Friday, February 22, 2008
New olive oil and salade exotique
You could easily miss Claude's trestle table among the producers at the Cours Saleya market. Little pots of hand-labelled tapenade stand next to bottles of herb-infused red wine vinegar and deep golden oil, with a few jars of honey to one side and sometimes a long loaf of pain d'épice.
It might seem like a modest collection of goods, but if Claude sold nothing more than vinegar I would still be heartbroken if she stopped coming to the market on Saturday mornings*. Perfumed with basil or slightly peppery nasturtium, this pure ingredient goes into nearly every one of my twice-daily salads. Her deep amber honey is a revelation, tasting of the rosemary, thyme and other plants that grow wild on her unruly hillside, and her oil has the delicate almond taste, typical of this area, that I've come to love.
Modest and unassuming, Claude brightens visibly when anyone shows enthusiasm for her products. Her pain d'épice, made without eggs and spiced only with anise in the Provençal way, already has an avid following; for Christmas, she produced a sugar-free version to serve with foie gras. She is the only small farmer at the market who speaks English, and many a visitor has been won over by her tasting of olive paste and tapenade.
You can imagine my excitement when Claude invited me to see her transform freshly harvested olives into oil earlier this month. There are a few stone olive mills in the hills behind Nice, but they are rarely used these days and Claude is the only producer I know of who has her own old-fashioned mill. It's a legacy from her father who, amazingly, built the whole mechanism himself using a giant stone from a perfume factory and bits and pieces from other mills. In his day, the mill could produce oil on one level and flour up above; Claude uses it only for oil, making it two or three times a year.
February might seem late in the season to make olive oil: in many parts of the olive-producing world, the harvest begins in October or November. But the little black Niçois olive, officially called the Caillette, is traditionally left on the tree until most of the olives are purply-black. This results in a deep golden oil that might at first seem too subtle if you are used to a more peppery taste. I love its almost buttery character, particularly with fragile mesclun leaves and on white-fleshed fish.
Though Claude's farm is just 40 minutes from Nice, the countryside feels surprisingly remote. We followed Pierre's wife Anne in her bright orange car towards Contes, then to Coaraze where Claude lives next door to her 87-year-old mother Marguerite. It happened to be Marguerite's birthday, and her playful eyes as she offered us a glass (or three) of her own very quaffable wine told me immediately that she is a force to be reckoned with. Indeed, Marguerite kept an eagle eye on the olive oil making process all day, often pitching in to show how it's done.
First about 300 kilos of freshly picked olives went into the big stone mill, which efficiently ground the flesh and pits to a black paste. This so resembled tapenade that a couple of people, Philippe included, couldn't help dipping their fingers in. "Beurk!" Olives straight off the tree are horribly bitter.
Eventually the oil started to separate from the paste. This clear oil could be scooped out with a ladle, and tasted remarkably sweet and almondy.
Then Claude turned on a tap and nearly filled the big stone basin with lukewarm water, causing the oil to float to the top. While this was going on, a volunteer farm worker from Vermont (you too can work on an organic farm in exchange for room and board by visiting Wwoof) took us on a tour of the property. Taking care of nearly 300 olive trees and a few beehives too is a daunting task for Claude and her mother, and Claude has come to rely on her "wwoofers," volunteers from around the world who stay for a week or longer.
We said hello to the beautiful goats, who sadly no longer supply cheese for the market. Claude's goat cheese was legendary at the Cours Saleya, but European Union regulations forced her to stop her artisanal production and she didn't feel able to invest in the separate, surgically clean building that is now required. These regulations explain why there is now so little farmer's cheese to be found in this area. Luckily, the EU bent its rules for the olive mill thanks to its steel mechanism, which was considered nearly as hygienic as stainless steel.
Since Claude gave up making cheese she has taken up beekeeping, a project she originally intended to share with her sister. Unfortunately, her sister had a severe allergic reaction to her first bee sting and Claude is now on her own.
Sam had a go at beating the olives off the trees, which takes some strength.
Back at the mill, golden oil was floating on the water. We took turns scooping up the oil with a a holey frying pan intended for roasting chestnuts and transferring it to a bucket before filtering it. I wasn't entirely sure why we were using a pan with holes in it (and forgot to ask), but I think it allowed any water to run out before we poured the oil into the bucket. On either side of the mill, helpers used small brooms to sweep the oil towards the scooper. The most efficient helper was Marguerite, who can remember olive harvests year by year back to the 1940s.
Finally, Claude's sister toasted slices of baguette in the fire for the brissauda. We rubbed these with garlic, dipped them in the fresh oil and sprinkled them with oregano: heaven. I thought about how many people must have indulged in this ritual over thousands of years, and how lucky I was to be taking part.
By the time our potluck lunch was served we were a little less hungry, but all of us ate with gusto anyway: Claude with her mother, sister and nephew, Pierre, Anne and their two sons, Nadim, us, a few wwoofers and a couple of friends of Pierre. I contributed a bulgur and red pepper salad that Claude dubbed salade exotique, while Pierre brought fennel from his farm which, in Nadim's words, tasted as if they had been dipped in pastis. We simply cut the bulbs in half and bit straight into their white flesh, dipping them first in olive oil of course. Claude prepared a huge dish of pasta while her sister, who lived in Greece for 10 years, made a delicious Greek pea stew. Then there were several cakes, including a birthday one for Marguerite.
After lunch Claude got straight back to work, pressing the pulp to extract more oil (which she would use for her flavored oils) and then draining the water into a rectangular basin outside. My job was to gently rake the oil from the top of this basin while Philippe scooped it into a bucket.
Making oil this way is labor-intensive and Claude could easily save herself the trouble by taking her olives to a modern mill, which would turn them into oil with zero effort on her part in a couple of hours. But I got the feeling that keeping this mill running is an ongoing gesture of respect for her father's ingenuity and hard work.
We were the last to leave and, when we did, Claude presented us with a bottle of cloudy oil to take home. I'm tempted to treasure it, but I also know that oil this fresh is best savoured quickly.
* Claude is taking her annual break, but will be back at the market at the end of March.
My bulgur and red pepper salad came from the Casa Moro book, though I found the recipe in my Books For Cooks 7 collection. Red peppers aren't exactly in season, but at this time of year I think it's OK to overlook that kind of thing occasionally. I found that I needed to soak the coarse bulgur for a lot longer than the recipe said, and I added the juice of a lemon to the dressing. Of course, I also doused the salad liberally with olive oil fresh from the mill.
(adapted from Casa Moro)
3 red peppers
175 g (6 oz/1 cup) medium or coarse bulgur
6 spring onions, finely sliced
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1/2 tsp hot paprika (I used Espelette pepper)
1 tbsp tomato paste
3 tbsp olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tbsp each roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley and mint
1 tbsp roughly chopped fresh dill
Salt, black pepper
Grill the peppers either under a preheated overhead grill or over the naked flame of a gas hob, or on a barbecue and cook, turning, until evenly charred and blistered all over. Put the peppers in a bowl, cover with a plate, and leave for 10 mins while the trapped steam loosens the peppers skins so that they may be easily slipped off. Then peel, core and seed the peppers before very finely chopping to a semi-purée.
Soak the bulgur in warm water for 15-45 mins or until no longer hard in the center, then squeeze dry and put in a large mixing bowl with the chopped peppers, spring onions, garlic, paprika, tomato paste, olive oil, lemon juice and fresh herbs. Mix everything well together and add salt and pepper to taste.