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The New York Times, December 19, 1897, p. 24:


An Old French Mill
Where Primitive Methods of Manufacture Still Prevail.
Processes Followed in Getting the Oil from the Fruit
as Practiced by the Provencals--
A Curious Little Town of Southern France.

    VELAUX, France, Dec. 1.-- About the time that our friend Columbus was getting ideas into his head of another continent across the great water, aome one established a mill at this place for the extraction of oil from olives. In course of time that mill with all its original machinery and appurtenances, as well as another mill at Tortosa, in Spain, became the property of Mr. J. E. Blanc, who is, in the language of this part of the world, a "fabricant negoclant d'Huile d'Olive," or, as we should put it, a manufacturer of and dealer in olive oil.
    Mr. Blanc is either Mister or Monsieur, as you like, as he has spent nearly twenty of the happiest years of his life in New York and other parts of America, and keeps an office at 43 Broad Street. When he learned that Mr. Pressly, the United States Consul at Marseilles, and I were desirous of seeing an olive oil mill in operation, he kindly invited us to come out here with him. Hence the dating of this letter from a little Provencal town that an American traveler would otherwise have been very unlikely to stumble upon.

    It is not as easy for an American to gain admission to an olive oil mill as might be imagined. The manufacturers in general have an idea that Americans want to learn the secrets of the trade, though it is one of the simplest processes in the world; and that having learned them we will set out olive groves all along the Hudson and the Mississippi and some of our other creeks, and steal away their business.
    Mr. Blanc, however, being more than half American, is a man of advanced ideas, and has no hesitation about letting his friends see his oil made and sit down with him and help eat it after it has dripped from the press.

A Quaint Bit of Provence.

    Velaux is not one of the places that you find marked upon a map of the world with a large black dot. But on a map of this department of France, which is called Rouches-du-Rhone, or Mouths of the Rhone, it can be found five or six miles back from the shore of the Mediterranean, on a branch of the P.-L.-M. Railway that cuts across from Rognac to Aix.
    About twenty-five miles west of Marseilles is a large bay with a very narrow entrance, an arm of the Mediterranean which the French Government is talking of utilizing for navy yards and naval repair station; and on the north shore of that bay is Rognac. From Rognac the branch train runs inland and soon enters the a large well-tilled valley, on the north side of which is a high hill crowned by a village and the remains of a castle, both of which look old enough to have been built by the Romans; and that is Velaux.

    The train runs through the valley, and on alighting we had a mile to walk up hill, over a beautifully hard and smooth macadamized road, between stone walls that are still in good repair, though evidently as old in many cases as the crumbling castle. And this is Provence.
    The old folks call it so still and cling to their own languaged, though other Frenchmen say is is only a dialect, and Government has taken away even the name and divided the old territory into departments. The old inhabitants, however, do not like this change; and not only do they still call themselves Provencals, but they dote upon one or two Provencal poets, who print their works in Provencal on one page and in French on the opposite; and they would see nothing either tempting or nourishing ina meal that was not prepared according to the rules of the Provencal notebook.
    I have learned in a few days to hold a very high opinion of these old Provencal people. They are kind, amiable, obliging, industrious, religious; and they cook like angels.

Farms Without Houses.

    We had hardly taken 100 steps in the big valley before I saw that there was something strange about it, but is was some time before I could make out what it was. Here were the familiar fields, just as we have them at home, some newly plowed, some in grass, many covered with olive and almond trees. Walls between the fields, some shade trees, good roads--it might have been a fertile valley America by shutting one eye to the ancient town on the hilltop, for all but the one indefinable thing.
    And presently I discovered what it was--there were no houses among the farms. Here from my window on the hilltop I can count you every house in this valley that runs ten miles in one direction and two or three miles in the other. There is the station, with a little inn beside it, both modern. Then comes a great stone affair, with towers, that looks like an old castle, but is a winemaking concern. Then there is a small house at the turn of the road, unoccupied, and just at the foot of the hill are two or three comparatively modern dwellings, one of which is Mr. Blanc's summer residence. But those are all; here are 100 farms in sight and not a single farmhouse, and it is the want of them that gives the landscape its unfamiliar look.
    "That is the survival of ancient customs," Mr. Blanc explains, when I ask about it. "In old times, the provinces were continually at war, and a farmer who lived in a detached farmhouse would have been an easy prey to the enemy. For their own protection and the safety of their stock they built their houses in a group, and so the villages were formed. They had further to go to work, to be sure, but in case of attack they had a better chance for defense. Now that there is no such danger the custom still survives, and throughout the south of France you always find the farmers living in the neighboring village."

