Nyons, France

For years, every November and December, my fingers were purple-black, my nails Goth. While the rest of the world was madly dashing around doing holiday shopping, I was up a tree. An olive tree, to be exact. I worked the annual harvest.

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.

Nyons olive grove

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.

black_olives

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 lOlivier (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.

fam parejas

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 lOlivier, the Fête des Olives Piquées, the year’s first eating olives, in December and the well-known three-day Fête de lAlicoque, 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 lOlivier (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.

Patricia Fieldsteel.

Photographs courtesy of the author &  M Christian Bertheye, Musee de l’Olivier

Joining the Search – Lindsey Bareham

Lindsey Bareham would likely appear modest at a party set to display the more brazen of modern television chefs, but her quiet contribution to the British canon of contemporary food writing is immeasurable.

As a restaurant critic and food writer she has worked for Time Out, Evening Standard and The Times here in London.

As an author her work coasted into double figures some time ago. One of her earliest books; In Praise of the Potato, would secure a place in the annals of worldwide food writing with scant assistance.

Her more recent publications, high on contextual intonation, delight in their ability to reassure and surprise in equal measure. In any kitchen her recipes seem to conjure up Lindsey herself, there as a constant support, reassuringly alongside at every twist and turn of the cooking process. The food she shares is correspondingly delicious.

In addition, if addition were still needed, she co-created both The Prawn Cocktail Years and Roast Chicken and Other Stories with one of the UK’s most talented food writers; Simon Hopkinson. The latter publication was voted as the ‘Most Useful Cookery Book’ by fellow chefs and food writers. It won both the André Simon Award and the Glenfiddich Award for ‘Food Book of the Year’.

We are so pleased to welcome Lindsey, initially to our guest blog spot, but shortly to the pages of our first edition.

We asked her to forward  details so that we may introduce you to her myriad books in our Found section. She promptly and generously sent a blog chronicling her winter stay in her beloved Cornwall. This was followed by one of her eminently sensible recipes for Seville orange marmalade.

Losing no time, we were happy to publish this latter article so that we may chime with the short winter season of this racy citrus fruit.

Seville-oranges

Seville Orange Marmalade

Each year I aim to make enough marmalade for my family’s needs through the year, with plenty of smaller jars to give away. It’s easy to miss the Seville orange season because it’s short and sharp and seems to be getting earlier every year. These oranges look unpromising, small with thick, nobbly, saggy skin. There are no juicy segments of orange under the skin, instead they are all pips and pith.

Should you risk a bite, the fruit is mouth-puckeringly bitter.

The whole fruit goes into marmalade making. The thick pith melts to thicken the liquid and the zest becomes the chunky bits. How you slice the skin – slim and elegant or thick and chunky – and how much you include is a matter of taste but the oranges produce what seems an impossibly large amount. Marmalade making is sticky business but it’s a mindless series of tasks and the results are so much better than anything you can buy in the shops.

Over the years I’ve tried several recipes but I always come back to this one because the procedure eliminates so many potential problems and the quantities are easy to remember. Seville oranges have good setting qualities but adding a couple of lemons, which are high in essential pectin, is a belt-and-braces back up. They also point up the tart yet mellow flavour of the marmalade. Last year for the first time, I used a proportion of preserving sugar to safeguard against mildew but I tend to use marmalade making as an opportunity to clear out the half packets of sugar accumulated at the back of the cupboard. Each batch is slightly different. White sugars give a clean taste and bright, iridescent orange marmalade while light or dark palm sugars deepen the colour and enrich the flavour. Molasses cane sugar, which I particularly like, produces a marmalade that is almost black.

Playing around with the basic recipe, adding cardamom or other spices, should be done for the last few minutes of cooking for the strongest flavour, as they’ll infuse while the marmalade cools slightly before bottling. For whisky and brandy, add a splash to the jar as you pour the marmalade in and your breakfast toast will set you up nicely for the day. These tips come from baker Dan Lepard (www.danlepard.com) who also suggests adding Campari or hot smoked paprika with onion and garlic to make a savoury Seville orange marmalade.

I don’t possess a preserving pan, so I use my large, deep, heavy-bottomed lidded saucepan. This is important because the marmalade rises high in the pan as it boils and is why you also need a long handled wooden spoon. I collect and re-cycle jam jars but always seem to run out and there is nothing nicer than a supply of lovely new jars to fill. Small jars, ideal for random little gifts, become incredibly sought after. Personalizing labels will become addictive.

