Olive Oils of Provence: The Complete Guide Print E-mail
Gastronomy - Food

Olive oil in bottlesIt's impossible to imagine Provence without its silvery grey-green groves of olive trees, or to think of provençal cuisine without the rich, fruity olives and olive oils that form the base of the celebrated Mediterranean diet.

booking.com logoClick here to book a hotel in Provence


This is a complete guide to olive oil in Provence, taking in its surprising history, how it's produced, where to taste and to buy it, what to look for on an olive oil label and where and when to find olive festivals in the region.

We also visit two olive growers and oil producers in different parts of Provence: Castelas, in the valley of Les Baux de Provence, and the Domaine Terre de Mistral, near Rousset in the foothills of Mont Sainte Victoire (pictured below).


Olive trees were planted by the Greeks when they settled in Provence (and elsewhere around the Mediterranean) around 600 BC. The trees thrived in the dry, stony, limestone soil and helped prevent erosion.

Domaine Terre de Mistral, Rousset, olive grovesHungry herds munched on their leaves and the oil supplemented the diet of the settlers - the evidence, in the shape of amphorae, or large pottery oil and wine containers, can be seen in most of the archeological museums of Provence. 

At their peak during the Renaissance, provençal olive groves covered some 120,000 hectares / 297,000  acres, twice as much land as they do today. But just as wine production in France was dealt a mighty blow by the phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century, so did the olive groves of Provence suffer their own mini-disaster.

On 2 February 1956, after a relatively mild winter, temperatures suddenly plunged overnight to an unprecedented -20 degrees Celsius / -4 degrees Fahrenheit. A million olive trees died that year, a third of the total number in Provence. A further five million trees had to be coppiced (cut back to the stump). After that cruel winter many established producers gave up, discouraged, or turned to more profitable wine-growing instead.

Olive oil production pie chartAccording to statistics compiled in 2005 by the United Nations, 90% of olive oil in the world is produced by seven countries - and none of them is France.

That situation still continues. But more recently thousands of new trees have been planted in Provence: there are now nearly 300,000 around Aix alone, according to that city's tourist office.

Olive oil production in Provence has more than doubled since the early 1990s and is now around 5,300 tonnes a year, claims the gourmet bible Gault & Millau - even if it's still a tiny fraction of the output of Italy or Spain.

Logo, Owners Direct holiday property rental
Book a villa, gîte or apartment in Provence with Owners Direct

A new generation of oil producers has moved in. These small-scale local growers, many of them entirely new to the art of olive oil, are reviving and modernising an ancient tradition with top-of-the-range gastronomic oils, packaged in fancy bottles and created in a range of subtle permutations.

The industrially produced olive oils of Italy or Spain can cost less than a quarter of the hefty prices commanded by the precious green-golden liquid made by artisans in Provence.

But connoisseurs speak of provençal olive oils in the same terms as discussing fine wines: an oil might have notes of artichoke or almond, green apple, freshly mown grass or even chocolate.

The theory is that the "el cheapo" olive oils will always still be used for everyday cooking (even in France itself, 88% of olive oil purchased comes from Spain or Italy), but that gourmets will increasingly turn to the fine oils to finish special dishes.

Olive oil from Provence is a limited crop and you won't find many of these oils on sale outside the region. Varied and distinctive, they're very different from the mass-produced olive oil on sale back home at your own supermarket. All the more reason to try and buy them while you're here.

Fun fact about olive oil in ProvenceAnother new trend is for hobby farmers with a tree or two in their garden to bring their olives to one of Provence's 250 mills for a pressing of their very own house oil - though, since it takes five kilos / 11 lbs of olives to make, on average, one litre / one US quart of oil, most households will come away with a maximum of one or two bottles.


The wording on an olive oil label is governed by complex regulations, which can also vary from country to country. But, put very simply, extra virgin olive oil is the purest available and also the highest in the anti-oxidants said to be beneficial to health.

Castelas black fruity olive oil bottleEight regions in France - four of them in Provence - enjoy an AOP (appellation d'origine protégée), a status awarded by the European Union which guarantees an oil's geographical origins and its conditions of production. These eight regions are the Vallée des Baux de Provence, Aix en Provence, Haute Provence, Provence, Nice, Nîmes, Nyons and Corsica.

A bottle of olive oil might sport an artistic label but inspect the small print carefully. If it includes the words Communauté Européenne (or the initials CE), the oil is almost certainly a Spanish import.

