Nice on the Riviera is unique in having three appellations contrôlées for its olives. We visited the Giauffret family's L'Oliveraie de la Sirole in Colomars and the Spinelli family's moulin à huile (oil mill) in Castagniers
As with a fine wine, there are exacting requirements for an appellation contrôlée olive oil (or AOP, for appellation origine protégée, in the new terminology). There are eight in France and all come from the sunny south-east, where olives have been cultivated since Roman times.
Nice's olives are made from the cailletier variety and mark 10 years of their AOC this year. They are used as oil, as table olives and also to make pâte d'olive (olive paste), which can be added to recipes or eaten on toast. Made of stoned olives mixed with olive oil, it is similar to the Provençal speciality tapenade, which also includes capers, garlic, herbs and anchovies.
Lasting from November to April, the harvest starts nearer the coast and finishes later in the mountain areas. The appellation area runs from Grasse to Menton.
At the olive farm Oléiculteur (olive grower) André Giauffret has a plantation of just over one hectare, with about 350 trees. He, wife Jeannine and daughter Stéphanie also use their oil in a restaurant on their land (www.restaurant-loliveraie.com).
The restaurant is known for its rustic, hand-made Nice ravioli (the Niçois and Italians both claim to have invented it), home-made trulles (a local black pudding) and other Nice specialities such as pissaladière (onion pizza), tourte de blettes (sweet chard tart) and salade niçoise.
Another speciality is stockfish (dried fish, which is soaked before use), served with potatoes and olives de Nice and oil. "It must be with Nice olive oil; it is crazy
that some local chefs use Spanish or Greek," said Mr Giauffret.
Mr Giauffret has won many prizes, including a gold medal at the Paris Agricultural Fair in 2009 for the olives and this year, a gold medal for his paste and a silver for his oil.
However, winning prizes means beating problems: table olives must be smooth, but cold weather causes them to wrinkle. Although they smooth out again as the weather warms, that delays the harvest: wrinkled ones go for oil or paste as the olive acquires a more acidic taste.
Olives can also freeze, especially at higher altitudes, and they go brown inside (fresh-picked olives should be white), making them useless for AOC products, though they can still be used in oil for personal use. "We lost a lot last year," said Mr Giauffret.
Small and black, the Nice olive has flavours of artichoke, almond or even broom flowers: "Each olive has its own specifics. It comes from the variety and the terroir."
They are picked as they start to darken, called tournantes, or the black noires. "If you make an oil with too many green olives, artichoke flavours predominate and there is a little bit of bitterness and bite. At the end of the season, when they are blacker, there is less bitterness, and it's more almond or even hazelnut."
Nice AOC oil is described as fruité mûre (mature), as opposed to some oils that are fruité verte (young, green olives) or fruité noire, which uses mature olives that have been left in a pile to start to break down.
Mr Giauffret said they sometimes blend early and late season oils, but also keep some earlier season oil for people who appreciate that taste. Too much green, however, and it cannot be labelled AOC. Low acidity allows the labels extra virgin or virgin, and samples are checked for acidity and peroxides.
"We mainly make extra virgin. You must take them to the mill as fast as possible. The longer you wait, the more the olives will have oxidised and, if you wait for a long time, they have a taste of petrol and are inedible."
Olives were previously harvested by using a pole called a gaule to push the branches. Nets are fixed to the trunks and spread on the ground. Each is numbered so they can use the same lay-out year after year.
Vigorous prodding makes showers of leaves, twigs and olives fall, but these days electric pneumatic tools do the job faster. An adjustable pole, linked to an electric pump, has two pronged arms to shake the branch. "It is a bit heavier, but does the work on its own," Mr Giauffret said.
None the less, he still needs to climb into the trees to get at the tops: this is still not a sedentary job. Whereas in Spain, with its big flat olive plantations, big machines vibrate the whole tree, Mr Giauffret said: "We use small-scale equipment and we have small olive groves, on steep terrain."
Then the olives are separated into their separate uses: oil, table olives or paste.
