The Green and the Black: On the Olive Trail from Tuscany to Provence

Special to The Washington Post

Olives make people do strange things.

The ancient Greeks declared them a gift from the gods and spread them throughout the Mediterranean. The Romans came, saw and planted more. The authors of the Bible -- Old and New Testaments -- sprinkled them everywhere. Olive trees, with their arthritic, twisted trunks and leaves that change from green to silver in sunlight, have inspired poetry, paintings and philosophy.

What grove did Jesus return to for solace? What fruit -- inedible off the tree -- gets pulverized and pressed into oil, yet is still labeled "extra virgin"? Not apples.

Olives have a way of growing on you. Living around them in the South of France has transformed my family into olive people. Our 9-year-old son, who prefers strong green olive oil to jam on his breakfast toast, announced last fall that he'd learned only one interesting fact in his first month of catechism instruction: "They use olive oil for baptisms."

And so recently, as the olives began to appear on trees and fatten up for the coming cold-weather harvests, the call of the olives led me to a pair of villages in Provence and Tuscany, where olives are a way of life and a fruit much too revered to be drowned in a martini.

Read about olive towns in Tuscany (In the Italian Hills, Creating Intense Flavor) and Provence (From a French Village, an Elite Oil Emerges).

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In the Italian Hills, Creating Intense Flavor

By Robert V. Camuto
Special to The
Washington Post
Friday, October 24, 2003

The count shifted into four-wheel drive and steered his rickety Suzuki Samurai off-road -- up a bumpy slope of olive groves and rows upon rows of vines.

Bouncing around the Chianti Hills just south of Florence, I couldn't help but think how much I had enjoyed my lunchtime ribollita (a thick Tuscan soup of beans, bread and vegetables drizzled with thick green olive oil) and how much I didn't want to part with it.

Mercifully, the vehicle came to a halt at an ideal perch to view the count's hundreds of meticulously ordered acres and his hilltop castle, Castello di Poppiano. In the evening light, it was a painting.

Count Ferdinando Guicciardini, 67-year-old scion of one of Renaissance Florence's most important families, pointed out a particular olive grove basking in the last rays of the day's sun. A slight man with a salt-and-pepper beard, wire-rimmed glasses and an ever-present necktie, he explained that this grove, Podere La Costa, was acquired by his ancestors in the 14th century. These 30-odd acres of Tuscan frantoio olive trees have been known to produce some of the most intensely flavored oil in Italy and, it follows, the world.

The oil from Podere La Costa is packaged as Laudemio, an elite 13-year-old designation created by central Tuscan olive growers. "Laudemio" is the ancient term for the cut the farmers had to pay the local lord. In other words, the best stuff.

In two of the last three harvests, Castello di Poppiano's oil has taken the prize in Italy's Ercole Olivario olive oil contest for the best "intense fruit" (meaning "strong") olive oil.

The Laudemio consortium was spawned after the devastating freeze of 1986 claimed most of Tuscany's olive trees and left many growers wondering whether to replant.

Laudemio "got olive producers, who are also wine producers, to start thinking about olive oil as a product like wine and to really produce top quality," the count explained in perfect English.

Laudemio growers, who call themselves olivanti, adhere to requirements including an early harvest, generally in November. Olives may be picked by hand, combed from trees or shaken from them with mechanized vibrators, but the trees must not be beaten with sticks. Oil must be pressed quickly after harvest and approved by a tasting committee.

The olivanti put their oil in fancy cut-glass half-liter flasks, which are individually placed in elegant boxes to keep out damaging sunlight. Laudemio oils sell for about $13-$16 per half-liter in Tuscany and about twice that in the United States. (Several wine and gourmet food retailers in the D.C. area carry Poppiano's Laudemio; see below.) I had first stumbled on Laudemio during the olive harvest a couple of years ago on a weekend trip with my longtime friend Aldo, a native Tuscan. I had never tasted Laudemio. Aldo had never even heard of it.

What we watched come out of a local olive press that day was unlike anything we had experienced. The oil was luminous emerald. It had the requisite Tuscan peppery after-burn, or pizzicata. But the first thing that struck me was its pungent green kick -- like fresh-mowed grass.

For this return adventure in Laudemio country, I again recruited Aldo. And that evening, after our romp through the groves, the count suggested that we taste his Laudemio over dinner up at the castle.

Not So Chi-Chi Chianti

Touring the Tuscan hills with a good friend and fellow food and wine lover is my idea of the perfect vacation. We found the wine and oil estates of the Colli Fiorentini remarkably accessible.

