Pssst, this just in: Adrienne Clarkson and John Ralston Saul are farmers. Yes, famous for their support of small-scale, artisan food producers, the couple have joined their ranks by bringing their own product to market. Sublime Olive Oil, a grassy, cold-pressed, single-estate oil that sparkles in the light, is produced on their property in Provence. And the regal pair has not farmed out the work, as the Prince of Wales Duchy brand of organic foods does, but instead taken a hands-on, slow process over a decade, to rehabilitate two neglected olive groves with the aid of friends, neighbours and family. “We wanted to produce an olive oil that is as natural as possible,” says Saul. “I’m a great believer that food is about agriculture.”
While the former governor general works the groves too, especially at harvest time, Sublime is primarily Saul’s project. The award-winning essayist and long-time environmentalist practises in the field what he preaches at the podium. “We don’t irrigate. I’m totally against it,” he says. They don’t spray, except for minimal use of a copper mixture, traditionally considered organic.
They add only one other thing: certified organic fertilizer. Saul reports that the fertilizer will be replaced this year with horse manure, which is more natural. “And local!” he adds with a laugh.
Mostly, the 325 trees have been brought back into production by pruning. “If you just prune you can deal with disease. It works, and I think the trees are happier,” he says. The olives are picked by hand—and quickly, so as to retain the full flavour of the fruit. The harvest is a communal activity, a ritual where pickers are given one litre of oil in exchange for their labours. “It takes you back to the idea that gathering fruit is a cultural event,” comments Saul. The pressing is done traditionally with a stone press.
The Olive Pit, a small Toronto shop specializing in organic and small-scale producers, is the exclusive retailer of the Sublime 2009-10 cuvée ($45 for a half-litre), which will launch there later this month. Co-owner Allison Johnston says although she carries other fine oils from that region of Les Baux in Provence, none has the same allure. “John and Adrienne, they are so hands-on, so passionate.” Each year the oil’s characteristics will change with harvest and climate conditions. This year she finds notes of “artichoke, a green-nosey quality and a rich and edgy finish.”
Toronto restaurateur Roberto Martella of Grano is a friend of the couple’s, and former spokesperson for the International Olive Oil Council. “When I discovered John was making olive oil, I thought, ‘What a wonderful symbol,’ ” he says. “A celebrant of Canada, he is an internationalist at the same time. Sometimes we almost trip over ourselves in wanting to be too local. Olive oil is a product that cannot be duplicated in Canada. Also, the fact that it’s French fits. It’s a very elegant product and they are very elegant people.”
Olive oil, like wine, has a long tradition of noble roots, whether in the chateaus of France or estates in Italy, Spain and the Middle East. Today’s royalty, celebrities, are in on the game, too: Jamie Oliver, Francis Ford Coppola and others. Even Philip Starck is part of the draw, for his bottle design for the LA Organic label. There’s something quintessentially Canadian about Sublime’s modesty: the only identification is the initials “ACJRS” on the label. Johnston says when customers hear about the origins of the oil, “it’s a surprise.”
Sublime remains under the radar, yet to be tasted by the likes of Angelo Sarafino, a Toronto-based importer whose family has produced olive oil for generations in Italy. As a certified taster—a sort of sommelier of oils—he says French oils are often known for their “no-no’s”: bottling in clear glass (which hastens oxidization), leaving fruit to mature before picking (which delivers more yield and lower quality). But Les Baux is known for exceptional creations, like Castela S., an oil with what he calls “delicate green hues and vegetal tones like lettuce, celery, artichoke.”
Sublime is unfiltered. “Don’t filter,” commands Saul. “If it’s clear, it means it’s been industrially treated. You’ve lost a good part of the taste, vitamins and goodness. This oil is totally non-industrial—and fun to produce.” So how is Saul’s first experience at being a farmer? “I always wanted to be one,” he says. “I think all Canadians come from farming backgrounds.” As for how to enjoy Sublime, this is what he proposes: “An olive oil of this quality, you really don’t need to do anything. Put it and a bit of salt in a salad, no vinegar. Oh, and use a lot of it. It’s good for you.”