Spanish, Italian, Greek, Provençal: in the land of butter and cream, olive oil is all the rage! Buoyed by the wave of the Mediterranean diet, demand has soared in recent years. But production is threatened by drought in Spain, the world's leading producer.
PARIS — It's more than just a fat. Nor even a seasoning or condiment. For its growing number of aficionados, olive oil is an object of desire, if not of worship.
"It's all anyone around me ever talks about," laughs Emmanuelle Dechelette, a former public relations professional turned olive oil sommelier. "My friends, my husband's friends, everyone consults me or asks me if I can find them this or that particular cuvée. Sometimes I feel like a 'drug dealer.'"
After completing a diploma course in New York, in 2016 Emmanuelle created an international competition, Olio Nuovo Days , which has gradually established itself as one of the benchmarks. Producers flock from all over the world to take part, from France, Spain, Sicily, Greece, Tunisia and Lebanon, as well as Japan, Chile, Brazil and South Africa.
"Right now, without my oil La Couvée, produced in Slovenia and 2023 champion for the Northern Hemisphere, I feel like I couldn't live," says the sommelier, who likes to savor this juice simply, on a toasted baguette, a fine tomato or with fresh goat's cheese. For her, if a dish isn't flavored with olive oil, it's missing something. The elegant Dechellette consumes it without moderation: "When you say olive oil, you mean olive, not oil. It's a fruit, so it's not fatty!”
She's not entirely wrong. Because this fat is not an enemy — quite the contrary. The first component of a pure oil, "extra virgin," is oleic acid, an ally to our heart and arteries. In fact, consumption of this "fruit" in its pressed version, which dates back millennia, has grown steadily since the Rockefeller Foundation discovered the secret of the inhabitants of Crete in the 1950s: if they were in such good health after the war, it was because their low-meat diet focused on vegetables, cereals and olive oil — the Mediterranean or "Cretan" diet.
Mediterranean gold triggers passions and, sometimes, major decisions. Following an accident, Olivier Garibal decided to change his life. In 2014, this young financier at BNP Paribas learned that he was suffering from a tumor. He expected the worst. The operation revealed that it was benign, but badly positioned on his face. He woke up with facial paralysis. At 33, he had to learn to speak again. It took him months of effort to regain his health and his joie-de-vivre. But missing out on his aspirations, his true nature, was out of the question.
He settled with his family in the mountains near Annecy, France. In the summer, he heads off to Greece, a country he's dreamed of ever since he was a teenager fantasizing about The Big Blue, Luc Besson's film shot in the Cyclades. So, when he discovered a small farm of thousand-year-old olive trees for sale for a pittance, a few kilometers east of Kalamata, in the Peloponnese, he didn't let the opportunity pass him by.
At first, he worked on it in his spare time. Then he left BNP Paribas to create Chris & Olive, a brand made up of his brother's diminutive name and his own — a predestined first name. "I came back to life through this project, which symbolizes a philosophy of life, that of Greek stoicism, temperance and the suppression of passions," he says.
Garibal threw himself heart and soul into his devotion to the land and the trees rooted in it, to their green fruit — he used the koroneïki variety — and to the art of transforming them into gold. He enlarged the farm, read up on the subject, took part in all the harvests with his family and friends, and ended up perfecting some top-flight juices. He finally introduced them to Yoann Conte and Jean Sulpice, two-star chefs from the Annecy region, who fell in love with his fruity ripe and fruity green AOP Kalamata, and their enthusiastic young producer.
Today, a number of top restaurants, including L'Auberge de Montmin (Haute-Savoie), La Châtaigneraie (Finistère), La Table du Castellet (Var), Hôtel du Palais in Biarritz and Le Pressoir d'Argent Gordon Ramsay in Bordeaux count among its customers. Chris & Olive oils regularly win awards in international competitions.
