Olives and olive oil in the Alpilles Region
The Romans introduced the olive tree to Provence. Then during the Middle Ages, many of the trees were pulled out so that food and other crops could be grown. But olive oil had a place in the lives of the people. It was used in cooking, for light and for conserving foods. From the 15th to the 18th centuries, olive trees were replanted and the oil was used to make Savon de Marseille (Marseille soap). The 19th century brought a decline in olive cultivation since oil lamps went out of style and petroleum products were used for light. Much of the land was replanted with grapes. At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a further reduction of olive trees. Canals for irrigation were built and different crops introduced. Other kinds of oil was imported and more homes were built which all replaced the need for olive trees.
People still talk about 1956 winter’s freeze which destroyed most of the olive trees. For over 10 years, there were simply no olives. In the 1960’s new trees were planted when it was apparent that the older trees were not going to come back. The government help pay for the replanting. Slowly olive production returned and today, the majority of oil comes from this valley. Olives and olive oil has become, once again, a huge industry. France rates 14th in the world, just behind California.
In this region, there are 4 kinds of olives that make up the AOC oil. La Grossane, La Salonenque, L’Aglandau (la Beruguette or La Blanquette) and La Verdale. These varieties go into the local olive oil but are also used for prepared olives. Depending upon the variety, they are prepared differently.
Most of the olives that are grown locally are processed into oil in the coop presses. It is less expensive for the farmers to do this and since everyone grows the same varieties of olives, it makes some sense. Some farmers have their own presses and others go to presses where if you bring enough olives the press will give you oil from just your olives.
The traditional way to press the olives is with a heavy millstone. The stone mashes the olive and leaves a paste. The paste is put onto “shelves” which are pressed together which presses out the oil. But with this system, the oil sometimes fermented which gave it an off taste. This “spoiling” doesn’t happen with the modern stainless steel presses.
Modern presses, were introduced to the area in 1976. After the olives are washed and the leaves are blown off the olives go into a metal drum where they are chopped up with sharp mechanical knives. This leaves a paste. Then the paste goes into another drum where it is spun by a centrifuge and the oil and the water is separated from the solids. The liquids continue to spin and the water and oil separate.
I saw at the festival that olive oil was being sold between 17 – 21 euros per liter. The producers all said that this year the prices will go up since production is down between 30-60% due to weather and insects.
Last year we picked over a 1000 kilos of olives. This year we picked 175 kgs and made 23 liters compared to 120 liters last year.