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Bite Goes Olive Picking
Bite Goes Olive Picking



Olive Picking in Provence

 You may have seen the Bertolli Olivio advert. Healthy, twinkle-eyed,  Italian folk, frolicking in the sun-drenched groves of Tuscany; the message is clear, good olive oil will keep you healthy and young at heart, mediterranean-stylee.

This advert was at the front of my mind as I boarded a plane for Lyon.  A small group of friends and I were to hire a car and drive to Riez in Provence to stay with another friend and help her with the annual harvest.

It was December and most people I mentioned the trip to, wondered what the hell I was doing picking olives at this time of the year but the fruits are harvested in late autumn/winter. It is just that the Mediterranean weather is warmer longer so to northern eyes it looks like summer when we see images of the harvest.

I had done agricultural work before so was prepared for the worst; bad weather, back-ache, sore hands etc but as it turned out the weather was good and the work well within the capabilities of the whole group which ranged in age from 30-70 years.

On Sunday, the day after our arrival, our host and boss walked us around the grounds of her estate and told us there were about 1200 trees, of which some 400-500 were bearing fruit. They were young trees, so the picking was to be done by hand. Only when the trees are more mature are nets and ladders needed, like in the aforementioned advert.  And said our host :" Once we start all the olives have to be picked and taken to the local presse. We go at it full pelt so that they don't begin to oxidise and that's how we get the best oil."

A morning's work on Monday further enhanced our familiarity with the terrain. Lines of gnarled trees, like those Van Gogh painted, stretched in lines up the hill beside the house. They also grew around the gardens and by the pool along with the dark twisted cypress trees which also recalled The Impressionist's landscapes. In the background were the snow covered Haute-Alps and beyond the olive trees the lavender fields. These had been harvested in the summer but the smell still lingered and mingled with smoky autumnal air. Apparently the house we were staying in was home to about 200 lavender workers last century.

On that first day the sun was shining and when we stopped for lunch we could sit outside. I grew to love the lunches. Mostly we had soup of some kind (rabbit, chicken, mussel) with bread, pate, cheese, patisserie and lashings of Rose wine. Our French fellow workers refreshed themselves with their beloved Pastis; drinking at lunchtime was an easy habit to acquire after a morning in the field.

Our job was simple. Just pick all the olives from the tree and move on to the next one.  We came to recognise the different looking 'drupes'; luscious, plump and black, small and black, red-tinged and wrinkly green.  The hardest to get were those at the top of the tree but you learnt to simply bend the branch down to your bucket, rummage in the silvery long leaves, and strip it of its fruit.  At the end of each tree you would stand back and survey it against the azure sky. There were sure to be a few olives missed and one became quite obsessive. We spent three full days working and collected 208 kilos which would yield about 46 litres of oil. 

I can't find a negative side to picking olives. The work of course is repetitive but it is also very therapeutic. You are in the fresh air and connecting with the land.  It is sociable and communal, you work and then enjoy food and wine with your fellow workers but you can also just disappear to a 'tree of your own' in you need a little peace. And ultimately you have the joy of the final product.

On Thursday, late afternoon, the whole group pitched in to strip the very last tree of the year and on Friday we made the 45 minute drive to the local 'presse' in the town of Aups. People from all over the area were arriving with their harvests, large and small; the presse was buzzing with industry and a sense achievement and provenance.  It would be hard to make money out of a small grove; after labour costs and maintenance you would be lucky to break even. Most people in this situation harvest olives for tradition and for the pleasure of having the very best quality, fresh oil available year-round. And after all, olive trees grow everywhere in 'le midi'; in gardens, along road-sides, you simply have to pick them.

We had just enough olives for our own 'press'. Those people that had less than about 190 kilos would join with others and communal oil would be produced and shared.  All olives must be processed before consumption; you can't just eat them from the tree. In Provence, olives are produced and processed for eating in the summer. The olives are picked, a slit made in each fruit, and they are sealed in a container filled with water, brine, or a vinegar solution that allows them to ferment which removes bitter compounds that would otherwise make them inedible. One assumes that his is why the birds don't eat the olives before the pickers get to them. Olives, like ours, that are destined for oil are collected, pressed, bottled and stored.

Sadly we had to leave it to our host to go and collect the oil the following week as we made our way back to a very snowy Scotland. Not however, before having a celebratory meal which began with baguette dipped in exceptional local oil!

Where Can You Pick Olives in Provence?

www.wwoof.org - A website that lists world-wide opportunities on organic

farms including France and is a good place to start.


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