I got hold of the count just days before my trip -- most of the time he answers his own telephone. He was busy at the moment showing around a group of architectural students who had appeared unannounced in the middle of the wine grape harvest, but yes, he said, come by at 5 Wednesday.

Poppiano is one of several domains in Montespertoli. Although it is part of Chianti, Montespertoli probably is not in your Tuscan tourist guide.

Less than a half-hour drive from Montespertoli, toward the medieval town of Siena lies the Chianti Classico area, where palaces have been converted to four-star hotels, every street has a wine bar and a real estate office, sophisticated restaurants play New Age jazz, and tourist shops sell golf balls with the trademark black rooster.

Montespertoli, in contrast, could not be mistaken for Napa Valley. It has a typical town center with a plaza of evergreen oak trees, where in November it hosts a New Wine Fair and a New Oil and White Truffle Fair. The wines are less renowned and complex than in Chianti Classico and the people simpler. But the hills around Montespertoli are among the most stunningly evocative in Tuscany.

On our first morning in Montespertoli, Aldo and I stopped at the castle on the edge of the town owned by wine and Laudemio producer Baron Alessandro de Renzis Sonnino. Shortly after we arrived at the estate, the baron -- who looks the part, with silvery hair, a close-cropped beard and a ruffled hankie in the breast pocket of his beige cotton jacket -- drove up on a scooter.

Leading us on a tour of the castle's wine and oil cellars, he complained of the meager harvest that awaited Tuscan olive growers -- the result of a late spring frost followed by a prolonged drought. The year 2003 might be a great wine vintage as the grape harvest was proving, but it was sure to be a lousy year for oil production.

Laudemio's two major customers are the United States and Japan, but building the export market hasn't always been easy.

"A couple of years ago I was at a wine fair in New York," the baron recalled. "These people tasted my oil and they were astonished. They had never tasted anything like that. To them olive oil is supposed to be yellow. Our oil -- especially after the harvest -- is very green, very spicy, very tough."

Loyal to the Oil

The funny thing is that in its own Tuscan backyard, the Laudemio imprint remains largely unknown. This may be because Italians, who produce about 25 percent of the world's olive oil, treat it as an important staple purchased in quantity -- not in designer bottles.

Italians tend to be as loyal to their local oil as they are to their local soccer club. But as in the case of my friend Aldo, loyalties can conflict. As a Tuscan businessman, he is proud of Laudemio for striving to be the world's top cut of oil, and on the evening before our trip, he proclaimed it the best, no question. The following morning he agreed with the service station attendant that the area around their mutual home town, Pistoia, was unrivaled. At noon, he told me, "to be honest, my sister-in-law's olive oil is the best." (For the record, that would be from Carmignano, in the province of Prato between Pistoia and Florence.)

In the olive groves near Montespertoli, we ate lunch at Il Focolare, a family-run trattoria serving such Tuscan comfort food as ribollita and three-inch-thick steak Florentine (rubbed with salt and blackened on the grill). On every table was a bottle of deep green, pungent oil.

After the lunch crowd parted, we talked with the father-and-son team who run the place.

"Everyone in Italy thinks that their [local] oil is the best," explained the son, Enrico Cirri, "and they think the oil from everywhere else is [no good]."

When Aldo asked Enrico's father, Livio, what he thought about Laudemio, he puffed up his cheeks and made a sound similar to that of a tire deflating.

"From here, all the oil is good," he said in Italian. "I prefer my oil."

Inside the Castle

The Castello di Poppiano encloses a large courtyard with two lookout towers. Arriving for dinner, Aldo and I were stunned by the simplicity inside. I expected Renaissance frescoes and suits of armor, but we saw plain modern furniture and a large-screen TV mixed in with a few antiques.

At a wood farm table in the kitchen next to the centuries-old hearth, the contessa served a wild pig stew and the count uncorked Poppiano wines. The contessa manages the olive groves along with a local agronomist she calls "my guru."

At one point, the contessa handed us small plastic cups in which she poured about a tablespoon of oil. She then showed us her preferred method of tasting: One hand held the cup and the other was placed over it. After a swirling motion with her hands, she held the oil up to her nose for a whiff.

"Now, don't be afraid to taste it like you would taste wine," she said.

It wasn't as strong as new Laudemio -- the grassiness had mellowed. But the spice and pizzicata remained.

On the next course of plain steamed potatoes, we poured generous amounts of Laudemio. Then came salad greens, on which we poured more. When Aldo asked the contessa for a little vinegar, she gasped and gave him a look as if she was going to slap him, but she found a small bottle.

In this corner of Tuscany, oil is normally taken straight -- which is no wonder, when you consider that, according to the contessa's calculation, about one tree's olives goes into every Laudemio bottle.

