The artisanal olives of the French Riviera

Artisanal olives

Grape harvest season may be well and truly over, but the shorter days and cooler nights of November could only mean one thing – olives on the French Riviera. The harvest season officially kicked off on October 27th, 2015.

When we think of olives, especially olive oil, our minds tend to drift toward our Italian neighbours, but there is a thriving culture for this small oval fruit here on the Côte d’Azur. Many olive groves of the region are found next to the grapevines of our local vineyards and it’s at this time in autumn that they boast ripe fruit, ready to be plucked from trees and made into oil, tapenade, or eaten simply au naturel (after a bit of time resting in brine, of course!).

The Alpes-Maritimes is home to the Cailletier variety of olive, better known across the border as Taggiasca – for the pretty village of Taggia just next to San Remo. Yet here in the 06, the variety flourishes, not just in unison with vines but also independently. I was surprised to learn just how much artisanal olive production exists in our department.

The Cailletier is recognised for being mild and fruity, producing an olive oil that offers almond and artichoke aromas. It’s a tasty seasoning for your salads, especially a salade niçoise. Tapenade is another typical food of Nice made with olives, anchovies, salt and olive oil. Without the fishy ingredient, the same dish is known simply as pâte d’olive (olive paste).

In the hills behind Nice, the Bellet vineyards at Domaine de la Source is one of France’s smallest. Here, you can taste olive oil, tapenade and sweet or savoury olive paste from organic olive trees on the estate alongside their wines during a visit. Domaine Saint-Jean, Domaine de Toasc, Domaine de Vinceline and Clos Saint-Vincent produce and sell an olive oil as well.

Just as the wine from Nice has its own appellation (AOC Bellet), the olives of Nice and surrounds fall under the AOP Olive de Nice and AOP Huile d’Olive de Nice. This appellation covers the majority of the Alpes-Maritimes, extending from the Grasse hinterlands down to the coast in Menton. The olive oil from this appellation is very highly regarded and demand completely outstrips supply.

AOP olive productsPhoto: Huile et Olive de Nice AOP

Other vineyards that boast olive groves in the region, include the Abbaye de Lérins on the Île Saint Honorat off Cannes, Domaine Saint Joseph in Tourettes-sur-Loup and the Vignoble de Hautes Collines de la Côte d’Azur in Saint-Jeannet. The latter lays claim to what must be the oldest olive tree in the region at (apparently) 2000 years old. Still bearing an impressive amount of fruit each year, the owner claims the tree in question dates back to the Roman era.

The local olive industry, exclusive of vineyards, is thriving: over 300,000 olive trees are declared within the department.

The very useful Routes des Oliviers des Alpes-Maritimes from the Syndicat Interprofessionel de l’Olive de Nice outlines six suggested olive routes. Centred around Grasse, the villages to the east and west of the Var valley, in the hills behind Nice and the route from La Turbie to Sospel, this map highlights the array of artisanal producers in corners of this region least expected.

Many of the local producers sell their wares at produce markets; however, if you can head out into the countryside a world of olive mills, olive groves and gourmet treats await.

Here are a few suggestions:

The Moulin d’Opio, circa 19th century, proposes a guided tour of both the traditional and modern mill, as well as a tasting of their produce.

In Grasse, Huilerie Sainte Anne dates back to 1706 and offers tastings and a tour of their picturesque site and authentic mill.

Across in Colomars, the Oliveraie de la Sirole may only have started in 1992, but their restaurant, L’Oliveraie, is a local institution and offers traditional cuisine, using their homemade olive products.

A small exhibition devoted to olive cultivation and olive oil fabrication can be visited alongside the olive mill in the pretty town of Contes, just behind Nice.

If you are looking for a complete olive immersion, Maison Saint Joseph in Sospel is a bed and breakfast surrounded by olive groves, so you can taste and stay. Be sure to phone ahead.

Bon dégustation!

For more on Nice olives, see www.olivedenice-aop.com

Chrissie McClatchie is an Australian wine specialist who has been living in Nice for the past seven years. Follow her travels at www.rivieragrapevine.com or on Twitter@RivieraGrape

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