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The Aix-periences of a CEA Alum Turned Olive Oil Specialist

  In 2004, Jenna Thornton left her Cleveland, Ohio roots to study abroad in Aix-en-Provence during the lavish summer season. Now, seven years later, she is running the newest and most exciting French olive oil boutique in the heart of Paris. Treat yourself to my interview with Jenna during a weekend trip she took to Aix to soak up some Provençal sunshine..

Q: Jenna, Paris must be so different from Aix! What was your experience?

J: They are two very different worlds! Provence is rich with tradition, heritage and larger than life characters who still speak the native Provençal language. I still remember enchanting strolls along the Cours Mirabeau and chatting with 'les copains' whilst people watching from a café terrace.  Not to mention the vineyards, the landscapes of Cezanne, the goat cheese, honey farms, and of course my personal passion - olive orchards and olive oil mills, continue to instill a sense of excitement within me. Paris is great but it is not home. I will always be “Americo-Aixoise”.

Q: Tell us more about your experience here in Aix...

J: On my last night in Aix as a study abroad student with CEA, I was sitting in a café on the Cours Mirabeau with my new French friends and I promised myself that I would return. In 2007, my wish came true and I came back to Aix as an English language teaching assistant in a local high school. I was also fortunate enough to help out in the CEA Aix office during the Spring of 2008, which lead Aix Program Director Vivienne Hamill and I to bond over shared passions of Provencal culture. The period of time I spent with CEA and Vivienne allowed me to discover and deepen my connections and knowledge of Provence. It really is a unique and special place - different from other parts of the world and very different from other regions in France…

Q: What is life like in Aix?

J: Aix feels like a big city but at the same time remains a small town. You cannot leave your apartment without bumping into at least one person you know. The sun shines 360 days a year, and the countryside around Aix is maybe the most gorgeous in the world. Cézanne’s Sainte Victoire mountain is visible everywhere you look.  You never run out of things to do. The city overflows with youthful energy, fine arts culture and of course the famously chic “Aixois”.

Q: How did you get involved with the olive oil industry?

J: While visiting Les Baux in 2008, one of the CEA excursion destinations, I stumbled upon a Cave aux Huiles d'Olives where I was able to taste different olive oils from the region. My eyes were opened to some of the 383 sensory profiles that can be found in olive oil. It immediately became my passion.

One thing led to another and I began giving olive oil tastings and tours in Aix and other locations throughout Provence. While giving a tour to a group of CEA students, I met Provence's “Queen” of Olive Oil. To make a long story short, this meeting changed my life, leading me to live in a chateau and to work in the most highly reputed olive oil mill in France.

Doors opened left and right and I have since traveled to multiple destinations, including California, Spain, Sicily, and Italy, attending various olive oil congresses and meeting the top names in the industry. It was during one of these expeditions that I met Olivier Baussan, international business man extraordinaire from Provence. Several months later I found myself in Paris as an oléologue, running the boutique Premiere Pression Provence in the Marais district. I will introduce the brand to New York in 2012.

Q: Did you ever suspect when you came to study with CEA in Aix in 2004 that one day you would be not only an oléologue but a French reality TV star appearing in the first French season of  Masterchef in 2010 ?
(Jenna laughs).

J: Never in a million years. Especially being the only American in a French cooking competition. People in Aix still recognize me and ask me about my experience on Masterchef. I’m very proud to have made it to the top 60 out of 18 thousand contestants. Just don’t ever ask me to make a Quiche Lorraine. (Jenna winks). None of this would have happened if I had not taken the chance to go to Aix with CEA and study in 2004.

Q: Well, it sounds as if you have lead quite a life here in Provence!

J: Yes, it’s been filled with unforgettable experiences and I am always happy to share them.  If any future students have any question about studying in Aix I am happy to answer them at, or in person at Première Pression Provence located at 35 rue Charlot located in the 3ème arrondissment of Paris on the Marché des Enfants Rouge.

Vivienne Hamill acts as the Program Director for CEA programs in Aix-en-Provence, France.
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