Years ago I was in St. Tropez with my husband on our honeymoon. It was a gray day so we took a break from the beaches and walked around town, sauntered through the Place des Lices, and ducked in and out of shops selling high fashion, artisanal cheeses, french soaps and fine art.
Around a corner in a small square away from the other stores was a very small shop, Autour des Oliviers (around the olive trees), that I can say changed my life. Not in a big way, but it changed my life forever.
I’ve since met other lucky people who have visited the gorgeous Mediterranean village of St. Tropez, which makes headlines when P. Diddy rides his yacht there or Madonna is seen in the famous nightclub at the hotel Byblos. And the people I know did the same pedestrian things we did. We picked up the fresh makings of a picnic at the Saturday morning market like saucisson, baguettes, cheeses, olives and wine. We sat for long hours overlooking insanely massive yachts while sipping a short coffee or a long pastis. It was at the beaches we felt most like tourists, dressed in bathing suits and all, careful not to stare.
Funny thing is, I think everyone I ever spoke with about St. Tropez remembers the little olive oil boutique, Autour des Oliviers.
Stepping into the tiny shop I thought OK, I get it, good place to pick up some olive oil when you can’t make it to the Casino down the street. That was before I proceeded to be seduced.
This was not a category-killing store like, oh I don’t know, Battery City or Beverage World. You don’t go to Autour des Oliviers to find some brand of olive oil you remembered once was decent. The woman behind the counter who forever changed my life, not in a big way, but she changed my life, welcomed us in French and waved her hand to bring us toward the ten or so oils on display. Not five hundred. Ten.
Even as a virgin olive oil virgin I could see this was an unusual collection. Some had hand-written labels, others looked cloudy and thick. A few were in ceramic crocks with deep red wax over the corked tops.
In front of each bottle there were clean plastic cups. A basket of baguettes was in the corner. After the usual pleasantries (invariably involving my thorough butchering of the French language) the olive oil merchant began pouring one of those cloudy oils into the little shot glass cups for each of us. My guy and I seemed to convey without words an acceptance that, having just exchanged vows, we could handle something as foreign to us as drinking olive oil straight, even going without the bread when it was offered.
I still remember the bottle. It was from Chateau d’Estoublon. No other bottle I’ve seen since has looked like that. After a little sniff (“wow”), I tipped the unfiltered oil into my mouth and swished it around. It was green with the flavor of fresh apples, grassy and thick with big olive fruitiness. As the merchant described the source of this incredible nectar, we remembered the gorgeous estates we passed on our way tucked among the red and gold leaves of gnarled early-autumn olive groves.
Around the room we went, sampling one sublime olive oil after another. Toward the end, the flavors became more robust and bitter, causing us to cough in unison. I had always seen olive oil as just another staple. Yet this was a tasting so similar to those we enjoyed a few days earlier in the wineries near Dijon. There was such a wonderful complexity in these plastic cups.
We chose three bottles totaling about 500 francs (oh how I miss franc) which was around $100 at the time. The merchant packaged the bottles perfectly for our flight home.
Since that day, I have been working my way around the world’s premium extra virgin oive oils. From France, Spain, Italy and Greece to Australia, Chile, Morocco, Tunisia and now up and down Napa, Sonoma and Yolo counties. I consider a half-dozen excellent olive oils in my cabinet “getting low.” I enjoy a great extra virgin olive oil every day. My eight-year-old son rips off the end of a baguette and, dunking it deep into a fresh Ligurian, declares it “under-ripe but flavorful.”
Now you can find specialty shops throughout the U.S. offering tastings and their own selections of the world’s best olive oils. Just like they did their coffee and beer long ago (leading to a million Starbucks and microbreweries) people are upgrading their olive oils, helped by overwhelming evidence of the health benefits of high-quality extra virgins. As for me, it started that day in St. Tropez, in 1996, that changed my life forever, to a certain degree.
Autour des Oliviers
2, place Ormeau, Saint-Tropez, FR 83990