Feeling rooted in France during the olive harvest

By Patricia Fieldsteel

The holiday season is finally over and we have snuggled in (thanks to my newly installed central heating) to winter in Provence. Winter in Provence is what New Yorkers call fall or spring. Nonetheless, the main topic of conversation here is the frigid temperature and the degree (no pun intended) to which everyone is suffering. Bitter cold to the Nyonsais is anything below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Occasionally, I am unable to restrain myself from blurting out, “You don’t know from cold,” but I try to respect local sensibilities and customs. The nightly news carries sensational reports about the deadly chill in New York. My neighbors are incredulous that any human being — especially one with whom they are personally acquainted — could survive such conditions. I admit to a certain delight in dismissing it all with a Gallic flourish of my hand, “C’est normale pour New York,” as they step back in awe, shudder and hurry home to their pots au feu, cassoulets and hearty soups bubbling contentedly on their stoves.

This is la France profonde, the real country, no haute cuisine — three lightly steamed pea pods and a swizzle of foam on a plate. Restaurants feature hearty game, stews, foie gras and lots of potatoes and pork. It is hunting season and weekends are heavy with the pop-pop of buckshot from the hills. Sanglier (wild boar) is the regional specialty and everyone has an “encounter-with-a-sanglier ” story to tell. I even have one of my own. Driving home one night on the twisting unlit road between Mirabel-les-Baronnies and Nyons, something enormous dashed in front of my car. Swerving, applying my brakes, I was just quick enough to avoid colliding with a mammoth sanglier. Colliding with a sanglier is akin to colliding with a rhinoceros; the car will not survive and often not the passengers inside it; the sanglier will trot away untouched.

In the weeks before Christmas, I picked olives again. Just as the sun was preparing to rise, I drove up the winding mountain road with Emily, my new Westie puppy, to the organic farm of my friend Aries. We were the same team as last year: Ludovic, Jean-Claude, Jean-François, Jean-Pierre, Aries, her friend Francis and me. We each took wicker paniers (baskets), strapped them halter style over our shoulders so they hung at chest level and headed for the olive groves. We each also had a 10-foot wooden ladder to carry, for me the only difficult part of the entire olivade (olive harvest). Designed for picking olives, the ladders are triangular, coming to a point at the top so they can be steadied inside the trees. The men raced to grab the older oliviers with four trunks at their base and many branches heavy with fruit. Aries reminded us to work in a straight line of trees and not skip ones bearing fewer olives. As soon as she left, I observed a certain zigzagging of tree selection among a few of my male co-workers.

Jean-François is a bit of a legend around here. Tall, lanky, with rabbity teeth and huge calloused hands, he can pick twice as much as the best other pickers. Last year it was he who showed me how to “milk” a branch with both hands so the olives fall directly into the panier. Olive trees can live for 2,000 years; an olivier never dies but gives birth from its stump to new shoots that grow into a tree. A mature olivier is a sentient being; to spend time with a tree is an intimate almost spiritual experience.

It was hard to come down from those celestial branches for lunch — bread, cheese, sausage, hard-boiled eggs, pâté, chocolate and fruit followed by steaming bowls of café au lait. By the time Jean-Claude had finished the last of his hand-rolled cigarettes, which in the new-found spirit of political correctness that has arrived in France, we made him smoke outside, we were back at work. When the sun set around 5 p.m., we could no longer see the olives to pick. For the men, this was the hour of reckoning, when each person’s olives were weighed on the heavy old-fashioned scale.

By the third day, Aries had injured her back and couldn’t pick. It was clear my talents lay elsewhere and if I were to earn much money, it wasn’t going to be from picking. Being a fifth-generation New Yorker, I am probably not genetically predisposed to a talent for farm labor, though I assure you, it was those ladders that did me in.

The larger olives reserved for eating had to be sorted and packed by hand in glass jars — 2,500 jars to be exact, with each jar needing to weigh precisely 808 grams without the lid. Aries and I occupied ourselves with this task for the next two weeks. After personally packing close to 2,000 jars, I can now look at a single olive and tell you its weight. This is a rarefied skill to be sure, though I don’t see it as leading to many exciting and financially remunerative career opportunities.

While Aries and I worked, we discussed favorite authors and books; lamented the decline of great literature in the West; debated the incendiary issue of Muslim headscarves in schools (she is against permitting them; I am for). We analyzed and dissected the men, shared life stories, personal pain, future hopes. One morning Emily ate rat poison. I rushed her to the vet, who said she would have died if I hadn’t. Her stomach pumped, we returned to work. The little escapade cost me $75 in lost wages and vet bills, but all that mattered was Emily was fine.

Every other day, we took the olives to calibrate at the mill run by the très chic Mme. Ramade and her daughter. If you have seen Chaplin’s “Modern Times” or the “I Love Lucy” episode where Lucille Ball works the conveyer belt in a chocolate factory, you’ll have some idea what calibrating olives is like. Picture sitting outdoors on a crate for two hours nonstop while several hundred olives per minute are spat at you to sort and select from the jaws of an enormous machine. Once the olives are calibrated, the ones not for eating are cold-pressed into oil. The olives we left at Moulin Ramade at night were liquid gold by morning.

Last weekend was the Alicoque, the two-day festival celebrating the pressing of the year’s first virgin oil. Nyons is the olive capital of France. There is a Mass to bless the olives; folkloric dancing and music with people wearing traditional Provençal costumes; a colorful artisanal market with crafts and food, and much feasting and drinking of local wines. My first year I was enchanted; I took several rolls of film and was among the last to leave Sunday night. The following year, somehow, the Alicoque wasn’t quite up to the previous one, and the year after that it was, well, disappointing. The next few years I skipped it. Last year I went for an hour or so. This year I was invited to friends’ for Sunday lunch, an all-day affair around here. Even though it’s only February, the weather was warm enough to eat outside. We sat around the table, looking out at the mountains and drinking local wine from the vineyard where my friends work, rejoicing in the beauty of the moment and our good luck to live here. Someone mentioned it was the Alicoque, had anyone gone? One or two. Had I gone? “No,” I confessed; “It’s really more for the tourists….”