We love our little house and the garden we’ve made here. I have a fig tree, a little cherry tree and even an apricot sapling, all in large tubs on the terrace, but the one thing that we don’t have is an olive tree. We planted one many years ago in the UK, when I just wanted to do everything I could, to bring Provence into our little world there, but quite understandably, it has never borne fruit, and I long to have a few trees in a garden here, although we really don’t have the space.
I just think they are beautiful trees, a fundamental part of the local landscape, whether it’s the smaller groves around us, here in The Luberon, or the hectares of neat, beautifully pruned trees in The Alpilles, and around Les Baux de Provence. It’s easy to see why so many artists have been drawn to them over the years, the paintings of Van Gogh and Cezanne, beautifully capturing their gnarled trunks and delicate colours, against the blue skies of Provence.
I love the way that their silvery-green leaves catch the light, and how the regimented rows of the local olive groves, mirror the purple stripes of summer lavender fields. In spring, the branches froth with yellow, delicate flowers, which this year, were covered with bees, adding a gentle buzz to our morning walks and cycle-rides.
Then the fruits start to grow, pale green balls, that over the autumn months, start to darken through shades of pink to violet, with some fruits ending up the size of cherries or small damsons
These bitter fruits are then processed creating vibrant green, peppery olive oil, perfect on its own, with just a nugget of bread to dip into it. And an early evening Apéro wouldn’t be the same without bowls of them bought from the local market stalls, which have baskets of olives glistening in brine and oil, sprinkled with herbs, or stuffed with garlic, or spices. Our lovely neighbour recently gave us a jar of olives she picked last year that she had treated in the traditional, local way, by packing them in the ashes from the fire, before brining them, creating smoke-scented treats.
The oil isn’t just used in cooking, but in other ways too, including being made into soap, including the traditional slabs or blocks of dark green, sometimes brown Savon de Marseille, which seem to be able to be used for just about any task. They can, of course be used in the shower or bath, but also for washing clothes, floors, and we learned are quite well known for stopping cramp too. We were told local folklore says that placing a soap under the sheets in the bed, helps stop those annoying night-time cramps, apparently the soap is high in potassium and this dissipates through the sheets helping reduce the chance of muscles going into spasm. I really need to try it!
So you can imagine my delight last week, when friends at Saint Saturnin asked if we wanted to go over and help with their olive harvest, and without any hesitation the answer was yes.
Initially a day was set, but unfortunately it turned out to be grey and damp, with an autumn mist filling the valley, and predictions of showers during the day, which meant picking wouldn’t be possible (apparently the olives can’t be wet when harvested), so Andy and I walked instead, hoping for better weather the following day.
It was as if the ‘Weather Gods’ had been listening and the next morning we woke to cold, clear skies, with just the hint of a mist, so we pulled on our layers, dressing warmly for an early start and a full day outside, picking fruit.
When we arrived, having passed groves, where people were already hard at work, the sun was just starting to warm the trees, although (if I’m honest) it took quite a while for them to warm enough for me to feel my fingers, once we started picking..
After being handed half-moon shaped buckets, which hung around our necks, resting on our chests, we had a quick lesson on the best way to strip the olives from the branches. ‘It’s a bit like milking a cow’ was the advice we were given, so we started slowly and gently, pulling our fingers down the flexible twigs, stripping the fruits, which fell directly into the buckets with a satisfying thud.
We set about the task in hand, starting on the lowest branches, enjoying watching the buckets slowly start to fill, with the different-coloured fruits, tipping them into big plastic tubs, as the weight got too much around our necks.
There seemed to be no rhyme nor reason to the colours of the olives, with bright green on the same stems as dark purple, their firm, shiny skins, glowing in the sunlight, looking beautiful against the background of the vivid, November blue skies. After an hour’s picking our fingers felt softer, which I can only imagine was thanks to the oils in the ripe fruits, and it was time to stop for coffee.
It was over coffee, that we were introduced to another method we could use to get the olives from the trees, using plastic rakes to strip the branches, allowing the olives to fall onto nets, which are spread out on the ground below. These can then be lifted up gently to allow the collected fruit to be dropped into containers.
It has to be said though, that Millie rather took to the rake, and spent most of the coffee-break squirming on her back whilst she was scratched with it, she really was in seventh heaven, and we weren’t sure we would ever get started again.
But the olive harvest couldn’t wait for Millie to get bored, so off we went, back to the task in hand, checking we had stripped as many olives as we could, before moving onto the next tree, whilst Millie stretched out in the sun, relishing just being outside with us, occasionally entertaining herself with a fallen olive, or a broken branch.
There was something very gentle about the whole process, working outside in mid-November, under glorious blue skies, everyone chatting between the trees, interrupted only by laughter and the constant drumming of the olives falling into buckets.
We’ve always looked at the trees near us, many of which have multiple trunks, noticing how they are carefully pruned to leave the insides of the trees as open as possible, it’s said they should be open enough to allow a bird to fly straight through.
As we moved around the trees, we realised that not only did this make the trees look good, but also that it was the perfect way of enabling the olives at the heart of the tree, to be collected, with the trunks providing platforms for us to climb on, to reach the higher fruits.
That said, we quickly realised that we really couldn’t get to the highest branches. We were doing a good job of harvesting the low-hanging fruit, and could reach some of the higher ones by climbing, or standing on a ladder, and even pulling the flexible ones down towards us. But there were always branches and fruit that was just beyond our reach, so Andy grabbed the rake, laid the nets on the ground and started to reach up, raking the fruit from these hard-to reach areas.
It was amazing how many we had missed, and the rustle of the rake being pulled through the branches, added to the gentle soundtrack of the day, as the hours simply flew by, interrupted only by lunch.
