France has long been recognized as the breadbasket of Europe. The largest country in the European Union, France, with its diverse geography and climate — from the mountains of Mont Blanc and the Alps to the sunnier climes of Nice and the Côte d’Azur — produces such a dizzying array of produce, livestock, and other gourmet products as to make any gourmand swoon.
While the overcast northern half of the country has long embraced butter as its cooking fat of choice, the bubble that is Provence is a different story. With its Mediterranean sunlight and rocky terrain, the south of France is blessed with ideal terroir for making extra virgin olive oil.
Few olive oil purveyors are as well-regarded in France as La Maison A L’Olivier, which interestingly enough, started in Paris almost two centuries ago. Founded by a pharmacist named M. Popelin, A L’Olivier opened its first boutique in the Marais in 1822 to sell olive oil and cod liver oil during the Bourbon Restoration.
Their flagship boutique has since broadened its selection, offering a wide variety of gourmet goods like sardines from Rödel Fils & Frères (packed in olive oil, of course), prized fleur de sel imported from Madagascar, and an exotic passion fruit vinaigrette. The company has also expanded its outreach, with nine locations throughout France as well as outposts in Belgium and Sweden.
Despite their growth as a brand, the emphasis has always remained on the olive oil, extra virgin to be exact. A tour through their original location in Paris reveals an impressive display of more than fifty oils, sourced from Spain, Italy, Greece, as well as their native France.
Customers can pick up small drums of flavored oils, from basil to a zestier ginger and lemon, but the real liquid gold can be bought by the liter from their handsome collection of gleaming metallic drums — a collection of mostly French oils, almost all ordained with the official stamp of terroir, the Apellation d’Origine Côntrolée (A.O.C.), a French certificate guaranteeing provenance and quality reserved for wines and cheeses as well.
One of their finest products is a Corsican extra virgin olive oil from Moulin de Prunete in Costa Verde: a peppery and grassy number, made from a mix of Picholine, Ghjermana, and Leccino olives, that won the 2006 Gold Medal in Paris. Probably best paired with a piece of grilled fish or vegetables, it would also be ideal for a vinaigrette.
Another favorite, their Aix-en-Provence A.O.C. Moulin Barle Eguilles made mostly from Aglandau and Salonenque olives, as well as some Verdale, garnered similar praise at the 2009 Concours General Agricole for its mellow vegetal flavor, especially its notes of artichoke.
Nearly two centuries’ worth of savoir-faire means A L’Olivier knows how to select the finest products. From their production site based in Carros, an area just north of Nice known for growing some of the finest olives in France, their specialists sample oils from mills, independent producers, and cooperatives to decide what belongs on the shelves of their boutiques. The olive oils are then sent to Aulnay Sous Bois outside of Paris to be distributed throughout the world.
So while operations have clearly expanded since the days Monsieur Popelin was behind the counter, and it might be tougher to find cod liver oil on the shelves of A L’Olivier today, it seems clear that their emphasis on quality has remained constant. After a long winter in Paris, who doesn’t need some Provençal sunshine?