Excerpt from Ari’s Top 5 enews
Special limited edition of single-farm French olive oil
Back in the 1980s, in the early years of doing business at the Deli, extra virgin olive oil was still pretty much a secret in the U.S., barely understood even by folks who worked with food for a living. When we opened, we stocked two brands and they were hardly big sellers. Somewhere in the mid-80s I went to Provence where I discovered olive oil is the lingua franca—it’s impossible to imagine good food there without it. As part of the trip, we travelled down to Nice on the Côte d’Azur, where, following Patricia Wells’ classic Food Lover’s Guide to France, we went to find the amazing artisan shop of Alziari. I fell quickly in love—I’m a huge fan of small in size, big in personality, high in quality, food shops that don’t succumb to social pressure to franchise or replicate themselves into creative oblivion. Packed with both exceptional product and personality, the history was evident and everywhere. The tin of the olive oil was a classic early 20th century commercial design (“olives and leaves painted on a background of rich gold stars and against the deep blue of a Provence sky,” says reporter Mort Rosenblum); and the oil was very very good! And, I’m happy to say, it still is.
The Alziari family has been in the oil business since 1868, three years after the end of the American Civil War, started by César Martin, the son of local Niçoise laundry workers. Around the turn of the century, he opened a shop near the family mill, and then, in the 1930s (around the time Emma Goldman came to live nearby), the family set up a second retail space next to Nice’s famous flower market. (Given Emma’s affinity for fine food and fresh flowers both, it’s not hard to imagine her stopping by to shop.) Back in the summer of the year in which we opened the Deli, August of 1982, Patricia Wells wrote in The New York Times, “in Nice, when one talks of oil, one talks of Alziari. Ludovic Alziari is now 72, and since 1878 his family has been pressing what connoisseurs consider the best olive oil in France.” Ludovic passed away in 1996. Mort Rosenblum quoted one colleague as saying, “He was the pope of olive oil, and [Alziari] is the mother church.”
It was only when I met Mort Rosenblum, then an editor and writer for the International Herald Tribune, whose book Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit, had just come out, that we were able to get the Alziari oil to Ann Arbor. Mort and his wife Jeanette lived in a small house in Provence; they gladly made the connection, and we’ve been bringing Alziari oil over ever since. For years the family pressed the olives from their own land solely for their own use; what was sold in the shop came from a series of neighboring farms. A few years back the folks at Alziari began buying up additional olive groves around Nice—as the local landowners age and younger generations aren’t interested in taking over the family olive groves. Their increased land holdings have made it possible for us to get a small amount of what was once eaten only by the family, packed under the name “Cuvée César.” This year we’re especially excited to be able to get a small bit of that oil! One of the Deli’s managing partners, Grace Singleton, says, “It’s tasting delicious! I found it fruity with some hints of ripe black olive flavor and artichoke, it has a silky mouthfeel, and a gentle heat that builds and lingers. It’s a buttery, fruity, oil and it has a ton of flavor.” It’s so light and elegant that I found myself going back to eat it just with some toasted Paesano bread over and over again!
The oil’s lightness makes it a great match for fresh fish or seafood and it would be wonderful on the Nine Herb Salad in this newsletter (read on!). Most famously, it’s ideal for the regional summer specialty, Salade Niçoise. Patricia Wells wrote this back in 1982, and it’s still true nearly 40 years down the road, just as it was true, back in 1868 when César Martin started the family olive oil business: “Salade Niçoise [is a] refreshing, preparation that, when properly constructed, includes all the components of the southern French culinary repertoire: plump, round tomatoes, straw-colored and mildly fruity olive oil, crisp green peppers, tiny, purplish-black olives and pungent salt-cured anchovies.”