It is also not unknown for dealers to rebottle and relabel cheap oil as a provençal AOC - this applies especially to oil sold on market stalls - although the professional body AFIDOL (l'Association Française Interprofessionnelle de l'Olive) does its best to control this with anonymous inspections.

In an effort to stop restaurants from passing off cheap olive oil to diners, the European Commission also attempted to introduce a ban on refillable olive oil bottles (and even olive oil in saucers) in May 2013. Amid a general outcry, the plans were withdrawn a week later, however.

France recognises three types of olive oil, fruité vert (green fruity), fruité mûr (ripe fruity) and fruité noir (black fruity). It's the only country officially to endorse fruité noir, a relative newcomer on the scene made of very ripe black olives which are allowed to ferment slightly before pressing.

Still slightly controversial among olive oil producers, fruité noir is pressed in three areas: La Vallée des Baux, Aix en Provence and Haute Provence. Pictured: a bottle of black fruity olive oil from the Castelas mill.

The label on a bottle of provençal olive oil is also likely to state the name of the château or domaine - though not the year. Olive oil doesn't improve with age and should be consumed quickly once the bottle has been opened (ensure, too, that it is kept tightly stoppered).


Many olive producers will show you around their workshops and offer tastings, though, if you want to see the olive harvest and watch the oil being pressed, you will need to come to Provence in November or December.

However, the Castelas olive mill, at the foot of the road leading up the hill to Les Baux de Provence, (it is the only oil mill near the village) caters to summer visitors interested in this with a little film that shows its machinery in action.

The olive harvest at Castelas, Les Baux de ProvenceThe process begins with the fruit being harvested: each tree is surrounded by a net and the ripe olives dislodged with mechanical combs or shakers. Some growers in Provence still pick the olives by hand.

Taken to the press, they are sorted, weighed and labelled by grove, variety and time of arrival. A powerful blowing machine puffs away residual twigs and leaves, the olives are gently crushed, along with their stones and the paste is mixed for about half an hour.

It then passes into a cylindrical spinner which rotates at high speed, using centrifugal force to separate the paste from the oil, which is finally channeled into a storage tank ready for bottling. At Castelas the pressing takes just one hour from start to finish.

Catherine and Jean-Benoît Hugues, who founded Castelas, typify the new generation of provençal olive oil producers. They come from a very different professional background and have learned their art from scratch, out of a personal passion rather than a sense of dutifully following in a long family tradition.

The Hugues ran a micro-electronics engineering company in Phoenix, Arizona, in the United States for 15 years before deciding in 2000 to return to their roots (Catherine is from a wine-making family in Châteauneuf du Pape and Jean-Benoît comes from Saint Rémy de Provence).

Castelas olive groves, near Les Baux de ProvenceThey started with just six hectares / 15 acres of olive groves and expanded little by little as local producers retired and decided to sell. They now own 45 hectares / 111 acres and some 9,000 trees.

Many of these have four or five main trunks rather than just one, a result of the coppicing that had to be carried out after the destructive frost of 1956. Pictured: one of the Castelas olive groves.

The Hugues practise organic farming with no pesticides; kaolinite is used to protect the trees from infestation (lavender growers in Provence are also using kaolinite to guard their own crops). Annual production at Castelas ranges from 50,000 - 90,000 litres / 13,000 - 24,000 US gallons.

Catherine Hugues at Castelas oil millCatherine, pictured, explains that Vallée des Baux AOP olive oils have to be made from a blend of four local varieties of olive: Aglandau, Grossane, Salonenque and Verdale.

These varieties ripen at different times and the exact proportions vary from year to year. A jury of trained local tasters has to determine whether each vintage conforms correctly to the Valleé des Baux type.

euro banknotes

Castelas offers olive oil tastings twice a week, at 10am on Tuesdays and Thursdays. They last around 90 minutes and are free, though capacity is limited so you need to reserve in advance. Naturally, having spent so long in the United States, the Hugues speak excellent English.

The oil is presented in little blue cups, so that your assessment won't be influenced by the colour.

Olive oil tasting cups at the Castelas oil millPiles of crisp green Granny Smith apples sit on a shelf: you're advised to eat a slice of one, or a piece of bread in between tastings to cleanse your palate.

We sampled a green fruity oil, which has a fresh artichoke taste, and a rich black fruity with notes of mushroom, vanilla and blackberries (the estate makes a strawberry and mint jam which contains 20% of this olive oil).

Castelas also produces oils infused with flavourings such as lemon or various herbs. We tried an olive oil blended with fresh ginger, which sounds strange and certainly wouldn't go with everything, but proved extremely good.

