Living – and Eating – in Queens, New York

For years, even Manhattanites refused to cross the East River into Brooklyn or Queens, so you certainly wouldn’t have found either of these subordinate New York City boroughs making their way onto tourist itineraries either. But the tables are turning—quite literally.

Queens...has recently thrown its chef’s hat into the ring.

Brooklyn has been holding its own as a hotbed of coolness, particularly in the gastronomic realm, for more than a decade now. The boon of farm, ocean and forest-to-table eateries—not to mention the coffee, tea, and matcha cafes, the trucks that dole out steamed, grilled, and fried food all hours of the day and night, the artisanal bakeries, the gastropubs, wine bars, dessert bars, microbreweries, distilleries, and cocktail-slinging speakeasies with their herb-infused simple syrups and their small-batch liquors—has lead to a culinary explosion that now extends far beyond Kings County.

But the brooklynisation of America that has influenced the eruption of white subway-tile clad, reclaimed wood-countered, dimly Edison-lightbulb-lit, urban-rustic-chic eateries and drinkeries from Williamsburg (Brooklyn’s epicentre of hipness) to California is old news. What’s new is that Queens, long considered Brooklyn’s almost entirely un-compelling sidekick to the north, has recently thrown its chef’s hat into the ring.

Food writers from the New York Times and other food-focused magazines and blogs have been evangelising about Queens cuisine with regularity for sometime now, but the borough has largely remained under the radar for most. However, with Queens topping Lonely Planets “Best in the US” list for 2015, our humble borough’s secret is out. Now even international tourists know that we have world-class museums and sculpture gardens, an east coast Tinseltown, a colourful music history, a surf scene, a county farm on the ground and a few more up on the rooftops. And being one of the most ethnically diverse places on earth, we’ve got food that will blow your mind.

This is not to say that the restaurants in Queens rival the level of artistry, sophistication, or innovation that can be discovered in Manhattan’s finest restaurants or that you’ll find the same obsession with hyper-locavorism that has put the greenmarket-driven seasonal New American fare of Brooklyn on the gastronomic map. What we offer instead is a nearly incomprehensible concentration of eateries that showcase authentic cuisines from all over the world.

Flushing Xian FF soup 2

...being one of the most ethnically diverse places on earth, we’ve got food that will blow your mind

The enclaves of Queens are teeming with chefs and food purveyors from Europe, Africa, Asia, and North, Central, and South America. And, reflecting its origins, the food culture here is not limited to traditional sit-down restaurants. You might be grabbing the best kebab, curry, or plate of momos (Tibetan or Nepalese dumplings) you’ve ever sunk your teeth into from a food cart on a corner in Jackson Heights while a subway train roars above your head or the most scrumptious Taiwanese pork bun on the subterranean level of a Flushing food mall, where pungent, heady aromas of hot oil, Asian 5-spice, grilled meats, stir-fry, and spicy broths thicken and perfume the air.

And sometimes, in Queens, the most amazing food just materialises in an unexpected setting, such as when you’re sipping a sweet and salty lime-, lychee- and chile-laden cocktail at the Thai bar Pata Paplean in Elmhurst at 4PM on a Saturday, and even though the bar only serves drinks and bar snacks (as far as you knew), you’re suddenly presented with the option to order a bowl of sweet and tangy noodle soup brimming with pork and fish balls and a zing of lime juice, fish sauce, chile, and cilantro. Naturally, you seize the moment. Gobsmacked by the heat and bright flavours, you start to mentally reorganise your life so you can come back and slurp down these magnificent noodles every day. But then you’re informed that noodles are only served here for a few hours a few days a week. Sometimes you’re just lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

Flushing Happy Food

As with many American families, the first big trip of my childhood was to Disney World. I was nine years old, and what was most memorable about it for me was not the Magic Kingdom but the international food pavilions at the newly opened EPCOT Center. This was back in the early 1980s, so American food culture was still, for the most part, in the dark ages. Not yet having been exposed to many foreign cuisines, I was intensely curious about what people ate in Japan, France, Germany, Mexico, and other parts of the world. I remember being surprised and delighted that nothing tasted as I had expected. I had no frame of reference for the new sweet, sour, and spicy flavours that were sparking my taste buds. It was an awakening. This feeling returns repeatedly in Queens as I deepen my explorations into the regional cuisines of countries whose food I thought I knew.

