The Olive Culture of Les Alpilles
I was in the village café yesterday and felt an intense pang of admiration and jealousy all at once. An elder gentleman came up to the person sitting next to me and presented him with a large bottle of viscous, deeply green liquid and said “happy new year!” (in French of course). It was the unlabelled newly pressed olive oil from his family’s olive trees. How wonderful. I couldn’t think of a better seasonal gift.
The Capital of French Olive Oil
Here, in Les Baux de Provence, we claim that we’re the olive capital of France, along with neighbouring Mouriès of course. There is a small, healthy rivalry between us. We’re almost to the point of cheering when we see large trucks full of olives heading to our respective village mills at this time of the year.
That said, we have a rather lot of olives. And oh my, we do love them. You’ll rarely be given a glass of wine at someone’s house or a restaurant without the accompanying olives. Here in Les Alpilles region, we brine the green, young olives in a very simple brine with wild fennel. These olives, normally made with the Picholine variety, have a strong, fresh artichoke taste. Nothing like store bought, often chemically-treated olives.
The grocery stores are full of stacks and stacks of these freshly brined olives as soon as they’re ready in October. They don’t last very long.
When I first moved to France I didn’t know anything about olives but thought I would give it a try. As I was late to pick the olives, I used a kalamata style brine with red wine vinegar. They were edible… I’ve since improved my technique…
This recipe is from my next door neighbour. She is a true local and has her own olive orchards here in Les Baux de Provence. She’s so local that she’s never even been to the next village’s market day. Incredible! Here is the recipe she uses every year, which she gave to me off the top of her head while weeding her garden. Practically scoffing, she couldn’t believe I didn’t know it by heart.
How to Brine your Own Olives (Alpilles Style)
Weigh your olives and remember the weight.
Bash them one by one with a mallet or other suitable object. The idea is to break the skin, but not to smash them. Make sure you’re wearing an apron or something that you don’t care if you get dark oil stains on!
Place the olives in large, clean jar. Fill to the top with water. Leave on the counter or somewhere in sight.
Change the water every day for 7 days to “rinse” the olives. Is there already an app to remind you to do this? If not, go old-fashioned; stick a note on the fridge.
On the 8th day, make a brine that consists of 100 grams of salt per kilo of olives.
Place a small bouquet of wild fennel in with the olives that you lovingly picked in the countryside for this exact purpose. This is very easy here, or I hear in California as well. If you don’t have wild fennel growing near you, you can use the stems and fronds of store-bought fennel.
Wait for 2 weeks. Taste to make sure the olives have brined enough et voila! Eat immediately.
Tip: With this brine recipe, you can of course add whatever flavours you like. Some people add an orange peel in addition to the fennel. It’s up to you.