When you are dealing with a tree that is eternal, you learn perspective.
This was a far cry from my New York years in children’s book publishing, and later doing outreach and H.I.V. testing with street prostitutes, but it suited me better. No thinking required, just hands, the ability to climb a ladder and a tree and “milk” its branches.
Harvesting olives is done here the same way it has been done for hundreds of years. I worked a small organic farm with 350 trees in Nyons in the Drôme Provençale, where I now live.
Nyons is the olive capital of France; on January 10, 1994, its olives and its oil were the firstin France to receive the coveted Appellation d’Origine Contrôllé (A.O.C.), similar to that which is granted to high-quality wines.
A mature olive tree is almost a sentient being; to spend time with one is an intimate, spiritual experience.
Nyons olives are the tanche variety — small, mild, black and wrinkled when ripe. Some of the local trees are said to be over 1,000 years old. It’s thought the tanche were first introduced in France by Massilian Greeks in the 4th century B.C. Today they grow primarily in the southern Drôme and northern Vaucluse, with the commune of Nyons being the northernmost point in which the trees can survive. Olive trees never die but give birth from their stumps to new shoots that grow into trees.
A mature olive tree is almost a sentient being; to spend time with one is an intimate, spiritual experience. Every tree is different, having its own personality and aura. Growers often endow each of their many trees with a human name and human attributes. Sometimes I contemplate all that a tree must have witnessed in its majestic silence over the centuries. Each year, I experienced a sense of contentment and peace that has rarely, if ever, been present in other jobs I’ve had.
We would begin to pick as soon as the sun rose. Eight of us worked the three-week harvest. We would each take a hand-woven wicker basket, securing its leather straps halter-style over our shoulders so the basket hung at chest level.
We’d load the back of the tractor with wooden crates marked differently for each picker and grab a heavy eight, or nine-foot wooden ladder that comes to a point at the top so it can easily be steadied inside a tree. Carrying the ladder up to the groves was often the hardest part for me because I’m only five feet two inches tall.
Once we arrived, we’d each take a row of trees and start picking, beginning from the ground. The men, all seasoned pickers, were highly competitive and tried to grab the best older trees with four or more trunks at their base and many branches heavy with fruit. We were paid by the hour and also by the total weight of olives picked. It is possible to work the same tree for one or two hours, “milking” the branches with both hands so the olives fall directly into the basket.
The larger olives reserved for eating are cured in a brine solution of 10 percent salt to each litre of water for six months. Some were put aside to make olives piquées, pricked olives treated with salt but not brined that can be eaten in 8 to 15 days but last for only three to four months. Others had to be sorted and packed by hand in glass jars for a Swiss client who ordered them raw — 2,500 jars to be exact, with each jar needing to weigh precisely 808 grams without the lid. Trying to eat an olive, uncured, straight from the tree is not a pleasant experience, though the raw-food cult in Switzerland preferred them that way.
After personally packing close to 2,000 jars every winter, I can now look at a single olive and tell you its weight. This is a rare skill, to be sure, though I don’t see it leading to other exciting and financially remunerative career opportunities.
My other talent was calibrating. Every other day, we’d take the olives to calibrate at the mill. If you have seen Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’ or the ‘I Love Lucy’ episode where Lucy works the conveyor belt in a chocolate factory, you’ll have some idea what calibrating is like.
Picture sitting outdoors in freezing cold on a crate for two or three hours nonstop while several hundred olives a minute are spat at you to sort and select from the jaws of an enormous machine. You must be nimble, you must be quick, your concentration cannot wander; you can’t so much as yawn or sneeze.
Once the olives are calibrated, the ones not for eating are cold-pressed into oil using the same method that’s been used for centuries. It takes 5 kilograms of tanche olives to make a litre of oil. Trees yield an average of 15 to 20 kilos of olives. After the olives are washed and crushed into paste, the paste is pressed; out comes the first oil and vegetation water, which are separated by decantation. This is the first cold-pressed extra-virgin oil with a sourness rate of less than 1 percent, the best. The olives we left at the mill in the morning were liquid gold by night.
Growers often endow each of their many trees with a human name and human attributes
We worked daily from dawn to dusk, with Sundays off, sometimes. We’d break for lunch, enjoying a communal meal around an old farm table by a wood-burning stove — bread, cheese, sausage, pâté, hard-boiled eggs, cold meats and sometimes homemade soup, followed by chocolate, fruit and steaming bowls of café au lait. A couple of the men would finish off with shots of vodka. When it rained or the leaves of the trees were wet, we couldn’t work; the moisture would rot the picked olives.
Evenings I’d come home, exhausted but happy. On harvest nights I slept well. I didn’t have to worry about the marketplace, climatic changes, profit margins and such. A hired hand, I just picked.