Though my palate has evolved with a couple of decades of international travel, I still experience anticipatory glee when I read a description on a menu and I can’t really imagine what the thing will look or taste like, even if I recognise some—or most—of the ingredients. The initial element of surprise can occasionally turn to disappointment, but taking the risk and ordering the mysterious item often reaps delicious benefits. For instance, a combination of pork organs and blood with the right spice, herbs, and seasonings can be transformative—and yes, seriously delicious, as evidenced by the num tok noodle soup served at Plant Love House, an adorable little Thai restaurant run by two sisters and their mom in Elmhurst. A tongue taco sprinkled with cilantro, a spritz of lime, and a squirt of crema (a Mexican version of sour cream or crème fraiche), like the one thrown together by the women inside the Mexican truck, Tacos Rey de Oro, that’s often parked below the 52nd Street and Lincoln subway stop in Woodside, turns out to be the ideal after-midnight morsel. Next, I’m looking forward to trying the jellyfish hearts at Fu Ran (formerly Fu Run), a Chinese restaurant in Flushing that specialises in food from the northeastern Dongbei region.

 

Elmhurst Khao Kang dessert

Walt Disney may have designed the EPCOT Center to showcase a microcosm of global culture, but Queens is the real deal. Four or five subway lines can take you on an authentic culinary tour of the world (and this is still only a small fraction of what the borough has to offer). Heading out on the N or Q train will land you in the Greek, Egyptian, Middle Eastern, and Eastern European neighbourhoods of Astoria. The first ten stops on the 7 Train will take you out to Irish pubs, Italian pizzerias, French bistros, Middle Eastern bakeries, Turkish falafel joints, Thai steam tables, spicy Korean hotpots, Filipino barbeque, and some of the city’s best Japanese food. After that, you’ll pass through Jackson Heights, which is still thought of as Little India, though it’s now home to many Pakistani, Himalayan, Tibetan, Nepalese, and Mexican restaurants too. The 7 and the R and M trains will deposit you in Thai Town or Little Bangkok, officially known as the neighbourhood of Elmhurst, which in addition to all of the Thai eateries also has its share of Indonesian and Vietnamese food. Flushing, our Chinatown, is at the end of the 7 line. Here you can feast on food from China’s most sought-after culinary provinces, including Szechuan, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Hunan, and Guangdong, as well as its more obscure, like Dongbei and Yunnan. But you’ll also find a holdover of Korean restaurants here along with the occasional Korean barbecue cart perched on the sidewalk grilling up skewered meats and serving them with a side of chilli-soaked kimchi. Before the Chinese took over, Flushing was home to a large Korean population. Koreatown has since branched out farther east into Murray Hill, Bayside, and beyond. Finally, the E and the F trains will drop you in the Caribbean, African American, and South Asian enclaves of Jamaica.

Elmhurst Pho Bac Vietnamese

Like fashionable neighbourhoods in cities all over the world, Queens’ surge toward popularity began with artists

Our borough has boasted ethnically diverse cuisine for decades, but it is only recently that people began celebrating it. The buzz about Queens food culture really started in Long Island City (LIC), the southwestern-most neighbourhood in Queens. It’s almost as if the culture of “food cool” came across the Newtown Creek by way of osmosis, or perhaps via the Pulaski, which is the drawbridge over there that links Brooklyn to Queens. Whether it was a result of the waning trend and oversaturation of Brooklyn’s glorification of its own grub or a matter of zeitgeist, it’s hard to say.

