French olive oil is recognized by experts as one of the best in the world but it hasn’t always been easy for growers.
Here is an extract from An OliveOil Tour of France.
A Brief History
The Phoenicians, the great merchants of ancient times planted the first olive trees in Spain, France and Sicily around 800 BC, but it was the Romans who first recognized the richness of the soils and climate of the Provence region in France and how perfect this was for growing olives. They lost no time setting up plantations and mills for producing oils in the region, developing the industry wherever they settled so much so that the olive tree featured on many early Roman coins.
France’s oldest city Marseille became a focal point for the industry, the place where much trading of oils, wine and spirits took place. The highly prized oil was soon being exported creating enormous wealth for the Romans. The Roman Empire eventually collapsed but the seed was sown. The thirst for olives was started, enthusiasm and love for olive cultivation burgeoned and large areas were set aside for the sacred olive tree. Today it has become a symbol of peace and longevity.
In 1840, there were 26 million trees in France covering an area of 168,000 acres. France has around 4.3 million olive trees tended by some 29,000 olive farmers in the 20 regions where olive oil is produced (including Corsica). Unlike Spain and Italy, olive oil is produced mostly by small producers, mostly traditional olive growers who recognize the importance of maintaining their Provencal heritage, growers who strive for quality more than quantity. In other words, less is more for French olive oil producers.It hasn’t always been easy for the people of the South to farm olives. In 1956, they had to contend with devastating frosts which hit the normally robust olive trees of the South of France.
Some owners resorted to a drastic solution – they decided to chop down the trees at the base. Mother Nature was kind; although it took time, the main branches known as the charpentières miraculously started growing again by 1980.Then in 2001, there was more bad weather, more frustration for growers. The temperatures dropped between – 3° and - 10° for several days resulting in a loss of 80 percent of the fruit. Discouraged, many planters replanted with grapes instead of olives.
In the eighties, olive growing started in earnest due mostly to health experts talking about the benefits of a Mediterranean diet and the various subsidies offered by the Government. With this renewed interest, olive oil cultivation and exploitation took off once more.