MOST PEOPLE do not know that there are vintages in olives, just as in wine grapes. The olives vary from year to year according to the weather so that they have to be pressed in different ways to get the best oil out of them. tTherefore, when the first batch of new olives is brought in from the harvest, the owner makes various test pressings using different pressures and amounts of olives in each load. When about a dozen test oils have been pressed and are ready to be sampled, the owner invites his friends to the taste accounting, or judging of the new oils.
Nice is still an important center for the hand pressing of the highest quality, cold pressure, virgin green olive oil. These are almost all tiny family establishments with one or two presses, and although the power on the press may be electric or hydraulic, there is no automation, and the continuous control of pressure is by hand.
For the tasting, a long table is set up in the mill alongside the presses, and a huge olivewood bowl of white bean salad with black pepper is provided. Down the center of the table the various oils are lined in small, specially shaped bottles, with tiny pouring spouts. Each judge ladles a portion of the slightly warm white beans onto a plate and then dribbles over the beans a small thread of one of the oils to be judged. The white bean salad is supposed to help them to judge the oils correctly. For this reason, it is among the most famous and universal recipes of the region.
I find this salad, which in Nice is called salade d'haricots blancs au poivre noir, so extraordinarily good that I would be glad to have it, in a small quantity, as the main course for lunch or supper. My recipe is authentic, from the gastronomic clipping book of one of the oil-pressing families, with added touches from the mayor of Nice, Jacqyes Medecin, who is probably the best cook of the region and knows his gastronomic history as well as he knows his politics.
You may use dried white haricot beans and cook them the day before, or you can save time, as in this recipe, by using baby limas, which are pale green, but taste about the same. Be sure to serve them lukewarm. In the center of the dining table have a small, handsome bottle or jug of bright green olive oil and drizzle over each portion of the salad perhaps a teaspoon or two, according to taste.
An interesting idea is to organize an olive oil tasting around the serving of this white bean salad. Get a small quantity of the best olive oils from Greece, Italy, Provence and Spain. Then have a blind tasting and imagine yourself dining in an olive mill in Nice. SALAD OF WHITE BEANS WITH BLACK PEPPER (4 to 6 servings) 2 10-ounce packages frozen lima beans, thawed 1 pound medium yellow onions, thinly sliced 1 medium yellow onion, left whole 4 whole cloves 2 cloves garlic, minced 1 whole bay leaf 1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill, or 1 teaspoon dried 1 teaspoon crumbled dry oregano leaf 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint, or 1 teaspoon dried 1 tablespoon chopped fresh savory, or 1 teaspoon dried 1/2 pound small mushrooms, sliced 8 slices thick-sliced country-style lean bacon, fried crisp, then crumbled 1/2 pound gruyere cheese, cut into medium dice 2 teaspoons whole black peppercorns, coarsely cracked in mortar Coarse crystal sea salt or kosher salt 1/4 cup white wine vinegar 1/3 cup chopped parsley, leaf only Virgin green olive oil or assorted oils
Put the beans in a soup kettle and cover with about 1 inch cold water. Add sliced onions, whole onion studded with cloves, garlic, bay leaf, dill, oregano, mint and savory. Cover; allow to thaw and absorb flavors for about 30 minutes.
With the water still in the pot, head the beans to a gentle simmer and continue until done, about 3 minutes. Drain liquid, discard whole onion with cloves.
In a large wooden salad bowl, place mushrooms, bacon and cheese. Toss gently to mix. Sprinkle over 1 teaspoon of the black pepper and salt to taste. Begin tossing the beans and dribble in the 1/4 cup of vinegar. Sprinkle in parsley.
Serve lukewarm and dribble a teaspoon or two of the best available olive oil over each serving.