By Emmanuelle DECHELETTE
Founder of OLIO NUOVO DAYS, Paris & Abu Dhabi competition
Author of EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL Olive Oil History of Men & Recipes of Great Chefs.
OLIVE GROWING IN FRANCE
France enjoys a central position in Europe with the Mediterranean as its base. The olive tree has its roots in a territory that stretches from the eastern Pyrenees bordering Spain (Languedoc) to the Maritime Alps and the Italian border (Provence). In the south of France, in the heart of the Gulf of Genoa, Corsica has an olive-growing tradition in the Balagne and Bonifacio regions, respectively to the north and south of the island.
THE OLDEST REMAINS
Fossilized leaves and fossilized pollens attest to the presence of olive trees in Provence and Languedoc as early as 8,000 years before Christ, but the development of olive growing in France originally came from the Phocaeans. This ancient Greek city of Ionia on the Aegean Sea founded powerful colonies (Marseille, Avignon and Nice in France, Empuries in Catalonia) which developed the cultivation of the olive tree after improving that of the vine.
Then, during the time of the Romans, the cultivation of the olive tree spread throughout the South of France. Numerous vestiges attest to its importance during the Gallo-Roman period from Carcassonne to Vaison-la-Romaine.
The olive tree is cultivated in the villages of the South of France, which almost all have olive mills. The circulation of olive oil is subject to specific toll taxes in a Nice – Nîmes axis (Brignoles, Trinquetaille and Valensole). It is a seasonal trade very much linked to religious rites and especially to Lent, where olive oil plays an essential role in the many scourges that affect man or the olive tree, plague, famine, wars and successive frosts.
IN THE MODERN AGE
In the 16th century, French olive oil was exported beyond the South of France thanks to the port of Marseille and at that time, Nice.
From the 18th century, the olive tree was an important and necessary for the economy of many regions, especially Roussillon, the Pays d’Aix, the County of Nice. The mills «flourished,» and could be by the hundreds in the South of France. At that time, real olive groves were grown along with the olive oil trade. Until then, olive trees were generally scattered in the middle of other plantations, in «olivettes» as a mere complementary crop.
In the 19th century, the development of olive growing was at its peak, thanks in particular to its strong use in craft industries (Marseille soap…).
In 1840, France had 26 million olive trees in 168,000 hectares.
OLIVE OIL BECOMES FAMOUS THANKS TO MARSEILLE SOAP
If France has known international fame with olive oil, it is certainly thanks to Marseille soap. Universally known, it is used on all continents and in all cultures. It is useful both for linen and as a beauty product. Its creation dates back to the Middle Ages, and its manufacturing process is certified in Marseille. In 1688, King Louis XIV had an «edict» drawn up for soap factories specifying in his article III «No fat, butter or other materials may be used in the soap factory; but only pure olive oil without mixture, under penalty of confiscation of the goods.» Today, the designation «savon de Marseille» is not protected. Relying on the law of March 17, 2014 which created the geographical indications protecting industrial and artisanal products, the Union des Professionnels du Savon de Marseille (Marseille Soap Professionals’ Union) presented the candidature of Marseille soap for a geographical indication (GI) which will protect both the consumer and the producer from the countless counterfeits that exist today. Marseille soap is the first industrial and artisanal specialty to seek recognition and protection provided by a geographical indication.
In the 20th century, the olive growing industry went into decline.
The production of olive oil gradually gave way to the more profitable vine. The frosts (that of 1929), the economic competition from colonial olive oil and then peanut oil, the first major movements of the rural exodus, accelerated this decline until the eve of the fateful frost of 1956. At that time, France only had 8 million olive trees on 50,000 hectares. In February 1956, the unusual temperatures (-20°C) that hit the South of France came after a particularly mild January that had favored the awakening of the vegetation. Two thirds of the olive trees disappeared, leaving only 3 million olive trees on 20,000 hectares in mainland France. The island of beauty, spared by these successive frosts, offers an exceptional and unique multi-century olive-growing landscape in France.
In spite of this event that seemed to completely wipe out French olive oil, olive groves were reborn thereafter. They seem to be immortal, and are a good symbol of our long lasting Mediterranean culture.
THE 21st CENTURY, Renaissance of the Mediterranean tradition
The benefits of the Mediterranean diet from the 80’s onwards boosted the positive image of olive oil; French olive growing gradually regained a certain dynamism thanks to a handful of enthusiasts and with the support of the State and Europe. The development of agro-tourism, the Olive Roads, the Confraternities of the Knights of the Olive Tree and other olive tree museums bear witness to this.
FRENCH PRODUCTION, Olive oils with high added value.
The average French production of olive oil is 4,800 tons/year, or 0.16% of world production and 1.8% of national consumption.
Forecasts for 2020 are slightly up with 3,500 tons/year (compared to 3,200 tons/year in 2019).
French production has a high added value with nearly 30% of its production in Appellation of Origin (1300t). The bio represents more than 1/4 of the cultivated surfaces with a share of 14,2 % in «professional» olive-growing farm lands.
80% of French oils are classified as extra virgin and 20% as virgin (old-fashioned taste).
Between 2000 and today, there has been an increase in the number of cultivated areas :
- From 32 % of the number of olive farms, there are 29.400 olive farms (individuals and professionals)
- More than 75% of the olive-growing areas cultivated by farmers
85% of orchards are less than 2 hectares for
3% of orchards are larger than 10 hectares.
In 1985, France had 120 mills (average of 2,000 tons), a figure that almost tripled in 2016 with 317 mills (average of 5,000 tons). 49% of the mills make less than 10 tons a year.
