Food & Drink | Nicolas Alziari - Traditional Olive Oil Producer - Nice
So there I was being shown the three old olive grinding basins in Alziari’s charmingly antiquated mill, my nostrils filled with the heavy scent of crushed olives. The basins and the revolving grinding wheels are made from that same shiny beige marble-like sandstone - locally quarried - that we still see in the older curbstones of Nice, Monaco and other towns along the Riviera coast. The stone looks to me to be worn smooth so I ask my guide, Françoise, if this is Ok for grinding. She replies “It is true, it is préferable to ‘ave texture to trap and crush ze olives. This basin ‘as been in use for over 150 years, so we are planning to replace ze basin stones in a couple of decades. But ze grinding wheels we change every 10 years anyway.” Straight away you get a sense of the long timeline and history of this olive business.
It was about 2300 years ago that the Greeks brought olive cultivation to the South of France when they founded the cities of Marseille, Antibes and Nice, and the sunny hillsides of the Riviera have proved to be ideally suited to this fruit (for fruit it is) ever since. Archeological evidence shows that olive oil was used historically for medicine, lamp fuel, soap and skin care as well as in food. In the 19th and 20th centuries olive production and that of lemons and oranges were the economic mainstays of the region, and there were dozens of thriving olive oil mills along this coast of southeast France. Nowadays, with the Mediterranean diet widely held to be one of the healthiest in the world and olive oil one of its principal health-giving elements, there are still 27 functioning olive oil mills in the region of Nice. While most are dotted about in the villages of the hinterland there remains just one in Nice itself: Maison Nicolas Alziari. No one knows when this mill was first established but it has been in the Alziari family since 1868 and, with their long-established shop near the Opéra in Old Nice, Alziari and their renowned olive based products have become an iconic brand of the city of Nice. So it was with great foodie excitement that this week I visited the Alziari olive oil mill for one of their guided tours.
The small olives native to the region of Nice are a type called “Cailletier” and are often to be found in a Salade Niçoise, on top of a Pissaladière and offered as nibbles with an aperitif :
They have a pleasant slightly almondy flavour, but their biggest selling point is the amount of oil they contain: for a litre of oil you need 5-6 Kgs of these Cailletier olives. By contrast you’d need 10 Kgs of Greek Kalamata olives to make 1L, or as much as 35 Kgs of the large green olives from Puglia in Italy to make 1L !
Just as the wine from Nice has its own appellation - AOC Bellet, on the hills to the west of the city - the olives of Nice and surrounding area come under the AOP* Olives de Nice appellation and the resulting oil AOP Huile d’Olive de Nice. These labels come with sets of rules and regulations governing the growing, the harvesting and the processing which guarantee the quality of the resulting products. This appellation area covers the majority of the Alpes-Maritimes, extending from around Grasse in the west down to the coast in Menton, by the Italian border. The olive oil from this appellation has always been very highly regarded by chefs and gastronomes as well as by the proud local people themselves.
[* Appellation d’Origine Protégée]
Olive harvest time is between November and March depending on the weather, and three times a week crates of picked olives are brought to the mill from Alziari’s 6000 olive trees in St Romain de Bellet, on the western hills of Nice - because the olives have to be milled as soon after picking as possible and certainly within three days. The mill has three stone grinding basins each the size of a small jacuzzi, with massive revolving stone grinding wheels weighing 700 Kgs each. All three were originally powered by a water wheel in the adjacent Magnan river, but in the 1930’s this was replaced by an electric motor. The basins take about 150-250 Kgs of olives each, which are tipped in whole, stones and all. For about 3 hours the stone grinding wheels rumble slowly round and turn the fruit into a dark brown oily pulp.
The basins are then filled with cold water. The olive oil and pulp rise to the top which enables it to be scooped out: the oil goes into a stainless steel vat and the fruit pulp is put into large tins or plump woven baskets to be pressed by an ancient cast-iron press that looks like it belongs in a Dickensian printer’s. The remaining olive oil slowly dribbles out… And that goes in the stainless steel vat too. Then it's bottled.
