While driving through the Provencal countryside, you can almost bet that the crops on the side of the road are lavender, grapes, or olive trees. Despite producing less olive oil than countries like Spain, Italy, or Greece, many small communities in the southern French countryside have sustained their livelihood on the profit of olive oil for hundreds of years.
Although olive oil has been produced since as early as 6000 BC in Middle Eastern countries, the Greeks didn’t bring olive trees to the region of Provence until 600 BC. Profit and consumption grew until its peak during the Renaissance. As the western world became more industrialized, less acreage was needed to sustain the same amount of product. However, this meant that the industry as a whole was potentially more fragile. During the winter of 1956, a particularly hard freeze caused one million olive oil trees to die overnight, nearly one-third of the total crops in the region. In an attempt to salvage the industry, France began importing olive trees from Spain, where there was an abundance. Even today, France is still recovering from this destructive natural event, only producing about 1% of the world’s total olive oil. The industry continues to be optimistic though, having doubled its output in the past 30 years. This is due in part to a new community of olive oil farmers, who believe in making olive oil using ancestral methods in order to get the purest quality. Although this method is more costly, it is indeed of better quality and often produces olive oil with a certain terroir, or flavor that is influenced by the environment.
Olive oil is perhaps most commonly used in cooking. The health benefits of olive oil have long been known, and olive oil is one of the staples of the Mediterranean Diet. In addition, olive oil is also used in many beauty products and religious ceremonies. Notably, Olivier Baussan, the founder of the L’Occitane en Provence cosmetics line, uses olive oil from Provence in almost all of his products. For religious purposes, olive oil is still used often by sects of Christianity such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and Eastern Orthodox Christians and in Judaism for purposes of anointing or lighting lamps.
Because such a small percentage of olive oil exports are produced in Provence, it is often not available outside of the region. For this reason, olive oil makes a great souvenir or gift for your Francophile back home!