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L'Orangerie Sells l'Oil

One West Hollywood restaurant is ultra-hands-on with the product it sells.

April 18, 2001|ELLEN ALPERSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The words "L'Orangerie" and "take-out" rarely get used in the same sentence, but this time of year cognoscenti look forward to setting their home tables with one of the venerable French restaurant's singular creations. Winter and early spring is olive oil season, and for the last 10 years this West Hollywood institution has sold its own oil, at the expected breathtaking price--$48 a bottle.

Many California restaurants sell their own olive oil, and a few manufacture it as well, but L'Orangerie is unusual in controlling the operation from the ground up. Proprietors Gerard and Virginie Ferry cultivate 1,200 olive trees on their groves in the south of France near Cannes. Gerard directs the production--the harvest, the milling, the bottling--and ensures prompt shipment of an average of 2,000 bottles per year, because olive oil is not like wine. "The fresher it is," he says, "the better it is."

Like wine, each year's crop varies in flavor and abundance. Wet weather reduced the 2001 yield to about 1,700 bottles, 75% of which will be used at the restaurant. The remainder is promoted only on L'Orangerie's menu and sold only at the restaurant. Even at its lofty price, Ferry says, "We break even."

Running an olive farm is expensive--labor intensive and subject, like all things agricultural, to the vagaries of nature. At first, they knew nothing about farming; they had bought the property for a home. But for the Ferrys, farming olives and making oil wasn't about business. In the best French tradition, it was about beauty.

"An olive grove is very beautiful," Ferry says. "It's endless what you can say about olive trees. It's a beautiful property, and it just makes sense to use the olive oil for the restaurant and sell what we don't use."

That use, he advises, should be as simple as possible. Don't cook with it and don't marry it to--don't even let it flirt with--vinegar. "Use it natural," he says, "on a little olive pasta with fresh thyme."

In recent years, L'Orangerie olive oil has scored high marks at the Concours General Agricole, the premier national agricultural festival in Paris, earning a gold medal in 1998 and a bronze last year. Such accolades acknowledge high quality, but Ferry says he would like the olive oil industry to be as vigilant in certifying provenance and process as the wine industry. It's getting there. In the last few years the national ministry of agriculture has begun to designate worthy olive oils with an appellation d'origine controlee, just like the appellation on wine. He decries the way some olive oil merchants mislead consumers about, for example among other things, the origin of their olives. An AOC requires adherence to strict conditions about the character of the region and the production of the product.

This year L'Orangerie olive oil has been granted an AOC, reflecting, among other things, that its oil is made at least 90% from olives grown in the region.

Whatever L'Orangerie's formal appellation, most people just call it delicious.

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