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Michelle: Olives, Chèvre, and Wine

March 18, 2011

France is known for its gastronomic traditions. It’s the world of amuse-bouches that are about 5€/bite and where every region has their own signature plat. That being said, last weekend, my program took us on a field trip to discover the cuisine of our region, Languedoc Roussillon.

St. Gély du Fesc – Les Oliviers du Mas des Vautes

Just north of Montpellier, we arrived by bus at Les Oliviers du Mas des Vautes, a somewhat small olive farm that produces high quality olive oil. Although the trees themselves are from Spain, the oil produced here carries a distinctive flavor from the soil and climate of this region. With the olive trees, it is important that the sun reaches all parts. If you stand in the middle, you should be able to see the sun from all directions. This is a balance between trimming the branches and losing olives and getting high quality olives. Today, the olives are no longer picked by hand. Instead, a net is laid out under the tree, and a machine shakes the entire tree until the olives that are ready fall to the ground.

After the olives are harvested, they go through this machine to be washed. There are two types of olives. One for oil, and the other for table olives or tapenade.

Then they come inside to be crushed and the oils are released. In order to ascertain the highest quality, the oil must be kept under 27°C during the remainder of the extraction process. Although heating up the oil increases the yield, it degrades the taste. Most mass produced oil will be heated up.

It then goes through this centrifuge to separate the oil from the pulp. This machine is a bit tilted. The oil comes out the small holes by her hand and the pulp comes out the bottom in larger holes.

The olive pulp goes back into the field and is used as fertilizer.

After the oil is centrifuged, it comes to these barrels to sit and separate. It’s then bottled and sold. Apparently good olive oil can be upwards of 75€/liter.

After the tour, we got to déguster many of three different types of olive oil and four types of tapenade from the farm. I wish we could have tasted “bad” olive oil as well because I couldn’t really tell a difference between that olive oil and the supermarket variety. The tapenades were all very good though. We tried it natural, with mushrooms, with anchovies, and with figs.

Chèvre Fermier du Pic Saint Loup avec M. Poveda

Chèvre, cheese from goats, has a bit of a bad reputation back in the US. It’s has a taste that is reminiscent of sour milk and is generally a little stronger, but I still love it. We went to the chèvre farm of the Poveda family in Pic Saint Loup.

They have about 200 goats on the farm with new ones born regularly. This little guy was born earlier the day we visited.

Chèvre doesn’t take that long to make. The goats are milked about twice a day. In the old days, this used to be by hand. But now, this is industrialized. The goats munch on lunch (on the right/bottom of the picture) while the farmer hooks up the milking apparatus to their utters. It takes about 7 liters for one kilo of cheese.

M. Poveda let a couple people from our group milk the goats in the old fashion way, but they don’t seem to like it (I can’t imagine it’s that comfortable for the goat to have someone tug on their nipples). He says they are very calm when they use the milking machine (although I can’t really imagine that is that comfortable either). The milk is warm when it exits the goat and it goes to a different barn to be heated, curdled, and strained. In a couple hours you have chèvre frais (which has a pretty soft flavor and is often topped with salt and pepper or other spices when eaten). If you wait a couple more days, the flavor becomes stronger and you have stronger cheeses. M. Poveda also mixes herbs de provence into some of his cheeses for a different taste.

Pic Saint Loup – Chateau Tarus-Montel

I’ve already written about the vinification process, so I won’t repeat myself with the details but this winery was a little different. For one, this one is a lot bigger.

This is the most expensive thing on the premises. It’s a filter for the wine:

…the bottling machine:

Like Champagne, Bordeaux, and Riesling, the name Pic Saint Loup is protected by the EU. That means that certain regions can call their products by these names. As I said in a previous post, this is a region known for wine since the Romans. However, in the beginning of the 19th century, the wine crop was decimated by a disease and the quality of wine produced in the region was severely damaged. Thanks to a Californian, whose crops were resistant to this disease, Languedoc Roussillon was slowly able to return to its former glory and Pic Saint Loup gained its reputation for good wine.

At the vineyard, we learned how to déguster (taste). It’s really a process.

  1. Pour wine into a glass about one third full. Because wine should be served at a very specific temperature depending on the type, you should actually be holding the glass by the stem so your hand doesn’t warm it too much, so I’m actually doing it wrong in this picture.
  2. Tilt the glass and look at color. Is it clear, murky, burgundy, orange-ish? This should be done against a light and/or a white background. From this, you (or rather experts who know what they’re actually looking for) can discern the age and type of grape used.
  3. Swirl the wine in glass (don’t spill). Look at its corps to see the thickness. The speed at which the larmes that run down the sides of the glass help you describe this.
  4. After you swirl, the aromas from the wine are slightly stronger, so go ahead, smell it. Smell it at least twice. Is it minéral, sucrée, fruité, something else? Apparently there are well over 500 terms to describe the smell of wine.
  5. Now it’s time to do what you’ve been waiting for; taste it, but not so fast! Take a small sip and swish. Make sure it touches all sides of your mouth. Hold it there. Swallow (or if you’re a professional, spit into a bucket so as to avoid getting drunk on the job). What was your first impression, l’attaque? What was it like when it hit your tongue? How did it taste just before you swallowed? And after? If there is long after taste, it’s said to be very good quality. Take another sip. This time, hold the wine in your mouth and inhale making air pass over the wine (try not to inhale wine as well). Now what does it taste like? This helps the flavors go up into your sinuses again so you can taste the smells.

I wouldn’t recommend whipping out this knowledge to impress a date, or even doing this in public. However, in the privacy of your home, it’s kind of cool to experience the different facets of one simple sip of wine.

All in all, each of these three places showcasing the terroir of Languedoc Roussillon had extraordinary tastes that met the expectation Americans have of French haute cuisine, or at least in my plebeian opinion. If nothing else, the cost of the olive oil certainly met my impression of really expensive cuisine.

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