A Land of Olive Oil, Maussane Les Alpilles, The Heart of Provence
It is at this time, early in the New Year, that freshly pressed olive oil hits the shelves. It was just weeks ago that the olive harvest began. In mid-November, as the air chilled and frost softened the green of the olive trees, small towns and farm villages in olive-producing nations around the Mediterranean commenced the production of olive oil. Grand Châteaux and small producers alike spread vast nets under their trees and raked the olives from the branches. Maussane les Alpilles, situated in the A.O.C.-designated Valée des Baux (the French certification is granted to certain regions that produce olives, wines, cheeses, butter and other agricultural products), is well known for the high quality of olive oil produced there. Moulin Jean Marie Cornille is an olive producer's cooperative in the heart of this spectacular provincial village. Here, in the early winter when the sun is crisp in the sky, producers come with truckloads or bucket loads of olives, according to the number of trees they have to harvest. The olives, pits, stems and a few leaves are dumped into a roadside stainless-steel reservoir that distributes the olives to a conveyor belt, which transports them to the attic of the Moulin for sorting. Here, the stems and leaves are separated from the olives. The Moulin Jean Marie Cornille produces two varieties of olive oil. The olives that are pressed straight away produce the oil they call fruité vert (green taste), which has a peppery finish. Olives that are stored in huge vats in the attic and mature under their own weight for three days will produce fruité noir (black taste). This riper olive oil will have a smoother finish, and will become even smoother over the next few months as the oil ages in the bottle. The workers at Moulin Jean Marie Cornille very proudly boast that they are the only Moulin in France that maintains this traditional practice of producing fruité noir oil. Both oils produced here are delicious and of the highest quality, however fruité noir is especially cherished, as it is unique to the Maussane les Alpilles and la Valée des Baux. Once the olives have made their way to the attic, they are sorted and prepped to travel down to the main level of the Moulin to be crushed to a pulp by enormous millstones. This pulp, in a rhythm between man and machine, is then sandwiched between straw mats stacked one on top of the other, and sent to be pressed. The air inside the Moulin is fragrant as the golden-green oil oozes out of the pulp and is collected, filtered and then bottled. When you grab a bottle of good quality olive oil from a shop shelf and drizzle it into a salad or sautée something savoury and delicious in it, it is delightful to be reminded of how many caring hands have collaborated on the journey from field to table, to ensure that each meal it touches will be better for it.