- Olives for oil are collected into crates and are tipped into a winnowing machine, which blows away the leaves. Then, once a week during harvest, olives are taken to the mill in a batch. Once milled, the oil is stored in large steel tanks before bottling. Each batch can be identified by its "best before" date.
- Table olives are sorted by size on a machine that has wires progressively spaced further apart, so different sizes drop into different hoppers. The smallest, as well as the biggest, which drop off the end, are used for oil. Table olives are put in barrels with a 10 per cent salt solution called saumure. "They need to be in brine for at least three months. An olive off the tree is bitter and inedible."
- Olives for paste are kept in brine for at least six months. A machine de-stones and grinds them and the paste is poured directly into pots. Olive paste can either be green or black, though only black can have the AOC pâte d'olive de Nice.
With increasing emphasis on organic farming, Mr Giauffret said he was experimenting, but with little success, so far. Flies attacked the trees but despite spraying on a clay solution, they were still badly bitten. He had to use a chemical to try to save the harvest, but added: "On top of that, I'm allergic to the clay.
"I'm the first to say we should use fewer chemicals. As it is, I don't just use them any old how. I put up fly traps and twice a week I count the flies. We treat the trees when there is a maximum. They bite the olive, which oxidises it and a worm can develop inside."
Apart from pest treatment, the trees are not high maintenance: "In summer, when they are short of water, we water a little; but too much is not good. We prune in spring when shoots grow and we put a little copper on the trees to protect from diseases and a bit of fertiliser for the soil."
At the oil mill
The oil mill in Castagniers has been run by the Spinellis since 1922, although there has been an oil mill on the site since 1650. It is now run by founder Jean-Baptiste's granddaughter, Roseline, and great grandson, Jean-Luc.
The family mill their own and others' olives. One tree can produce 100kg, but if you take less than 150kg to the mill they are mixed with other people's in a batch. It takes 5kg of olives to make a litre of oil.
Since last year, the mill is organically certified and organic olives are processed first thing, so there is no mixing with conventionally produced fruit.
Methods were rough and ready until the 1960s, with oil scooped out of stone troughs with bowls and pans. There were gradual improvements, such as switching from water power to electric for grinding and from a manual to a hydraulic press to squeeze oil from crushed pulp. Pressing was replaced by a centrifuge at the same time as millstones went out, in 1998.
Mr Spinelli said: "It's faster, easier and cleaner now. In the old days, it all took a lot more labour. We had to change to conform with new European norms."
When it first comes out, the oil is cloudy, but this gradually clears. It should be kept away from heat and sunlight and can keep for about two years.
Roseline Spinelli said an oil that is green and sharp at first can mellow a little in time. However, Nice oil is typically known for its sweet, mild quality. She said methods had been tightened since the AOC was awarded.
"People used to harvest their olives and keep them for a month or two before pressing; now they have a week, maximum."
However not everything is better these days: "People are always clock-watching now. In the past, when they brought their olives, they used to stay and have a drink and we would taste the oil together and grill toast on a fire in the mill. It was a day of rest after they had finished their harvest. It was more festive and friendly before."
One other change is that there are also fewer mills. "Sixty years ago or so, each village had three or four; now there are only 27 in Alpes-Maritimes department."
Jean-Luc Spinelli showed how the oil-making process works today:
1 - The olives arrive in crates, cleaned of leaves and twigs. They are weighed, then poured into a metal hopper and fed into a washer.
2 - This churns the olives in a moving stream of water. Impurities such as sticks or stones or even bits of metal are removed as the fruit floats towards the next section. There the olives, including the stone, are crushed by a "hammer" process, pressing them between moving and fixed metal parts.
3 - The paste is stirred with metal screws in a process called malaxage, and the oil starts to separate out.
4 - A centrifuge separates liquid from solids. The oil comes out of one side and the "grignons" (solid residue) goes for use as a heating fuel or to make flour. The oil is filtered, then poured into churns.
- For more details, contact the Syndicat Interprofessionnel de l'Olive de Nice www.aocolivedenice.com or tel: 04 97 25 76 44