Like fashionable neighbourhoods in cities all over the world, Queens’ surge toward popularity began with artists. The former PS1 art exhibition space (known, since 2000, as MoMA PS1) has been a beacon of creativity in the area since it was first erected in a late 19th century public schoolhouse back in the early 1970s. Artists began funnelling into this industrial quarter and took up residence and workspaces in the increasingly defunct factory warehouses throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. A gallery and coffee-house culture ensued, followed by a new wave of restaurants and bars, which helped put LIC on the map as a cultural destination and paved the way for a complete renaissance.

Now considered the swankiest Queens neighbourhood, it boasts a skyline of luxury residential high-rises, a picturesque waterfront park overlooking Manhattan, art galleries, sculpture gardens, theatres, dozens of trendy restaurants and bars, greenmarkets, a weekend flea and food market, and an annual food festival. Even if it feels more like an extension of northern Brooklyn, LIC offers a good first taste of Queens, especially for tourists, as it’s just one subway stop from Midtown Manhattan and there are some real standout places to eat, drink, and visit.

In terms of eating, people flock here for M. Wells Dinette and the M. Wells Steakhouse. However, I’d steer you toward LIC Market, an earnest little restaurant just a stone’s throw from MoMA PS1 on 44th Drive. Chef-owner Alex Schindler is passionate about creating internationally influenced New American dishes with local and seasonal ingredients. At any time, you may find Japanese, Italian, or Latin American influences highlighted on the ever-changing menu, but Schindler has a way of delicately wielding his seasonings so that the pure flavours of his locally-sourced main ingredients remain the most resonant in each dish. He makes a great chocolate croissant too, with just the right combination of crispy and fluffy, salty and sweet, bitter chocolate and bready elements. Other neighbourhood gems include the old-school French bistro, Tournesol, where they whip up their own homemade terrines, and its sister wine bar, Domaine, both on Vernon Boulevard. The expertly mixed signature cocktails at Dutch Kills Bar on Jackson Avenue are the best I’ve had in the neighbourhood.

As a New York City dweller, I’ve migrated from Manhattan to Brooklyn to Queens over the past twenty years. My first Queens neighbourhood was Astoria. I moved there back in the summer of 2001. Having lived in Rome the previous summer and Paris the summer before that, it took a while for me to embrace the simpler flavours of Greek cooking which rely heavily on olive oil, lemon, oregano, and thyme—and honey for sweetening. But nearly a decade and a half later, I will still make special trips to Astoria for a dinner of fresh catch-of-the-day fish and boiled potatoes at Elias Corner, pistachio cookies and baklava from the Greek pastry shop, Artopolis, and on occasion, Czech beer and sausages at the Bohemian Beer Hall.

Lately, I’ve been devoting a lot of time to exploring the clusters of ethnic restaurants that jut out like constellations of deliciousness from the 7 train, the subway line that cuts across Midtown Manhattan at 42nd Street and then shoots straight through many of the best eating neighbourhoods in Queens, including where I currently live. Once predominantly populated by working class European immigrants, Irish, Italian, and German neighbourhoods like Sunnyside, Woodside, and Jackson Heights have been evolving to accommodate an influx of South and East Asian, Hispanic, and Caribbean immigrants, as well as a wave of upwardly mobile renters and first-time home buyers who are getting priced out of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

I relish the opportunity to get a proper pint and my fish-and-chips fix at pubs like Molly Bloom’s and The Dog and Duck in Sunnyside, but there’s one restaurant that surpasses the many other good ones in the neighbourhood: Takesushi. Locally, it’s said that this Japanese restaurant comes with a Park Avenue pedigree as owner, chef, and fishmonger, Robin Kawada, opened one of the first Japanese restaurants in Manhattan—on Park Avenue—more than 30 years ago.

