>A Catalan break

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I seem to have become a ‘weekend blogger’ – I don’t usually leave a gap of nearly a week between posts, but I have couple of excuses: first, I’ve been unable to connect to the internet for more than 15 minutes at a time since last Sunday night, something which has been resolved today by the installation of a new ‘Livebox’. And secondly, I’ve been away, staying for a couple of days in Banyuls-sur-Mer in the French part of Catalunya.

Banyuls is famous for its vin doux, a naturally sweet wine produced thanks to the amount of strong sunshine in that area. Squeezed between the Pyrenees and the rocky Côte Vermeille coast, the vines are grown in terraces anywhere on the slopes where there is space to make it worthwhile working the ground.

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The vines were only just beginning to sprout this season’s bright green leaves, but these pictures show how close to the sea and the mountains the vineyards are.
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The terraces are walled with local stone, with drainage channels leading down between them, and are sometimes wide enough for only two rows of vines.

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The three variations of Banyuls – red, white and ambré (with added caramelised sugar to give a golden colour) – are all delicious apéritifs and can also be used in cooking. The chef at the restaurant at the Hotel des Elmes where we stayed was expert at this – two of the wonderful dishes we tasted were scallops and Catalan blood sausage with a reduction of Banyuls, and escalope of foie gras with a chocolate and Banyuls sauce. There’s more information about Banyuls on this website.

On the way home we stopped near Millas at the Moulin du Mas St Pierre where Monique and Joseph Planes decided some years ago to change their fruit farm into an olive farm. They now have 30,000 olive trees all of the Arbequine (Arbequina as it’s called in Spain) variety grown closely in rows, rather like the fruit trees in neighbouring farms. These Arbequine olives, grown mostly in Catalunya and Spain, are very small and Monsieur Planes told us that this gives them one great advantage over other varieties: the olive fly does not attack them because there isn’t enough flesh around the stone for it to burrow into the olive. This means that they have been able achieve organic status for all their production as they don’t need to use chemicals on the trees. There is a very modern mill at the farm and huge tanks where the oil is stored at a constant temperature of 18 degrees C to preserve the flavour of the oil. As always when we visit the premises of a producer of good food or wine, it was a delight to talk to someone as impassioned about his products as Monsieur Planes and, of course, to buy some of his wonderful oil to bring home. His passion and hard work have been rewarded, too, with a gold medal this year at the Concours Général Agricole in Paris. Madame Planes travels around the world – as far as Shanghai recently – to food fairs, so that now their oil is sold in many countries and even, M. Planes told us proudly, in Harrods in London.

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>The Camargue and an olive mill

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We treated ourselves to a couple of days in the Camargue, staying at Aigues-Mortes, a fortified town which was a port until it silted up and the sea moved out to Le Grau du Roi, about 6 kilometres away. We were hoping to see flamingos, and we did but the weather was so grey and misty that I couldn’t get good photographs of them.

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The canal at Aigues-Mortes

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A gloomy sky at le Grau du Roi

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Bulls at a manade, where they are raised for the courses camargaises, the non-violent form of bull-fighting in which young men attempt to retrieve a rosette or ribbon from the head of a bull – more dangerous for the man than the bull!

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An egret perched on the back of a horse.




Domaine d’Oulivie

On a detour on our way back from the Camargue, up a rough track near St Gely du Fesc (north-west of Montpellier) we found this olive mill, museum and shop surrounded by a huge grove of lovely mature olive trees.

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We tasted the range of olive oils produced here and bought bottles of two: the single-variety Lucque oil and a special oil made by milling the olives with thyme and rosemary (rather than infusing the herbs after the oil is made). Wonderful flavours with which to end the year!

A l’an que ven! (Occitan for see you next year!)

>Olives and olive oil

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This morning we went Christmas shopping, but in a very non-commercial way as we’re avoiding shopping centres this year, buying food and presents from local shops, markets and the internet for the sake of the environment and because we enjoy it more than the desperate rush around city shops.  So today we went to the olive oil cooperative at Clermont-l’Hérault.

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The cooperative is easy to spot because of this lovely old olive press standing outside.  More modern equipment is used now, as in the new mill in Gabian

DSC00520 .Among other things, we bought some Lucques olives, and two varieties of olive oil including a Lucque ‘huile de Noël’, a lovely fresh-tasting oil which we’ll save for Christmas.

 

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We drove back in bright sunshine past vineyards which are almost leafless now, this stone shelter built into the terrace beneath an olive grove (left, above) and a mazet (vine workers’ shelter) (right, above) with a fig tree and a chestnut tree growing next to it.

Curing our Lucque olives

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DSC00539 I pricked each olive several times with a fork, mixed them in a bowl with some chopped dried oregano, bay leaves and salt.  Then covered them all with a good layer of salt.
I’ve left them in a cool place and they should be ready to eat in about ten days’ time.

This recipe comes from Max Lambert, L’Olivier et la Préparation des Olives.  I’m hoping the olives will be ready for our Christmas day aperitifs in the garden.

