Excellent Olive Oil from the Var the Tastes of Provence
Few things exist so precious and beneficial to our health and happiness than that pure, liquid gold – olive oil. Softening, calming and astringent, olive oil nourishes strengthens and protects us inside and out.
Containing vitamins E and K, omegas 3 and 6, and phenolic compounds, olive oil promotes anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory reactions in our bodies. In addition, the oil is heart-healthy, significantly reducing cancers and heart disease. Aside from the incredible health benefits, olive oil crowns our best, freshest dishes and tastes divine.
Olive Oil History
It’s said that the goddess Isis gifted the olive tree to Osiris, who handed it to the Egyptians with the knowledge of how to get its precious oil. As a result, we’ve been using olive oil for over 8,000 years, lighting our lamps across the eons, anointing our kings in succession, healing our mortal wounds, cleansing our bodies and nourishing our flesh. Robust and ancient, the olive is our faithful ally. A symbol of resilience, the olive tree will survive and keep growing if uprooted and turned on its’ head! With an average lifespan of 500 years, the olive tree can live several thousands of years. Today, in Bethlehem stands the oldest known olive tree, Al Badawi – The Great One. It’s estimated to be between 4 and 5,000 years old.
Olea europaea and the grapevine were planted here by the Phocæans about 2,600 years ago when they founded Marseille. You’ll find olive groves today spread all across Provence and in the northern, central and western department of Var, with local varieties including the Brun, Cayet Roux, Pardiguier, Rougeonne, Picholine, Belgentieroise and Petit Ribier.
Olives in the Var
In 2004, Gerry and Mark Whitcombe-Power found the Domaine des Escavalins, a magical place in the heart of the Var, high in the wild hills by the national park of Sainte-Baume above the village of Belgentier. They planted 2,000 olive trees to produce their olive oil of Provence. Under AOC regulations, 80 percent could only be of regional varieties, which, here in mid-Var, might be the Bouteillan, Aglandou or Cayon. The remaining 20 percent could be of more specifically local species, with 5 percent of that being of one’s personal preference. The Escavalins groves include Rougeonne de Signe, Pardiguier, Brun (common in the valley of Cuers), Cayet Roux and others.
Ten years later, they decided that their product didn’t need the inherent restrictions of the A.O.C Huile d’Olive de Provence label, so they went independent and certified organic. Whatever way they proceed, the oil that they issue from their particular terroir is un-categorically fantastic and the perfect, authentic expression of this beautiful place and its integrity. Pressed onsite with state-of-the-art Italian machinery, within only 24 hours of being picked, their olives have had no time to lose any of their full nutritional and organoleptic qualities. “The perfume that rises before the churning paste passes into the centrifuge,” Gerry tells me, “Is just amazing.” I dearly want to smell that, to experience their harvest time and the shared joy of all who come together through hard work, and celebrate the delicate fruit of their labours by gathering around the table. Gerry tells me it’s a rich experience. I imagine the coming autumn while looking out on this beautiful, breezy spring day and considering how each day of each season is building toward the resultant oil.
Being 320 m above sea level, harvest at l’Escavalins is ten days later than on the plains below. The general rule is about one week delay per 100 meters of difference in altitude. Belgentieroise is the specific local olive tree variety usually used for making green table olives, but at Belgentiers’ oil cooperative below, they harvest it when the fruit is black and fully mature to render a lovely fruitée noir oil. Gerry and Mark specialize in their own green fruitée signature brand up the hill, picking their olives when fully plump and perfectly ready. It takes somewhere between 10 and 15 kilos of olives to render one litre of oil. And immeasurable care year-round.
We pour a little onto a spoon from a stylish black tin, revealing a bright-yellow glinting thick oil with just the slightest hint of green. I smell it first and am hit by great freshness, powerful scents of fresh grass and daisies, unripe pear and green apple, with wild herbs and flowers…it is so complex and fascinating, I stay inhaling for a while, trying to find the words to describe it. Then, I taste and roll it around my mouth to find it incredibly vital, rich with the flavours of wild asparagus and raw artichoke, followed by a delicately sweet fruitiness that brings to my mind juju berries. It amazes me. This past year was a long, dry, hot spell, so, I’m told, the olives rendered an oil that’s a little less ardent or peppery on the throat. I find it a perfect dressing oil for any simple yet refined dish, so good that every little drop should be soaked up with a little piece of bread.
A Magical Spot
The prices onsite are remarkably fair regarding the extraordinary quality, but that reason alone doesn’t give measure to the value of a visit. You can book your holiday apartment to stay and be enchanted by the gorgeous location, the lovely hosts, their sweet dog Max and the ten sheep he’s managed these past four years, which steadily maintain the ‘eco-paturage’ by munching the grass under the olive trees and gently treading their nourishing droppings back into the soil. However, careful vigilance is necessary, as wolves have returned to the hills, causing a serious challenge for the small farmers and producers so as not to lose their livestock and livelihoods.
Steeples of rock tower majestically above and behind the house. Stone walls, the ‘restanques,’ fan out in curves facing the green valley, offering heat and protection to many fruiting trees and vegetable plants. The garden is small yet generous, providing abundance for everyone, with all the plantings coexisting in order of organically mutual benefits. Gerry picked and handed me a fat, bergamot lemon warm from the sun, which I rubbed, smelling it happily as she showed me around. “I’m really privileged to be able to live slowly like this and appreciate living in nature,” she tells me. Every bit as luminous as the oil she makes shows me how good that is for one’s well-being.
Olives en Provence (website)
Owners: Geraldine and Mark Whitcombe-Power
Domaine des Escavalins,
Chemin Camp Long,
Telephone +33 (0)6 24 69 45 91
Buy their olive oil at these locations:
- Bio & Co, 3 Avenue de l’Université, 83160 La Valette du Var
- Bio Coop, 83210 Solliès Pont
- Botanic, Rue de Lisbonne, 83500 La Seyne-sur-Mer