Huiles d'Olive Française - French Olive oils. Enjoying France's Best Olive Oils.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman


Before the oil there are olives.
Photograph by courtesy of  Florena_Presse.
France is not a large olive oil producer by Mediterranean standards. Nevertheless, there are eight French olive oils that are among the best in the world.  First-time visitors to France are usually introduced to French olive oils via vinaigrette dressings but, in French cuisine, olive oil will be behind the flavor of many many other dishes.
Olive oil.
Photograph courtesy of Bilal Yassine.
France has over one hundred varieties of olives. Separating the good from the also-ran are the French olive oils with an AOP on their labels. The same type of olives from different areas, growing in different soils, exposed to different amounts of sun, rain and drainage have different tastes. The oil from the best of these olives may be blended to provide the same piquancy year after year. The AOP initials guarantee the oil’s origin, the oil’s preparation, and excludes any other ingredients. Virgin olive oils are the best oils, they are cold-pressed; that is the oil from the first pressing. 

Cold olive oil.

French chefs will note on their menus when a particular AOP virgin olive oil is used. Virgin olive oils can only be used when cold. The unique flavors of even the very best olive oils are lost when heated, for example when used for cooking. A virgin olive oil will be added cold to a dish just before serving.  (Since olive oil uses most of its flavor when cooked French chefs use Huile d'Olive - Pure olive oil; which is a mixture of refined olive oil and extra virgin olive oil with a maximum of 0.5 % acidic content). 

Some menu listings that indicate the addition of cold olive oil:
Courgette Jaune et Mozzarella de Bufflonne Glace à l'Huile d'Olive AOP Aix en Provence – Yellow courgettes, zucchinis, served with European water-buffalo milk mozzarella cheese and glazed with the AOP olive oil of Aix-en-Provence. Aix en Provence is just 33 km (21 miles) from Marseilles.
Carpaccio de Veau Corse à l’Huile d’Olive de Corse AOC aux Agrumes et Copeaux de Parmesan  - Carpaccio of Corsican veal prepared with Corsican AOP olive oil and citrus fruit, and served with flakes of Parmesan cheese. (The French island of Corsica is 396 km (246 miles) from the French coast. There are tens of daily flights from nearly every airport in Europe. Corsica is the fourth largest island in the Mediterranean; it's just a little bit smaller than Cyprus.  The two largest Mediterranean islands are part of Italy, Sicily followed by Sardinia).

Le Homard Bleu Grillé aux Fines Herbes, Tagliatelles de Légumes et Spaghettis à l’Huile de Olive de Provence AOP – The European two-clawed lobster grilled with the fine herbs, the most flavorsome of French herb blends, and served with vegetable tagliatelle, and spaghetti flavored with the AOC olive oil of Provence.     
Saumon Mariné à l'Aneth et à l'Huile d'Olive AOP de la Vallée des Baux de Provence  - Salmon marinated with the herb dill and the AOP olive oil from the Vallée des Baux de Provence.  (The re-built village of Les Baux de Provence, which has a ruined castle at its peak gave its name to this valley and its olive oil.  Baux (pronounced bow) is set in the Alpilles, the limestone hills that are at most 500 meters (1600 feet) above sea level, it is just 20 km(12 miles) from Arles the entrance to the Camargue.  The Alpilles runs parallel to the Mediterranean coast some 25 km (16 miles) below Avignon. Les Baux de Provence also gave its name to Bauxite, the foundation of most of the world’s aluminum industry. Mining ended only seventy years ago. The village is worth a visit if you are close by, and there are quite a number of excellent restaurants along with great hotels all around).
Salade de Langoustines à l'Huile d'Olive de Nice AOP -  A salad of Dublin Bay prawns, the real scampi, prepared with the AOP olive oil from Nice. This is the olive of choice in many Niçoise recipes and an absolute must in a real salade niçoise(The city of Nice on the Mediterranean coast is also famous for its Ratatouille (shades of the movie) and much more.  It was from Nice that the French Poet Stephen Liégeard (1830  - 1925) gave the whole Mediterranean coast the name to his book 'La Côte d'Azur' in 1887.  Since then Nice has only improved and it is a wonderful place to dine, or just doze or read a book on the beach).
Rosemary infused olive oil.
The Pan-European AOP has mostly replaced the French AOC. For the story behind the initials, AOC and the new AOP click here.
To be called a virgin olive oil all European olive oils must meet the same standards.  There are only three qualities of olive oil that may be called virgin oils and they are noted below. These virgin oils are followed by two olive oils (non-virgin) that carry no fancy initials. but will still be on supermarket shelves; these are the olive oils to be used for cooking.