Mussels with cream and pastis sauce

As it’s one of the days when the coquillage producer comes to the village from Bouzigues, we had mussels for lunch, an experiment with crème fraiche and pastis – an experiment which worked very well!  Mussels and sauce were delicious.  We opened a bottle of Muscat sec, bought last week at Saint Preignan, which was the perfect accompaniment – not too dry and a lovely flavour.

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The recipe is on the Mediterranean cuisine blog.

>Olive mill

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From now until January, depending on the variety, is the time when the ripe black olives are harvested for oil. Sixty or seventy years ago there were three olive mills in our village, one of these in the same place as our house, and other villages would have had their own mills. But gradually these closed and in recent years the nearest mill has been the cooperative at Clermont-l’Hérault, about 25 kilometres away – quite a long way to transport small harvests of olives. Now, though, we have an olive mill in the village, Le Moulin de Casso, opened last week by three local olive growers to press their own olives and those of other growers in the area.

We visited the mill today and saw the brand-new machinery working, olives being delivered for pressing and people picking up their oil after pressing. It’s very exciting to see it all. We tasted two different oils, one unfiltered with a wonderful strong taste and another filtered one with a slightly more delicate taste. The mill isn’t yet registered to sell oil so we shall have to wait until next year to buy this local oil.

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The approach to the mill, lined with olive trees, and with a view of the village in the background.

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The olives are washed and any leaves removed (into the sack in the foreground).
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The olives are taken to the machine which turns the flesh and stones into a pulp.

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The pulp is mixed before going to the centrifuge which extracts the oil.
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The oil comes out of the centrifuge and is filtered before being put in containers for collection or storage.

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The waste pulp from which the oil has been removed is piped outside.

There was a wonderful smell of olives and olive oil in mill. It seems very popular as many local olive growers have already started bringing their olives here for pressing. It takes a tonne of olives to produce 110 to 120 litres of oil, depending on the variety, and this takes a day to process.

Last year in November I posted an ‘Olive Week’ series and I wrote about the olive mill we visited at St-André-de-Sangonis – here – le Moulin de Casso isn’t as big, yet, but it’s very exciting to have it here in the village.

My other Olive Week posts were about the origins and history of the olive tree and wood, oil and war, on the products and uses of the olive tree and, finally, they way in which the trees are destroyed in Palestine by the Israeli army as a way of suppressing the Palestinian people, something which still continues, tragically.

>Olive week – 2. ‘Olive oil sings too’

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Olive oil from Le Moulin de la Garrigue, St André de Sangonis

There are 2,000 varieties of olive worldwide and 400 in France, which is responsible for a relatively small proportion of the world’s olive oil production in comparison with Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey. Spain, for instance, has 4.7 million acres of olive trees and produces 27 % of the world’s oil.

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Olive trees as far as the eye can see, near Cordoba in Andalucia

Here in the Hérault département of France, 10 varieties of olive are widely grown, including most commonly Lucques and Picholines. Lucques originated in Italy, but are now said to be hardly grown there. They seem to be well-suited to the environment of this area, though, and are prized for the fresh flavour of their elegant pointed fruits. They are used as table olives and also for extracting olive oil. It takes 4 to 5 kilos of olives to make a litre of olive oil.

In his poem ‘Oda al Aceite’ (Ode to Olive Oil), the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda said that it is not just wine that sings – ‘Olive oil sings too’ (También canta el aceite). Like the olive tree itself, the oil has a special place in the culture, history, mythology and cuisine of Mediterranean countries. Neruda said ‘Y entre los bienes de la tierra / Aparto / Aceite’ (And among the good things of the earth / I set apart / Olive oil). It is believed to have health-giving properties as part of the Mediterranean diet. I don’t want to make any specific claims, but if you search the Internet for ‘olive oil and health’ you will be presented with a huge variety of articles of varying scientific provenance. It certainly tastes good and I love cooking with it!

Olives for oil production are harvested in November, December and January, depending on the variety. In the Hérault the harvest has just begun and today we visited Le Moulin de la Garrigue at St André de Sangonis, a small privately owned mill where they were milling oil from olives of the varieties Lucque and Verdale.

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Modern buildings hidden behind mature olive trees

The process of extracting olive oil:

arrival
The olives arrive in the mill
washing
They are washed …
removing olives from stems
separated from the leaves and stalks …
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transported to the press …
press and separator
pressed …….
Separator water (left) used in the production is separated from the oil (right) ….
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the dry pulp is removed.
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Olives growing and ripening outside the mill.

This is a very modern mill, with new machinery, nothing like the old stone and wood structures, the grindstones traditionally seen around the Mediterranean, driven by the hard work of animals and humans, as easygardener described seeing on Paxos in a comment on my last post, and which once existed on the hillside above our garden in Gabian. The oil tastes wonderful, as good as any – modern or traditional – full-bodied and fruity, as we found when we brought a bottle home. This kind of oil from small specialist producers is not for cooking with, but for enjoying on salads or simply dipping bread into. In the picture at the top of this post you can see what a lovely dark gold colour this oil has.