Olive And Kicking

Olivier Baussan has always loved olive oil. He is so enamored of it, in fact, that three years ago he launched a boutique entirely dedicated to it. Apparently, the oil has other admirers, too.

From one store in Paris in 1998, Baussan's Oliviers&CO. (or O&CO. as the company is known for short) will number 40 before the end of the year, with locations in France, England, Belgium, the United States, Australia and Japan. O&CO. added its first Boston boutique and third Manhattan store to the chain this summer; a fifth U.S. store will open in San Francisco in November.

The boutiques sell related products such as olive-oil-based soaps and crackers, stainless-steel oil decanters and olive-leaf-design dish towels. Yet, if it still sounds like a narrow specialty for a retailer, consider this: Not all olive oil is created equal. What O&CO. offers in its distinctive silver and green cans and attractive bottles is not the mass-produced stuff found in supermarkets, but high-end, limited-edition oils that Baussan and his experts choose each year. "We find producers, and we work with them," explains Baussan. "Suppose a producer has a yield of 4,000 to 5,000 liters. O&CO. can take half that amount. Thanks to the number of stores we have, we encourage the exceptional."

A passion for olive oil seems to have come naturally to Baussan. A genial, professorial-looking 49-year-old Frenchman--whose first name, Olivier, happens to mean olive tree in French--Baussan grew up in Provence, the bucolic southeastern corner of France that has long inspired writers and painters. As a student of literature and poetry, he was influenced, he says, by Thoreau. "I was very egologiste," he says. "I wanted to return to nature. To make a living with plants was very important to me."

And that's exactly what he wound up doing, proving along the way that it is possible to have the heart of an idealist and the head of an entrepreneur. In 1976, at the age of 23, Baussan began experimenting with selling lavender extract at open-air markets. He wanted to create natural beauty and bath products made from plants and essentials oils. With $3,000 from his family, he eventually started a company called L'Occitane.

His timing couldn't have been better--consumer interest in natural products was about to take off. (The Body Shop, a British chain specializing in natural toiletry items, was started six months later, Baussan notes.) Today, 25 years after its founding, L'Occitane has grown to 300 shops worldwide.

In 1992, Baussan decided that the business aspects of L'Occitane no longer interested him. Retaining only the role of creative director, he stepped down as head of the company. And his affair with olives was about to begin.

The olive tree, one of the oldest but, in his view, the most underappreciated cultural symbol of the Mediterranean, began to intrigue him. He commissioned 20 photographers to take pictures of these trees throughout the Mediterranean. He also asked them to send him samples of what they found. "The result ... was a revelation," he recalls in "Olive Oil: A Gourmet Guide," a handsome reference-photo-recipe book. "I received bottles of dull, pale greens and sun-bright yellows, of opalescent jades, emerald greens and pale yellows, with scents of almond, artichoke, pear and tomato, and flavors which could be sweet, hot or spicy."

Inspired, he enlisted the support of chefs and encouraged them to experiment with recipes that used olive oils in creative new ways. In 1996, he launched the Oliviers&CO. label with a sampler of eight varieties. By 1998, when the first O&CO. boutique opened, the label offered 24 different olive oils from around the Mediterranean.

There are, Baussan points out, many parallels with wine. Like grapes, olives come in many different varieties and are affected by the soil, the sun and the environment. "To obtain high-caliber olive oil," says Baussan, "you need to treat it as if you were producing a fabulous wine. The way you handle the olives from the moment you pick them, how you press them, whether you use modern equipment, clean vats--all that counts."

Like good wine, good olive oil does not come cheap. O&CO. oils are all extra virgin-top-grade, rich in flavor and aroma and low in acidity. It takes about 11 pounds of olives to make a quart of industrially produced olive oil. A 16.8-fluid-ounce can of O&CO.'s harvest 2000/2001, which is currently in his stores, ranges in price from $20 for a Spanish olive oil from Catalonia to $34 for a French offering from Vallee des Baux. Other selections come from the Peloponnese in Greece, Italy's Tuscany and Sicily, Istria in Croatia, Israel's Galilee and--a non-Mediterranean first--Uruguay.

Baussan readily acknowledges that fine olive oil is not for everyone. "It's healthier than butter, it's good for skin and hair, for cholesterol," he says. "But I want a discussion about taste, not health benefits. Our target audience is the gourmet. Like wine, it makes people feel good."

Despite his success, Baussan has not strayed from his roots. Baussan is on the road at least three months a year. But his heart remains in Provence. Home is in Forcalquier, five minutes from O&CO.'s headquarters in Mane, a village so small it doesn't show up on most maps. Baussan's son, Laurent, 28, works for the company as design and construction manager. (He also has a 16-year-old daughter, Laure. His companion, Marilyne Cencig, teaches art history.)

Even after all these years, Baussan hasn't lost his enthusiasm. A reporter interviewing him at O&CO.'s office in New York is urged to sample the wares. Baussan happily hands over a an olive-oil-based biscuit made in Seville, Spain. "Smell this," he says, pouring some golden liquid onto a plate. "Doesn't it smell like fresh-cut grass?" He's beaming. He's still in love.