Unfiltered Extra Virgin olive oil.
Photograph courtesy of Nature And.
The EU regulations include that hardest of all tests, an “organoleptic” rating. This is the taste and smell tests that are checked annually by a panel of highly trained tasters. 
 Vierge Extra  - Extra Virgin olive oil; the highest rating. No more than 0.8 % acidic content and a minimum organoleptic rating of 6.5 out of 10. French Extra Virgin olive oil is produced in limited quantities and will never be inexpensive. Extra virgin olive oil should never be wasted by using it for cooking. (Catalan - oli d'oliva verge extra),  (Dutch - extra virgen olijfolie),(German - extra vierge),  (Italian - extra vergine), (Spanish -virgin extra).
Vierge Fine  - Fine Virgin olive oil;  no more than 2% acidic content and an organoleptic rating of 5.5 or more. (Catalan - oli d’oliva verge fino),(Dutch - virgin olijfolie"), (German - vierge),  (Italian - sopraffino virgine), (Spanish - virgen fino).
Vierge Courante  - Ordinary Virgin Olive Oil.  No more than 3.3% acidic content and an organoleptic rating of 3.5 or more. This the virgin olive oil that may sometimes be used for cooking. The flavors of virgin olive oils break down at high temperatures and so they really are wasted when used for frying. Nevertheless, those who do wish to use a virgin olive oil for frying use this one. (Dutch - ordinary virgin olijfolie), (German – gewöhnliches natives), (Italian - vergine corriente), (Spanish - virgen corriente).
Among the many different vegetable oils, olive oil is the best oil for frying.  Olive oil handles much higher heat than other oils and its nutritional value means that it can be used for far longer than other vegetable oils. Furthermore, foods fried in olive oil have a lower fat content than food fried in other oils
Two other two olive oils seen on supermarket shelves are cooking oils:
Huile d'Olive - Pure olive oil; a mixture of refined olive oil and extra virgin olive oil with a maximum of 0.5 % acidic content. (German – olivenö), (Italian- olio di oliva), (Spanish – aceite de oliva).
Raffinée  - Refined olive oil; no more than 1.5 % acidic content.  The refining process will have removed the unique tastes of olive oil but will have left its cooking properties and nutritional value. (German – raffiniertes), (Italian - raffinato), (Spanish – refinado).

All together France produces only 1,500 tons of virgin olive oils annually, and despite the limited output the competition among these excellent oils is noticeable.
Tasting different olive oils.
I have had many opportunities, on my travels, to taste the best, and occasionally some of the worst, olive oils. When I have returned home I have often brought with me three or four different olive oils to try.   The whole family would enjoy blind tastings of extra virgin and fine virgin oils.
All you need to enjoy an olive oil.
Trying three or four different oils is simply carried out by dipping pieces of bread in saucers of the different olive oils; you may also try the oil and bread with a little Parmesan cheese.  Even a newcomer to the world of olive oil tasting will immediately note the differences, and that is how we separated the oils.  The best would be used for salad dressings and added cold to cooked dishes.  If an oil was really not well considered then it was hidden away at the back of a cupboard; it was only to be used when we ran out of the better oils and had no alternative. In any case, olive oil should always be stored away from light so our storage did not make a poor oil worse.
The top eight olive oils of France are produced in very specific areas and they carry the following names:
Huile d'Olive d'Aix-en-Provence AOC/AOP - Made with the blended oils of the Aglandau, Cayanne and Salonenque olives.

Huile d'Olive de Corse AOC/AOP - In Corsican this is Oliu di Corsica AOC/AOP)- Made with the blended oils of the Sabine, Ghjermana, Capannace, Avia Nera and Zinzala olives.
Huile d'Olive de Haute-Provence AOC/AOP – Made with the blended oils of the Aglandau, Bouteillan, Picholine and Tanche olives along with the oil of some ancient olive varieties.
Olive tree in Haute Provence
Huile d'Olive de la Vallée des Baux-de-Provence AOC/AOP  - Made from the blended oils of the Salonenque, Aglandau, Grossane, Verdale des Bouches-du-Rhône and Béruguette olives.
Huile d'Olive de Nîmes AOC/AOP  - Made with the blended oils of the Picholine, Négrette and Noirette olives.
Huile d'Olive de Nice AOC/AOP  – Made with the oil from the Cailleter olive.
Huile d'Olive de Nyons AOC/AOP  -  Made with the blended oils of the Salonenque, Grossane, Béruguette, Verdale and Picholine olives.
Huile d'Olive de Provence AOC/AOP  -  Made with the blended oils of the Aglandau, Bouteillan, Cayon and Salonenque olives.
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Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman


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