By Michael Colameco
Much like a kid yearning for a new crayon color, chefs and guitarists are always searching for something novel. For a musician, that may be an oddball effect pedal or a super-rare vintage guitar or amp. For chefs, it usually translates into a new piece of high-tech kitchen equipment or an obscure ingredient that others have yet to discover.
The latter is just what I found a few years back while touring France’s Beaujolais wine region during the annual fall grape harvest. After days in the vineyards, my companions and I took the advice of a French friend and stopped by the scenic small town of Beaujeu to visit Jean-Marc Montegottero, an artisan oil producer who is one of the last plying this ancient craft.
His atelier, Huilerie Beaujolaise, is set in a centuries-old stone building with a stream running through the backyard. The centerpiece of his workroom, located just behind the retail store, is an enormous and ancient stone olive press. The space had been an old-school oil mill for generations, but it was abandoned during World War II. Where some saw a wasting relic, Jean-Marc saw opportunity and went about a renovation.
Thirty years later, Jean-Marc has honed his craft. He starts by sourcing the best raw ingredients—seeds and nuts from around the world—and toasting them slowly in copper pots. He then cools and grinds the mixture between two huge granite wheels, cold pressing the batches to a pulp, from which the oils are extracted
using a small hydraulic press.
In sharp contrast to the commercial high-heat hexane-transfer oil extractions used throughout the industry today, Huilerie Beaujolaise’s small-batch oils are made using no chemical additives, and processed at low temperatures to preserve their nuances. The result is an exceptional collection of artisan oils—ranging from walnut, hazelnut, and almond to pistachio, pine nut, grilled peanut, and even cabbage seed—whose flavors are precise, focused, and clean.
It should be noted that these are not cooking oils; they can be paired with a sauce or used to replace one. At home I use them to finish dishes on the plate, drizzling a few drops of almond oil over pan-seared scallops or halibut, adding grilled peanut oil to tomato salads, or using pine nut oil with sautéed wild mushrooms to emulsify a reduced shrimp stock or trickle on top of hearty soups like minestrone.
But don’t just take my word for it: Montegottero’s list of clients these days includes many Michelin-starred chefs throughout Europe as well as a huge fan base here in the U.S., where veteran chefs, like Dan Barber of New York’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns, rave about the quality of his product. One taste and I suspect you will do the same.
New York City–based chef and media personality Michael Colameco is the author of Mike Colameco’s Food Lover’s Guide to NYC and hosts Colameco’s Food Show on PBS and the nationally syndicated radio program Weekend Food.
Photo: Massimo Gammacurta