for a mid-morning snack, light lunch or apertif.
7 rue de Strasbourg
+33 (0)4 67 93 11 77
Au Soleil par Accent d’Oc
1, place de la Madeleine
+33 (0)4 67 28 54 26
Coopérative Oléicole L'Oulibo, Bize-Minervois
Situated just outside the gorgeous village of Bize-Minervois (a great place to go swimming in summer), the Coopérative Oléicole L'Oulibo is the only olive co-operative in the Aude deparment. Olives from across the region are pressed here, and sold in a large and well-presented shop.
The shelves heave with pracically every variety of olive under the sun, including Luques, Olivière, Aglandau, Picholines, Ascolana and Bouteillan. It's the bright green Luques that are most famous and prized here (said to be buttery in flavour), and you are free to taste them and all the other varieties. As well as olive oils, you'll find beautifully presented gift-packs of conserves, olives, oils and even soaps.
Hameau de Cabezac
11120 BIZE MINERVOIS
Tél. 04 68 41 88 88
The olives of Languedoc
The olive is one of the emblems of Mediterranean and Languedoc civilisations past and present, with a clearly defined place in historical, cultural, religious, therapeutic and economic terms. The olive tree requires the long, hot and dry summers and gentle winters of the Languedoc climate.
Olives grow a pale green colour in Languedoc from September to October, and turn black in December / January going through stages of pale mauve and violet. The 2003-2004 harvest put the Languedoc-Roussillon region in second place behind Provence Alpes Côte d'Azur with an annual production of olive oil of 728,4 tonnes and in first place for the production of olives for general consumption at 700 tonnes.
A long history of cultivation
The cultivation of olive trees is at least 6000 years old. Amphores - traditional wide shouldered ceramic vases - dating to 3500 B.C. have been found on Crete. Paintings on royal tombs in Egypt also shed light on early cultivation. A symbol of strength and wisdom, the olive was used as a reward to Olympic champions of the Greek civilisation. Indeed, The Greeks and Romans were instrumental in spreading the olive tree throughout the Mediterranean under successive civilisations and conquests. Under the Roman empire, it enabled its conquerors to maintain a level of calm by giving people a product with multiple virtues.
The olive tree - in French "l'olivier" - has one of the greatest longevities given that it can live for up to 1000 years or more. Its growth is very slow and it is said that it is the 3rd generation who benefits: the grand father plants the tree, the father prunes the tree, and the son harvests the olives. In other words, one doesn't plant an olive tree for oneself, but for one's lineage.
Merits and Uses
The olive tree has been used since Antiquity as a tree of health and peace. The leaves are an excellent stimulant for the liver. It protects the brain against ageing and reduces the risks of cardio-vascular illness. Olive oil is considered very beneficial for the body not only by consumption but also since Egyptian antiquity for curing skin ailments. It aids the skin regeneration process and tones it. In China, olive tree wood is used to counter poisons and venims.
Different types of Olive, Different Olive Oils
Olives for general consumption in Languedoc are harvested before full maturity (green) and processed to be less bitter, or at full maturity. Olives destined for the press are harvested at full maturity. The extraction of oil dates from early antiquity. The first step consists in obtaining a blackish pulp from which it is possible to extract the oil by means of a press. As many as 5 to 6 kilos of olives are required to make one litre of oil.
The classification of oils depends on their acidity, smell and flavour : Virgin olive oils are obtained from a cold press and undergo no other processing. Different aromas characterise different oils: "fruité noir" is associated with vanilla and truffle, "fruité mûr" with nut and sweet almond and "fruité jaune" with prune and pineapple, typical of oils from the Nîmes region in Languedoc.
Olive varieties are very numerous. Their yields and oil qualities differ greatly. The best known are the Picholine, Meski, Chemlel, Ouslati, Tanche, Grossanne, Limli, Sigoise, Chétoui etc. The Meski, Grecque, Sigoise, and Barouni are prefered for general consumption.
Maintaing the Trees
Maintenance of the olive tree can be done once every two years. The year this happens, the olives are big and kept for jarring. On the other hand, when a little maintenance is done, the olives are generally smaller and destined for the mill to make oil.
Jean-Benoit Hugues, owner of 6 hectares of olive groves in the Alpilles says :
"We harvest our olives at the optimum moment - they are then pressed within six hours in order to preserve freshness, fruitiness and crunchiness and avoid any fermentation."
He sees himself very much like a Languedoc winemaker. At the press, each type of olive (Aglandau, Salonenque, Grossane, Verdale) is kept separate until "assembly" into an olive oil that characterises his region.
Olives in the Languedoc-Roussillon
Nimes now has an Olive AOC - the famous French stamp of quality relating to a particular geography that dictates the types of olive employed, the degree of acidity, and so on - which gathers 3500 producers under the same aegis in the Gard, Languedoc and an additional 100 in the Hérault. In addition there are 11 presses and 2 jarring plants in the area. Favoured olives in the Languedoc are the Picholine, Négrette and Noirette.
Nimes hosts annually its "Journées Méditéranéennes de l'Olivier" - the largest olive oil market in France. This is held in April on the main square (Esplanade Charles-de Gaulle) with conferences and about 60 professional participants. In addition local shops and restaurants turn an eye to the celebration of the olive.
Recipes with olives and olive oil are not hard to find. Nevertheless, we thought worthy a little "mise en bouche" to close the theme of this article.
"Pain aux tomates": Toast some wholemeal bread, and grate in some garlic. Next grate some tomato onto the bread and pour on some olive oil. Afterwards put on a slice of raw ham or some anchovies. Bon appetit!
- Neil Parkinson, James Properties France (www.jamespropertiesfrance.com)