The days leading up to Christmas were not the happiest for me or our olive farm. I had spent November in Africa, visiting the magical rainforests of Madagascar before travelling briefly through Kenya and then on to South Africa.
Before leaving for this trip, which was to keep me away from the farm for almost five weeks, I was keeping a watchful eye on our olive trees, aware that our olives had, yet again, ripened early. We did not spray last summer and I was determined that this winter we would bring in an organic harvest. It was too early to gather them before I left and I calculated that the opening of the harvest season would only marginally precede my return from Africa. So, we decided to leave the fruits on the trees until December and I asked our loyal gardener, Mr Quashia, to make everything ready while I was away – the laying of the nets etc. I was meeting up with Michel in Johannesburg for the very last week of my trip, and the plan was that we would set to work as soon as we were home. Alas, November was a wet and blustery month in our part of the South of France and almost all the fruits were driven to the ground. By the time we came home, they were too old, mouldy and shrivelled to be of any use. The crop was lost save for a few kilos of hardy drupes still clinging to the branches. These I gathered by hand and bottled, soaking them in brine and bay leaves. In a few months from now, we will serve them as table olives, but there will be no Appassionata oil this year.
We had worked hard pruning and caring for the trees last year so the loss was a disappointment to us all, but there was yet another loss to come.
Cleopatra, one of our gorgeous Alsatians, was born on the farm along with nine other little puppies on New Year’s Eve, 2005. She was not quite three when I took her to the vet two weeks before Christmas. Her heart was beating too fast and there was a swelling just below her ribs. My heart was palpitating too. I had a bad feeling and that day I went out and bought huge bones; one for her, and two others for her brother, Homer, and their mother, Lola. I had a gut feeling that it would be her last and I wept as I doled out the goodies. I could tell from the vet’s expression that the news was not good. A veterinary heart specialist was called in from Nice and while Cleo was being examined she suffered a massive heart attack and was dead within minutes. I was devastated. I drove her body home and in the pouring rain Quashia and I buried her beneath one of our cherry trees where the dogs who have passed on from our farm lie in rest. Homer and Lola watched on. Never let anyone tell you that dogs have no feelings. I could see the sadness in their faces, their dark eyes, and Homer refused to eat for days.
It looked as though we were in for a bleak Christmas.
And then, as so often seems to be the case, the process of rebirth came spinning round. Michel called me from his office in Paris to tell me that Clarisse, one of his twin daughters, had just given birth to a little girl, Chiara. Even though it meant that Clarisse (who lives in the Alps) with her family would not be able to travel to spend any of the holidays with us, it lightened the grieving and gave a nod to the future.
My Christmas present to Michel was a weekend in Beirut. I wanted to introduce him to the 6,000-year-old olive trees that I had discovered during my travels for The Olive Route. Just as we were setting off I received an email from an actress friend of mine asking me if I would share with her the adoption costs of a rhinocerous who had been born in the bush in Kenya and had lost his mother to hunters the day after his birth. I happily agreed to do so. Even more so, given that I had only just recently visited the country for the first time.
The trees in Lebanon, high in scrubby farmlands in a Christian village behind the ancient port-city of Byblos, were in fine fettle when we arrived. As on all my previous visits, the village seemed to be deserted and there was no one about to talk to or ask questions of. Still, it was evident that the groves had recently been harvested. I found three olives lying on the ground around their extended roots and I collected them and wrapped them in a paper tissue. I would also have taken a cutting if I could have found someone to give me permission to, and if I had had a knife or some other pruning instrument, but I did not.
I brought the trio of black olives back home with me and I am going to plant them in pots in the greenhouse and later, if they grow, I will graft them with cuttings from our own trees. Although I am a complete novice at the art of grafting, I learnt a little about it during my travels round the western Mediterranean for The Olive Tree.
With these tiny shoots, I want to make the connection from one side of the Mediterranean to the other, to bring these most ancient of living fruits a little closer to my door and to honour our own farm with an olive tree-spirit (or three, if I am lucky) that has survived for so many millenia and is, poetically-speaking, an ancestor of all the olive forests and groves that are flowering and fruiting and giving oil all around the Med.
So, after all, the year has opened on an upbeat note. I am at work on a new book, provisionally titled Return to the Olive Farm. . I am still pained at the far-too-premature departure of darling Cleo and I will be forced to reconsider, yet again, the prickly issue of whether we farm organically or with pesticides this year, but in the meantime we will need new bedrooms – an extension is being costed right now – for our ever-expanding family. Beautiful, gurgling, ever-sleeping Chiara, originally an Italian name meaning light (and how apt that has proved to be), has slipped not-so-quietly into this world as a member of our clan and promises to be a joy over the years to come. Maalim, ‘my’ rhinocerous, is being cared for at a sanctuary in Kenya until he is mature and is sufficiently mentally and physically resourceful to be returned to his natural habitat in the wild. I am keeping my fingers crossed that from the seeds of six thousand years of growth I will manage to graft a new variety of olive to give shade beneath its boughs and to offer nourishment to many generations beyond my and Michel’s children’s lifetimes. The ever-spinning wheel.
Happy New Year and Happy Reading!
PS: I am in the process of setting up a Facebook Page to accompany this website. The mechanics of the facebook mechanism would not accept The Olive Farm so I have been obliged to register it as Olive Farm – I keep receiving messages from the Facebook team saying : Hi Olive….
Give me a few weeks and then if you are on Facebook, you will be able to access it.