    The wine place with the towers we could admire only from the outside, as the olives and the breakfast were waiting. It was evidently built in such shape that it could be defended, but in more recent times a large residence has been added at one side. Across the road were large vineyards; and in the vintage season, I am told, you can go to the mill with a cask and buy the grape juice fresh from the press for 5 cents a quart. There need be no question about the purity, for you can stand there and see the grapes put in and catch the juice as it runs out. Later on, when the juice has turned into wine, it sells for 8 or 10 cents a quart. The common retail price of this ordinary table wine in Paris or Marseilles is 12 or 15 cents a quart.

In the Olive Mill.

    When the top of the hill was reached the oil mill was one of the first buildings, just past the old church with a Virgin Mary on the front wall inclosed with a wire netting, presumably so that the boys cannot throw stones at her and break her. The basement of the mill, in which is the machinery, is on a level with the ground, with the warehouse above, and a dwelling adjoining. We were taken through the front door up a tile-paved stairway, first into the office and thence into one of the warerooms where olives and almonds are stored. Everything was of stone, as old and solid as one of the castles on the Rhine.
    The busy New Yorkers who go to 43 Broad Street to buy this oil have little idea, I imagine, of the romantic place from which it comes. In this dark wareroom have been stored olives and almonds certainly for three centuries, perhaps for four. The floor is of tiles, the beams like trunks of great oak trees, the stone walls thick enough to stand an old-fashioned bombardment. Best of all, the machinery is exactly what has been in use here from the beginning, with the exception, I believe, of one iron screw press, which has a modern look. Making olive oil is precisely the same process now as it was in the earliest Biblical days.

    Here in this wareroom are tons of almonds in sacks and tons of olives lying loose upon the clean floor in heaps. Above is another wareroom of the same size, also packed full. The olives come not only from the plantations belonging to the mill, but also from neighboring planters. When I pick up one of the olives and bite it I find that it is hard and extremely bitter--as unpleasant to the taste as a green persimmon. Then by asking questions I learn two things about olives: first, that those we buy in bottles and eat raw are treated with charcoal to destroy the acrid taste, and secondly, that the olive in its ripe state is not green, but purple like a plum. The olives of our American acquaintance are always green because they are picked before they ripen.
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Crushing the Fruit.

    Here in an adjoining room is a big square wooden hopper standing on the floor; and this, as we are to learn in a few minutes, is the "feeder" for the mill below. It is kept constantly full of olives, and when the valve is opened they run through into the crusher. And having seen this first stage, we are taken down into the mill.
    The working part is, as I have said, on a level with the ground, but in the latter part of the day it is as dark as a cellar, having only one or two small windows, and artificial lights are used. In the two big stationary lamps hanging from the ceiling kerosene oil is burned; but in the small movable lamps, which are shaped much like the old Roman lamps, only olive oil is used. This is a measure of safety. If a kerosene lamp should accidentally be dropped into one of the oil tanks it would set it on fire, but drop an olive oil lamp and the flame is immediately extinguished.

    The most conspicuous object in the mill is the grinder, or crusher. If you have ever seen an old-fashioned snuff mill you know exactly what this looks like. It is a circle of stone about fifteen feet in diameter, raised perhaps two feet from the floor, with an outer rim several inches higher than the bed. In the centre is an upright wooden beam revolving on pivots, to which are fastened two lateral arms that swing out several feet beyond the circle. Two heavy stone rollers are attached to these laterals--rollers about thirty inches high and eight inches thick--in such a way that when a horse is harnessed to the end of each pole and they walk around the outside of the circle on a straw-strewn track the stones travel around the bed, near the rim, crushing whatever is beneath them.

    Now we are ready to make some oil. The Superintendent takes hold of the spout that leads from the hopper above, opens a valve, and walks slowly around the circle with it. The olives run down from the hopper, and make a neat little circle on the bed, very even and symmetrical. Twice the man goes around, and when he is done there is a circle of olives six inches wide and about four inches high, close to the rim, just where the stone rollers will strike it to the best advantage.
    Off go the horses, with a bandage over their eyes to keep them from growing dizzy, round and round the ring, like circus horses. Away go the stone rollers over the olives, crushing them, pits and all, into a greenish oily paste. It takes ten or fifteen minutes of grinding to reduce the olives to the proper consistency, and then the workmen take up the paste with wooden shovels and load it into a truck, which is wheeled to the front of the first press.

Getting the "Virgin Oil."