Where: Castelas, Mas de l'Olivier, 13520 Les Baux de Provence. Tel: (+33) 4 90 54 50 86. Website for the Castelas oil mill Email: [email protected]

The Castelas oil mill and its three olive groves boast beautiful settings in the heart of the Alpilles. The groves of the Domaine Terre de Mistral, which the Insider has also visited, are stunningly located too, just below Cézanne's beloved Mont Sainte Victoire, where olive trees were planted long ago. Today the estate commands 22 hectares / 54 acres and some 4,200 olive trees.

Terre de Mistral produces all three types of organically farmed, Aix en Provence AOP olive oil: green fruity, black fruity and ripe fruity. Three types of olives are used: Aglandau, Salonenque and Cayanne.

Unlike Castelas, Terre de Mistral is also a winery which makes 12 types of wine, all rather sweetly named, like its olive oils, after different members of the two families, the Davicos and the Gueurys, which own it jointly.

Denis Gueury of Domaine Terre de MistralThe Davicos have been making wine in Provence for generations, dealing with the local co-operative until the genial Serge, who runs this side of the business, decided he wanted to go it alone and develop more ambitious wines.

The Gueurys, by contrast, are another example of newbie oil producers: Denis Gueury, pictured with Madame Gueury, was an engineer until he resolved to pursue his fascination with olives.

The Terre de Mistral offers tours of the wine cellars and oil mills and tastings on most days during the summer, including visits in English. There's a small charge for these tours.

The Domaine Terre de Mistral also has a lively programme of regular special events such as open days and dinner jazz evenings and nocturnal walks.
Domaine Terre de Mistral receptionAs well as a tasting area and shop, its reception building includes an excellent, informal restaurant with superb views of Mont Sainte Victoire.

Specialising in cuisine using its own produce (there's a farm and kitchen garden on the estate as well), it has a small, constantly changing set menu chalked up each day on the blackboard. It's open for lunch, and on some evenings.

Where: Domaine Terre de Mistral, chemin du Pavillon, route de Peynier, 13790 Rousset. Tel: (+33) 4 42 29 14 84. Email: [email protected]  Website for Terre de Mistral


For the last half century the small town of Mouriès in the Alpilles has held a Fête des Olives Vertes in late September to celebrate the newly ripened Salonenque green olive. There is plenty of folklore on view here, with traditional costumes, decorated horse-drawn carts and music.

But it's from December onwards that most of the winter olive oil festivals take place. The new season's pressing is celebrated with a Fête de l'huile d'olive nouvelle. Tastings, music, wine, cookery demonstrations, local food (often an aïoli) and general revelry are to be expected on such occasions.

Many villages in Provence hold their own little version, but one of the main ones is in the Valley of Les Baux de Provence, where a Festival of New Olive Oil has been held for over two decades in early December. The 2013 Fête de l'huile d'olive nouvelle in the Vallée des Baux is held on 30 November-1 December with exhibitions and tastings in the ten olive mills of the appellation. Click here to find the 2013 programme for the olive oil festival in Les Baux and the Alpilles.

In Aix en Provence, the Festival of New Oil traditionally takes place shortly before Christmas and offers tastings, the sale of olive products such as tapenade and olive-wood artifacts, and more. The 2013 Fête de l'huile d'olive d'Aix en Provence takes place on 14-15 December on Les Allées Provençales, near the Tourist Office.

And, just north of Provence, Nyons, in the Drome, holds its own olive oil festival at the beginning of February.

Olivier Baussan with one of his chain of olive oil shots, Premiere Pression ProvenceOne of the greatest enthusiasts of provençal olive oil is the aptly named Olivier Baussan, pictured. This wildly successful entrepreneur previously founded the L'Occitane en Provence beauty products empire and Oliviers & Co, a chain of stores selling olive oil from all around the world.

Now he has created a chain of stores, Première Pression Provence, which specialise in olive oils from Provence - its slogan is "l'huile d'olive de Provence surpasse tout" ("Nothing beats olive oil from Provence").

The wares of some three dozen olive oil producers are sold in these outlets, as well as tapenade, truffle flavoured terrines, vinegars and other delicacies. The stores, paradoxically, are almost all outside Provence in Paris and on the Côte d'Azur, and their mail order service will only send packages within France. Website for Première Pression Provence

Baussan has also created the Ecomusée l'Olivier, dedicated to the olive tree, in his native Volx, in the Luberon National Park. In July 2012 a restaurant, Les petites Tables, opened in the Ecomuseum and you get free entry to the museum if you eat there.