"For me it's l'amore," the contessa explained. "If you really love something, a part of you is in it, and I love olive oil."

Laudemio olive oil is available at several outlets in the Washington area, including Cleveland Park Liquors (3423 Connecticut Ave. NW), Arrowine (4508 Lee Highway, Arlington), Dean & DeLuca (3276 M St. NW), Rick's Wine & Gourmet (3117 Duke St., Alexandria) and Cecile's Wine Cellar (1351 Chain Bridge Rd., McLean).

Details: Montespertoli and the Chianti Hills

GETTING THERE: Montespertoli is about 20 miles southwest of Florence and about 45 miles southeast of Pisa -- Tuscany's two airport cities. Air France recently quoted a 30-day-advance fare from Washington to Florence of $646 round trip, with connections in New York and Paris. Delta Airlines quoted a fare to Pisa of $501 round trip, with connections in Boston and Milan.

GETTING AROUND: Exploration of Tuscany requires a car. Thrifty Car Rental (www.thrifty.com) recently quoted online rates of $332 per week from Florence for an economy car with a manual shift and no air conditioning, including unlimited mileage and all taxes and mandatory fees.

WHERE TO STAY: The best option for getting a flavor of the countryside is agriturismo: villas and guest houses that generally rent rooms or apartments by the week. The Castello di Montegufoni (via Montegufoni 18, in Montagnana, telephone 011-39-571-671131, info@montegufoni.it) features spectacular views and Renaissance-era and modern apartments. Figure $750 to $1,300 per week for an apartment that sleeps four.

The Castello di Oliveto (Via de Monte Olivo 6, Castelfiorentino, 011-39-571-629722) is a working estate producing olive oil, wines and grappa. An apartment for two in the 15th-century manor costs about $120 per night. For a selection of other agriturismo options, visit www.chianti-farmhouse.com.

WHERE TO EAT: Il Focloare (Via Volterrana Nord 145, Montagnana) is a fine family-run trattoria featuring homemade pastas, ribollita and steak Florentine. About $25 per person. In the center of Montespertoli, Artevino (Via Sonnino 28) serves Tuscan classics and local wines. About $35 per person. The area's preeminent gastronomic restaurant is La Tenda Rossa (Piazza del Monumento, Cerbaia) serving such delights as Siena pig salad with wild fennel. About $70 per person.

OLIVE CULTURE: On the second-to-last weekend in November -- this year, Nov. 22-23 -- Montespertoli hosts a New Oil and Bread Fair presenting the harvest's first extra virgin olive oil, which coincides with the White Truffle Fair. For information on area events, visit the local tourist consortium at www.chianti-farmhouse.com.

OLIVE ESTATES: Most oil estates are open to the public, but call ahead. For a list of local farms and castles (in Italian): www.chianti-montespertoli.it.

Castello di Poppiano, 50025 Montespertoli, telephone 011 39 055 82315.

Fattoria Castello Sonnino, 50025 Montespertoli, 011 39 0571 609198, www.castellosonnino.it.

INFORMATION: Italian Government Tourist Board, www.italiantourism.com.

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From a French Village, an Elite Oil Emerges

By Robert V. Camuto
Special to The
Washington Post
Friday, October 24, 2003; Page H09

My journey into the heart of the heart of French olive country began at the Nyons olive and wine cooperative -- the parking lot, to be exact -- with a few dozen mostly older men dressed in green velvet cloaks and Robin Hood caps adorned with olive sprigs.

My companions in ancient attire constituted the chivalrous order known as the Brotherhood of Knights of the Olive Tree, dedicated to spreading the gospel of olives in general and, in particular, Nyons's delicious, melt-in-the-mouth black olives, known as tanches.

The gathering marked the knights' 40th annual Olivades festival. As the sun began its drop behind the northern Provence hills, the knights filed in procession through town, led by a minstrels and children in Provencal costume and joined by the "Queen of Nyons," a young local pageant winner bearing a rhinestone crown.

The spectacle stopped traffic as it proceeded through Nyons's central square to the other side of town and an amphitheater on the banks of the Eygues River. There, the grand master of the olive knights led his order's highest ceremony. Five men and two women initiates took the brotherhood's solemn oath, which includes the promise to "defend the olive tree and the material and spiritual riches it brings, and to practice the virtues it represents."

The Olive Way

Most English-language travel guides to Provence simply ignore Nyons. And that is part of its appeal.

Nyons, about 45 miles northeast of Avignon, is a land of villages that rise out of rock on hills covered with vines, apricot trees and olives. Central Nyons comprises a square of animated cafes and a medieval village set on a hillside. The whole town gets taken over Thursdays and Sundays by sprawling regional markets.