A few years before him, Pierre-Julien and Grégory Chantzios also left Parisian finance to devote their lives to olive oil. In 2009, with Greece still in the throes of a serious financial crisis, the two brothers took over the family olive grove in Neochori-Ithomi, in the Kalamata region, and set up Kalios. Their grandfather was an electrician in the Peloponnese, he had his own small production, exchanging his oil for chickens or sheep. Pierre-Julien and Grégory, with the help of their sister Stéphanie for business development and harvest monitoring, are about to change scale. In the space of 15 years, they have built up a brand that can now be found in 1,200 restaurants and 1,500 delicatessens in France. In the process, they have also diversified their catalog: olives, honey, eel and high-quality smoked fish. In all, Kalios sales exceed €6.5 million. Alongside Kalios, the Chantzios brothers have even created the Eleni group, which operates 14 restaurants in association with two talented and media-savvy chefs, Juan Arbelaez and Amandine Chaignot.
Bottle of olive oil.
Roberta Sorge via Unsplash.
The initiator, Alain Ducasse
Olive oil and gastronomy have a special relationship. In France, the story began with Alain Ducasse, the embodiment of fine cuisine. His colleague Eric Frechon, a three-star chef at Epicure, the Bristol restaurant in Paris, remembers France in the 1980s: "When I arrived in Paris from my native Normandy at the age of 18, I had never seen or tasted olive oil. In my mother's house — and I think it was the same in most families — there had never been any in the cupboard! We knew butter, cream, butter, cream. You have to give credit where credit is due: it was Monsieur Ducasse who brought it into the kitchens of the great restaurants and, little by little, to the French table."
With olive oil and Noirmoutier fleur de sel, I can cook and season anything.
The world's most Michelin-starred chef, who grew up on his grandmother's farm in the Landes, in a region more interested in duck fat than olive oil, confirms: "At the age of 21, I left the South-West of France for the Côte d'Azur, and 10 years later, in 1987, I joined the 'Hôtel de Paris' in Monaco," says Alain Ducasse, "to create the 'Le Louis XV' restaurant. The day I arrived, the Prince asked me what I wanted to do. I answered without hesitation: local cuisine. I said to myself: what do we have on the French and Italian Riviera? Wonderful rock fish, wonderful fruit and vegetables and olive trees. It was there, in Monaco, that I really discovered this taste, this bitterness that I love, and it's where my culinary DNA was built. With olive oil and Noirmoutier fleur de sel, I can cook and season anything.”
This nectar, now used by most of the world's top chefs, embodies a central region in the history of mankind: the Mediterranean basin. Since ancient times, it has been the central element of its cuisine and perfumes, used to honor the gods, to heal and to illuminate.
Massimiliano Alajmo, one of the masters of Italian cuisine, who at the age of 28 became the youngest three-star chef in history at his restaurant Le Calandre, near Padua (Veneto), is convinced of this: "If we had to find one thing in common between the countries of the Mediterranean, from Spain to Turkey, via the south of France, Italy and Greece, we'd find just one: the olive! Olive oil is at the heart of our cuisine, giving it depth of flavor."
Although he grew up in Normandy, Arnaud Donckele is also a member of the club. Twice triple-starred, first at the Cheval Blanc hotel in Saint-Tropez just 10 years ago, then last year at Cheval Blanc Paris, this former disciple of Ducasse in Monaco has an affection for olive oil matched only by that for his supplier, Eric Barnéoud. With his 11 hectares of olive groves in Gassin, a village in the Var region near Saint-Tropez, this former plumber, driven by Arnaud Donckele's benevolent demands, also produces an exceptional juice.
"There's a lot of work on the olive trees, all year round," explains Eric Barnéoud, "just as there is on the vines. At harvest time, I pick the fruit with a net and a comb. And I press my olives in the stainless steel vats of my ultra-modern mill, which I acquired three years ago. It's much higher quality than the models we used to use. Don't be fooled by this romantic idea of stone millstones. You have to work very quickly after harvesting to avoid oil with a rancid taste."
His own, made exclusively from bouteillan, a purely local variety, can be found on customers' tables at Cheval Blanc Saint-Tropez: "It's not sickening,” notes Arnaud Donckele. When eaten with a little bread at the beginning of a meal, it doesn't saturate the palate. "I also use it in some of my dishes, with its subtle, herbaceous aromas.”
