When Athena, Goddess of War, presented the Greeks with an olive tree, she didn’t know what she was unleashing. She was vying for popularity with Poseidon: the one with the best gift would get to name Greece’s capital. As we know, the Hellenic capital is not called Poseidon City. The best he could come up with was a saltwater well.
From Ancient Greece, the gnarled, spare olive tree spread to Rome and beyond until a few grains landed around Nyons (pronounce nee-owns), in the lavender land that straddles the border between Rhone-Alpes and Provence, between Southeast and South. Nestled at the edge of the Drôme département, Nyons is the proud home of La Tanche, a dark brown olive you won’t find anywhere else.
Olives, and specifically olive oils, have become more rarefied and made the jump from everyday staple to classy condiment, a little extra that can transform a good meal into a great one.
Promoters caught on to their growing popularity and the first Fête de l’Alicoque was born, celebrating the year’s first harvest, the huile nouvelle, just like wine celebrates the Beaujolais Nouveau.
I arrived in Nyons just in time for the festival this year, its 30th, buffeted by wild February winds that pierced my skin much as a Canadian winter might. The sun, high in the sky, reminded me we weren’t that far from the Mediterranean and that yes, olives could grow and prosper here as they since the dawn of humanity. After all, after the biblical deluge, wasn’t that an olive branch the dove brought back to Noah?
The Alicoque is typical of these deeply French affairs – a foot race, a chorus, musicians, guided visits, traditional dance, and of course, a tasting, during which hundreds of enthusiasts jostle for a place at the long table to taste the New Oil, drizzled over dried croutons (don’t forget to rub them with a piece of garlic first) and chased down with copious amounts of wine.
At attention behind the table, a few dozen men (and a small handful of women) in olive green capes and felt hats serve citizens and hold court, like members of some long-forgotten lodge, replete with oaths and Grand Masters and initiation rites involving an olive branch. This is the Confrérie des Chevaliers de l’Olivier, or Brotherhood of the Knights of the Olive Tree, whose sworn duty is to protect the olive tree.
Madame Laget is a vivacious olive grove owner who feels right at home at the festival. “There aren’t many women in the Confrérie,” she said proudly, “and I’m one of only five women who is allowed to wear the green cape.”
As traditional as they look, the Confrérie, or brotherhood, is relatively new, created a mere half-century ago in response to the devastating freeze of 1956, which killed two-thirds of France’s olive trees and put many farmers and producers out of business. They’ve helped put olives and olive oil back on the map, much like other confréries have done for their products.
My Own Festival de l’Alicoque
The Festival was a personal day of food-related revelation because much as I love to eat, olive oil never figured in my life as anything more than frying fat. Growing up in Spain meant living side by side with a pungent smell that became so familiar I stopped noticing it. It was part of my everyday consumption, a bit like the French eat bread and the Italians pasta.
Today I was ready to be set straight, although tasting pure olive oil out of a small plastic spoon isn’t what I’d call a gastronomic delight. Still, the tasting is a necessary path to understanding the subtleties of a product so proudly promoted throughout the Mediterranean
“Olive oil has been extracted the same way for 5,000 years: the olives are crushed, and the paste is pressed to get the oil. What has changed are the tools used to do this,” said Alexandra Paris, a spokesperson for the AFIDOL, the French professional olive association set up to improve and promote French olive oils.
“Fifty or sixty years ago production methods were different, we used a fiber scourtin to press the oil, and storage and quantities meant the taste of olive oils was more pungent, stronger. It marked entire generations and in France we want to preserve this taste, which you’ll find nowhere else.”
While the Nyons variety is classified as Subtle, I also ventured into Intense and even Old Fashioned, like grandmother’s, I was told. The oils did taste nutty as promised, but also like apples, like grass, and one even tasted of rocket, sweet on the tip of my tongue and increasingly sour and tart as the taste rolled down my throat. Another left a buttery aftertaste which took several swigs of water to eliminate. Surprisingly, the olive oils didn’t smell the way they tasted.
Apparently the taste is influenced by the region, the type of olive, their maturity and the extraction method, quite a palette of factors. No wonder there are more than 1000 varieties of olive oil worldwide.
As I walked around Nyons I found it everywhere, on tables to spread on bread, or in soups, as an ethereal thread clinging tenaciously to the surface.
“We’ve come all the way from Lyon,” a retired couple told me. “We come every year to the Drôme. For the food, the food.” That’s quite a compliment coming from the citizenry of Lyon, a city that styles itself the Gastronomic Capital of the World – and if you’ve ever eaten there, you’ll understand why.
The French take their food seriously and in the Drôme, three delicacies – olive oil of course but also the fabled black truffle and the renowned Côtes du Rhône – fight for primacy.
In France olive oil has its own cultural touchstone. In his poem Les Olivades, Nobel-prizewinning poet Frederic Mistral immortalizes the olive tree.
Olive oil, or liquid gold, as some would like to call it, is of course a food condiment, used for cooking but also as a flavoring, poured lightly on salad or potatoes or pretty much anything. It also has other, more surprising uses, from burning it for light, using it in religious ceremonies and as a skin moisturizer, furniture polish, hair conditioner, lice treatment, hairball preventer, and, dribbled warm, a cure for earaches.
In Ancient Greece, athletes rubbed it on their bodies to protect their skins and give their bulging muscles a sheen. It was also a healer, which Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, said could heal many ailments including so-called “diseases of women.”
If Athena were to come back for a visit, she might be surprised to see some of the results of her little gift. I mean, olive jam? Olive, verbena and marshmallow ice cream?