1. Young Olive Groves
A holding has to have a minimum of 250 trees before it can be classed as an olive farm so we found a special nursery near Hyères to top up the number from our original 70 or so trees. The young trees are now shooting vigorously and though they will not yield fully until they are fifteen to twenty years old, it gives me enormous satisfaction to know that future generations will reap the rewards of our labours.
I will never forget the first sighting of the house: its bold emplacement halfway up the hillside; its fissured, cream facade; its upper-level terrace jagged with broken balustrades that put me in mind of a yawning mouth exposing decayed teeth… The villa had been constructed by Italians at the turn of the century and christened Appassionata. A musical term meaning ’with passion’… ‘It’s completely insane but could live here’ I murmured… And so it came to be…
We were keen to have hives but knew nothing about apiculture – the art of bee-keeping. Michel suggested we find a professional interested in placing colonies with us in return for bee-keeping lessons – which is how we found Mr Huilier (his name means ‘oilcan’). He left 280,000 bees with us in 14 hives.
We travelled for three hours in scorching midsummer to visit a collection of chateau artifacts and ironwares. Our gate, when we saw it, was a rusty old thing. I dismissed it, but Michel assured me it was just what we needed. ‘Wait till it is painted the blue of the shutters’. He was right.
We didn’t stumble across the ruin for some time. In earlier days it would have been a shelter for animals or for the vinekeeper. Vines still shoot up on the surrounding land but the stock is poor. We intend to replant the vineyard at some point and will have to find a vine that thrives in this climate and limestone soil. A wine inspector who examined the ground told us that the wine originally produced here would have been given to the land labourers instead of water as it was cheaper to produce!
Our Magnolia grandiflora is the belle of the ball and must be around fifty years old. On Bastille Day during our first year, we drove overnight to revisit the farm. Arriving in a pre-dawn light, shattered from the road, we fell asleep in one another’s arms on the concrete upper terrace. We awoke, stiff and hungry soon after dawn to a fragrance that will forever remind me of love. The tree was in full waxy blossom. A spectacle that I will never forget.
Once we had cleared the land we discovered, planted in rows along the dry stone terraces, sixty-eight twisted olive trees – each perhaps over 400 years old. They were not in danger of dying but needed drastic pruning! Our olive trees are of the cailletier variety – known as the ‘Olive of Nice’. They produce smallish fruits but of an exceptional quality both for making oil and for consumption as table olives. In southern France it is illegal to destroy an olive tree.
I can’t remember why we gave it this name – it was another joyous discovery when we cut back the land. We had been told that, somewhere, there was a ruin but we knew nothing about the stairway. It sweeps from the house to the base of the land to what must have been the original house. We paved it properly with lovely Bavarian white sandstone slabs and Jacques designed a series of arches and a blacksmith, Mr Poire, built them and fitted them in a weekend. We now just have to decide whether to have vines or sweetly scented flowers climbing all over them…