Happy Birthday Nyons Olives, Happy Birthday to You

A view over Nyons, with an olive tree in the immediate foreground and the silver-green leaves of the tops of further olive trees at the bottom of the picture.

A view over Nyons, with olive trees in the foreground.

Why Happy Birthday? After all, I’d be lying if I said I could pin down the date when the first olive trees were planted in Nyons. Nobody’s quite sure – perhaps it was the Greeks who introduced them over 2,000 years ago? If not the Greeks, then the Romans. But one thing’s for certain, 2014 marks several milestones:

Birthday No. 1: 20 years ago Nyons olives and olive oil were the first in France to be given “appellation d’origine contrôlée” status. Like the system used for French wine, the “AOC” recognises the special qualities of Nyons oil (“Unique in All the World”, as the local signs say) and the tanche variety used to make it.

In the olive groves above Nyons. This photo was taken in late October when this tree held a mixture of unripe green olives and some that had already turned purple and black.

October in the olive groves above Nyons. The olives (some still green) are two months away from being harvested.

Nyons olives sold loose in the market.

Prepared Nyons olives being sold in the market.

The olives are picked when black and fully ripe, after they’ve been softened and wrinkled by the first frosts, usually around New Year. The bigger olives are sold for eating; the late harvest helps to remove any bitterness, making them rich and savoury, with soft flesh underneath a firm skin – perfect as an aperitif. The smaller olives are pressed to make an Extra Virgin oil which is noticeably rounder and mellower than many other premium oils with their more peppery bite.

Oil from one of the many independent producers.

Oil from one of the small independent producers. Nyons oil is soft and buttery with a mild grassiness.

Sadly, as in all things, premium means expensive: you can expect to pay around 17€ per litre if you buy Nyons olive oil directly from a grower, but I’ve seen it advertised at 23$ for a bottle one quarter that size (250 ml, roughly 8½ fl.oz) in America. But then it’s an oil to be brought out for special occasions, not used to fry potatoes (although boy would they be good).

The growing of Nyons olives is dominated by small-scale farmers and local residents, many with just a few trees in their garden, most of whom are members the 1,100-member-strong growers’ co-operative, Vignolis, which takes its members’ crop and brines it whole for eating or crushes it for oil. The rest of the harvest is shared between the numerous private producers.

In the co-operative. The olives are kept in these stacked containers...

In the Vignolis co-operative. The olives are kept in these stacked containers…

...while the oil is kept in these spotless stainless steel tanks.

…while the oil is kept in these spotless stainless steel tanks.

There are 230,000 olive trees within the Nyons appellation. That may sound a lot, but the amount of oil made is still a drop in the ocean compared to some other parts of France, never mind Spain, which produces of 40% of the world’s olive oil.

Birthday No. 2: 30 years ago Nyons held its first annual “Alicoque” festival to celebrate the release of the new season’s olive oil.

Dancing in traditional local costumes.

Dancing at the Alicoque in traditional local costumes.

“Alicoque” comes from the name of  the traditional post-harvest supper taken by the pickers and oil mill workers. The festival, which takes place in late January/early February each year,  is a chance to taste the brand new oil poured onto a garlic-rubbed crouton but, almost as importantly, it’s also a chance to parade around the town in costume. Talking of which…

Birthday No. 3: 50 years ago the Confrérie des Chevaliers de l’Olivier (“Brotherhood of the Knights of the Olive Tree”) was formed.

The French love the chance to dress up. These are the Knights of the Olive Tree,

The French love to dress up – the Knights of the Olive Tree

There’s a certain type of French person (or should that be French man?) that loves an opportunity for a bit of dressing-up, but the Brotherhood was created with a more serious purpose in mind:

Nyons is on the climactic limit for commercially growing olives – any further north and they won’t ripen successfully, consistently. The long growing season this gives is part of what makes Nyons olives and oil so special. But being (relatively) far north has its disadvantages – the devastating winter freezes of 1929 and especially 1956 killed around three quarters of  Nyons’ 1 million olive trees and many growers contemplated pulling up those that had survived in order to plant hardier vines or fruit trees, particularly apricots. The Brotherhood brought together growers and helped to protect the local industry while it got back on its feet.

Selling oil on Alicoque day.

Selling oil on Alicoque day.

Obviously the best way to celebrate these anniversaries is by coming to Nyons and buying your olives and olive oil straight from the producer, perhaps taking the opportunity to sit outside a bar, nibble your delicious olives and sip a glass of chilled Côtes-du-Rhône rosé made in the vineyards that surround the town. But if that’s not possible, here are some stockists who may be a little more local:

You can buy Nyons oil and olives in America. Googling “Nyons olive oil” will do the trick, but you could start with Todaro Bros. in NYC – www.todarobros.com – who are currently selling 1 lb of olives for a very reasonable $6.98. From what I’ve seen, most of the oil available in the USA comes from the Vignolis co-operative and you can spot it by the “NYONSOLIVE” label. Prices vary significantly, so shop around. A few places sell Domaine Rocheville’s independently made oil.

It’s harder to track down either the oil or the olives in the UK. Neal’s Yard in Borough Market certainly used to sell the olives. The Ham and Cheese & Company, again at Borough market, but also www.thehamandcheeseco.com, recently mentioned Nyons olives on their Facebook page. You could also try The Fresh Olive Company – www.fresholive.com.

Wherever you are, happy hunting. And Happy Birthday.



Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. Can’t see any mention of wine? Try some of the older blogs, or our photo-filled Facebook page. Can’t see any mention of tours? You need our website – www. RhoneWineTours.com. We even have a winemaker who makes organic olive oil – two for the price of one!





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