Provençe is where my mother was born. So I have a sweet spot for anything that comes from that area, such as the fine quality huile d' olive, or olive oil. For thousands of years the region's ancient trees have given up a green liquid that is rich with taste. Surprisingly,in comparison to Italy and Spain, France's harvest is small. What sets French olive oils apart are the intense but delicious flavors - an experience that remind me of those sunny, fragrant stories told in Marcel Pagnol's lovely film, Jean de Florette.
Jean-Benoit Hugues and his wife Catherine, two purveyors of fine French olive oil, remind me of those characters in that wonderful Provençal tale of drought, hard work and love of terroir. When I first met Jean, it was on a surprising visit to Williams Sonoma, a store that usually only surprises me for their high prices. If it hadn't been for my wife’s urging to join her for a quick impromptu peek as walked by, I would have missed out on meeting Jean, who was giving out samples of his oil. I grabbed a cup and swirled it, then let it trickle down to taste the bouquet. He mentioned that it was rare for him to see an American do that, as most of his customers just were happy to experience it using a fast dunk with the ubiquitous sliced bread. I told him that I was a chef who likes to get the virgin oil to tickle my palate like wine! And it worked, the first sensation a heady dive into the flavors of artichoke and pepper.
Jean turned out to be a friendly and interesting man. Suddenly I found myself enjoying Williams Sonoma in ways I'd never imagined, standing there talking to a food pro who was happy to share stories about his business. While traveling last year in Europe, I wanted to visit him in Castela's, dreaming of an adventurous cycling trip down the Rhone from Lyon to Provençe. Besides visiting him, it would give me the chance to commune with the land of my maternal ancestors. But it didn't happen. Instead I hurt my back riding a bike on treacherous Swiss country route, which laid me out with sciatica. No visit to my mother's country or a visit to Jean-Benoit’s oil orchards.
Fast forward to today. Rather than wait for my next vacation (not till August!) I invited Jean-Benoit to talk to me via the telephone about his wonderful oil. He obliged, making for a fun afternoon talking about his business and life in it. For the future, we made a rain check to actually meet in person, maybe this time depending on the train rather than bicycle. After talking with him by phone, I now look forward to that visit, perhaps ending up in his kitchen cooking up some artichaut barigoule so I can soak up those intoxicating lipids, extra vierge s'il vous plait!