Decades later, Kawada is still serving traditional Japanese dishes and ultra-fresh fish at his latest spot on 42nd Street in Sunnyside. His omakase selections are generous, manifesting in a seemingly endless stream of artfully executed small plates of fish and shellfish, and other seasonal ingredients. The Kaisen Don is one of my go-to dishes here. It comes in a regular and a deluxe version, each with an assortment of sashimi, a few thick ribbons of briny sea urchin, a sprinkling of salmon roe, and slices of seaweed, cucumber, and pickled ginger draped over a bed of rice with a little ball of tuna shavings—tuna surprise, as I always refer to it— tucked into the middle of the rice bowl. At Takesushi, the food is as fresh and delicious as it is tantalisingly beautiful, and sidling up to the bar to chat with Kawada can leave you feeling like you’ve just had a conversation with the interminably good-natured Socrates of sushi.

 

lamb_noodlesoup

Our borough has boasted ethnically diverse cuisine for decades, but it is only recently that people began celebrating it

In Jackson Heights, the 35-year-old Jackson Diner is a local institution where you can fill up on a vast selection of curries, dosas, tandooris, and Indian breads, but I’ve recently been enjoying the South Indian fare at Samudra, a vegetarian restaurant opened by Jagdish Shetty, a former hotel employee who emigrated from India nearly 30 years ago and whose dream it was to eventually open his own restaurant in New York. It’s worth a trip just for the enormous dosas, which look like three-dimensional abstract art popping off your plate. If you’re feeling carnivorous, Kabab King, a Halal restaurant on 37th Road, will be more likely to satisfy. For dessert, treat yourself to a Chai tea and check out the curious array of colourful sweets at shops like Raja Sweets and Fast Food or Rajbhog Sweets and Snacks, both on 37th Avenue, or Al Naimat on 74th Street.

With the arctic throes of winter upon me, I’ve been looking to spicy foods to help boost my weathered spirits. In particular, I’ve been enjoying the spicy lime and lemongrassy fare that can be found at the Thai restaurants in Elmhurst, particularly the fragrant, meaty soups at Plant Love House on Whitney Avenue which is run by Manadsanan Sutipayakul and her daughters Benjaporn Chua and Preawpun Sutipayakul. Last time I was there I warmed up with a delightful bowl of tom yum and a rich and creamy gang gai, a spicy green curry with tender pieces of chicken and melt-in-your-mouth eggplant poured over rice vermicelli noodles and then heaped with fresh basil leaves. I finished up with a piece of dessert toast, an ambrosial brick of bread that’s drenched in butter and toasted until crisp on the outside (yet still soft and fluffy on the inside), and then drizzled with warm honey. If you’re in a hurry though, I’d recommend checking out the cafeteria-style Khao Kang, a Thai hipster steam-table joint on Woodside Avenue where you can simply point at a few different curries and stews on the steam table and it’s practically instant gratification. Afterward, wet your whistle across the street with the inspired Thai cocktails at Pata Paplean.

I have also been frequenting the Golden Mall. Its chaotic and claustrophobic little hive of food stalls with menus on the walls all written in Asian characters makes you feel as though you’ve been transported to another country altogether. In the basement digs here, you can find some of the most succulent dumplings in all of New York at the Tianjin Dumpling House. When they arrive, be sure to douse them with garlic sauce, black vinegar, and chile oil. Another dish that’s not to be missed down there is the spicy cumin lamb hand-pulled noodle soup at the original Xi’an Famous Foods stall. The rich broth is infused with fiery Far East-meets-Middle East flavours, and you can watch as the hand-pulled noodle chef slaps, stretches, and tears little disks of dough into long, glutenous tendrils that will be imminently dropped into your soup.

 

Flushing New World Mall 3

The enclaves of Queens are teeming with chefs and food purveyors from Europe, Africa, Asia, and North, Central, and South America

New York City is often colloquially referred to as a “melting pot.” This cultural term was coined back in the early 1900s when waves of European immigrants were settling in New York and other American cities. The concept, which was originally put forth in a play written by Israel Zanwill, a Jew from England, was that all immigrants coming to the United States could be fused together and then forged into new American citizens.

