Provence has always eaten olives, from the pre-Christian era to current day
The olive has grown in the Mediterranean basin for the last 60,000 years. The Greeks, Romans and Berbers already extracted its oil for cooking and used it as a cosmetic. The oldest oil mills, dating back to 4 BC, have been unearthed in Martigues. Olives have many derivatives and olive wood is highly coveted. There's nothing quite like eating a salad with little local olives seasoned with a drizzle of olive oil and served in an olive wood bowl… And there are almost as many olive varieties as there are countries that grow them - the Greek Kappa, Tuscan Leccino, Catalonian Arbequina and Provence Aglandeau to name but a few.
France consumes around 53,000 tons of olives every year. Provence is France's leading olive grower, accounting for 50 % of total production and the Bouches-du-Rhône area is in poll position, miles ahead of the Gard and Drôme. The landscapes of the Mediterranean just wouldn't be the same without the rows of olive trees so wonderfully depicted by Van Gogh in his 'Olive trees with the Alpilles in the Background', inspired by the Arles area.
Olives come in many shapes and sizes. From the 'Petite Niçoise' to the 'Noire de Nyons' or the Italian Taggiasche, they have little in common save an oval pit... Various varieties are grown in Provence and are mainly blended to produce Provence AOC olive oil – a title awarded in 2007. Main varieties include the Aglandau (a strong, bitter olive, accounting for 20% of production), Bouteillan (used only for oil), Cayon and Salonenque (small, rich in oil, sweet and delicate), with secondary varieties such as the Rossane, Picholine (green and fruity, perfect for eating and favoured for its tangy oil) and Tanche (Nyons Black Olive).
Although olives are perfectly delicious 'au naturel', here in the South we like to prepare them in all sorts of ways: Greek-style, with Herbes de Provence, spiced, or with lemon. They are sometimes mixed with lupin seeds too – a local speciality somewhere between a chickpea and a broad bean, served pickled or in a paste (tapenade). At the end of the year, this is the only place in France where you'll find split olives (in particular next to Les Baux-de-Provence). Green in colour, they are harvested in early October then split (but not crushed) and pickled in brine. These crunchy treats maintain all of their natural flavour and have a very particular taste.
Olives have really come back into fashion since the properties of the Mediterranean Diet were unveiled. From Crete to Spain, it is thought that this diet rich in fatty acids promotes a long life and fights heart disease. Based on cereals, honey, garlic, cheese, fish and red wine, the Cretan diet recommends using olive oil as the sole source of fat.
Consumed from time immemorial, olives were eaten well before the day of Jesus Christ. Theophrastus evoked them in his treatise 'Concerning Odours'. The main derivative of the olive – its oil – is to Provence what cream is to Normandy and butter to Brittany. Southern food is always well-oiled and anchoïade, tapenade, aïgo boulido and duck with olives are just some of the many culinary treats made from this little fruit. Olive is the colour in virtually every dish here, whether fried foods, salads or pasta. The Mediterranean people who consume it throughout the year celebrate it right up until December with the 'pompe à l’huile' – a bread oozing with olive oil traditionally served to end the year olive-style!
Olives for the south 'apéro' !
I cannot pity you for having no butter in Provence, because you have admirable oil." Madame de Sévigné
"So Food so Good" is a blog created by a culinary journalist who simply loves scrutinizing the most creative dishes on offer from every angle! Cécile Cau talks about the restaurants she loves, and regularly delivers up her favourite recipes and little secrets unveiled by her favourite chefs.
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