Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Castelas: The Amerian Dream Lives in France

Tuesday, March 30, 2010, Aprés-mIdi

Arriving at Castelas, there was Jean-Benoît Hugues in the olive oil mill dressed in a blue suit (having returned from a speaking engagement) with a wrench and black, greasy hands. He and two employees were working on the centrifuge, the heart of the olive oil production process. They weren’t simply working on it. They were dissembling and reassembling entirely. “We must know and maintain this equipment ourselves. We can’t rely on finding a technician during the peak of the harvest,” Jean-Benoît stated emphatically. Not only does Jean-Bientôt’s team know the equipment, they have discovered flaws and improved the system. “It works better now than when we first bought it.”

This attention to detail stems from an earlier career as an engineer in Arizona. After 15 years in the U.S. Jean-Benoît and his wife, Catherine, who has her master’s degree in biochemistry (or something near to that—I avoided that world in school). They returned to their roots in Les Baux en Provence with their French accents in tact to raise a family and produce high quality Extra Virgin olive oil. Jean-Benoît asserts proudly that he and his wife are living the American dream. “Had it not been for our American experience, we would not be living our dream of producing high quality olive oil here in Provence."

Castelas brings new meaning to high quality Extra Virgin olive oil. The bar has been raised. His engineering skills have created a production system that requires no outside water during the process. Water can dilute flavor and freshness. It is common to add tap water during the production process to help extract the oil from the pomace. At Castelas, water comes from the olives only, not an added outside source. The result is a more flavorful, fresher and healthier oil. Castelas Extra Virgin olive has a length on the palate and the shelf, which far exceeds typical olive oils proclaiming to be Extra Virgin. Castelas is the real deal.

With Jean-Benoît, high quality Extra Virgin olive oil begins in the grove, which includes productive trees that are estimated to be 500 years-old. He is a strong proponent of irrigation, which gives the fruit the natural and necessary water required in the production process.

During an impromptu olive oil seminar given to a group of Australian visitors, the Hugues advised folks to not be afraid of bitter and peppery olive oils. These characteristics are signs of quality and will dissipate with cooking and add complexity to your food by drizzling after cooking.

Castelas is worth visiting on any trip to Provence. The estate is located on the foothills below the breathtakingly majestic village of Les Baux.

During our visit, a large rainbow appeared above us. Jean-Benoît quiped with a smile, "It's a sign." Yes—of the of the joys and prosperity of the American dream alive in France.

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