Makes 6-8 x 340g jars

Prep: 45 min. Cook: 90 min

10 Seville oranges

2 lemons

2 kg sugar, 500g of which should be preserving sugar

2 litres water

Place whole oranges and lemons in given water in a large lidded pan placed over a very low heat. Cover and simmer until soft. Use a saucepan lid to keep them immersed, piercing after about 20 minutes to encourage immersion. Time for this varies depending on age and quality of the fruit but allow at least 45 minutes. Lift the fruit into a colander over a bowl and leave to cool. Dissolve the sugar in the orange water. Halve the soft fruit, scrape out the seeds and place in a jelly bag or fold of muslin. Tie with string and hang over the side of the pan. Slice or chop the peel thinly; I do all of it because I like chunky marmalade but how much peel is a matter of taste. Stir the peel into the liquid. Bring to simmer, stirring to ensure the sugar is dissolved, then boil hard, stirring occasionally, until setting point is reached. This varies and may be as little as 5 minutes but more likely to be 15. Once it begins to look syrupy, test by placing a teaspoonful on a cold saucer. Cool then push with your finger. If it wrinkles it’s done. Leave to settle in the pan before pouring into hot sterilized jam jars. A momentary rest stops the peel rising up the jar as the jam cools. Cover immediately, cool and label with the date and type of sugar before storing. Ready to eat immediately.

Lindsey Bareham.

 

Palermo, 1983: Lunch in the 2nd Mafia War

On the night of March 6, 1983, I travelled by boat from Naples to Palermo. Not only had Goethe done the same 200 years earlier, but it seemed the safest way. In the beginning, airplanes did badly at Palermo. The almost new airport, then open to international carriers of every size, had short runways, which in turn led to flawed landings. One wanted to give it a few years.

I do not know what it would have taken, remotely, to prepare me for the 2nd Mafia War then raging in Palermo.

It was my second trip to Sicily, and there were things I wanted to eat.

The season would open in 10 days’ time, the weather would warm, and the Northern Europeans would come, legs covered with bright hair, uncapped camera lenses glinting. Americans did not yet come to Sicily in high numbers, but everyone else did. I hoped to get my licks in ahead of all that.

I do not know what it would have taken, remotely, to prepare me for the 2nd Mafia War, then raging in Palermo. It was apparently not much of an off-island affair. Years would go by before I, or anyone, could read its true history or know whom to call the victors. Meanwhile, at first light on March 7, my companion and I left cabin number 37 on the Nomentana, the flagship of the Tirennia Navigazione line, debarked, and cabbed to the Grand Hotel et des Palmes in downtown Palermo. A fancier place than usual for either of us, but Wagner had written a big chunk of Parsifal there, and that was worth money – was it not?

Within a very few hours, I would appreciate, as never before, being on the third floor of a posh hotel, with television and thick, thick walls. We settled into our room to plan the day. Nothing beats heading out of a hugely comfortable hotel full of wagneriana for a morning of Norman-Sicilian architecture and a good lunch. Except for the Carabinieri with Uzis at all four points of every intersection downtown, not to mention on the parapets of strategic buildings – in the grey of early morning, we had missed these details – that’s just the kind of day it would have been.

palermo-kalso1

“Smart people would leave now,” I said to my companion, as we made for the royal palace to have a look at the throne room of Roger II, where Saracen mosaics depicted a battle of centaurs with believably shaggy legs, a triumph of that art. “Yes,” he replied. “But not before lunch.”

We turned into the via Archimede for a drink at the Caffè Caflisch, beloved of Giuseppe di Lampedusa. Palermitani spooning gelati gave no attention to the military police. Something powerful and unseen made us aware no inquiries would even be processed. The elephant was firmly lodged in the parlour, as in a Pirandello play.

I got it, I did.

Back then, I lived for most of the year in San Francisco, where earth tremors could flip you out of a chair, but in a public place, such as a café, everyone pretended nothing was happening. Either there was an emergency that would alter life hideously, that would not end for hours or days, or it was nothing. Not about to commit the brutta figura of appearing on edge, I sipped my Campari and thought about lunch. Was there anything the prospect of an excellent lunch failed to make more cheerful?

Lunching at the Trattoria L’Angolo, in the via Simone Corleo, clarified our situation somewhat. One rang a bell, one did not simply enter. A brave waiter narrowly opened the door, an eye and a shoulder visible. The long facade was mirror plexiglass recently riveted there, no one could see in. Boy children on the sidewalk were clowning into the mirror, and through the buckling plexi we saw the soles of their sneakers, kicking at us. We declined a table at the window – who would not have done? – and got in worse trouble, seated far back near the dark corpulent man, too sharply dressed and complaining of his fettucine; the man to whom everyone ‘salaamed’. The decor put me in mind of Mexico City; a clan plaid on all soft surfaces, ledges of sculpted formica inevitably chipped. We ate there, as we had heard we would eat, the most distinguished pasta sarde of our lives. Nothing could touch it, nothing ever will.

