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Olives de Lucques

Dec. 7, 2010
Rupert Parker

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By Rupert Parker | Reporting from London

It’s the end of October and I’m in the South of France near the small vil­lage of Bize Minervois, on the banks of the Canal du Midi, 40 kilo­me­tres from the walled city of Carcassonne. This is the home of the olive oil Cooperative L’Oulibo. The har­vest is in full swing and grow­ers from Aude, Herault, and Pyrenees Orientale are bring­ing in their fruit.

My quest is the holy grail of olives, a vari­ety only cul­ti­vated in Languedoc and Roussillon. The locals know them as Green Diamonds”, Pearls of Languedoc” or Les Rolls Royces” but they’re prop­erly known as Olives de Lucques after the Italian Province of Lucca.

They’re large and fleshy, unlike any olive I’ve ever seen. They’ve a dis­tinc­tive half moon shape with pointed tips and are an incred­i­ble shade of green. Biting into the fine outer skin I get a taste meaty and sweet, not soft, salty or mushy. The flesh comes away from the tiny stone eas­ily and con­jures up flavours of fresh almonds and avo­ca­dos. It’s excep­tion­ally but­tery. I’m now begin­ning to under­stand why the French prize them so highly but won­der why they are such a well kept secret.

In the win­ter of 1956 dis­as­ter hit French olive groves. What is now known as the great freeze” destroyed 95% of trees. Many mills closed and farm­ers turned to other crops, per­ma­nently trau­ma­tized by the expe­ri­ence.

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Lucques olive trees are tem­pera­men­tal. Constant irri­ga­tion is essen­tial and, in the height of the sum­mer, each tree demands over 40 litres of water per day. Pollination starts at the begin­ning of May but lasts only 48 hours. If it rains the pre­cious pollen will be washed away and the tree will be bar­ren. Fortunately rain­fall is low and the Mistral blow­ing from the north east aids fer­til­i­sa­tion. Yet only five flow­ers out of a hun­dred will yield a fruit. For the whole region total out­put is less than 250 tons a year.

But, given opti­mal con­di­tions, the trees are har­vested by hand from September to mid October, each yield­ing between 15 and 50 kilos. The olives are picked when they are still green, before reach­ing full matu­rity. Every evening they are brought to the Cooperative to be sorted and mea­sured, and at this stage they are impos­si­ble to eat, the glu­co­sides mak­ing them incred­i­bly bit­ter.

There’s an old Greek story about olives falling into a tidal pool by the sea. A pass­ing fish­wife spot­ted them and, much to her delight, found them per­fectly edi­ble. This was one of the world’s great­est dis­cov­er­ies. The Lucques olives are cured in a Sodium Hydroxide solu­tion for about 15 hours before being rinsed in water and put into brine con­tain­ing less than 5% salt and bot­tled. No other preser­v­a­tive is nec­es­sary.

The olives left on the trees turn slightly pur­ple and blacken as they reach full matu­rity. From November until February they are har­vested for oil, 8 kg needed for each litre. Only about 2000 litres of Lucques olive oil are pro­duced and it is del­i­cate and per­fumed — ideal in sal­ads or trick­led over just about every­thing.

But for me, it’s the Green Diamonds” which are the big stars. Outside the Cooperative, in the shade of the Olive groves, there’s an Aioli com­pe­ti­tion in full swing. It’s locals ver­sus tourists in the bat­tle to cre­ate the per­fect mix of egg yolks, salt, gar­lic, lemon juice and olive oil. I’m think­ing why bother? A big jar of Rolls Royce Lucques should see me com­fort­ably through the after­noon.

If you want to finesse your Aioli skills, and taste some of the best olives in the world, then get to Bize in the third week of July for the Fete d’Olivier. You won’t be dis­ap­pointed.

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Rupert Parker blogs at Planet Appetite.

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