Photograph by Owen Franken, Corbis
Olive oil may have only recently found a firm place at the American table, next to that smug pat of butter. But in the Mediterranean, where groves of olive trees are a fixed part of the landscape, the oil has liberally infused the culture and cuisine for millennia. Now certain epicenters of the liquid gold—Spain, France, Greece, and Italy—have witnessed a resurgence of smaller, artisanal olive oil producers that are welcoming visitors and helping fuel a local celebration of this ancient cash crop. That means travelers can map their own olive oil odyssey—one that leads from the olive estates themselves to olive oil tastings, boutiques (where the stock is bottled to clear customs), festivals, and meals overseen by an olive oil sommelier.
The 17th-century Moulin Jean-Marie Cornille (www.moulin-cornille.com) sits in Provence’s Vallée des Baux, one of France’s olive oil centers, and is considered by some chefs one of the most authentic olive mills in the country. Visit in late October and November to watch the granite millstones crush the harvest of tiny green and brown olives. Year-round, the Moulin features a film on olive oil production and a degustation of three types of the cold-pressed house specialty. Stop at the nearby boutique Jean Martin for a variety of Provençal olive oils, sauces, fig confit, and cooking classes ($26 per person).
Just below the Sierra Subbética Mountains in the southern Spanish province of Córdoba, the Núñez de Prado family (www.nunezdepradousa.com) has been producing olive oil on the single-family estate since 1795, using olives handpicked from their groves. Visitors can watch the seven varieties of estate olives get crushed in the 18th-century mill. After the demonstration, move on to a tasting (by appointment) of the organic result, roused by hints of almond, oranges, and apples, which is a favorite of the Spanish royals. The neighboring whitewashed town of Baena continues the fruity education at the Museo del Olivar y el Aceite (www.museoaceite.com), housed in its own antique mill. In November, Baena hosts an annual olive and olive oil festival that climaxes with a tapas crawl through the town’s cafés where chefs compete to serve the most creative olive-based plates.
Any olive oil quest should include Greece, where olive-leaf wreaths were the original Olympic crown and where the fruit has been cultivated for 4,000 years. The prefecture of Lakonia in south-central Peloponnese is known for the groves of Koroneiki olives that produce a fruity olive oil. The central Lakonian town of Sparta features the Museum of the Olive and Greek Olive Oil (www.piop.gr), where fossilized olive leaves from Santorini date back 60,000 years. The neighboring family-owned Olea olive oil estate (www.oleaestates.com) in the Valley of Sparta offers visitors estate tours, tastings, and excursions to the Caves of Diros.
Armando Manni was a film director before deciding to take over an ancient grove in Italy, scientifically refine olive oil production, and launch his Manni Oils (www.manni.biz)—part estate, part chemistry lab—near Montalcino, Tuscany. Working with the University of Florence to create a unique methodology called Live Oil, he produces an organic extra virgin olive oil high in antioxidant value and low in acidity. After sampling his oil (arrange tastings in advance), visitors can hike to the top of Mount Amiata for a memorable view over the olive groves and to the sea.
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