Dulled by a Corvo bianco, we made for the Palazzo Chiaramonte in the Kalsa, Palermo’s most bombed-out noble neighbourhood, not yet recovered from Allied attacks in World War II. Fragments of rococo architecture hung like laundry in the air. A woman in a headscarf lowered a basket from a high window, and drew up some oranges from a vendor driving a donkey. Our attention was demanded by the giant ficus magnolioides in the Garibaldi Park, the most advancing tree on earth, that grew not by adding rings but by throwing out a bolus now and then. In time, it would utterly overwhelm the exquisite wrought iron fence with a caccia motif that girdled it, every post a sharp arrow, hare and water-fowl bursting from rope bags.

palermo-ficus2

Was there anything the prospect of an excellent lunch failed to make more cheerful?

Back in room number 324, which looked out onto the via R. Wagner – not that one hovered near the windows – we got into bed. It would be siesta time for hours. The starched, cool sheets were very agreeable. I wrote and drew in my diary, which explains my command of detail all these decades later, and we traded some new thoughts on Parsifal, having one month earlier seen Pier Luigi Pizzi’s gala production at Teatro la Fenice in Venice. It was one of those rare times when talking about Wagner whilst thinking about something else let us down, and we switched on the TV.

American soaps were evening shows in Palermo. ‘Another World’ appeared as ‘Altro Mondo,’ and was dubbed. An actor resembling my sister floated onto the screen, speaking Italian. It was my sister, who is an actor. Any other day, and this would have been the thing. Then, ‘Ritorno a Brideshead di Evelyn Waugh,’ a fantastic watch in Italian I must say. But could we see the evening news? Not the tip of its nose.

Going out to dine felt iffy. So we did a thing unprecedented in our travels together, we phoned the dining room for a salad of oranges and onions, followed by involtini di pesce spada with dark greens. Then we hit the mini-bar. I recorded that it was a dinner not to be regretted, that I was grateful for it. Had it been awful, I would happily have told my diary so.

‘Fawlty Towers’ (Basile e Sybilla) came on – unfunny in Italian, except for the sight gags. Apparently Manuel had to be Spanish, or the whole concept crashed. We sought alternatives to a wild-eyed professor lecturing on the history of Italian Protestantism. A period movie was just the ticket: men in suits heading to the bank, gathering beside the columns for intrigue, coming home to be served by women in long form-fitting taffeta gowns. And finally, when it looked like a lost cause, the local news. Pay dirt!

An announcer called Michele Mangiafico helmed the broadcast. He had the job, every night at this hour, gravely to recite the names of the war dead and to explicate the very frank photos that came in – photos that would not have been shown on American television. Men in Western Sicily, in the mountains and in the capital, had been murdered this day. The passionate sorrow of mothers, widows and orphans was intimately real. We knew they were watching, having waited until midnight to learn the almost hidden news – terrible or sublime.

The next morning, we found a train out, but not before lunch, a refrain in our lives. In the cloisters of a vanished monastery, I wrote later on that train, was the archeological museum of Palermo. We saw Greek paintings, from the fourth century bce, banquet scenes, funerary arks, necropolis mice, fish bones on a terra cotta plate.

I don’t remember a thing about it, but I remember writing it all down.

The Caffè Roney in the via Libertà is more fashionable now than it was, but it has always had the deep porches of an establishment in the tropics. There, dons in dark suits read the papers. One was the most powerful looking man I had ever seen, and I almost couldn’t look away. But then, my companion observed, what a good idea if the don didn’t notice me. I still think about him.

Our last Palermo lunch was at Chamade, in the via Torrearsa. I had heard about their special chickpea pancakes with prosciutto and eggplant – nothing was ever so good. I would have begged the recipe off the chef, but this was not the time. For the duration of the war, Chamade had moved several floors downstairs from itself, to a beautifully appointed sub-basement, and installed glass treads in the spiral staircase. No one could descend or ascend unobserved. This was superb massacre prevention, as getting the advantage of surprise and making a clean getaway were both impossible. The raffinati could have a little peace of mind down there, and were almost merry. This was the day I got around to drinking a Colomba Platino – an excellent choice with fish. Ah, those gambaroni alla griglia!

ricevuta-palermo

Not for years would we learn that 1000 had died in the second Mafia War, also referred to as the Mattanza, or slaughter. That it was a war for dominance among Sicilian Mafia factions, leaving the mainland factions out, and destroying the long primacy of the Palermo bosses. The Corleonesi, the bosses from the hills, were victorious through sheer slaughter. It would be said none of the vanquished was left, so that it had been a war without losers.

Leaving Palermo by train, one rackets along the Northern coast, past Cefalù, past the Aeolian Islands, through tunnels, past Norman ruins by the sea. In 6 hours’ time, we would pull into Taormina, on the flank of the bull mountain, with Etna to look at, and streets like opera sets.

There would be dinner.

We’d gotten away.

Elatia Harris. Illustrations courtesy of the author.