Where: Ancienne route de Fourcalquier, 04130 Volx. Tel: (+33) 4 92 72 66 91. Telephone for the restaurant at the Ecomusée l'Olivier: (+33 4 86 68 53 14. Website for the Ecomusée l'Olivier

And Baussin has also written an authoritative book on olive oil, which is now available in English. Find Olive Oil: A Gourmet Guideimage! by Olivier Baussin on Amazon.

Olive fans might also be interested in Carol Drinkwater's best-selling book about buying and running an olive farm in the South of France. Find The Olive Farm: A Memoir of Life, Love and Olive Oil in the South of Franceimage! on Amazon.



Saint Barbara's Wheat in Provence at ChristmasChristmas in Provence starts on 4 December! Read about Saint Barbara's wheat and other local Christmas traditions.


Saint Victor Abbey Marseille by nightNow in its 47th year, the prestigious music festival at Marseille's historic, beautiful Saint Victor Abbey continues until 5 December. Last concert: Christmas carols.


Provence olive oilProvence's festivals celebrating the season's new olive oil are on in the Alpilles and Aix. 30 Nov-15 Dec.


Santa ClausChristmas shopping in Marseille this year features fireworks on the Old Port, giant santons on the Canebière, mulled wine and cakes in the Old Town - and artificial snow on the rue Sainte. From 6 Dec.


SkiingHeading to the ski slopes? Here's how to get there from Marseille or Aix by snow bus or snow train.


Christmas on the Cours Mirabeau, AixProvence's colourful Christmas markets are opening for business. Find the best fairs and festivals in Marseille, Aix, Avignon, Arles and elsewhere.


Descente des BergersCount the sheep (there'll be plenty of them around) at the Fête des Bergers, or Shepherds' Festival, in Istres, on the Blue Coast. Sheepdog trials, sheep processions, a banquet (with roast lamb?) 29 Nov-8 Dec.


Rose wine of ProvenceStar billing: Miraval, the rosé wine produced by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, has just been named one of the top 100 wines in the world.


MSC SplendidaWe report from this autumn's Top Cruise conference about the new cruise routes from Marseille in 2014 and the latest developments in the city's booming cruise tourism.


Avignon fringe theatre festivalThe summer 2014 dates have now been confirmed for the Avignon "In" and "Off" Theatre Festivals.


CalissonsPuzzling over Christmas gift ideas? Here are our top five Provence-themed presents, all available to buy by mail order.


Claude Gazier paintingClaude Gazier's moody paintings evoke the smokey atmosphere of vintage film stills. La Ciotat, until 7 Dec.


Victoire Belezy as Fanny in Daniel Auteuil's Pagnol trilogyThe first two parts of actor-director Daniel Auteuil's new version of Marcel Pagnol's classic Marius, Fanny, César trilogy, set on the Old Port of Marseile, are now playing in UK cinemas.


Marilyn by Andy WarholWarhol, Hopper, Bacon, Magritte, Picasso, Delvaux: diary dates for some of the big art shows lined up for Marseille in 2014.


Henri Lebasque Nude Asleep on a BedWomen of Provence, as seen by male painters and by themselves, are the subject of a new show at the Musée Regards de Provence, Marseille. Until 24 Feb 2014.


Ballet Preljocac in Aix en ProvenceTake a backstage tour of the Pavillon Noir in Aix en Provence (14 Dec) or watch Angelin Preljocaj and the Ballet Preljocaj in rehearsal (10 Dec). These events are free.


Image from the film about the artist Pierre-Auguste RenoirNow available on DVD: France's entry for the Oscars is Renoir, a film about the artist's life shot in the Var near Saint Tropez.


Ceramic by Le Corbusier Ceramics, sculptures, tapestries, paintings - and erotic sketches: Le Corbusier was not just a revolutionary architect, as this must-see show at the J1 Hangar, Marseille, reveals. Until 22 Dec.


Lucien Clergue's photograph of Le Testament dOrphee in Les Baux de Provence Jean Cocteau's Le Testament d'Orphée was filmed in the Valley of Hell near Les Baux de Provence. A show of photographs by Lucien Clergue, in Les Baux, chronicles the shooting. Until 31 Dec.


Ben Foster as Lance Armstrong in Stephen Frears new filmThe disgraced Tour de France cyclist Lance Armstrong is the subject of a new film by the Oscar-nominated director Stephen Frears, now shooting in the French Alps.