Between 2007 and today :
Significant increase in surface areas (+288%) and number of farms (+234%) certified organic
Partial professionalization of the sector
70% of the production is carried out by 25 to 30% of the olive growers.
LES TERROIRS, The letters of nobility of French olive oil.
VARIETIES & METHODS
France has more than a hundred endemic varieties and 8 PDOs: Aix-en-Provence, Corsica «Oliu di Corsica,» Haute-Provence, Nîmes, Nice, Nyons, Provence, Vallée des Baux-de-Provence.
Like wine, French agricultural products benefit from a geographical richness and know-how that have combined tradition and high technology.
The famous and controversial «old-fashioned taste / fruity black / mature olives» is the result of meticulous work: olives, of impeccable quality, picked at full ripeness, undergo a supervised controlled fermentation (with thermometers and Excel files) for four to eight days before extraction. The fermentation breaks the ardour and the vegetal notes to offer lighter, rounder and longer aromas on the palate, cocoa, mushrooms, vanilla… This taste, very appreciated in France and for exports, as in Japan, is wrongly considered as a defect because of its «chômé,», not to be confused with the «chômé» defect, which results from pure negligence. To be sure to buy a good «fruité noir,» choose a Vallée des Baux-de-Provence PDO.
French olive oil is also fruity green, with AGLANDAU, the most widespread variety in the south of France, more specifically in Vaucluse and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. It is the archetype of the fruity green flavor. It is tonic and harmonious, with vegetal, artichoke, stone fruit and almond aromas.
Another iconic variety is PICHOLINE, which is found in the PDO «Huile d’Olive de Nîmes» in which it represents at least 70% of the batch. Its organoleptic notes are very vegetal, with aromas of plum or pineapple.
Another French peculiarity is the olive oil from Corsica where 6 endemic varieties are cultivated. The famous SABINE is worked exclusively in ripe fruit, with a yield that can reach 30%. 2/3 of the island’s production is PDO. Out of 2100 cultivated hectares, 2/3 are multisecular and 8000 hectares are still emmaquized. Spared from the successive frosts on the mainland, the island of beauty offers a landscape of olive trees with an average span of 15 to 20 meters. This Corsican specificity has found a technical answer for harvesting with the «natural fall» or old-fashioned harvesting: the «olive fishermen,» as they are nicknamed, set nets to catch the olives which fall naturally, in strong winds from November onwards or when fully ripe until May. The PDO Oliu Di Corsica is a ripe fruit with very little bitterness and ardour, very delicate, and very coveted for exports. In 2020, the harvest will be exceptional with a forecast of 300 tons, almost 10% of the national production (compared to 5% on average).
CONSUMPTION IMPORT DISTRIBUTION, France, a key player in the olive oil market
France is the 5th largest olive oil market in the world and the 4th largest in Europe with 3.5% of world olive oil consumption.
A French person consumes an average of 1.6 kg of olive oil per year.
115,000 tons were imported in 2019 with the following breakdown :
- Spain, 80,000 tons
- Italy 19,000 tons
- Tunisia 12,000 tons
- Portugal 2,000 tons
The average observed price for oils is 6.27 € against 22.40 € for national olive oil (higher in mass distribution than direct sales).
Roughly the same amount of olive oil is consumed in the Paris region as in Provence, with a seasonal peak during the summer months, from April to October.
In mass distribution, olive oil represents 25% of the vegetable oil market share. 50% of olive oils are bought in supermarkets, 22% in markets or grocery stores and only 2% directly from the mill. E-commerce is clearly on the rise with 3660 tons.
The organic trend can be confirmed, as it has quadrupled in the last 10 years.
As you will have understood, olive oil and France is a love story and Mediterranean filiation lost and found. As a producer of exceptional olive oils, France is a country of great taste and culinary excellence. Faithful to its avant-garde tradition, it took a vegetarian turn under the impetus of its Haute Cuisine with chef Alain Passard 20 years ago, (l’Arpège, 3 Michelin stars, Paris) who abandoned meat in favor of vegetarianism – he had obtained his third star thanks to his famous prime rib.
Since then, a whole generation of Chefs have understood that olive oil was the indispensable ally of the vegetable kingdom. Olive oil should taught in the same way as wine in the training of Chefs. Some have been able to tame it, to use it in harmony or in counter harmony with the ingredients. It is they, Julien Dumas, (Lucas Carton, 1 Michelin star, Paris) Akrame (Akrame, 1 Michelin star, Paris) Jérôme Banctel (la Réserve, 2 Michelin stars) Yoni Saada (Top Chef & Bagnard, Paris) who today give him back his titles of nobility, without forgetting the iconic Chef Eric Briffard, MOF*, former Chef of the Palace George V (2 Michelin stars, Paris) and current Director of Culinary Arts of the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu International school to name but a few.
To «drive the nail in,» in 2017, at the BOCUSE D’OR competition (every 2 years at SIRHA), while celebrating the 30th anniversary of the most famous culinary competition in the world, the theme chosen was «making a 100% vegetarian plate.» When we consider that the BOCUSE D’OR pay tribute to the three-starred Chef Paul Bocuse, renowned for his love of cream and butter, we can say with great confidence that a new French revolution is officially underway.
Acknowledgements and sources
A huge THANK YOU to Alexandra Paris &France OLIVE, UPSM (Union of Marseille Soap Professionals),Sandrine Marfisi, President of the PDO Oliu di Corsica Union
MOF*, Meilleur ouvrier de France.