Similarities with the wine
The product is a dream for epicureans and wine enthusiasts. Just like wine lovers, who sometimes dream of buying their own vineyards once they've made their fortune, entrepreneurs Geoffroy Roux de Bézieux, now ex-president of Medef, bought the Oliviers & Co brand in 2016 via his Notus Technologies holding company.
It's hardly surprising that stars such as Jean Reno, Charles Aznavour in his day, Sting and ex-husbands Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who were married in their Provence chateau of Miraval, a rosé and oil producer, have also entered this delicious, demanding and flattering market. Patrick Bruel, for his part, took the subject very seriously. Domaine de Leos, acquired in 2007 on the Margoye plateau in the Luberon, now produces top-quality juices. Its H de Leos oil, in particular, made from aglandau olives with artichoke and green fruit aromas, is one of the most awarded ones in France.
It's hardly surprising either that some of the great winegrowers of southern France, such as Château d'Estoublon in the Alpilles, owned by Stéphane Courbit in association with Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni, or Château Léoube near Fort de Brégançon, owned by British billionaire Anthony Bamford, and even the prestigious Château de Malleret in Haut-Médoc, a region where olive plantations are recent, have turned to the precious juice. These two cultures have so much in common: the terroir and living soils, the fruit (grape variety on the one hand, olive variety on the other), the impact of climate, the threat of disease (mildew or phylloxera for some, flies for others), the know-how of pressing and blending, the art of tasting.
This is quite similar to the way wine is tasted: first, the eye, to appreciate its appearance, then the nose, for aromas, and finally, the mouth, from the attack to the finish, for taste and retro-olfaction. Olive oil sommelier Emmanuelle Dechelette has her own unstoppable technique: she pours a few centiliters into a small plastic cup, covers it with her fingers before bringing it up to her face and then, with a quick gesture, withdraws her hand to smell the fragrances, before tasting it. Olive oil, she reminds us, has only one taste: bitterness. But it has a multitude of scents: flower, green banana, tomato leaf — it's olive oil's phenolic compounds that give it personality. "They are sometimes so intense that they can make you cough," Dechelette explains.
There's another phenomenon that could make olive lovers cough: drought. The harvest looks set to be a complicated one this year, at least in Spain, the great olive-growing country that accounts for half of the world's production.
In the Iberian Peninsula, for the second year running, the trees have suffered. Of course, to produce beautiful fruit, olive trees need heat and water stress — these are the source of polyphenols, the flavor enhancers that give the product its charm — but there are limits.
Spain's spring heatwave could reduce production by 40%. In the spring of 2022, production fell by 48% — the worst year since 1995. This will have an impact on the entire sector. In order to serve their customers worldwide, Spain's industrial giants are rushing to buy olives from other major producing countries, such as Greece, Italy and Tunisia. In Greece, a country spared by the excess heat, some farmers are even stockpiling their fruit, to drive up prices which have not waited for global warming to explode in recent years. The average price for a tonne of olives has risen from €3,000 in the early 2010s to around €6,000 today.
Demand is enormous. In France alone, 100 million liters are consumed every year, whereas domestic production, which is of a rather high quality, only amounts to 5 million liters. Most of the market, sold in supermarkets, is therefore imported.
The French number 1 is Puget, which accounts for 20% of the sector. The brand belongs to Lesieur, itself a subsidiary of the Avril Group. Fabien Razac, Lesieur's Marketing Director, is proud to say: "Puget was voted France's favorite oil brand in 2022. It's both a quality and a popular brand, which 25% of French people buy at least once a year." Its standardized products are difficult to compare with artisanal oils, which cost two or three times as much, up to €40 per liter. But it takes a lot of know-how to achieve consistent taste and quality, with a living product that's subject to the vagaries of life.
The only way to appreciate a good product is to buy one bottle from a small producer.
"We are constantly striving to improve," says Fabien Razac, "thanks to the expertise of our oleologist. Did you know that olive oil is the only product whose quality, assessed by panels of tasters, is included in European regulations? Bad oil could be banned from sale, which doesn't exist for any other food.”