    Now the mats come into play. They are made of straw, round, about two feet across, and look very much like thin door mats, except that there is an upper part with a big hole in the centre, which makes of each mat a sort of flat straw bag. Two men pack the paste into the edges of these mats between the upper and the lower parts, and a third man takes them as they are filled and stands them in a straight pillar, one on top of the other, under the first press. There may be twenty, thirty, fifty mats under the press at a time, according to circumstances.
    The big wooden screw is turned till the top plate comes down upon the heap of mats, and immediately the oil begins to flow. It is hard to imagine those little tough berries having so much oil in them. It runs down the edges of the mats in tiny streams before any pressure is applied, down through a nozzle in the base into a stone tank sunk in the floor. A hearty young fellow inserts a small lever in the top of the screw and turns it, with one hand at first, then with both hands, till it tightens so that he can turn no more, and the oil flows faster. Then a big lever is inserted, a pole as heavy as the mast of a sloop, and two young fellows take hold of it. At first it goes easily enough, but as the screw tightens they have to throw their weight upon it and strain. At length they can turn no more, and the lever is taken out. The oil is still flowing; and thus the pressure is left on for ten or fifteen minutes, till the oily stream ceases.
    This is what is called "first pressure" oil--the very best oil the olives can give--and this oil of Provence, they tell me, is the best that is made.

Oil for the Commoners.

    Now begins the next process. The screw is loosened and the well-flattened mats are taken out and piled afresh under the iron screw, which is connected with the crushing mill by cogs in such a way that as the horses make their rounds the screw is tightened. This gives heavier pressure than the wooden screw; but the product is "second pressure" oil, and not as good as the first.
    On the other side of the room is a brick furnace with a big kettle of boiling water on top. Some of this water is carried over and thrown on the mats, a dipperful over each mat as it is laid on, to facilitate the flow of oil. Oil and water run down together into a separate tank, where the oil of course rises to the surface and is easily skimmed off. When the screw's pressure reaches a certain point--the point at which the horses have as much as they can do to move--a weight falls and the screw is disconnected from the cogs.

    So far as the actual making of oil is concerned, that is the whole process. But this oil is not yet ready for the market.
    Before we leave the wooden-screw press you will please look toward the top of the screw, where it is braced against one of the great beams, and notice how this pressure, continuing for centuries, has raised the beam several inches out of place, so that wedges are required to fill the gap.
    This oil, as it comes from the press, is not as clear as the oil we buy in bottles. When a tank becomes full the oil is dipped out and poured into huge stone jars, to go through a process of filtering it through raw cotton. After the filtering it is poured into large square stone tanks in another room--tanks 6 feet long and 4 feet high, cut in one piece from solid blocks that have been used for this purpose for centuries. Beyond the wooden covers to keep dust out of these tanks there is no effort to exclude the air.

    You have read, no doubt, of the great oil jars in which Ali Baba's forty thieves concealed themselves, and perhaps winked to yourself at the author's exaggeration of their size. But I am prepared to certify to the truth of that part of the story. Here are rows of earthen jars taller than a well-grown boy, in any one of which a full-grown man could with a little crouching conceal himself with ease. And from that large size they descend to such little jars as are used in our kitchens.

    After the mats filled with pulp have gone through both presses, the stuff is emptied out like tan bark. It is that that we walk upon, feeling soft and warm to the feet. And it is not wasted. When a sufficient quantity has collected it is sent off to some mill in the city, where the remainder of the oil is extracted, to be used for lubricating or burning.

A Breakfast a la Provencal.

    Here on the breakfast table is a bottle of oil fresh from the press, and I need hardly say that better oil never pandered to hearty appetite. Those oil-wise people who tell you that olive oil is not palatable when entirely fresh, that it has a hardness which must disappear with age, are no longer worthy of credence. This oil was in the olives twelve hours ago, but if you can buy anything like it in New York you are fortunate.
    There are olives, too, in other forms. These raw ones, lately from the trees, have gone through the charcoal process, but they do not taste in the least like the olives in labeled bottles. Of course, they are better. There is a taste of that fragrant bush we call spicewood, and they are crisp and tender.
    I need only say of the remainder of the breakfast that if you ever happen to be in Provence of a morning, and one of the motherly Provence housewives offers to set before you a fowl cooked la Provence, which means roasted in oil and served with fresh olives, you will miss a treat of a lifetime if you decline it. The fowls, like the olives and almonds and other things, were freshly picked on the mill plantation; and of the Provencal wine I know better where it went than where it came from.

    Velaux is fully as curious a little place as it looks from a distance. Not far from the mill is the place publique, or public square, with an inn on one side and a few shops gathered around it--the butcher's, the baker's and the haberdasher's. Provencal rural wants are not many beyond those that can be supplied from the fields.
    But it contains nothing as interesting, to my mind, as the ancient olive oil mill. And in this description of the mill and its processes I can assure you at least of the correctness of the facts: for here is a step upon the tiled stair; here is Mr. Blanc himself come to see what I am doing in his office; as I write this last page he reads what I have written and pronounces it all true to nature.
    But he is not going to escape as easily as he thinks! Having given me one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had in Europe, he has to tell me next all about the olive trees and their culture.

The above is the 31st in a series of over 40 New York Times articles by reporter William Drysdale describing his European tour in 1897 and 1898. The 2nd article in the series can currently be read on the London News page, the 7th article from the series on the England News page, and the 29th and 30th articles from the series on the Paris News page.

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