Thursday, November 1, 2012

French Olive Oils. Enjoying France's Best Olive Oils.

Huiles d'Olive Française -  French Olive oils.
Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman    
Before the oil there are olives.
Photograph by courtesy of  Wollombie.
   France is not a large olive oil producer by Mediterranean standards; despite its limited output there are eight French olive oils among the best in the world. While first time visitors to France are usually introduced to French olive oils via the wide variety of excellent salads with vinaigrette sauces, in French cuisine olive oil will be at the heart of many dishes.
Olive oil shop in Antibes, France. 
Photograph courtesy of roberto_venturini. 
   France has over one hundred varieties of olives and the taste of the French olives, and the oils they produce, vary tremendously with the area and the climate. The same type of olives from different areas, growing in different soils, exposed to different amounts of sun, rain and drainage and then blended with other oils will have very different tastes.  Separating the good from the also ran are the oils with AOC or AOP on their labels. The AOC and AOP initials mark the best French olive oils and ensure that the consumer knows the oil’s origins; these initials show that the oil preparation is controlled and excludes any other ingredients. The virgin olive oils, the best oils, and these are the only oils that have AOC or AOP ratings are cold pressed; cold pressing is the oil from the first pressing.  French chefs usually note on their menus when a particular olive oil is used. When a French chef does note a particular olive oil then it will have been used when cold. The unique flavors of even the very best olive oils are lost when used for cooking; French chefs do not fry with the best virgin olive oils, they add the oil to a dish just before serving. Here are a few menu listings, and all use cold olive oil:
   Courgette Jaune et Mozzarella de Bufflonne Glace à l'Huile d'Olive AOC Aix en Provence – Young courgettes, zucchinis, served with European water-buffalo milk mozzarella cheese and glazed with the AOC olive oil of Aix-en-Provence.
   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 olive oil and citrus fruit, and served with flakes of Parmesan cheese. For more on Carpaccios see my post: What is a Carpaccio?
   Le Homard Bleu : Grillé aux Fines Herbes, Tagliatelles de Légumes et Spaghettis à l’Huile de Olive de Provence AOC – The European two-clawed lobster grilled with the fine herbes, this is the most traditional of French herb blends, and the dish is served with tagliatelle made with vegetables, and spaghetti flavored with the AOC olive oil of Provence.  For more information on France’s special herb blend the Fine Herbes see my post: The Fine Herbes.
   Saumon Mariné à l'Aneth et à l'Huile d'Olive AOC de la Vallée des Baux de Provence  - Salmon marinated  with dill and the AOC olive oil from the Vallée des Baux de Provence. For more about the salmon on French menus see my post: Salmon, AtlanticSalmon, France's Second Most Popular Fish.
   Salade de Langoustines à l'Huile d'Olive de Nice AOC -  This is the olive of choice in Niçoise recipes and an absolute must in a real salade niçoise. For more about the cuisine of the city of Nice and its environs see my post: Dining well and differently in Nice.

   Over the next few years the initials on France’s wines and produce that now carry an AOC on their labels will mostly be replaced by the pan-European initials AOP. For the story behind the initials AOC and the new AOP see the post:  What are the initials AOC and AOP on France's Foods and Wine labels? Why is the AOC becoming an AOP? –

 Extra Virgin olive oil.
Photograph courtesy of natureandevents. 

   To be called a virgin olive oil all European olive oils must meet the same standards.  There are three olive oils that may be called virgin oils and they are noted below. These virgin oils are followed by two non-virgin olive oils that carry no fancy initials but will still be on supermarket shelves; these oils are used for cooking.
   The EU regulations include, that hardest of all tests, minimum tasting and smell requirements. These taste and smell levels are checked annually by a panel of highly trained tasters; the results are called, wait for it, an “organoleptic panel” rating:
   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.  (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. (German - vierge),  (Italian - sopraffino virgine), (Spanish - virgen fino).
   Vierge Courante  - Ordinary Virgin Olive Oil.  No more that 3.3% acidic content and an organoleptic rating of 3.5 or more. This the virgin olive oil most often used for cooking; the flavors of extra-virgin and fine virgin olive oils break down at frying temperatures and so are wasted when used for frying. . (German – gewöhnliches natives),  (Italian - vergine corriente), (Spanish - virgen corriente).
Despite my comments seen above among the many different vegetable oils olive oil is the best oil for frying; olive oil handles much higher heat than other oils.  The levels of oleic acid olive oil will keep olive oil's nutritional value far longer than most other vegetable oils; also foods fried in olive oil will also have a lower fat content than food fried in other oils
Olive oils flavored with herbs, 
on sale in a French Farmers' market.
Photograph by courtesy of Rob DeGraff
Two other ordinary olive oils will be on the supermarket shelves; these are used for cooking:
  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.
   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, along with an ordinary virgin oil as a control.
All you need to test olive oil. 
Photograph courtesy of MauraNeill. 
   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 would separate the oils.  The best would be used for salad dressings and the rest for 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 cooking 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.
   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.

 Bryan G. Newman
Behind the French Menu.
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