Queens is one of the most ethnically diverse places in the world. But I don’t think of my borough as a melting pot. If anything, it’s more like a hotpot, a type of stew generally prepared by placing a metal pot over a heat source in the middle of the dining table. A variety of ingredients are then added to a simmering stock inside the pot—everything from meat, offal, and seafood to vegetables, tofu, noodles, spices, herbs, and condiments. Unlike in a crucible, the contents of the hotpot don’t meld together when heated. A sliver of beef is still a piece of meat, a chile a pepper. But as the ingredients simmer together, they impart their individual flavours to the stew, and this is what makes these one-pot meals so delicious and gratifying. As I see it, the diverse ethnicities of Queens are contributing exponential depths of flavour to our borough, literally and figuratively in both the culinary and the cultural realms.

Another memorable aspect of my childhood EPCOT holiday was the relentless repetition of the saccharine tune, “It’s a Small World,” which is still etched in my mind as the soundtrack to all of my memories of the trip. Perhaps it was Disney’s attempt at subliminally reinforcing the notion that peace and understanding around the world could be gained through exposure to other nations’ art and culture—and food. Incidentally, the first time the song was ever played publicly was at the 1964 World’s Fair, which was held in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens.

In the Queens Museum, the permanent collection contains something of a shrine to the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs, including a 867 sq m Panorama scale model of New York City. It is astounding to stand above it and see how big Queens is in comparison to the other four boroughs—Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the Bronx—that make up New York City. (Queens covers an area of 460 sq km, Brooklyn only 250.) And yet, fifty-one years later, Queens is proving that it is a small world after all. I guess that’s as good a reason as any to deem it the number-one place to visit in the United States this year.

I’ll save a seat for you at the hotpot, just bring some chopsticks.

 

Jen Laskey. Photographs courtesy of the author.

Time to Taste

Sitting down with a dram, a glass of wine, delicious food, or indeed all three is a sensory pleasure which we rightly hold in high esteem. With a plethora of flavours easily available we can indulge in whatever tickles our taste buds. In our busy-bee realities do we really give the flavour process the time and attention it deserves and are our lives helping to shape the nature of flavour itself?

Cooking was the gentle and slow process of coaxing out the flavours

When I was a child our house seemed to revolve around its reactor core, our coal fired Aga. For heat, cooking and drying, the Aga played a vital and dependable role, as long as the wind blew from the right direction. Occasionally my mum would be more akin to an engine driver, stoking the flames and adding more fuel to the little furnace. Cooking was the gentle and slow process of coaxing out the flavours, tenderly encouraging them to take their first steps into the world and mingle with others in their own time.

Today I feel that slowly developed flavours are becoming as rare a joy as commuting aboard a steam train. With no time to waste we need flavour on the go and need a diary planner to fully appreciate the processes in the kitchen. It is no surprise then, that in our busy worlds that convenience has become king. We need flavour and we need it now. Simply add monosodium glutamate, high fructose corn syrup, salt and more sugar and we have our sensory satisfaction sorted for the next few hours. If the sound of all that sugar opposes your programme we can just pack it with aspartame instead, and not to mention all of the stabilisers, preservatives and colouring agents. There’s a great game I like to play in the supermarket, its called find the cheddar without artificial colourings. Try it sometime.

Scotch whisky, long regarded as the pure spirit of Hibernia, has also been an interesting example of manipulative trends. The legally permitted ingredients for Malt Scotch Whisky are barley, water and yeast plus E150 or caramel colouring, which is often produced from corn syrups, glucose syrup or sucrose itself. Although going out of fashion amongst discerners of a fine dram, the colouring in Coca-Cola has played an interesting role by tapping into our association of dark colours with rich and developed flavours. The natural colour of whisky comes entirely from wood during a steady process of ageing so E150 has provided a way of short-cutting that process, at least where it’s tint is concerned.

