Friends and I are just finishing the 2010 olive harvest here at our places in the Vaucluse, south of France. It’s been three weeks of enjoyable, healthy hard work despite some cold days. There have been plenty of sunny days, too, spent high on ladders among the olive tree branches, working under a stunningly clear blue sky with views of the pretty Alpilles range of hills nearby.
Each year in the spring we all cast an inquiring look at the tiny olive flowers appearing on the olive branches. How many will form tiny olives that make it to maturity? If there’s a strong mistral during this period, and the delicate flowers fall off the trees, the harvest will be poor. Olive flowers aren’t pollinated by bees – a shame because one of our neighbours is an apiculteur – a bee keeper. The pollen is exchanged between trees and flowers by the breeze. If there are very strong winds when the pollen is ready, or no wind, or heavy rain, pollination can fail and few olives will form.
None of us are agriculteurs dependent on sales of olive oil. One or two do sell some litres of the pure oil to people who like their olive oil to come from entirely untreated trees in untreated soil. But mostly we just love working with the olive trees, producing the pure golden oil at Christmas and using it throughout the following year. It’s nice to know there are no weird pesticides, chemicals, preservatives or other additions to the oil we use to dress salads or dot onto warm goats’ cheese.
One olive oil producer who has a large olive grove near ours uses a very efficient Italian olive harvesting machine to collect his olives. It shakes the branches furiously and the olives fall into the nets below. The rest of us are still, for now, using our hands, which is a lot slower but without being overly sentimental there’s something particularly enjoyable about picking olives by hand. It’s quiet for one thing. Anastasio’s machine makes a racket so it’s good that he finishes his harvest in a few days and leaves the rest of us in peace!
Picking olives is an activity very conducive to thinking. It’s sociable too. People wonder up and spend an hour or two, have a chat. We down tools at midday and eat lunch together in one neighbour’s kitchen – a hot dish like chicken and pieds-de-mouton mushrooms or just bread, thickly sliced ham and goats’ cheese. Red wine is a given at lunch. A core of us work solidly for several weeks. We use the traditional large green nets, spread under the olive trees, our gloved hands and/or little rateaux – rakes – to rake the olives from their branches.
What is magical is to witness the leafy trees so closely year round. It’s the cycle of nature that’s so attractive. And the alchemy. As you pick the olives you can’t help thinking of the soil, sun and rain which nourishes the trees and turns into silver-green leaves and delicate flowers. Now you’re harvesting these firm olives which have grown out of the pollinated flowers. At the mill they’ll be crushed, along with the stones inside them, and the soil, sun and rain which turned into flowers which turned into olives will be turned into velvety oil.
After each harvest the trees are naturally completely bare of olives. In spring we prune the trees. It’s extremely complicated and I’m a total beginner, needing instructions from the others before cutting a single branch. The trees then develop their tiny flowers. A light breeze is always welcome at this time as the pollen will float between flowers and trees. Providing fertilization takes place, the small green olives start to form. In late summer they become larger. After heavy rain you can almost see them swell! Around the start of November we have a good look at them. They’re mostly still green but some are becoming darker – purple, purple and green, or black. We wait till after the first frosts because frost causes the olives to lose some of the water they hold. This is important because the olive mill charges by the kilo to process the olives. We naturally prefer to pay for kilos of olives which hold more oil than water!
When the olives are darkening and starting to look a little shrivelled they’re ripe to harvest. We pick them, remove the leaves and twigs from the nets, pack them in cases, remove remaining leaves and twigs, load the cases into the trailer and drive them to the mill at Mazan. It’s a new mill – all inox machinery instead of the great wooden wheels and beams I was used to seeing in my youth – but the oil is good nonetheless. We weigh our olives in, pouring them into the huge weighing vaat, and take a little written ticket. We hand over large empty containers with our names scrawled on the side and several days later we return for the oil. This year we pick it up on the 23rd of December. We should have over 100 litres of olive oil to give as Christmas presents, to use in 2011, to share to friends and some to sell. Over Christmas and the New Year we’ll have several tastings with friends who also produce olive oil. One friend, Regine, produces oil in the valley of Les Baux, generally said to produce France’s best olive oil. Her beautiful olive groves are right at the foot of one of the Alpilles hills on either side of her wonderful old rambling mas, a traditional Provencal country house . We’ll compare her 2010 and 2009 oils with our own.
There was one rather nice event in the olive groves here this year that said a lot about the complex interactions of nature and also about the interactions of neighbours in this little rural area. My neighbour who keeps bees is naturally very attentive to their health as they’re his livelihood. He noticed earlier in the year that the guy who uses the Italian machine was just about to start treating his olive trees with some horrible noxious insecticide. He stopped his car and went over and after the usual Provencal greetings and courtesies he explained that his bees would suffer – and possibly die – if the pesticide was used. The chap was rather surprised and said “But there’s no danger to your bees – you of all people know that bees don’t visit the flowers on olive trees!”
My neighbour said that was absolutely right. But he gestured at all the grass growing beneath the olive trees. A hundred and one little flowers would grow there, some throughout the year, and the chemicals would inevitably fall into the grass and flowers beneath the trees. Those flowers would be a threat to the health of his bees.
Ah. The other chap simply hadn’t thought of that. Still, he wanted to treat his olive trees to maximise his crop. Olive oil is part of his livelihood. They chatted a bit – beekeeper and oil producer – to find a compromise. And came up with one. The pesticides were packed away back in the chap’s van for the time being and the next morning he arrived with a mower and cut all the grass to within an inch of its life. He’d keep the greenery down so no flowers would grow round the trees and therefore the bees would not be attracted to the olive grove. After that he sprayed his trees – lightly.
Not a bad compromise. However I do prefer our olive groves which are tidied up and cut back during the year but still full of little wild flowers, flowering rocket and wild asparagus. My neighbour’s long-haired ginger cat is always sitting, like a small lion, in ‘his’ olive grove, in among the trees in the grass. He may not know the grove’s pesticide-free but he does know it’s a good place to catch mice and lizards! And in winter he watches us all, up and down ladders, hauling kilos of olives to the tractor and I’m sure he’s thinking “What the hell are those people doing?”