It had been a glorious day, our faces felt tight with the sun and our fingers, slightly cramped after several hours of unusual activity, but even as the sun was setting and a late-afternoon chill started to creep across the garden, we could hardly bear to leave the task, keen to get ‘just that last branch’
As the sun finally disappeared, the floor of our friends’ garage was already well-hidden under boxes filled with a kaleidoscope of fruit, and a quick-tot up took the tally to well over 100kg of olives picked so far. But that was only the start.
As we headed home, every time I closed my eyes, I could see the ghost of olives and leaves, as if they had somehow invaded my vision during the day, and I was convinced that I would be dreaming about them too.
With Andy heading back to the UK, the following day, we couldn’t help, but I was back on Saturday, bright and early, and layered up again against the early-morning chill.
This time it was like getting back on the bike, and the process of stripping the fruit from the branches came easily, with the buckets quickly filling as we shifted from tree to tree.
It was another glorious day, and the layers were soon left behind, to the point that by lunch-time, I was picking in a T-Shirt, with my jumper, fleece and gilet discarded around the trees. Again the chatter was easy and the views were glorious, as we shifted about the orchard, constantly amazed at the size and sheer number of fruits on each tree.
The chiming of the church clock in the village helped mark the passing hours and just after 4, as the sun started to dip, we finally called it a day, as we needed to get the olives to the Mill in nearby Rustrel, and as it had been such a beautiful few days, it was bound to be busy. The Rustrel Olive Mill
There are mills all around us, in fact several are within a few kilometres drive, but Rustrel is the closest and it is always nice to support small, friendly, local businesses. There used to be many more, but the Olive industry here was decimated in February 1956, when after a beautiful day, reaching 21 degrees C, there was a vicious frost overnight, with temperatures falling to minus 17 degrees C. The sap, which had started to rise in the late winter warmth, froze in the trees, cracking the trunks and devastating the industry that had taken place here since Roman times.
The beautiful old mill at Viens, closed that month and has not been used since, its interior and ancient equipment left as it was on the day. It is a little time-capsule from the period, a place that would have bustled with sound and noise, full of the scent of olives being crushed, a real centre of industry, now silent and simply filled with the ghosts of its past.
Happily the groves were re-established and trees that were cut back hard to the ground, now have many trunks, rising upwards, as if somehow the trees learned from the experience and no longer wished to run the risk of their single trunk being affected in such a way again. People say the olives were heard screaming on the night of the frost, it is just nice to see that they have regenerated and the industry has returned, although perhaps locally on a much smaller scale.
We regularly pass the Mill at Rustrel, on our walk that takes us through the Ochres to the excellent boulangerie there, for coffee and croissant, and when we amble by, it is normally very quiet, with little activity taking place. So I was keen to see it in action, and followed our friends, to see first hand what happens when you take your olives in.
It was far from the quiet little place we have come to expect, with the car park (and pull-in opposite) filled with cars, pick-ups and vans waiting to be called to have their olives weighed.
It was exceedingly well-organised chaos, with a chap indicating for the cars to reverse, in turn, into the open bay, where the olives were tipped into a huge container on a set of scales, which were zero’d between each customer.
Some people had their olives in plastic containers, but other were turning up with them in baskets, tubs, and even armfuls of ‘Bags for Life’ from the local supermarkets. It was evident that there is no etiquette at this point, you just need to get the olives you’ve picked, to the Mill, by any means possible.
The bustle was wonderful, and the huge containers were swapped as soon as they were full, with the fork-lift truck, dashing in to make the change, between the cars. Looking into the ones that had already been filled, it was easy to see that not all olives are the same, and some, sitting at the top of a pile in one, were huge and looked like small Victoria Plums.
Our friends emptied their containers into the scales, and came away with a little receipt, showing 72kg, on top of the 173kg they had taken across the previous day. An incredible total of 245kg of fruit picked over 3 days, which seemed amazing to me.
Once we had the receipt we had to go into the shop, where the full details were added to a form, including not only the weight, but where the olives had come from too. This is the record of your delivery and in a month’s time you return to the Mill and collect oil, in proportion to the weight of olives you have taken in.
There are lots of Mills, where you can take your own olives and receive the oil they produce, but this is much more of a co-operative approach, and after a quick bit of arithmetic, we worked out that the olives we’d picked will result in approximately 48 litres of Virgin Oil, which should be enough to last the next year with probably enough to bathe in too!
Finally we left the containers, that the oil will be put in, ready for collection, as they have to be provided when you deposit your fruit. As with the eclectic mix of containers being used to transport olives to the Mill, the range of containers that were being left, to be filled with oil, was just as extensive, with everything from plastic bottles and purpose made ‘jerry-cans’ to beautiful old, wicker-covered, glass bottles with new corks for the occasion, which I had a feeling were family heirlooms, used over generations.
It was a joy to watch, and to be a part of this wonderful aspect of provencal life. The bustle and babble at the Mill was delightful, and the slightly peppery, slightly zesty scent of the fruit was heavy in the air, as the open containers were piled up outside.
My first experience of Olive Harvest was just perfect, and simply served to reinvigorate our wish to have a few trees of our own, at some point in the future. The whole process from start, to finish was gentle, productive and enjoyable, although if someone suggested a few years ago that I would enjoy fruit-picking in late-November, I would have thought they were mad.
But under the vibrant blue skies of Provence, spending time outside, chatting, laughing and picking the fruits with friends, I can’t think of anything better, so a huge thanks to Kevin & Siobhan for inviting us to help out, and I hope they will book us in for next year too …..
Roll on December, when the oil will be ready for collection….