Nyons is not the most chic address in Provence. Sophisticated Parisians keep their smart summer homes near the boutiques in Vaison-La-Romaine, about 20 minutes south by car in the Vaucluse.

But what Nyons lacks in designer taste, it makes up for in culture -- specifically, oleiculture (olive culture). No other place in France has so committed its identity to the olive and transformed itself into the spiritual center of the French olive.

Olives are celebrated here year-round, with a feast of new olives in December, a feast of new oil in February, and the Olivades in July.

Nyons is home to the Institute of the World of the Olive Tree, a cultural, scientific and economic center that in addition to conferences and exhibitions offers weekly olive oil tasting seminars to the public.

Next to the olive cooperative is the Museum of the Olive Tree. On the other end of town, a now-defunct 18th-century oil mill and soap factory offers public tours. The city tourism office promotes hikes through local olive groves.

In truth, France is a bit player in the world of olives, producing only about 3,000 tons of oil per year -- roughly 3 percent of what it consumes. The deep freeze of 1956 nearly wiped out the French olive industry by killing off most of its trees.

Yet in recent years, as olive oil gained in worldwide appeal, France has managed to place its olives among the world's gourmet elite. Some mills continue to operate the old-fashioned way, squeezing olive mash in large manual presses and then separating the resulting oil and water with special utensils. Others, such as the Nyons cooperative, have modernized with stainless steel systems: Olives go in one end, and oil -- extracted by centrifuge -- comes out the other.

French olive culture is generally based on the country's small-is-beautiful agricultural model: Oil is produced in relatively small quantities than can fetch anywhere from about $12 to $40 per liter, depending on reputation and mystique.

Olive cultivation in France is about as democratic as agriculture gets. Anyone with a few trees participates in the harvest -- first by summoning friends, relatives and anyone else up for hours of knocking olives out of trees with a variety of methods, including shaking branches, whacking them with long sticks or combing them with small plastic rake ends made expressly for the task.

The olives are collected below in nets. The plumpest often end up as eating olives, after being cured in brine or salt. The rest are used for oil. Producers, meaning anyone from Land Rover-driving families to local paysans, show up at the local mills to either trade their olives for oil (the mill keeps its cut) or pay for their own press time. Mills also buy olives from wheeler-dealer types who peddle truckloads of olives from Italy, Spain or North Africa. The general rule is that if the olives are in good shape, most mills will press them.

Nearly a decade ago, Nyons became the first French olive-growing area to obtain its own appellation, or AOC, similar to that of wine regions, which polices what can be called Nyons olives or oil. Olives, for example, must be Nyons tanches, and oil must be pressed within six days of harvest.

Before anything bears the Nyons label, it must pass the examination of a tasting committee.

Women, Olives and Taste

Rene Gras -- octogenarian, retired archaeologist and olive knight -- has presided for 20 years over the Museum of the Olive Tree, a one-room repository of old presses, jars, documents and photographs that trace thousands of years of olive history.

When I asked Gras who produced the best olives, he answered with certainty in French, "The best olives for eating come from Nyons."

Why? Gras explained that because Nyons lies at the olive's northern limit, early winter freezes before a relatively late harvest in December or January remove water and bitterness from the local olives. The result is a distinctive wrinkled appearance and sweet taste.

But when the subject turned to oil, Gras became philosophical.

The rule of thumb with olive oil is that the earlier the harvest and greener the fruit, the greener and stronger is the oil. Owing to its late harvest, Nyons oil is mild in comparison with the dark green, fruitier oils that dominate the gourmet market. It lacks the bite of Tuscan oils and the aromas of Provencal oils from Les Baux-de-Provence. In Nyons, some reformers want an earlier harvest to produce stronger oil, but prevailing traditionalists want to keep the status quo.

"Oil is a matter of taste, like women," Gras said. A grin appeared below his sausage of a nose. My wife rolled her eyes, this not being the first time in France she had heard an agricultural product compared to her sex.

"It's true," he insisted. "If you produced an appellation of women, how could you tell which ones were the best? Every one has a different scent and perfume."

The gustatory debate continued at the area's most reputed restaurant, which happens to be in Vaison-La-Romaine.

Chef Robert Bardot runs Le Moulin à Huile in a centuries-old oil mill next to Vaison's 1st-century Roman bridge.

We sat in the garden next to a large table of Parisians and ate one of those excessive six-course meals you can only find in France.

The tasting menu was so complex and varied, it defied description -- starting with a first appetizer plate that included grilled langoustine, warm foie gras and a whipped froth of a sauce made from coconut milk.

