Each year here we get our olive oil just before Christmas. I have around 30 trees – not many, but a well-maintained olive tree can provide many kilos of olives every winter. Some of my trees are rehabilitated ones, survivors of the desperate frost in 1956 that killed olive trees right across this region. Others are young trees that I had planted three years ago. As my crop is small for the time being I add it to the more substantial recolte collected by my neighbours. Their trees are on land which spans 16 hectares and though much of that land is taken up by homes, pools, a disused quarry, fig trees, a mielerie (honey factory), flowering plants, shrubs and other varieties of tree, they’ve produced around 1000 kilos of olives this year. ( 2009).
Last week we took the crop, in overflowing cases in a rickety old trailer, to the olive mill at Mazan. It’s a modern mill, a bit disappointing with its inox equipment everywhere instead of heavy old wooden presses – but the owners are charming and loaded the olives into crates, ready to roll off into the torrential bac à lavage where leaves, any bits of grass, soil, snails, mushrooms or bits of fertilizer (horse manure mixed with straw since you ask) are washed away. If you have only a few kilos, your olives are put in a general pool and you receive oil which doesn’t come from your own production. Because we had a good weight we get back oil which is exclusively from our own trees. We went back at the weekend to collect 190 litres of fresh green oil, poured into large containers, and dash home to taste it.
My neighbour tasted it directly from a teaspoon – one spoonful of the new oil, then one of last year’s. I tasted it with a hunk of plain white bread. Compared with last year’s, it’s peppery. The 2008 vintage was very soft, and golden in colour. 2009’s oil is citrus-y green for the moment. It will soften with age. Olive oil is best used within a year. Any longer than that and it’s going to spoil and become rancid.
Now we have the oil some will be stored and used throughout 2010, some will be given away as Christmas presents and some will be sold by the neighbours.
It’s the fruit of some hard labour and this is what we do each year to have our own oil:
Each spring we prune the trees. Pruning olive trees is relatively complex and I’m still getting the hang of it. Some people here do their pruning in November or December when they collect the olives. That’s not good practice though as it can be bad for the tree – letting disease in to the cut areas - and it’s also bad for production. We prune as the weather gets warmer, before the flowers arrive on the branches. The most commonly grown variety here is the verdale, or aglandou, which is seen as the traditional olive tree of Provence - but the salonenque, berruguette and grossane are not uncommon. We have mainly verdales but the oil can be a bit bitter so we temper it with a small percentage of olives from trees of the other varieties.
People are often confused about the colour of olives, asking if my olives are black or green? The answer is that they’re both. A black, bluish-black, dark red or purple olive is just one which is more mature than a green olive. Another common misunderstanding concerns the ramassage, the harvesting of olives. People tend to be surprised that it’s done in November or December, and sometimes – depending on the weather - in January. But that’s when they ripen. And in fact, the combination of timing and weather has a big effect on the quantity of oil generated. If the olives are picked too early, during warm autumn weather, they’ll produce less oil per kilo because their flesh holds too much water. After the first frosts, they dry out a bit and get a little wrinkled in appearance. It’s the cold that begins to dry them out, and in consequence you pay the mill less per kilo for the pressing. All that has been lost is water, not oil. As we currently pay the mill 50 centimes for each kilo they press for us, it makes sense to wait as long as possible before harvesting. On the other hand, picking olives outside all day when it’s freezing cold is pretty unpleasant. This year we got them in during December, but before the weather got cold. Up in the trees on special 3-cornered ladders, looking out at the Alpilles or up at the clear blue sky, and stopping for long lunches in the sunny open air was a pleasure.
We picked by hand and using rateaus, small ‘rakes’, but watched a bit enviously as a neighbour used his newly-acquired machine that shakes the olives from the branches and into the nets. He was able to work several times faster than we were, even though the machine was a bit too powerful and whipped a lot of his olives off into the grass, wide of the nets. Next winter, he’ll buy bigger nets and so will we, learning from his experience, if we decide to buy a machine.
Each time a tree was completely stripped of olives, we’d gather the net in, sort roughly through the olives throwing out leaves and twigs and then pour them into cases ready to be stacked in the vault till the harvest was done. At the end of each day the cases were loaded onto the tractor and off they trundled to be stored.
Each winter we enjoy comparing the year’s new oil with oil produced by neighbours and friends at St Remy de Provence, in the tiny but renowned oil-producing area, Les Baux. The variations in taste and texture are always interesting and often just as marked as the differences between certain whiskies or wines. The taste can have elements of artichoke or asparagus. Some are very fruity; others are spicy and almost hot. Some are smooth and velvety; others deliver a bit of a kick to the throat after a few moments. We also always compare oils from the previous year with the new oil.
Our oil is non-traitée – no commercial products are used on or around the trees. No chemical fertilizers or treatments for maladies. The trees – touch wood (sorry…) – are generally very healthy. Apart from regular watering in summer, all we give them is horse-manure mixed with straw which we collect in the trailer from a friend who has healthy, weff-fed horses. If anyone thinks aaah, that’s nice organic practice, I feel obliged to mention that it means we sometimes see an occasional worm inside an olive... If you collect hundreds of kilos of olives untreated by pesticides, you’re inevitably going to have a few worms along for the ride. Which means I guess that the oil we produce isn’t really ideal for rigorous vegetarians. Thinking about it now, there may be a touch of manure in there too.
But it doesn’t matter because the olives are thoroughly washed at the mill before pressing.
Each year at the mill there’s a bit of excitement when you arrive with your crop – discussions with other producers about the year's production, debate on the price of pressing and the current average ratio of kilos per litre of oil. You always hear, too, that the mill is overflowing with olives already and they may not be able to process yours this year. Somehow they always manage.
So you deliver your olives along with large empty containers marked with your name and off you go. A few days later the oil is ready for collection. After the comparative tastings, some of the oil is decanted into the litre bottles we’ve saved throughout the year, to be given to friends as Christmas presents. The rest is stored in the containers to be used and enjoyed all through the year to come.