Olivier Baussan, founder of L’Occitane and olive-oil company Oliviers & Co., talks with Travel + Leisure about what to look for when buying olive oil and why a book of poetry can be an indispensable travel companion.
Courtesy Olivier Baussan

What is the best time to be in Provence?

In December, when the olive harvest starts. All the fireplaces are lit, and there are new olive oils and truffles to enjoy. The weather’s chilly, yet the season has an ethereal warmth. I also look forward to the summer’s verbena harvest. My favorite L’Occitane products are made from these marvelously scented flowers. Of course, last year I might have said July is extraordinary because of the lavender harvest. I guess I’m not really faithful to any single perfume.

Where do you go when you want to get away from it all?

In northern Portugal there’s a mountainous region called Trás-os-Montes (“after the hill”). The landscape is still wild: there are protected botanical areas filled with birds (including the famous black stork); olive trees grow the way they do in Haute-Provence; and the farmers go to the markets in horse-drawn carts. It’s like the countryside in rural southern France 30 years ago.

What do you always bring with you?

I usually have my nose in a book of poetry. I love the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, because I can read the same poem several times and deepen my understanding a little more with each reading.

Do you grow olive trees on your own property?

At my home in southern France, we have one very old olive tree. They don’t grow where they don’t want to grow, and my land, which is covered in lavender and oak, just isn’t good for olive trees. But a mile down the road, the land is full of them.

There are farmers who don’t harvest enough olives to justify owning their own mill. Do they still produce olive oil?

There are cooperatives that exist among the smaller producers. Those who don’t have enough money to buy their own mill will get together and purchase one collectively. This co-op enables the small estates to press oil no matter the size of their harvest.

What should you look for when buying top-grade olive oil?

The label should tell you exactly where an oil was produced and who produced it. The oil should be associated with a specific property. On each bottle of extra-virgin olive oil that we sell at Oliviers & Co., we identify the olive variety, the estate, the country of origin, the “best before” date, and the year of harvest. All of this information is important to ensure great quality and taste.

Is the flavor of olive oil really affected by where the olives are grown?

There are many varieties of olives and trees, but as with wine, the landscape and countryside make the biggest difference. Tuscan oil tastes strong and green and can overpower fish or fresh mozzarella. But with a lighter, softer oil–like one from Umbria–if you add a bit of salt, they’re a joy to eat.

Do you have any recommendations for hotels, restaurants, and olive oil mills to visit in the Mediterranean?

Moulin des Ombres (Château de Montfrin, Rte. de Redessan, Montfrin, France; 33-4/66-57-69-36; www.moulindesombres.com). Château Virant (Rte. de Chamas, Lançon-de-Provence, France; 33-4/90-42-44-47; www.chateauvirant.com). La Cravenco (Rte. d’Eyguières, Raphele-les-Arles, France; 33-4/90-96-50-82). Coopérative Oléicole des Mées (Moulin des Penitents, Parc d’Activités, Les Mées, France; 33-4/92-34-07-67).

Oustau de Baumanière (Les Baux-de-Provence, France; 33-4/90-54-33-07; www.oustaudebaumaniere.com; doubles from $320). Hôtel Palmyre (Khalil Mutran St., Baalbek, Lebanon; 961-8/870-011; doubles from $53).

Dominique Bucaille (Blvd. des Tilleuls, Manosque, France; 33-4/92-72-32-28; dinner for two $110).

As an extension of your work, you’re surrounded by food. What’s your favorite sort of meal?

I know many great chefs, of course. And there are always those who are researching olive oil, marrying this olive oil with a dessert or putting that oil in a refined main course. But I prefer the little bistros that reveal very simple fare, a kitchen that makes only a handful of dishes each day, where you arrive and ask “What do you have in the oven today?” or “What are you cooking right now?” A simple meal of salted or fresh cod and fresh vegetables makes me completely happy.

What’s your favorite thing about traveling for Oliviers & Co.?

When I travel for work, I always know that I am going to discover producers and taste their products, but I really love the adventure. A trip to Lebanon or Greece is a revelation of tastes and flavors.