Ah, hurrah! Welcome back to the south of France where the sun is shining and the Med. is as blue and calm as you imagine it to be. You are just in time to ride with us to the morning street market. We’ve run out of olives – disaster! My husband used the last of them in the tapenade we’re having for lunch with you and tomorrow is pizza night. quelle horreur! (how awful) However, if we drive like we were born French, we can get there before it closes.
Oh sure, there are canned olives at our village store but the variety of fresh olives at the market will amaze you. My husband is waiting for us in the car. Let’s go! (view of the Alberes from the village) We drive out of town on a tree shaded road and you notice that oaks and plane trees are punctuated with wild olive trees. In springtime, they wear a light bridal veil of tiny white flowers. As the cars zoom along, drifts of the dry, fallen olive flowers swirl like confetti from the summer parades held everywhere in the Languedoc-Roussillon region.
Hang on! This bit of the narrow road is pretty twisty and that driver behind us thinks that 90 kph is for sissies. We maintain our speed and after a moment, a speeding car overtakes us as we cross the intersection. I agree, it’s crazy but also totally legal in the French driving code. The blur of the red Renault ahead hits mach 3 and soon vanishes from sight.
Let’s see, we were talking about olives. Legend says that Athena gave both olives and wisdom to Greece. While the wisdom may be scant these days, the legacy of the olives remains. Some thousands of years ago the Greeks traded all along the Mediterranean coast. They also came bearing gifts – among these, the olive! Today both wild and cultivated olive trees are grown in the south of France. They often decorate public places, as they do in the photo of Perpignan above.
We discovered the wide spectrum of olives while touring Provence. It was sunny and we felt like having a picnic. We stopped in a village with a small shop and a bakery. Between the two we found what we needed – bread, cheese, wine and local olives. The aromas of olives, basil, thyme, oregano, and rosemary filled the air near a large, plastic container by the cash register. My husband asked for a demi-kilo and olives were sieved from the salt water and herbs. A variety of shapes and sizes in mauve, tan, green, grey and black tumbled into a clear plastic bag. The teeny-tiny dark ones looked like black pearls, the size of capers. The picnic was memorable and every olive had a different taste and texture. The smallest ones packed a nutty punch. We enjoyed that bag of olives over several days. So what were these “French” olives?
Most were probably Picholine olives which are the most popular. These green, slim olives are slightly tapered like a rounded almond. Sometimes they have a spattering of tiny white freckles and are often cracked or pricked all over to speed the curing process. They are crunchy with a crisp texture that stays firm.
Many of them were Salonenque, a greenish tan, medium sized olive. They have a flat look, for they are cracked before curing. These olives are soft skinned, with a creamy texture, and a mild flavor.
Some of the olives in the mix were Nyons. These fat, black olives from Provence have big smooth pits. The flesh is meaty and the slightly wrinkled skin is shiny. They are packed in brine and sometimes flavored with coriander or fennel.
One or two may have been of the Lucque variety. This curvy, fleshy, grey-green olive is shaped somewhat like a fat crescent moon. It’s the most expensive and favored by gourmets. The turned up tip is pointy and called le nez (the nose) by the connoisseurs. A dear friend presented us with a jar of these for Christmas. The soft-textured olives had been packed in a brine of herbs and were very flavorful.
Finally, so small that you might think of them as mini-olives, were the Nicoise. They are less than half the size of an average olive and are black. The famous Salade Nicoise is made with green beans, tomatoes, hard boiled eggs, tuna and, of course, Nicoise Olives! Mmm, they were delicious.
While I’ve been reminiscing, we’ve arrived at the market in Collioure. We park and find our way to the busy stalls heaped with goods and wares. You smile at the lively banter that surrounds us. Ah, here is the olive man’s stall! Hmm. It’s always hard to decide which seasoning to buy as well as what color. The green variety marked le garrigue is flavored with thyme, oregano, and rosemary. This is one of our favorites – basil and garlic. For a hot treat, try the olives with red chili peppers. That one to the left is very French made with Fennel, parsley, and slivers of onion. When you wonder aloud whether you would like it or not, the vendor understands. He holds out a spoon with one for you to taste and points to a bucket provided for the pits. You take a stroll around to check out the other stalls while we buy three varieties of olives and cheese from another stall. After a while, the vendors begin to pack up as the market closes.
We drive home and fix a light lunch just so that we can taste the new olives. Let’s go out on the terrace and enjoy the afternoon sun. My husband sets out crackers and slices of baguette, then pours us each a glass of wine. If you pour some fresh olives into that terra-cotta bowl, I’ll arrange cheese slices and some fresh veggies on a colorful plate. At its center, we place the container of tapenade.
Tapenade is an olive spread or topping that is great on crackers or bread. It’s easy to make. My husband made it this morning. You can buy it everywhere, but it’s easy to make yourself. All ingredients except the olives are optional and changeable. Many people include anchovies, but we do not. Some add pinon nuts or almonds. It can be smooth enough to spread or chunky and spooned onto your crackers and cheese. Black olives tend to be less salty than green.
Our tapenade was made with: 1 cup of pitted olives, 1 garlic clove, three thin slices of red bell pepper, 1 Tablespoon capers, a squeeze of lemon juice, pepper, and some olive oil. Chop everything finely or use a food processor. Add the oil last and drizzle it in, mixing until you like the texture. You don’t want it too runny, or it won’t stay on the crackers. The chunkiness or smoothness of the tapenade is up to you. Change it to suit your taste and what’s in the cupboard to make it the kind of spread, dip, or topping that you like. This is a rich dip, so make sure to share it! It can make a nice presentation, as you can see, here.
What a treat! Here, let me refill your glass. We sip and watch as a few clouds chug by on their way to that plain in Spain, just the other side of the distant mountains. “Santé!” we toast one another’s health once more. The afternoon is sweet and the olives are salty. The only thing better than the view or the food, is your company! We sure hope you’ve enjoyed the olives. (these are the trees by our village square)
Have a safe journey home and perhaps we’ll see you next time when we stop for a moment to taste the salads and the summer in the South of France.