Alziari are responding to growing consumer demand for organic produce: their estates are in their second year of the obligatory three years ‘conversion’ to organic standards in order to obtain the green “Bio” label, which means organic. Nevertheless olive cultivation is a very ecological form of farming: a low carbon footprint and with virtually no waste. Once all the oil has been extracted from the olives the residual pulp is dried and returned to the groves to be spread around the bases of the tree trunks as fertilizer. In addition it attracts the wild boars who come and scour up the soil, thus aerating it. The crushed olive stones are either used like gravel on paths, or - as is the case at Alziari’s mill - they are pressed into ‘cakes’ and used as fuel for the mill’s heating boiler.
Olive oil is often labeled “Extra virgin” and “Première Pression à Froid” or “Cold Pressed” in English.
The “Extra” refers to the level of acidity of the oil: from 0.4% to 0.8% acidity is the acceptable norm.
“Virgin” means only mechanical extraction methods are used; not other more invasive chemical methods.
“Cold Pressed” means literally that; whereas heating the pulp can speed up the extraction process it does take something away from the flavour.
Alziari produce a range of top quality olive based products frequently lauded by chefs, and you will see bottles of their oil adorning the tables of some of the better restaurants in Nice:
The product range:
Cuvée Fleur de Siècles: Olive oil 100% from their own estates - some of the trees centuries old ! - which won a coveted Gold Medal at the prestigious Paris Agricultural Show in 2018. It has a delicate aroma of pine nut, almond and artichoke. Wonderful on a piece of grilled fish, meat or simply on a slice of country bread.
Cuvée César in the gold tin: an occasional bottling also made solely from their own olives; a light fragrant oil with notes of almond and artichoke, best on salads, grilled vegetables or fish.
Two “Grand Crus” that have been the company’s flagship products for decades; both, like the Cuvée César above, in very stylish packaging. These two oils are blends (or assemblages - like for wines) of oils from their own groves and from other selected suppliers.
The Cuvée Prestige in the blue tin has a light fruity aroma with notes of almond. It is perfect on salads and drizzled over grilled fish or meat, or simply on crusty bread; and can be used in cooked dishes, when the almond note is said to become slightly more pronounced.
The Cuvée Pauline in the red tin is a stronger, more peppery version with notes of fresh Provençale herbs. It is delicious on salads and drizzled over grilled fish and meats or simply on crusty bread. But it's stronger flavour can overpower cooked dishes.
Olives to be eaten, preserved in brine and sold in jars.
A range of olive oils infused with natural flavours: truffle, basil, thyme, garlic, mint, lemon, orange, saffron, chili ...and now even vanilla.
A range of condiments: Tapenade (a paste made from olives, capers, anchovy, herbs, garlic). Pistou - a basil-based paste like Pesto but containing no cheese or pine nuts. Caviar d’Aubergines, Anchoïade, and Balsamic vinegar.
All can be purchased both in the mill shop as well as in their quaint little shop at 14 rue Saint François de Paule in Old Nice (just down the road from the Opéra), and online at alziari.com
This charmingly old-fashioned oil mill is not Alziari's main production facility however. They also run a more modern factory in Contes, a village 12 Kms to the northeast of Nice, and here the oil from their own olives as well as other farmers’ olives is obtained by a powerful modern centrifuge machine which can extract the oil from 400 Kgs of olives in just one hour (compared to 100 Kgs taking 3 hrs in the old mill !). But they want to retain the old-fashioned mill at Magnan partly to keep up the tradition, and partly to offer the service to smallholders who come every year with their own crops of olives and mill their own oil, in return for a fee to Alziari of course.
At a time when we are increasingly concerned about the sources of our food it is heartening to see how Nicolas Alziari operate - they are the only olive business in France to have their own estates and production facilities and their own distribution outlets. With their groves located just a few kilometres from the mill it is a reassuringly short supply chain. I will continue enthusiastically to enjoy their delicious oils and other olive products happy in the knowledge of how they are made.
Address: 318, Boulevard de la Madeleine, 06200 Nice
Open Monday to Friday, 9am to 12:30pm and 2pm to 8pm. The last morning visit is at 11:45am and the one from afternoon at 5pm.
Tel : +33 (0)4 93 44 45 12
Email : firstname.lastname@example.org