But really, what is good oil? “The only way to appreciate a good product is to buy one bottle from a small producer, and another in a supermarket, whose origin isn't even indicated," points out Stéphanie Chantzios, Kalios' sales manager. “Of course, the price goes from simple to triple, or quadruple. But pour them into a teaspoon, and you'll see the difference for yourself, especially the unpleasant bitterness with notes of blackcurrant or mediocre tapenade. If you're of modest means, it's better to settle for a few drops of a good product!"
In reality, of course, there's something for every budget, and for every taste. Emmanuelle Dechelette sums it up in her own way: "I'd like the public to make the product their own. Everyone needs to educate themselves, to conquer the aromas of almond, tomato or plum. I myself learned about retro-olfaction at the age of 50. Above all, I'd like people to discover their own olive oil, in other words, their own way." Either way, it's never too late to find them.
Bottle of olive oil surrounded by various ingredients.
Quin Engle via Unsplash
What is the olive oil vocabulary?
Bitter: This is the only possible taste for olive oil! It is, however, more or less intense.
Ardence: A sensation of spiciness, like pepper, felt at the back of the throat.
Fruity green olives: Harvested green or slightly purple, producing very fragrant oils.
Ripe fruit: Ripe olives produce oil with a milder taste.
Fruité noir: Macerated olives develop cocoa and mushroom aromas.
First cold-pressed Extraction: Carried out at less than 27°C, which is mandatory for a commercially-available oil. Hot-pressed oil, to extract more juice, is reserved for industrial uses, such as soap production.
Polyphenols Complex molecules: Produced by plants to defend themselves, which have a protective effect on human health.
Extra-virgin (or vierge extra): A label guaranteeing that the product has been extracted mechanically, without solvents, and is free from defects.
Beware of scams
Olive oil is one of the products with the highest incidence of food fraud. According to Répression des Fraudes, which carried out an extensive survey in 2021, 39% of the 211 establishments inspected showed anomalies, and 42% of samples were found to be non-compliant: incorrect labeling, sometimes coupled with smell/taste or chemical problems.
What are the best French olive oils?
By the drizzle, the spoonful or the half glass, in Provence (or elsewhere), olive oil flows like water. Fruity, candied, nutty — we’ll tell you where to find the best:
Christine Cheylan was one of the first French olive growers to champion the now highly-prized "green fruity" olive oils, with notes of bitterness and pepper. Her AOP Aix-en-Provence oil, created in 1996, is one of France's most award-winning offerings. €21.80 per 75 cl.
Château Virant, 13680 Lançon-Provence. chateauvirant.com
The most truffled
Very long on the palate, this mature olive oil has a hint of truffle and candied black olives. The estate, located in Baux-de-Provence, in the heart of the garrigue, is run by two sisters, one of whom is a former Air Force controller. An oil to pour over steamed potatoes or in a pistou soup... €21.80 per 75 cl.
Moulin de la Coquille, 13990 Fontvieille. moulindelacoquille.com
The most plant-based
Near Nyons, here's a smooth oil made from 100% tench, the main local variety. The olives are harvested ripe (black and crumpled), giving a very mild, slightly pungent taste with notes of green apple, dried fruit and freshly cut grass. The producer, René Bayle, heats his mill entirely with olive stone residues.
Moulin de Chameil, 6110 Mirabel-aux-Baronnies. moulin-de-chameil.
On the Corsican coast, south of Ajaccio, century-old olive trees tower over us, and the olives fall by themselves, when ripe, into large nets — the ancestral harvesting method in Corsica. From these sun-drenched olives comes a monovarietal oil of zinzala (a local variety), very sweet and fruity, with aromas of dry hay and hazelnut. Perfect with sheep cheese.
Domaine Sant'Armettu, 20113 Olmeto. santarmettu.com. Point of sale in Marseille, Chez Petit Jean grocery store.
The Michelin-star winner
This "old-fashioned" oil (the olives are fermented for a week after harvesting) is appreciated by three-star chefs Alain Ducasse and Gilles Goujon. (Chef Anne-Sophie Pic is also a fan of the house capers). The Margier family has run this site for four generations. The family also owns its own oil mill, one of the oldest in Bouches-du-Rhône, dating back to 1650. €21.50 75 cl.
Domaine la Michelle, 13390 Auriol. domainelamichelle.com
Selection by Ophélie Francq