Olives and olive oil from the South of France

Just as the celebrations for the vendanges (wine harvest) come to an end and the new wine is fermenting, thoughts turn to the next harvest of another iconic product of southern France: the olive.

olives

Olive trees are very much a part of the scenery in the Mediterranean region and of major agricultural importance as the source of olive oil, which is used extensively in cooking. The fruits are delicious served with your aperitif and one has only to stroll through the local markets to marvel at the many varieties on offer. The beautiful gnarled wood is also valued by woodworkers.

The trees are slow growing and tend to spread outwards rather than upwards so rarely exceed 8–15 meters in height. They can also reach staggering ages with claims of some olive trees being over 2,000 years old. Their normal life expectancy is around 500 years. The little white flowers produced during the spring turn into olives ready for harvesting in winter months; typically November to January.

olives

Since many olive trees are self sterile, they are generally planted in pairs in order for pollination to take place. They have a preference for growing near the coast where the climate conditions are more favourable and the soil tends to be calcareous and can withstand drought conditions due to their extensive root systems.

Interestingly, green and black olives are from the same plant; the green ones are picked earlier and the black ones are left to ripen. They are extremely good for you, being high in monounsaturated fat, iron, vitamin E and dietary fibre. Considerable research supports the health-giving benefits of consuming olives and olive oil such as favourable effects on cholesterol regulation and that it has anti-inflammatory, antithrombotic and antihypertensive effects as well.

With growing awareness, advanced research and increased concerns for health, the demand for this healthy oil is rising. Last year’s 27% drop in production, due to mainly a problem with the olive fly Bactrocera oleae which attacks the fruit, caused prices to increase but production for this year looks to be at normal levels. The Mediterranean basin is still the biggest producer of world olive oil production but the olive tree is spreading to other countries such as the United States, Australia, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other Asian, African and Middle Eastern countries.

Getting them from the tree to the table is not as simple as just picking them. Most olives today are harvested by shaking the boughs or the whole tree into a net that wraps around the trunk of the tree and opens to form an umbrella-like catcher. Table olive varieties are more difficult to harvest, as workers must take care not to damage the fruit.

The naturally bitter olives are soaked and washed thoroughly in water to remove the sour carbohydrate, then drained and subjected to fermentation or cured with brine. The olives are edible within two weeks to a month, but can be left to cure for up to three months.

Olive oil is the oil extracted from the olive fruit by grinding. Green olives produce bitter oil, and overripe ones produce rancid oil, so care is taken to make sure the olives are perfectly ripened. The olives are ground into a paste using large millstones which takes approximately 30–40 minutes. The oil collected during this part of the process is called virgin oil and extra-virgin oil. After grinding, the olive paste is spread on fibre disks, which are stacked on top of each other, then placed into the press. Pressure is then applied onto the disk to further separate the oil from the paste. This second step produces a lower grade of oil.

Olive oil is classified mainly as either ‘virgin’, which means the oil was produced by the use of physical means and no chemical treatment, or ‘refined’ which means that the oil has been chemically treated to neutralise strong tastes and the acid content. Extra-virgin olive oil comes from the first cold pressing of the olives and is judged to have a superior taste. Extra-virgin and virgin olive oil do not contain refined oil. Oils labelled as ‘pure olive oil’ or ‘olive oil’ are usually a blend of refined and virgin or extra-virgin oil.

As with wine, olive oil has many different varieties, tastes and grades of quality that come with corresponding price tags.