Several years back, the farm where I worked was sold, the Swiss client pulled out and the new owners no longer had need of my particular talent. Living in Nyons, a small town of 7,000 off the track of the chic and the trendy, one is still infused with everything olive. The Institut du Monde de l’Olivier (Institute of the World of the Olive Tree), founded in 1996, is a free cultural and educational centre that welcomes visitors year-round. In addition to Vignolis, the Nyons Cooperative, which sells and exports oil under the famous label Nyonsolive, there are seven independent olive oil mills with, in my opinion, often superior oil simply because most have their own trees and greater control over the quality of the olives used. My personal favourite is the Moulin Autrand-Dozol, founded in 1847, whose oil won first prize at the prestigious 2014 Paris Agricultural Fair. Outside the town’s centre, along the River Eygues (egg) is the La Scourtinerie, which manufactures the coco fibre mats, scourtins, once used in the pressing and filtering of olive oil. The small family industry, founded in 1882, has adapted the former beret-shaped scourtins to make flat decorative rugs and mats. The Scourtinerie includes a museum, weaving demonstrations, a gift shop and summer buvette. Visitors will often find the long reams of newly dyed coco fibres drying outside in the sun.
I can now look at a single olive and tell you its weight.
Nyons has three annual olive festivals, the Olivades in July, for the induction of new members to La Confrérie du Monde de l’Olivier, the Fête des Olives Piquées, the year’s first eating olives, in December and the well-known three-day Fête de l’Alicoque, which concludes on the first Sunday in February. The Alicoque celebrates and blesses the year’s first cold-pressed extra-virgin oil, the “liquid gold” of Nyons (pronounced “N’yonce”). The word Alicoque is thought to come from a Provençal corruption of the French aïl (garlic) and croque (toasted bread). The highlight of the Alicoque is the rubbing of raw garlic on toasted baguette rounds dipped in the new oil. Long tables are set up in the 15th-century arcaded Place du Dr. Bourdongle. For two hours, the Chevaliers du Monde de la Confrérie de l’Olivier (Knights of the World Brotherhood of the Olive Tree), sporting Robin Hood hats with olive branches for plumes, dark green velvet jackets and capes and large olive-tree medallions on tri-colour ribbons around their necks, serve the celebrants local Côtes-du-Rhône, croutons, garlic cloves (Provence garlic is strong enough to make you cry) and the year’s first cold-pressed extra-virgin oil. Musicians play Provençal tunes on ancient instruments while folkloric dancers perform in traditional Provençal dress. In 2014, from 11 pm to 1 pm, 5,500 people consumed 121 litres of wine, 5,000 croutons, 30 litres of olive oil and 4 kilos of garlic. All day Sunday, farmers and artisans offer for sampling and sale: Nyons olives, olive oil, tapenade, cured meats, sausages and pâtés, honey, cheese, brightly-coloured Provençal fabric, pottery, foie gras, truffles, jams and jellies, walnuts and walnut oil, white oak (truffle tree) saplings, boughs of fresh mimosa blossoms, handmade soap, baked goods, lavender products and utensils made from olive wood.
The weekend officially begins with a Mass on Friday night. The Chevaliers enter the town’s Romanesque Catholic Church in a solemn procession, each carrying long white candle-lit tapers. The church is festively decorated with olive branches; prayers and blessings are said and hymns sung to the most sacred of trees. More than anywhere else in France, Nyons is the spiritual centre of all things olive. Each year the small church is packed to capacity with standing room only. The weekend is dedicated to olives and oléiculture, with tours of local mills, guided hikes into the olives groves, visits to the Scourtinerie, lectures, concerts and catered meals centred on dishes made with olives and olive oil.
There was a bittersweet note to this year’s Alicoque, Nyons’ 31st. The 2014 olive crop was ravaged by the Dacus olive-fruit fly which laid waste to between 50 and 70% of the Nyons region’s output, with some of the smaller growers losing 100% of their olives. An insufficiently cold winter combined with an insufficiently hot summer and unfavorable rain conditions allowed the fly’s larvae to flourish and attack the olives, though the trees remained unharmed. A request for aid, as yet unresolved, has been made to the French government. The Nyonsais are philosophical; they have seen tragedy strike their sacred trees before. When you are dealing with a tree that is eternal, you learn perspective
Recipe: Les Scourtins aux Olives de Nyons
These biscuits are from an original recipe of the Autrand-Dozol family. They look like miniature scourtins and are perfect to serve with an apéritif.
To shape the biscuits, use a small pastry cutter, about 2 inches in diameter for 24 scourtins
Mix 3/4 cup cake flour with 1 cup unbleached flour, sifted
3/4 cup confectioner’s sugar *, sifted
9 tbsp. sweet butter, room temperature
l tbsp first cold-pressed virgin olive oil, preferably from Nyons
l cup, loosely packed pitted black olives, preferably from Nyons
* icing sugar in the UK
In the bowl of a large mixer, combine the flour and sugar. Mix at medium speed using the hook attachment.
Add the butter cut up and beat at medium speed until the mixture looks like corn meal.
Add the oil and olives and beat until the mixture forms a spreadable dough.
Line a cookie sheet with plastic wrap. Transfer the dough on top of the paper, cover again with plastic wrap. Roll out the dough until it is a little less than 1/2 inch thick
Preheat the oven to 325° F.
Refrigerate until firm. Discard the plastic wrap and cut out little doughnuts. Roll out the leftover dough to make more scourtins. Transfer them to a cookie sheet
Bake the biscuits on the middle rack for about 15 minutes, turn them over once during the baking to brown them uniformly.
Transfer the scourtins to a rack to cool.
Photographs courtesy of the author & M Christian Bertheye, Musee de l’Olivier