Updated: May 20
Olive oil is like coffee, tea and flour, when you taste the best, nothing compares. In this country Elizabeth David was the first to extol its virtues in the 1950s. She simply regarded it as essential to good eating. The liquid sunshine of the Mediterranean has been the mainstay of trade across nations for centuries. Not only used in lamps to light the darkness, this most humble element was the basis for many of the most precious unguents of ancient history, from the healing of soldiers' wounds to assuaging the wrath of angry gods.
Today olive oil has moved from basic subsistence to bottled luxury on our tables, we have become accustomed to buying the extra virgin brands as a matter of course. But when you have tasted the pure, artisanal product, fresh from the press there is no turning back. And it’s rare to find it so perfectly informing French cooking than in Provence. In the most unlikely corner of Vieux Nice at Oliviera, Nadim Beyrouti and his family combine a passion for the oils of the region with the simplest ingredients. This ardent desire to fuse the aromas and flavours of the oils with fresh garden products results in matchless combinations.
Oliviera is hard to find but a search through the city’s old town warren of alleyways as the hot afternoon sun beats down on the Cote d’Azur is worth the trouble. Like the restaurant this is cooking that is hard to find today in France. The menu harks back to the idealised culinary tradition Elizabeth David made so famous in her book French Provincial Cooking. It is good food, simply cooked, dressed just enough for the flavours of each ingredient to emerge on a plate but uncluttered by virtuosic displays or fussy arrangements.
The dishes from the small menu are cooked on a tiny stove at the back of the shop where produce is piled in every corner. Beyrouti spins around the tables entrancing his guests with the temptations of new flavours, each one a surprise, while his daughter quietly labours over the plates. Peas, beans, aubergines and avocados enhanced by the magic of a different oil from the region. These dishes are worth travelling for. From the Brebis de José to the Tartare Méditerranée each is brought to life with distinctive oils from the intense yellow banana of the Bouteillan to the heavy mown grass of the Grossane. The dish that stands out as the perfect early summer lunch is the Fleur de Legumes. These are courgette flowers plucked before the vegetable is more than a milky green finger, stuffed with tiny cubes of vegetables mixed with lemon and herbs. Eaten with bread and oil and washed down by a glass of Coteaux d’Aix, you could better the experience. You won’t find any soaps or faience jugs here, only simple litre bottles of oil from the drum. Forget the wine, take this stuff home and each time you open the bottle it will recall the pleasures of escape to sustain you throughout the winter months. http://www.oliviera.com