Summer is over. The tourists have all returned home and the south of France is settling back into a more familial rhythm. We, like most other olive farmers, are beginning a venerable annual ritual, preparations for our upcoming late-November harvest, which looks set to be a reasonable one.
While all this autumnal activity is taking place, I am slowly travelling north towards England for the launch in October of my new book, The Olive Route. I have spent the last few days walking in the Camargue and the Bouches du Rhône, talking to organic wine farmers, learning of olive farms where the soil is more alluvial than our own, hearing of their lives, their hardships, their modern or traditional methods. I love autumn journeys through France. The colours of the land are spectacular and it is a time of enormous activity. Most major harvests, including the wine, have been achieved; yet still to come is the olive. There is a mood of expectancy in the air here. Olives are a cornerstone of the Mediterranean cuisine. They are also fundamental to our way of life. All along the southern French coast and inland as far as the Drôme farmers are pulling nets out of storage in readiness to place at the feet of their trees or ordering anew if last year’s lengths have been snagged to holes or, like ours, have been chewed to ribbons by newly-born puppies.
Since spending eight months from mid-summer last year through to spring of this travelling round the eastern Mediterranean for The Olive Route, my perceptions about olive farming have widened, been enriched. Now I have images of where these traditions originated. I can picture in my mind’s eye newly-made friends from different cultures, religions and countries similarly arranging for their gatherings. We are a Mediterranean community. I have a broader picture now of what the olive tree and its fruits bring to our lives, and what the history of this mythical tree has been.
Why did I set off round this sea’s basin on a solo, sometimes dangerous journey in search of the provenance of a plant, a tree? Because I longed to know the birth of these agricultural traditions. Who first cured an olive to make it edible? What relevance did it have for those earliest of farmers? Who first pressed this bitter fruit and discovered a liquid gold that is rich in so many health properties and today is hailed by many as a cancer preventitive? No one has the answers to these questions. I visited Unesco in Paris. They had been considering an Olive Heritage Trail. But, they told me, nobody knows where it all began. The olive’s past is a mystery.
The Olive Route was uncharted territory, waiting to be explored. What could be more exciting than to penetrate those ancient trails, to uncover stories of some of the oldest trees surviving on our planet?
The journey I was embarking upon was going to be a form of detective work, botanical sleuthing, and I saw it as a great adventure, a challenge, but not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined all that lay in store for me. I visited some of the most beautiful locations I have ever encountered, I met unusual people, courageous, angry, proud, resilient. I found myself alone and afraid in the face of war. In Lebanon, in the chalky hills of Mount Lebanon in Christian territory, I stood in a grove amongst 6,000-year-old olive trees. Imagine that. Those ancients, still fruiting, still being farmed and, as I write, being made ready for their annual harvest, were dug into that earth 4,000 years before the birth of Christ. In Crete, I learned the amazing secrets of an exquisite 3,000-year old Minoan gold ring, in Palestine I planted an olive sapling for peace…
Before I set off, I was hoping I might return with the key to a better life, a single, tangible treasure, some long-forgotten elixir pressed from olives. Every day along my route I found treasures and was constantly bowled over, but not by the one single nugget of truth I had hoped for, and I returned with more questions than I had set out with. The Olive Route was constantly surprising, a once-in-a-lifetime experience as I travelled up and down avenues of time and history and I will never forget it. I hope you will choose to take this extraordinary journey with me.