`Moulin de Villevieille, Pride of the Garrigues

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Moulin de Villevieille, Pride of the Garrigues

Sep. 24, 2010
By Lindsey Partos

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By Lind­sey Par­tos
Olive Oil Times Con­trib­u­tor | Report­ing from Paris

A tough set of pro­duc­tion stan­dards cou­pled with a stri­dent pur­suit for qual­ity have brought acco­lades and growth for the Moulin de Ville­vieille, a small extra vir­gin olive oil co-oper­a­tive in the heart of the rose­mary-scented gar­rigues in south­ern France.

Located at the apex of a tri­an­gle between Mont­pel­lier and Nimes, the moulin (mill) is annu­ally fed by 1,600 local pro­ducer-mem­bers and sits snugly aside the attrac­tive, medieval mar­ket town of Som­mières.

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Qual­ity cal­i­brates each chink in the pro­duc­tion chain at the ancient mill. We don’t want mass pro­duc­tion. Our ambi­tion is that the pro­duc­ers keep the his­tory of the olive trees alive. Every­one has sweated over these trees, we want to keep the sweat,” under­lines Bruno Fer­ri­ers, mas­ter olive oil maker at the Ville­vieille mill.

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And the co-oper­a­tive’s cease­less drive towards added-value has earned indus­try-wide recog­ni­tion. In 2008 the Inter­na­tional Olive Coun­cil rewarded the mill with first prize in its Mario Soli­nas Awards medium ripe fruiti­ness’ cat­e­gory, while in 2009 Ville­vieille’s AOC Nimes extra vir­gin olive oil walked off with a sil­ver medal.

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Arguably the back­bone for qual­ity at the mill is the strict cahier de cul­ture for pro­duc­ers and the co-oper­a­tive’s rig­or­ous approach to trace­abil­ity. Details of how much water, fer­til­izer, insec­ti­cide and other con­trib­u­tory fac­tors are inked into the cahier, and all mem­bers are required to present this record book when they deliver their bounty. Fer­ri­ers says he will refuse olives should the cahier high­light anom­alies and unac­cept­able prod­ucts, and he is always on the look out for nat­ural solu­tions.

Pro­duc­tion works on a ratio of approx­i­mately one tree to one bot­tle of oil, accord­ing to the oil maker, so one tree reaps about five kilos of olives, with five kilos of olives pro­duc­ing one litre of oil. But Fer­ri­ers sug­gests that higher yields could be in sight: There is room for improve­ment, I think we can go up to ten kilos a tree. But I will not push our pro­duc­ers to go to mass pro­duc­tion, with more fer­tilis­ers et al.”

The pro­file of pro­duc­ers for the mill is cer­tainly eclec­tic, rang­ing from civil ser­vants to farm­ers, librar­i­ans to mechan­i­cal engi­neers. Pas­sion, rather than cash, seems to be the dri­ving force. Pro­duc­ers receive about 7 to 9 euros per litre (around 9 to 12 dol­lars).

Not one of our mem­bers lives off their olive oil,” said Fer­ri­ers, fur­ther exclaim­ing, when I first arrived, it was the pas­sion that hit me!”

Small, arti­sanal hold­ings mark the typ­i­cal Ville­vieille co-oper­a­tive pro­ducer. Our mem­bers pro­duce any­thing from just one kilo to one tonne of olives,” explains the oil maker. These are not the huge orchards like in Spain,” he adds.

Mem­bers are staked out in a grand tri­an­gle’ pegged out from Nimes in the east, Ales in the north and Mont­pel­lier to the west. This is the wealth of our co-oper­a­tive, it is rich in peo­ple and diver­sity,” Fer­ri­ers proudly states.

Squarely mar­keted as a pre­mium extra vir­gin olive oil, Ville­vieille’s range of grand crus” cost between 15 and 20 euros ($20 to $27) a bot­tle. Fer­ri­ers is mind­ful that in a press­ing eco­nomic cli­mate, price plays a big­ger role, par­tic­u­larly with a fall in con­sumer pur­chas­ing power. This is one of the chal­lenges with an expen­sive, qual­ity prod­uct.”

Each olive grow­ing region in France has its spe­cific vari­eties. The luc­ques vari­ety is preva­lent in the Her­ault and Aude depart­ments, for exam­ple. At Ville­vieille, an olive press since 1929, they have always worked’ the picholine and négrette vari­eties.

The mil­l’s grand crus include the deep golden and fully-flavoured picholine extra vir­gin olive oil with its notes of red fruit. Picholine is the mil­l’s num­ber one oil: the co-op pro­duces about 60 to 70,000 litres of picholine each year out of a total annual olive oil out­put of 100,000 litres. In addi­tion, the mill pro­duces the soft, fruity négrette oil, the green-hued aglan­dau oil which bears veg­etable’ notes, along with small quan­ti­ties of antan and bouteil­lan olive oil vari­etals.

Com­plet­ing the port­fo­lio is the co-oper­a­tive’s freshly rub­ber-stamped AOC Nimes olive oil. A picholine and négrette blend, the AOC (Appel­la­tion d’Origine Con­trôlée) law dic­tates the AOC Extra Vir­gin Olive Oil of Nimes” must con­tain a min­i­mum of 60% picholine.

The mas­ter miller and his many co-oper­a­tive mem­bers have an ardent attach­ment to the olive tree’s ter­roir — the notion of land, cli­mate and tra­di­tion. Per­haps they might argue that this deep pas­sion today trans­lates into the supe­rior, com­plex and flavour­some extra vir­gin olive oils that fly off the shelves at the eighty-year old Ville­vieille co-oper­a­tive.

Ville­vieille

The land­scape today at the Ville­vieille mill is in direct con­trast to depress­ing con­text nearly fifty years ago. One destruc­tive night in feb­ru­ary 1956 a fierce frost wiped-out olive oil orchards in this boom­ing pro­duc­tion area. In one foul stroke, the tem­per­a­ture plunged from 21 degrees in day­time, to a painful minus 17 degrees. Sun-seek­ing sap that had crept up the trees as the tem­per­a­ture climbed to hot heights was totally frozen in its tracks.

Leg­end has it that on the day fol­low­ing the frost the sound of olive trees cry­ing per­vaded the orchards as the sap exploded and cracked the trees. While more than 100 olive oil pro­duc­ers existed prior to the frost, after jack frost clicked his heels, only three remained. Ville­vieille was one of the sur­vivors. But the cruel free fall in tem­per­a­ture dealt the death knoll for olive trees. Twenty years passed before the trees, heav­ily pruned after the frost, bore fruit.

Pre-1956 olive oil was a daily fix­ture in the kitchens of local pop­u­la­tions, indeed the main source of fat for com­mu­ni­ties in south­ern France. After, the frost would shape how locals con­sumed their fat, switch­ing from olive oil to other sources. Only in recent years has the tide started to turn again. In pre-frost 1956 the area pro­duced about 1,000 tonnes of olives. Today, pro­duc­tion has climbed its way back to approx­i­mately 900 tonnes.

Moulin de Ville­vieille, Coop­er­a­tive Ole­icole de Som­miers
154 Avenue des Cevennes
30250 VILLEVIEILLE, France

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