It is dark outside. The world is still asleep. Beyond the windows, a terrestrial silence, above which Jupiter hangs like a brilliant bulb in a black sky. For the present, it is a solitary illumination. It is seven am and not an unreasonable hour to be at my desk, but autumn is upon us, the days are growing shorter, it feels as though it is the middle of the night and I the only being on the planet.
As the light approaches, I breathe the scent of woodsmoke creeping through the air. Quashia, our gardener, has lit a bonfire. Land debris clearance. It is that time of year. Soon we will be banking up log fires of an evening, but first the olive harvest. Here on the Côte d’Azur, our summer has delivered a series of searingly hot days punctuated by rainfalls that have been tropical in their intensity. The combination of such extremes has assisted with the fattening of what promises to be a very generous olive crop. I telephoned the mill where we usually press our olives two days ago, hoping for an early appointment, but was informed that it will be closed until mid-November. I am eager to get going, to gather the olive fruits and press them as soon as we can. All the wizened old Provençal farmers would shake their heads with disapproval. Too early, they would say.
It is true. Our fruits are predominantly still green, not yet fully ripe, so to press them four weeks ahead of schedule means that they will render less oil, but it will be richly flavoured, strong and quite peppery, which is how we prefer our olive oil. However, the main reason I am opting for a very early pressing is because the drupes have not been sprayed with pesticides to protect them against predators, which means they remain vulnerable to any last-minute fly invasions. So, the sooner they are off the trees and at the mill, the happier I will be.
The preparations for our ‘green’ harvest is scheduled to begin this morning. The land needs to be cleared, herbage cut away at the base of the trees to facilitate the laying of the nets. The crates used to transport the hundreds of kilos of fruits to the mill need to be taken out of storage, washed and aired. This task is easy and, therefore, allocated to me. Now we hope that the rains will hold off so that the earth is not damp (the humidity rots any fallen fruits) and we need the hanging branches, heavy with olives, to remain dry. If the wood is slippery, it is dangerous because our organic harvest will be collected by hand. Each tree painstakingly finger-picked of its fruit. That’s the men’s work. I don’t go clambering up into the trees anymore. I gather off the ground and deliver the harvested olives to the mill.
My estimation is that we have somewhere in the region of two tons of olives to discharge, which is no small exercise. I have a list of friends I am intending to telephone this week, to call in helpers. ‘Come for the weekend,’ I invite, ‘collect olives with us.’
Usually, friends are very willing to volunteer. Although it is a physically tiring experience, it is also very rewarding, great fun and much vino gets drunk at the end of the long days spent out in the fresh air on the hillside. By the way, if this harvest goes well and we really can succeed at bringing in decent-sized organic loads, next year we might well be opening up the invitation to interested folk beyond our personal circle of friends. As well, I have been fairly inundated with requests from readers who would like to visit the farm or stay as a guest on the property. Until now, we have always taken the position that the Olive Farm is our private, getaway-from-the-world spot, but we are reconsidering this… More on all of that in future newsletters…
Olive tree about to burst into flower:
Aside from the olive harvest, Michel and I have been dedicating our energies to the mounting of the TV film series, The Olive Route (inspired by my two travel books: The Olive Route and The Olive Tree). We had planned to be filming by this autumn but the Euro crisis set us back several months because one or two of our partners have been struggling to keep afloat and, unsurprisingly, certain national television stations are unable to commit to major financial partnerships. It is all par for the course in the world of film production, Michel assures me, but I am impatient.
Thankfully, we are now in pre-production with several solid partners on board, including ZDF in Germany and ARTE in France and Germany. Our first bouts of filming begin in a few weeks time, which is perfect and very exciting because all around the Mediterranean now folk are harvesting their olives and we will have the opportunity to catch this on film. Travelling with one of our directors, I will visit places and people I encountered during my travels for the two books. We intend to begin at the very heart of the Mediterranean, in Sicily and Malta. Then our next stops will be Spain and Turkey.
I am having such fun with this project. It keeps all my travels alive and offers me the opportunity to observe what changes are taking place as well as to discover new locations and pick up on details I missed or did not have time for during my solo sixteen-month journey for the books. Altogether, we are delivering ten, one-hour films all shot in High- Definition. It is a very challenging project, blessed by UNESCO, and should be on your screens in spring 2012.
Bees. Yes. Bees. Lovely Lisa from Orion who manages the website with me has helped me create a Bee Page (see headings on Home page). The idea is that I want to share with readers and those who drop in here from time to time, the latest developments in the fight to save the honey bee who, as you know if you read my pages regularly, is becoming endangered. One third of the world’s honeybees have disappeared and no one can say what has happened to them. I am convinced that the cause of this very worrying situation is multifold: honey bees, like all other pollinators, are losing their habitats to farming and construction. The chemicals sprayed on the plantation fields are damaging the insects’ nervous systems. Also, the bees no longer have such a wide choice of plants to feed off due to monocultured farming and the loss of so many wild flowers. Imagine for a moment if we were living on a diet of rice and wheat. Our bodies would not be receiving all the vitamins etc that we need to function properly. The same is true of other creatures too, including bees. And, by the way, if we lose the honey bee, the earth’s primary pollinator, in no time at all we WILL be living on diets of rice and wheat because the flowers of most of our fruits and vegetables are pollinated by the honey bee and without her….
The British National Trust are placing hives in the grounds of all their properties and are working very hard to create awareness. They are also encouraging many of their gardeners to learn to become beekeepers. If you want to know more about this, look at the Bee page or write to me and I can send you lists of nectar-rich plants to grow in your gardens, allotments or windowboxes. Or join my Facebook page, OLIVE FARM, and there you will be able to engage with many others who are equally eager to assist in the Saving of the Honey Bee. Even if the bee is not a concern for you, do join the page. It is attracting quite an astounding group. I love visiting it myself and spend far too much time ‘talking’ to readers and ‘friends’ when, in fact, I should be writing!
Honey, olive oil. Delicious, nurturing foodstuffs. I am keen to set up a Mediterranean Food Company fuelled by the finest of produce grown by friends or colleagues of mine from all around the Med. As I am utterly hopeless at business, I am looking for someone who is skilled in such areas to be the business partner. So, if you know of anyone, please email me with details. It does need to be someone who has plenty of experience in this area. So, please only write if that is the case.
What else? In between all my travels, I still have a few events where I will be speaking about all that we are doing. So, keep an eye on the Events page and if you are in the neighbourhood, please come along and say hello. Otherwise, look out the windows, walk in the park, celebrate the autumn colours and fruits. Here in the western hemisphere, we are enjoying our season of mellow fruitfulness. For those of you across the world, have a wonderful springtime.
If you are one of those earlybirds who is already scooting about the place buying Christmas presents, Return to the Olive Farm is a very uplifting book, I promise, and your friends and family will love it. Please, put it on the shopping lists!
Thank you, as always, for all the letters and feedback. I know I am getting slower at responding. It is simply that the mailbag gets heavier and I have no secretary, so please be patient. I do always answer eventually. Oops, the dogs are barking. The postman approaches. I must run or they will be chasing him off his moped again and La Poste will be telephoning me, threatening yet again the discontinuation of mail delivery across this entire hillside if our hounds are not chained up. The neighbours will be up in arms and I won’t receive your letters. Thank you for popping by and reading this.
Bye for now!