There are some things that are found only in France: the Tour de France bicycle race each summer, the Meilleure Baguette de Paris (Best Baguette in Paris) contest every March, fairytale châteaux by the hundreds, les villages perchés (hilltop villages) of Provence, transportation strikes when people need the Métro and trains most—i.e., at vacation time, le muguet (lilies of the valley) to celebrate May 1, over 400 varieties of fromage (cheese). The list could go on and on. The point is that while many of France’s riches are exportable, there are many that are not.

One of my favorite French treats does not often make it beyond its point of origin in the south of France. Part of the reason is its seasonality and the fact that it does not conserve well. This humble product is the olives cassées (cracked green olives) from la Vallée des Baux de Provence.

Olives cassees

What are les olives cassées? They are the salonenque variety of olive that is very typical of the Les Baux valley. It is picked in late September or early October. (Olives destined to make the exquisite French olive oil are not harvested until late November or the beginning of December.) The early olives are cracked with a hammer to release their bitterness and then treated in a salt brine flavored with fenouil sauvage (wild fennel) and occasionally other herbs.

It might sound strange to wax poetic about a simple olive dish but once you have tasted the cracked olives from Les Baux, you will know what I mean. They have a nutty yet fruity olive flavor that is quite different from regular cured olives. In short, it is like tasting the fragrant hills of southern France. At previous French Affaires gourmet events where we have tried these delectable olives, those who don’t normally like any type of olive found them to be outstanding.

During what I call the ‘cracked olive season’ from roughly September to January, many southern French restaurants will serve the olives with your apéritif. You also can find them already prepared at local outdoor markets or occasionally in sealed jars in gourmet food shops. When I want to take the real thing to the U.S.–and successfully pass the customs inspectors, I look for jars of olives cassées made by Raymond Gonfond near Maussane-les-Alpilles. They prepare the cracked olives according to artisanal methods using the best olives from the region.

And if you want to make your own olives cassées, you can find the uncured salonenque olives at local markets. I noticed several vendors in October selling the bright green fruit. Note to self: Do not eat the uncured olives raw. They are mind-numbingly bitter!

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Whether you purchase the olives ready-made or make your own in France, be sure to use a wooden or plastic spoon when transporting them to a serving dish. Contact with metal will cause the salt brine to turn an unattractive brown. You will see olive vendors at open-air markets always stick to wood or plastic when dishing up their wares.

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The next time you are in the south of France during the fall or early winter, look for this unique Provençal treat—and toast one of the many wonders of France.

French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

Our French Affaires Weekly web postings are now in blog format–that is to say, we post and you can respond. Feel free to comment on that week’s topic, share your experiences, ask questions…In short, we invite you to be an active part of the French Affaires community and enjoy France from wherever you are based. Bienvenue (welcome)!