In Les Baux-de-Provence
There is an undeniable air de fête (festive air) as the harvest begins at Moulin Castelas. The team gathers, and despite the amount of work that lays ahead, the smiles and banter make it feel more like a reunion of old friends. And, in fact, it is. Once you have experienced la récolte , you can't wait to be a part of it again. There is an energy and vitality that comes from this land - these trees - that leaves a lasting impression. So familiar faces come back, year after year, for this labor of love.
The olive groves in Les Baux-de-Provence are majestic and beautiful, but there is also a delicious aroma - earthy, floral and fruity - that announces the start of the season. It is easy to see why owners Catherine and Jean-Benoît Hugues fell in love with these groves and decided to put down roots after spending 15 years in Arizona.
“No one born in Provence can live without the scents of the garrigue scrubland, the gusting Mistral, the sun’s caress and the magic of the olive trees that shaped the local landscape”
Catherine et Jean-Benoît Hugues, oliverons aux Baux de Provence
a long history
Olive trees were planted in this area over 300 years ago, and the gnarled trunks of the ancient trees seem to have stories to tell. In February 1956 there were catastrophic freezing conditions that wiped out two-thirds of the trees. From amputated trunks sprung new life, where 4-5 branches came together to grow and thrive. Jean-Benoît and Catherine purchased their first olive groves in 1997, and now have 110 acres of Appellation d'Origine Protégée (AOP)* in the Vallée des Baux de Provence, and 160 acres on the Plaine de Crau.
*(AOP is a designation that protects the location and quality of a product)
Tradition, with a touch of innovation
There is a long tradition of making olive oil in Provence. Typically all of the olive growers in the area bring their crops to a central mill to be processed at the same time as olives from neighboring groves. While these co-ops are convenient, there is little control over the quality. Catherine and Jean-Benoît decided to build their own mill in 2002 so they could oversee every step of their process. Daughter of a wine-maker, Catherine realized that the process of making olive oil is very similar to making wine, so the couple built their mill with that model in mind. Every decision - from when to harvest to the final blending - has an effect on the final product. This couple seems to have it all mastered, as their olive oils win prestigious awards, year after year.
All of the Olives
Olives are fruit, and much like grapes, there are different varieties. Four different varieties of olives can be found in the Vallée des Baux de Provence: Salonenque, Aglandau, Grossane and Verdale. (Don't worry, there won't be a quiz!) Each has its own characteristics and ripens at a slightly different time, so timing requires a certain savoir-faire. The various groves, located in different parcels of land, each have their own characteristics as well. Farmers name their various plots according to the locale, or the person from whom they purchased the land. The relationship with the land is personal in France. There is a word "terroir" that has no equivalent in any other language. It basically means that the land, climate, soil, air, and people who work the land all come together and produce something unique that cannot be replicated anywhere else.
And so it begins ...
This is "Romanin", a 35-acre parcel in the municipality of Saint-Remy-de-Provence. The Salonenque olives here are ready for harvest. Nets are stretched out between the rows of trees, and the fruit is shaken from the trees using electric rakes. Looking at the amount of fruit on each tree, it is almost impossible to imagine the days where they were picked by hand! The powerful electric rake requires strength and precision - not a job for the weak!
Then the nets are carefully folded and the contents are deposited into a large crate called a palox. A full palox holds some 661 pounds of olives!
The palox are labeled with the date, location, and variety. This information will follow the olives all the way through the process to ensure traceability. The flurry of activity is constant as the tractor appears to bring the olives to the mill. Within 6 hours of harvest, the oil will be extracted and put into vats. Now that is fresh!
The olives are off of the trees, but nets are full of more than just olives. There are branches, leaves and dirt that will need to be removed. First step - separating out anything that isn't an olive!
Then, a nice bath. (Notice the difference in colors - the above video is the Grossane variety, and the video below is Salonenque)
The olives are placed in a bath with water and air bubbles that eliminate the dust that has accumulate throughout the summer. Once clean, they are sent the the crusher. As Catherine explains, "we separate the juice from the fruit, that's it". While I had never thought as olive oil as "juice", it is exactly that. And like fresh-squeezed juice, the flavor is fresh, fruity and delicious! I had the pleasure of drinking a sip right after the extraction - quel délice !
For a sneak peak at the entire process, from olives on the tree to bottled perfection, be sure to watch the video below. You will definitely be adding a tasting at Moulin Castelas to your next trip itinerary!
Olive Oil Tasting
Wine tasting, yes, but tasting olive oil?? Mais oui! As I mentioned, Catherine comes from a family of wine-makers, and the blending of olives is not unlike blending grapes. Some classes of olive oils have specific guidelines on which olive varieties must be included and approximate percentages of each, but others give the artisan free rein.
Each oil has its own personality, and is optimal for certain kinds of dishes. You will be amazed at how you can taste the subtle differences, as well as the freshness in each bottle.
Grab some teaspoons and a bit of bread or crackers for cleansing your palate in between. I like to start with L'Aglandau. Pour it on the spoon and just drink the oil alone. Notice the smoothness. This oil is made from only one type of olive and it is pure in its simplicity.
The Hugues describe it as "an elegant green fruity oil with a cut grass note followed by mint and raw artichoke - This olive oil is ideal with a roquette salad, on a fresh goat cheese or on a tomato toast. No need to add pepper!" Moulin Castelas
To cleanse your palate, grab a bit of bread or cracker, then taste the complexity of the Classic oil. It is a blend of 4 olives, and you will notice a definite difference from the first. I always find a peppery finish to this one.