As a child, I saw olive trees as big friends who welcomed me to sit under their sturdy wide branches, cooled my hot summer days with their shade and, when I was through playing, waved goodbye to me with their leaves undulating in the wind and bidding me to return soon. I was convinced that they sensed my friendship with them as I shared my secret childhood dreams with them.
At the time, little did I know of the growing significance they would continue to play in my life. But, I felt a little less guilty about my lack of full appreciation for them during my childhood when I recently read of Olivier Baussan's admission that "while olive oil was a part of my early life - as it was, and still is, a part of every Mediterranean life - it was so much a part of my life that I didn't really pay much attention to it", after which " ... I was so struck by the symbolic power of the olive tree that I swore I would find a way of doing it honor one day." In his youth, Olivier Baussan was raised, as I was, in a world of olive groves, but an educated understanding of the art and appreciation of olive oil was yet to unfold in each of us.
Although we have each endeavored to uphold this honor, to which Mr. Baussan referred, in different ways, the road traveled by Mr. Baussan is a worthwhile journey to share with him by reading his book if you enjoy discovering the world of olive oil, its vintages, or crus, and its gourmet applications. Mr. Baussan takes you on a journey through select portions of the olive tree world as he demonstrates how "on every shore, olive oil has its crus, its grand crus and its ordinaires." What is intriguing about this book is that its author respects the different olive oils produced throughout the Mediterranean and he explains that his purpose is not to find the best cru, but rather to take you on a tasting tour of the olive tree world that yields "thousands of flavors".
He discusses olive oil production in a relaxed, informative style as though he were talking to you over a satisfying dinner. You learn about the nurturing of olive trees, the harvest, the olive varieties, growth conditions and local production styles of the different olive growing regions in order to explain why and how the olive oil vintages acquire their own unique flavors. As an example, in the Massif d'Esterel near Nice, he explains that a late harvest in January or February will yield a mature olive fruit that creates an olive oil with a rapturous hazelnut and almond bouquet. He explains how the local artisanal expertise can influence the flavor of the oil by harvesting the same variety of olives earlier in the season in December "to give the oil more bite".
Before embarking upon his tour where he admits that for him "it all began in Provence", he offers different methods for tasting olive oil that enable you to find the right ones to suit your different tastes and intended uses. This is the key that unlocks the portal to the culinary creations of Chef Jacques Chibois of the hotel and restaurant Bastide Saint-Antoine in Grasse, France, who shows us how different oils can be used to great effect in a range of dishes, including appetizers, soups, salads, game, seafood, poultry, and even desserts. I particularly appreciated the fact that Chef Chibois specifically references the regional olive oil that he recommends using in the Ingredients section of each recipe. For example, he recommends the use of Tuscan olive oil for his ravioli in wine sauce, Vallee des Baux olive oil with pigeon prepared with port, Istrian olive oil with chanterelle mushrooms, and Sicilian olive oil infused with vanilla served over strawberries laced with lime zest and sugar. This attention to detail enables the reader to see how a professional implements the philosophy that one should adapt a particular olive oil with its own unique organoleptic characteristics to the food ingredients used in the creation of a dish in order to bring out the best of all the ingredients, just as one would select a particular wine with its own unique texture, flavor and bouquet to complement a certain meal. Beautiful color photographs that are a feast for the eyes as well as a guide to presentation of the dishes accompany these recipes.
The book closes with A Connoisseur's Guide that invites our attention to the different olive producing regions of France, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece, Israel, Tunisia and Croatia. What I really enjoyed about this section is that the author explains the different olive varieties that are grown in each region and the resulting olive oil flavors with suggested culinary uses. This Guide also includes sections on European Definitions of Olive Oil, Olive Oil and Health and Recommended Names and Addresses of restaurants, olive oil producers, museums and other places to discover.
Olivier Baussan's genuine pleasures of travel and discovery derived from the olive tree and the beautiful photography of Jean-Charles Vaillant that transport the reader to the heart of the writer's passion have made this book a delight to read, a useful reference and an elegant cookbook that can be used again and again.