Words: Omid Tavallai
Image: Roberto Baibich
In Paris, food is fashion. And just as fashion has its trends and fads, so does food. In January of this year, influential food critic François Simon (after whom the über-critic Anton Ego was modeled for the movie Ratatouille) posted a not-so-scary piece on his blog about La Tête Dans les Olives, a tiny shop in the charming but oft-overlooked Rue Sainte-Marthe in the 10th arrondissement. By month’s end, every other food blogger – both English and French language – had sussed it out. Cuisine.tv even set an episode of a show there. And in April, things reached a fever pitch when the shop was featured in Alain Ducasse’s so-called “marché” at the Plaza Athenée. (It wasn’t a market, but a showcase of his artisanal suppliers.)
So by now, everyone’s talked about proprietor Cedric Casanova’s (still fascinating) career transformation from circus performer to exclusive purveyor of olive oil to the namesake restaurant of France’s most decorated chef. And, of course, about his olive oil. Which is – on the record – fantastic. Of course, I had to go and see for myself if it was up to the hype. And – maybe off the record – to see if I could call BS on yet another Parisian trend.
Rue Sainte-Marthe is one of my favorite streets in Paris. Anchored on one end by unsung boho cafés and the other by Maghrebien youths kicking it in front of bars, it’s not exactly a tourist destination. What the crowds are missing aren’t just the colorfully painted ateliers that give it a little touch of London’s Notting Hill or San Francisco’s Haight District, but an immigrant spirit that manifests itself in ethnic restaurants, and in particular, one La Rôtisserie, a “restaurant associatif” whose mission is specifically to fight the gentrification of the neighborhood and keep its ethnic character. La Tête Dans les Olives is right next door. How does one reconcile the difference between an activist (for lack of a better word) restaurant with a shop that supplies fine olive oil to a restaurant that charges €260 a meal?
“To me, there is no difference,” Casanova tells VINGT Paris earnestly. “There is no elitism here. I sell olive oil to anyone who wants it. I’m not trying only to sell to top chefs. But if they like the product, of course I will sell it to them.”
And they like it. Perhaps it was mentioned before, but the olive oil is fantastic. Each one bears the name of its producer, someone Casanova knows and has personally worked with in Sicily. Marco. Paola. Francesco. Each one as distinctive as the person behind it, they are stored in shiny metal oil bins with tiny spigots, whose very turn unleashes a small stream of golden green deliciousness that I rarely had imagined I would want to taste straight up.
Coming from the United States, where there actually is no standard whatsoever for olive oils (even the worst oils can be labeled “extra virgin” in the U.S.) I’ve only recently become much more discerning when it comes to the ingredient, and so with the enthusiasm of a neophyte, I did my homework. I learned about the particulate content that can affect olive oil. Ripeness. Harvest time. Is it pressed? Is it centrifuged? Is it chemically extracted with a hexane? (The same chemical used to make methamphetamine, it turns out, is used to make cheap, industrial olive oil.) How do Cedric Casanova’s oils stand up to the scrutiny?
“I don’t grade the olive oils,” he parries again. “Each family has its olive grove. And they have always produced olive oils for themselves. From their land. If they have extra, they can sell it.” He motioned toward the wall lined with containers of various oils. “When you make something like this, it’s like your son. If someone applied standards to your son, would you care? Of course not! It’s your son. You will still love him and be proud of him. And each oil is like the farmer’s child.”
You can’t argue with that. And one look at his face when he’s telling you this, you know he believes this. But – for the record – he can also recite the precise standards by which olive oils are rated as normal, virgin, and extra virgin. He can tell you the entire extraction process (no hexanes here, thankyouverymuch). He can talk to you all day about olive oil in infinitesimal detail if you wish.
But it’s about more than olive oil at La Tête. There are, of course, olives. And fabulous sun-dried tomatoes. And bottarga (cured fish roe). And tuna bresaola. And giant bouquets of real oregano. And almond cookies. And… and… there’s so much flavor on offer in such a small space, it might make your head spin. Fortunately, if you can make the time and round up a group of five – and who wouldn’t want to join in on the fun? – they host a table d’hôte, a set-menu lunch for €30 a head (billed at €150 for five), allowing you to taste all that is right and good under the Mediterranean sun over an hour and a half.
Whether you come in to shop, to taste, or to partake of the table d’hôte, Cedric and his friendly and knowledgeable assistant Pablo are ready not only to share with you their goods, but their passion for everything they sell and serve.
“Here, try one of these,” Cedric said to me as he had me pinch a fruit off of a massive garland of dried figs. “It’s not fig season, so I’m not selling them. This is from my personal stash.” I can’t wait to try them when they’re in season.
It’s this kind of hands-on passion that makes the difference between buying your olive oil from any old market (or even a high-end market) and coming to the man who knows the growers and their kindred oils on a first-name basis. You can also say you’ve hit one of the hottest food shops in Paris.
Speaking of which, I had to ask Mr. Casanova one last probing question: Is he worried that the sudden attention and fame could be too much? Could the popularity of artisanal olive oil lead to too much demand that could suddenly drop off?
“No, it would be great. The more popular it becomes,” he replied, “the more small farmers I can support.”
And I believe this. Not only because of his passion, but because his business model is made to support the small producers he works with. He pays them just as much in lean years as in the good years, ensuring that they have a steady income they can count on. Now that’s reason enough to buy a bottle of Marco or Francesco or Paolo if I’ve ever needed one.
La Tête Dans les Olives
2 rue Sainte-Marthe, 10th
Metro: Goncourt (11), Colonel Fabien (2), Jacques Bonsergent (5)
By reservation only – 09 51 31 33 34 or [email protected]
€150 for 5 people, 6th person may be added for €30
Hours: Lunch begins at 12:00pm and ends at 1:30pm
Sicilian white wine on offer, but you may bring your own, or other wines may be ordered in advance for delivery from La Contre Etiquette or neighboring Tierra del Fuego restaurant and wine shop (01 42 39 46 21)