After devouring every course, we mopped the plates with our bread. There was red mullet in saffron-flavored oil and aioli, Mediterranean Saint Pierre (John Dory, the fish), Indian-spiced lamb tandoori and small delicious mystery concoctions on the side.

But the biggest surprise of the meal was the oil that was so generously used in the cooking. It was murky green -- several shades darker than the local oil -- and one taste of it sent herb and nut aromas straight up through the roof of the mouth into the nose.

When we inquired,

Bardot's wife, Sabine, said the oil was from Les Baux. Her husband, she said, found it more flavorful than the local stuff. "It's a matter of taste," she said, and shrugged.

Defending the Olive

Sunday noon, the Knights of the Olive Tree held another round of public aperitifs. This time, crusts of toasted bread would be distributed with garlic and oil.

In Provencal tradition, you took your garlic clove, rubbed it on the toast, then dipped the bread in oil, and voilà: one of life's simplest and most satisfying pleasures.

I ate some oil-soaked bread and drank some wine in a plastic cup with the grand master of the knights, Jean Laget, a retired history professor, and asked him why he thought olives needed defending.

He spoke of the '56 freeze, the challenges of globalization, the hanky-panky that goes on in the world olive trade, and the competition from other countries in what was becoming a worldwide olive war.

"Have you been to Spain?" Laget asked rhetorically. "They have seas of olive trees."

He repeated the phrase: "Seas of olive trees."

"We have very few," he said. "It's necessary to protect our arms."

Details: Nyons, France

GETTING THERE: Nyons is about 45 miles northeast of Avignon. It's less than three hours from Paris on the TGV train, with round-trip adult fares from Paris's Gare de Lyon at about $114 second class, $180 first class. Info: www.voyages-sncf.com.

Air France has regular flights to Avignon, with a connection in Paris, and is quoting a round-trip fare of $350 from Washington.

GETTING AROUND: You will need a car to explore Provence. Europcar (www.europcar.com) is quoting a prepaid rate of $308 for a one-week rental of a compact car with manual transmission, including unlimited mileage.

WHERE TO STAY: Nyons's most intimate hotel-restaurant (six rooms), Une Autre Maison (Place de la Republique, telephone 011-33-4- 75-26-43-09, www.uneautremaison.com), is homey and sophisticated. Doubles are about $130 to $170 per night. Just outside town, the Bastide des Monges (Route d'Orange, 011-33-4-75-26-99-69,www.bastidedesmonges.com) is a small new hotel that's been added onto a renovated farmhouse among the vines. Doubles are about $90 to $120. In the medieval village of Vaison-La-Romaine, Le Beffroi (Rue de L'Eveche, 011-33-4-90-36- 04-71, www.le-beffroi.com) offers great views and a terrace garden with pool. Doubles are $100 to $135.

WHERE TO EAT: La Coloquinte (Avenue de la Resistance, Mirabel Aux Baronnies) offers Provencal cuisine and fish specialties at reasonable prices (about $25 to $40), a few minutes from Nyons. For inventive olive oil-splashed haute cuisine when you're not counting coins, head to Vaison-La-Romaine and Le Moulin à Huile (Quai Marechal Foch). Chef Robert Bardot's tasting menu is about $80 per person.

OLIVE CULTURE: Nyons hosts three olive celebrations a year: the Alicoque (Feast of the New Oil, the first weekend in February), the Olivades (the weekend before July 14, Bastille Day) and the Feast of the New Olives (Dec. 20). In addition, every October there is a weeklong culinary Festival of Taste featuring restaurants, cooking classes and the local bounty. Details: Nyons Office of Tourism (see below).

• The Museum of the Olive Tree (Place Olivier-de-Serres, 011-33-4- 75-26-12-12, www.guideweb.com/musee/olivier) covers the archaeology and uses of the olive from ancient Crete to Provence. Admission is about $2.50.

• The Old Mills (4, Promenade de la Digue, 011-33-4-75-26-11-00) offers guided visits of a defunct but preserved olive mill and soap factory from the 18th century. Admission about $4.50.

• The Institute of the World of the Olive Tree (40, Place de la Liberation, 011-33-4-75-26-90-90) offers two-hour olive oil tasting classes from June through September.

• The Cooperative of Nyons (Place Olivier-de-Serres, 011-33-4-75-26- 23-16) is the place to sample and buy olive oils, olives, regional products and local wines.

INFORMATION: Nyons Office of Tourism, 011-33-4-75-26-10-35, www.nyonstourisme.com.

-- Robert V. Camuto