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From a French Village, an Elite Oil Emerges

By Robert V. Camuto
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 24, 2003; Page H09

My journey into the heart of the heart of French olive country began at the Nyons olive and wine cooperative -- the parking lot, to be exact -- with a few dozen mostly older men dressed in green velvet cloaks and Robin Hood caps adorned with olive sprigs.

My companions in ancient attire constituted the chivalrous order known as the Brotherhood of Knights of the Olive Tree, dedicated to spreading the gospel of olives in general and, in particular, Nyons's delicious, melt-in-the-mouth black olives, known as tanches.

Following the procession of the Brotherhood of Knights of the Olive Tree, above, the people of Nyons celebrate the oil it produces. (Robert V. Camuto)

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The gathering marked the knights' 40th annual Olivades festival. As the sun began its drop behind the northern Provence hills, the knights filed in procession through town, led by a minstrels and children in Provencal costume and joined by the "Queen of Nyons," a young local pageant winner bearing a rhinestone crown.

The spectacle stopped traffic as it proceeded through Nyons's central square to the other side of town and an amphitheater on the banks of the Eygues River. There, the grand master of the olive knights led his order's highest ceremony. Five men and two women initiates took the brotherhood's solemn oath, which includes the promise to "defend the olive tree and the material and spiritual riches it brings, and to practice the virtues it represents."

The Olive Way

Most English-language travel guides to Provence simply ignore Nyons. And that is part of its appeal.

Nyons, about 45 miles northeast of Avignon, is a land of villages that rise out of rock on hills covered with vines, apricot trees and olives. Central Nyons comprises a square of animated cafes and a medieval village set on a hillside. The whole town gets taken over Thursdays and Sundays by sprawling regional markets.

Nyons is not the most chic address in Provence. Sophisticated Parisians keep their smart summer homes near the boutiques in Vaison-La-Romaine, about 20 minutes south by car in the Vaucluse.

But what Nyons lacks in designer taste, it makes up for in culture -- specifically, oleiculture (olive culture). No other place in France has so committed its identity to the olive and transformed itself into the spiritual center of the French olive.

Olives are celebrated here year-round, with a feast of new olives in December, a feast of new oil in February, and the Olivades in July.

Nyons is home to the Institute of the World of the Olive Tree, a cultural, scientific and economic center that in addition to conferences and exhibitions offers weekly olive oil tasting seminars to the public.

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