The final days of May are upon us and the south of France, the Midi, is buzzing with the prospect of summer while those who have crewed the 60th Cannes Film Festival are rolling up the famous red carpet for another year. It has been fun to catch up with friends who stayed with us and others who drove up into the hills to dine with us.
The weather is warm, the garden is full of flowers and nightingales; there are young shoots everywhere, the grass is overgrown and dotted with red poppies and the olive trees are in blossom once more, promising us an excellent harvest later in the year. I am relishing ‘home’, having recently returned from travels that have taken me as far south as the Sahara Desert. I am pottering about, planting tomatoes and salads in the greenhouse and young cherry trees to replace one of the old fellows that died during my absence. A copy of my latest book, The Olive Route, to be published in paperback any day now, has just plonked through the letterbox and it looks terrific. I am very excited about its prospects. The Olive Route is the first of a two-book journey that has taken me round the Mediterranean in search of the historical roots of the olive tree.
Now that my travels have been completed, I am scribbling away at the second of these two books: a journey through the western Mediterranean rich with wild flowers, citrus fruits, volcanoes and olive stories. Gorgeous, luscious places that I had never visited before, including Sicily and Andalucia. The book will be published next year.
Everyday chores seem almost exotic after sitting on so many buses and trains, clambering about archaeological sites, clad in cargo pants and hiking boots instead of skirts, attempting to communicate with peoples whose languages I do not speak, all in search of stories of the venerable olive tree.
But what memorable experiences these travels have been. Aside from a couple of brief visits from Michel, I have travelled alone. A solitary woman, particularly in countries where women’s rights are not as liberal as our own, can sometimes feel challenging, a little scary. Yet, I have rarely felt lonely. Aside from the generosity and warmth exhibited almost everywhere, an unexpected bonus was the receipt of letters from readers of The Olive Farm Trilogy or The Olive Route who offered suggestions of unusual or remote locations. It was quite exhilarating and began to feel as though some of you were actually travelling with me, constructing the route, feeding in to the experiences alongside me.
In Andalucia, in southern Spain, I walked in to a tapas bar late one evening, starving, in search of dinner, and an English couple offered me a glass of local sherry.
‘We have been talking about you’, they said. I was a little surprised. ‘We have seen some enormous olive trees today’, explained the woman. ‘We wanted to tell you about them.’ After directions from this vacationing couple, I was off the next morning in search of the stupendous trees.
A letter from a reader in Dublin sent me to Morocco, to the Atlas Mountains, to ancient traditions associated with the argan tree; it is not a species of olive but has similar medicinal properties and grows nowhere else in the world except in this one region of Morocco. I found myself in the company of two Berber households who lived an hour’s distance from one another, or it would have been an hour if a road had existed. Instead, we were obliged to trek the first few miles in a beaten-up Peugeot, transfer to donkeys, then accomplish the last leg on foot. The Berber couple who were escorting me were visiting the wife’s parents who, due to lack of access, met every six months. We left their four children and ninety-three-year-old grandfather, a retired olive miller, at home: two rooms alongside the darkest old mill I have ever set eyes on. Rounding mountain passes, through mud-baked settlements, where no one locked their doors, where the children screeched with laughter at the sight of me, I was a curiosity. My Berber friends explained that no tourist had ever penetrated these hills before. I judged this far-fetched until we reached our destination, when I realised just what a remote outpost, both in time and location, I had been invited to. Although the reader who suggested this detour probably never imagined where her suggestions might lead me, without that letter I could not have had such an unforgettable experience.
No one knows from where the olive tree hailed or who first pressed its fruit and discovered its golden oil. Answers to these puzzles seemed reason enough to embark on a quest, which I saw as a fantastic opportunity to visit lands unknown to me but, as with all terrific adventures, I had no real notion where those trails would lead me.
The Whereabouts of the first cultivated olive tree remains a tantalising mystery, but I have uncovered many marvellous stories in the unravelling of that secret.