It has long been generally accepted that when it comes to whisky, as with all of us, we do not get older but simply get better. Drinkers of the dram have begun to appreciate how this is not an absolute rule, partly through appreciating some superb young whiskies and also some extremely disappointing old ones. In particular when it comes to those peaty, smoky and medicinal nasal eviction orders from Islay, they are at their most intense at a young age. The rise in popularity of these fabulous sensory adventures has been quite astounding since the late 1990’s and has propelled the image of those distilleries to superstar status. The degree of that phenolic smoky-peatiness within the whisky has been pushed higher and higher, doubling, tripling and venturing beyond what was thought possible and indeed necessary. A few years ago Bruichladdich distilled a spirit from barley that had been peated 6 times higher than what had been considered ‘extremely peaty’.

 

whisky2

It has long been generally accepted that when it comes to whisky... we do not get older but simply get better.

Following this trend we also see a quest for whiskies matured in casks previously seasoned with Sherry, those dark mahogany or rich orange drams that play with our preconceptions of taste. The cask in this instance giving qualities of intense rich fruit cake and spice, occasionally becoming so ‘Sherried’ that it’s like chewing on a Davenport desk. The whisky world’s answer to those new-American oak monsters that were once the height of Australian winemaking. Another fashion, fortunately now passed, is to the combination of whisky with wine. Think of a type of cask and there has been a whisky matured in it, be that Burgundy, rum, port, Sassicaia, Chateau Y’quem and even Tobasco. Again it’s a quest for flavour and fulfilment beyond the known world, like some trepid adventurers on the U.S.S. Enterprise.

The acceptance that age is not necessarily an indicator of flavour quality is being pushed in a new direction now with the growing emergence of NAS or non-age statement whiskies. These mystery drams do not carry any information regarding the age of the spirit. As long as it has spent at least three years and a day in an oak cask in Scotland it’s good enough for Scotch. NAS whiskies fill the void created by a global boom in Scotch and are being utilised by some distilleries to sell premium priced whisky at a not so premium age.

The new school is all about the flavour and not the age, so we are told. Is this another indicator of our busy lives as we demand flavour on tap, or at least in three years and a day anyway? If time and ageing no longer carry significance amongst consumers then what is there to hide by not placing an age statement on the bottle in the first place? As more of the big players spin the premium priced wheel of ‘guess the time in cask’, we should focus on education as opposed to misrepresentation of maturation, if the theory about age no longer holds.

America has been far more creative with their whiskey tinkering. Limited by choice of wood, American whiskey has seen a surge in alternative flavour additives such as honey, chocolate, fruit, hops and botanicals. Such flavour enhancing processes for Scotch get a big waggly finger from the Scotch Whisky Association. Although oak is by far the most important element to the character of Scotch, it is interesting that it is not even listed as an ingredient along with whatever the cask had previously contained.

Marrying and mellowing the flavours within wood is a slow process of maturation that can only be expedited by a relatively small margin on a commercial scale. That sense of time and patience is one of the most endearing qualities to any flavour assembly but in our desire for quick results we need hard hitting, taste explosions that fit within our schedules. The price to be paid by reducing time and increasing yield is often a loss in quality. We can see this at work through whisky maturation, wine production and also fruit, vegetable and animal farming.

A consumerist world presses us to constantly seek out new flavours and to expect variety. With our limited time to really appreciate the nuances of life, trends being driven by both sides towards readily available flavour bombs and in turn constructing a tolerance for sweetness, salt, wood and even peat. Creating the time to contemplate, enjoy and above all share our sensory experiences is one of the most rewarding tools in our box of humanity. By taking no texture, aroma or taste for granted we can open up an exciting world of everyday experiences and enjoy the subtleties that come by simply slowing things down.

Kami Newton. Photographs courtesy of the author.

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