We are at home and the Olive Farm is gearing up for my mother’s 89th birthday this week. I am going out later this morning to order the cake. We have a young couple from the States staying with us. They are on holiday from Morocco. Deep down in the south and close to the Algerian border is where they are based, working a two-year appointment for the US Peace Corps. Their stories of life in such a remote community are fascinating. Coincidentally, he has the same birthday as my mother so I will be ordering a double cake. One cake shaped like the number 8 lying on its side, I think.
I am rather grateful to be home for a while now. It has been a year of travelling and of changes in several ways and I need a little breathing space. Having said that, I will be in Omagh, Northern Ireland from 12th September till 14th for the Benedict Kiely Literary Weekend. This short festival has decided to open its doors with a screening of one of The Olive Route films (The Olive Tree in the Holy Land) and I will be in attendance for a question and answer session after the film on the evening of Thursday 12th September. My own talk is scheduled for the afternoon of Saturday 14th. Do contact the Strule Arts Centre for tickets for either of these events. www.struleartscentre.co.uk. Or by phone on +44 28 8224 7831. Having just returned from Bantry Bay and the West Cork Literary Festival where the sun shone throughout and the craic (Irish for fun, entertainment) was mighty, I feel certain that Omagh will put on an equally vibrant festival weekend. Do try to get along and say hello.
Meanwhile, back at the Olive Farm… this week we will be hanging the first round of sardines from our olive trees. For those of you who don’t know what I am talking about, the story is the following: I was in Sicily researching and meeting farmers and olive folk for one of the films and was introduced to a marvellous family of chemists who have inherited and planted 5,000 olive trees. These, they farm organically and are annually winning awards for their extra-virgin oil. I asked the father how he managed to combat the fruit fly. He told me that they hang the bottom half of a plastic bottle, brimming with water, from each tree. Into these bottles they submerge a sardine – one fish per bottle, one bottle per tree. Halfway through the olive-growing season, they add a new sardine… When I was first told this story, I thought he was pulling my leg and did not take him seriously. However, since we stopped spraying pesticides onto our olives, we had been losing the fruits, the entire crops to the flies and I decided that we had nothing to lose. Michel agreed and we gave it a go. The first year our success was very modest but we persisted and last year, we had a tremendous crop, bountiful, healthy and organic. So, we are going the route of the sardine yet again this year. The olives are a little later this summer but have reached a size that will make them prey to the dreaded fruit fly any day now if we don’t stop them. I will keep you posted as to the quality of the crop later in the season.
Our ten beehives are soldiering on. We had twelve hives but lost two over the winter. This is not a large percentage but it still breaks my heart to see any demise. Due to the very wet spring, the honeybees did not leave their hives to forage the early-flowering fruit trees so we have a very limited almond crop this year and no apricots at all. It is remarkable how the impact of nature, weather and chemicals becomes so evident when you have a small farm. The wet weather also meant that the honeybees were short of food earlier in the year. Claude, our professional beekeeper, who comes here to assist us, left all the honey with the hives. The result is that we have had no honey crop at all from the hives this year. I don’t mind. I am happy to have the bees on the land, looking after the flowers. In the evenings, when I am watering, I love to stand close to our very robust lavender plants humming with pollinators and listen to the creatures busy at work.
I took a trip to Menton a few days ago, a day out with my mother. Menton is a particularly attractive town with houses huddled one on top of another , painted in ochre and terracotta colours, bordering Italy and France. It is very well-known for its February Lemon Festival, La Fête du Citron, (which I am currently writing about). Close by in Sospel, there are several rather well-regarded apiarists. I came home laden with local honey and lemon marmalades so even if we had no honey ourselves I was able to support another beekeeper.
If you haven’t visited Menton and you are holidaying along the Riviera, I recommend it. The views from its summit are really spectacular even if climbing up there in this heat was a bit of a challenge. Also worth visiting is Menton’s Jean Cocteau Museum as well as the Genoese bastion at the old port on Quai Napoleon III. A terrific location at water’s edge, this solid old building houses another collection of the poet/artist’s works. It is said that during one his promenades through the town, he walked by the Bastion and decided to create a small museum within it. It was inaugurated in 1966.
This afternoon, I will be ordering the birthday cake, buying sardines at the fishmongers and visiting the Espace Bonnard in the village of Le Cannet. This, I believe, is the only museum in France dedicated to the works of Pierre Bonnard and is only two years old. Bonnard lived in the village until his death in 1947. He was a contemporary of Matisee and Monet. All were friends, all residents here on this wonderful coast. Bonnard loved nature, loved the pastel and vibrant colours of the Côte d’Azur and it is a privilege to sit in that cool, airy museum and appreciate his pictures of this region in the first half of the twentieth century.
Summer at the Olive Farm… the cicadas are in full throttle, the grass is arid, the dogs are slumped in the shade and the pool is cool and welcoming.
If you are off on holiday, have a wonderful time. I hope to meet you somewhere before too long.