Fruite Noir – The Art and Science of a Traditional Provencal Olive Oil
By Eliza Ward

Coufi is the word that growers in the Provence region of France use to talk about the tradition of preserving or aging olives before they are pressed into olive oil. Unlike modern Extra virgin olive oils, where the olives are pressed within hours of picking, coufi olives are stored in a warm place for 1-5 days before pressing, allowing them to “ferment” first.

This coufi method was the tradition in many parts of France, mostly before the advent of the continuous olive oil press. But what used to be the standard is now very hard to find – and for good reason. Originally, this method of aging the olives before pressing was just as likely born out of necessity, than out of preference. It often took families many days to harvest enough olives to warrant a trip to the communal press, so olives would accumulate in big piles. While the outside olives would oxidize and go rancid, the olives at the center of the pile, because of the absence of oxygen, would go through anaerobic fermentation, almost like an olive wine. Although the reasons to coufi the olives before pressing are unclear, the resulting olive oil, called Fruite Noir, became tradition in Provence, and many of the classic local dishes were developed with this fruite noir olive oil in mind.

Fruite vert, or "green fruit", olive oil production methods are in deep contrast to the traditional fruite noir methods. Today, with the advent of new pressing and storing technologies, the production of fruite vert olive oil is now almost ubiquitous the world over. In fact, as with all Extra Virgin olive oils, although still pressed slowly and mechanically, the olives are often picked earlier in the season while they still contain some greenness and peppery compounds, and then are pressed the same day. The oil is separated using centrifuge technology, and then stored in oxygen-free stainless steel containers in a temperature controlled environment. All this modern equipment helps ensure the integrity of the olive juice through all stages of the picking and pressing and storing process, and helps to maintain the oil at its optimum “freshness” and flavor until bottling.

In the past, the quality of fruite noir oils was often highly variable. In fact, fruite noir olive oil often contained off flavors, such as rancid or musty flavors, which were not highly desirable, especially outside of Provence. In fact, many people did not care for those old-school noir flavors, as the fruite noir of old was sometimes down-right putrid. However, sometimes the flavor was absolutely exquisite. It was those exquisite flavors that Jean-Benoit Hugues of Domaine du Castelas was determined to re-produce with his Castelas Red Label Fruite Noir Olive Oil.

Jean-Benoit spent some time thinking about how to extract those exquisite flavors out of his olives, while minimizing those less desirable, off flavors that many did not care for. Jean-Benoit and his wife, Catherine, own 45 hectores of olive trees in the Appellation, all of which are cultivated organically. About half of the trees are young, planted within the last 15 years, but the rest are from the late 1700’s. All his trees are of classic Provencal varietals – which is why his olive oil has garnered the A.O.P designation. Now, every year starting a few years ago, Jean-Benoit sets aside a portion of his harvest to make into Fruite Noir olive oil. The result is a highly fruity, almost black olive tapenade flavored olive oil, with none of the pepperiness or bitterness you would find in the high quality fruite vert olive oils of today.

Although low in the healthy polyphenols that you find in Extra Virgin olive oils of today, the Fuite Noir’s earthly flavor definitely has its place in the kitchen. Because of the fermentation process, it does not qualify for the “extra virgin” designation; it does conform in every other way, except taste, to the Extra Virgin standards. Best used as a raw condiment and flavoring, Castelas' Fruite Noir Olive Oil is perfect drizzled over an anchovy pizza, as a base for vinaigrette, or over baked potatoes or mashed root vegetables instead of butter. For a region that traditionally cooks with butter and not olive oil, Jean and Catherine just might be headed back to the future with Castelas Red Label Fruite Noir Olive Oil.

Keywords: Castelas, Domaine, Fruite Noir, Extra Virgin, Extra Virginity, Tom Muller, Olive Oil, Fruite Vert, The Art of Eating, Magazine