28 Jun

Castelas: Couple makes award-winning olive oil

By Leah Larkin,

Jean Benoit Hugues and his olive oilHe carefully pours a small quantity of the liquid from the dark green bottle into a tiny spoon, lifts the spoon to his nose and sniffs the contents.

“It smells of fresh-cut grass,” he proclaims. He then moves the spoon to his mouth and inhales, letting the juice roll around in his mouth before swallowing. The taste, he says, is reminiscent of “artichokes, almonds, with a pepperiness…. It’s long on the palate.”

Jean-Benoit Hugues was not tasting wine. He was talking about his olive oil, Castelas Huile d’Olive A.O.C. de la Vallée des Baux de Provence, a premier olive oil that has won numerous prizes. A.O.C. (appellation d’origine contrôlée) means that the oil was produced in the valley of Les Baux in Provence, France.

Hugues, 47, and his wife, Catherine, 44, built their olive oil mill at the foot of the medieval town of Les Baux in Provence just four years ago. They had recently returned from the United States where they had been living for some 15 years as Hugues ran a company and “realized the American dream.”

The couple decided to sell the company and “come back to our roots.” They felt it was a good time to take their two young children, then ages 6 and 8, back to France and to the world of grandparents, relatives and cousins. And, it was also a good time to realize another dream, financed with the profits of their U.S. venture.

The couple owned a grove of olive trees in St. Remy de Provence. Catherine had often returned to France from the States in the summers to work on them.

“I caught the olive virus,” acknowledges her husband. “If you have an olive tree, you will understand. It starts with just one olive tree.”

Their original plan was to buy an old mill and make their own oil.

But first, since olive trees don’t produce regularly each year and they had a limited number of trees, they needed more. They now own 90 acres and some 12,000 trees that produce between 25,000 and 35,000 liters of oil per year.

Then they decided to build an olive mill. They got a permit and purchased state-of-the-art equipment from Italy. “We wanted the newest technology to get the best from the olives,” Jean-Benoit says.

They named their oil “Castelas” after one of the areas where they have trees, some of which are thought to be 400 years old or older. “That’s the beauty of olive trees,” Jean-Benoit says. “You can’t kill them. They will surely outlive you.” If extreme cold kills the branches, the roots survive and go on to produce new branches. Olive trees, he said, are like men: “they’re best at age 50.”

Olive trees bloom in mid-May, bursting forth with a multitude of white, fragrant flowers that last only a week. The withered flower turns into a tiny olive, which grows throughout the summer until harvest time in October or early November. The olives are harvested by hand, using a comb that knocks them into a net.

Making olive oil is simpler than making wine, says Catherine. “With olive oil you’re only extracting the juice from the olive. There’s no transformation, no fermentation. You don’t add anything. You know the same day if you did well or not.”

Jean-Benoit analyzes each of their four varieties of olives (Salonenque, Aglandau, Grossane and Verdale) to determine their maturity. As soon as they are picked, the olives are rushed to the mill where the oil is extracted immediately.

The varieties of olives are crushed separately and the oil is extracted at below 27 degrees Celsius, about 81 degrees Fahrenheit. Using heat to extract the juice might provide more oil, but taste is sacrificed. Jean-Benoit says his method ensures that his oil has a low acidity level (0.3) and peroxide index of less than 7, providing an extra virgin olive oil with the potential for very long conservation. To qualify as “extra virgin,” olive oil must be made from the first pressing of olives and have a free acid count of less than 0.8 percent and a peroxide level below 20.

Jean-Benoit advises buying only extra virgin olive oil, because it is considered to have the best aroma and taste. Other categories have either a higher rate of acidity or are refined oil, made using solvents to extract the oil, which is then distilled, affecting the taste.

In the mill shop, Castelas’ oil costs 20 euros (about $27) for a 75-centiliter bottle (about 25 ounces). It’s a gourmet product ideal for salads, sprinkling on fish or steamed vegetables and cheese.

Catherine is involved in selling and marketing the product. In addition to selling at their shop, the couple sells to stores in France and to distributors in other countries, primarily the United States. Selling is tough, they say, because France is not known for olive oil. Spain is the biggest producer (36 percent of world production), followed by Italy (25 percent). The remainder comes from Greece, Turkey, Tunisia and a few other countries, with France accounting for just 0.5 percent.

Castelas oil was awarded a Medaille d’Or (gold medal) in Paris in 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005. In a competition in Italy, it was recently judged one of the world’s 15 best extra virgin olive oils.

Success, however, has not led the couple to expand.

“We will not exceed the size of the mill,” says Jean-Benoit, who believes spending time to advise customers about their product is just as important to success as what is inside the bottle.

“We want to keep our soul, a way of sharing our passion.”

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