Green gold, a brief story of olive oil (and olives)

At the start of the first post of the new year, I would like to wish you all a happy, healthy and prosperous 2013!!

While writing this post I’ve been wondering why olive oil is called green gold or liquid gold.  Perhaps because of its colour, or because of its virtues?  I cannot imagine cooking without olive oil, and although I use other oils in cooking, the bulk of what I use is made from olives.  Perhaps you’re asking yourself “why is he writing about olives now?”; the reason is that we’re in the middle of olive oil production season in Languedoc.  Olive trees flower from mid may to early june, and the flowers are wind-pollinated.  That means that the pollinators have to be planted in just the right position within the olive grove, so that the prevailing wind blows the pollen onto the flowers.

IMG_7136

About 5% of the flowers turn into olives, and they grow and swell throughout the summer.  From September onwards green olives can be picked and be turned into table olives.

PICT0257

As time progresses the olives ripen and change colour, from violet to purple to a deep black.

PICT3551

PICT7650

At any of those stages they can be turned into table olives, but for oil only the ripe olives are used as the oil content increases during the ripening phase, The olive harvest continues until the end of January, by which time most of the trees will have been emptied, and what’s left will be eaten by the birds.

IMG_0921

I have two olive mills in easy reach.  The smaller is in Puisserguier and called Lo Moulinet (Occitan for small mill), and the larger is in Cabezac, near Bize Minervois and called L’Oulibo. Both can be visited for tasting and they sell direct to the public.  If you compare the two, Lo Moulinet is David and L’Oulibo is Goliath, but that’s just for size, I cannot detect any antagonism between the two. The two operations are on very different scales from one another, and where Lo Moulinet has a small production of oils and table olives, L’Oulibo is a large cooperative of over 1700 growers in three departements.

PICT7222 IMG_1173

To pick olives for turning into olive oil big nets are spread out underneath the trees, and the olives are then “raked” off the trees using either specially adapted rakes or vibrating beaters.  The nets are then gathered up and the olives put into crates and off they go to the mill.

IMG_6644

As they arrive at the mill, the crates are weighed, assessed and recorded, and then the olives are processed.  First a machine takes out any leaves and other debris,  then they are washed to remove any dust and dirt, and finally they reach the mill proper.

IMG_6669

At L’Oulibo they have a giant stone mill with two mill stones weighing 1.5 tonnes each.  During the Christmas open days (this year December 22 to January 4) the stone mill is used to crush the olives (including pits) to a pulp.

IMG_6654 IMG_6659

At other times a modern hammer mill is used for that purpose.  The pits contain enzymes which help with the conservation of the oil.  The paste is then put in a special mixer, where it is gently warmed (below 27 centigrade) and mixed for 30 to 40 minutes to prepare for the oil extraction.  Pressing is done in a continuous process in a horizontal centrifugal press at L’Oulibo, and in some places (such as Lo Moulinet) using a traditional press, where the paste is spread on discs which are stacked and hydraulically pressed.  The resulting liquid contains both water and oil, and is processed by a separator, which produces a lovely golden oil.

IMG_6661 IMG_6665

This oil can now be filtered or left to settle and afterwards decanted – both methods produce beautifully clear and sparkling extra virgin oil.

IMG_6676

Both of the mills produce varietal oils, using the traditional olive varieties of the region:  Lucques, Picholine, Bouteillan (both), Olivier’s and Aglandau (L’Oulibo only).  The flavours vary greatly from one oil to the other, some being smooth and buttery and others spicy and peppery.  Go and taste, you’ll be surprised just how much difference there is!

The picking of green table olives has to be done carefully and by hand to avoid bruising the fruit – any bruises will turn black and unsightly.  Have you ever bitten into an olive straight from the tree?  No?  Well, you’ll never taste anything as bitter and horrid again – one of the compounds responsible for that taste is called oleuropein.  In order to remove the bitter taste green olives are processed most commonly using lye, which is then soaked out again using several changes of water.  Producing top quality table olives is a skill, and the commercial producers guard their recipes jealously.  Once the olives had the bitterness removed they are brined, and in some cases flavoured and sterilised. At L’Oulibo the new harvest Lucques olives are sold having only undergone flash pasteurisation – a real treat!  These olives are a bright green and crunchy with an incomparable flavour!  I’m almost 100%  certain that you’ll like them!  Black table olives are easier to process as the bitterness has reduced during the ripening process.  Most of the time they are simply salted to remove the bitter compounds, then packed in brine or oil, flavoured or not.  If you’ve not already visited either L’Oulibo or Lo Moulinet, you should definitely add them to your list of places to visit for your next holiday in Languedoc!

PICT5732

Windmills, wine and food

What do those have to do with one another, you might well ask.  Nothing really except that it all happened the same week!  Last weekend the theme was “Journees Europeens des Moulins”, in other words European mill days and the idea was to look back on history and heritage.  The windmill in St Chinian is fully functional and once a year the sails go up and if the wind is right the mill turns and makes stone-ground flour (not for human consumption, according to hygiene regulations!!).  Among the local historians there is dissent as to whether the mill was originally designed to grind grain or whether it was to process lime, which was burnt in the nearby kiln.  When it was reconstructed some years ago, they argued it out, but the flour lobby won.  This year it was grey and cloudy and the wind too strong, so here is a picture from a sunny day!

On Tuesday Domaine La Madura bottled some of last year’s white wine – always an exciting operation.  The bottling plant comes on a truck, and the wine has to be pumped across the river.  There is no space for the truck to park outside the cellar, so Cyril has to put on his gum boots and brave the icy waters and slippery stones to get the hose pipe across the river bed.  In part made a little more perilous this year as we’d had rain not long before so there was lots of water!  

Once everything is hooked up the pump in the truck draws the wine into a holding tank, and then the bottling operation can begin – in theory.  The whole setup is very complex and needs a fair bit of fine tuning.  Bottles are fed in one end, get washed and dried, filled with wine, the cork pushed in, the capsule dropped on and tightened, the two labels pasted on and then agile hands put the bottles into boxes which are sealed and stacked on pallets.  It takes six people to keep the whole thing running and if it all runs smoothly the plant can process something like 2400 bottles an hour.  I’m looking forward to tasting the 2011 vintage of Domaine La Madura Classic blanc, cheers!

Auberge La Selette was my last dining out experience, and very nice it was too!  For aperitifs they serve a cucumber/garlic dip with croutons along with some luques olives, followed this time by an amuse bouche of gazpacho (yummy!)   I’m not fond of raw oysters, but I love their gratinated oysters, plump and juicy with just the right amount of cheese and grilled to perfection.  The salad with feta, anchovies and olives looked good too and was very tasty.

For main course there was duo of scallops and gambas, tempura of gambas on a herbed potato puree, and veal kidneys in red wine sauce.  All of it well executed and delicious.

For dessert we had tiramisu and profiteroles with ice cream and chocolate sauce.  The profiteroles had the wow-factor when they arrived at the table, but I was more than happy with the tiramisu.  Do reserve if you want to go for dinner.  The night I was there the place was packed; service was good if a little slow (but then we were there for the evening, and we didn’t starve!), and despite the volume the kitchen coped very well.

In the garden things are finally moving – the tomatoes are planted and the potatoes are beginning to flower, so we’ll soon be enjoying the first new potatoes!  The roses are flowering their hearts out, and the first blossom on kiwi vine are opening.  That means that I’ll be pollinating every day now:  pick a male flower and then go over all the open female flowers – a little tedious at times but it works!!  With the recent rain everything is lush, including the weeds, but they’ll soon be under control again!

And here’s the gallery!