Where we live in Spain there are three important topics: olives, almonds and football. Or, if a person is not interested in football (how I miss the football free pubs of Oxfords) and is not keen on nuts then there’s olives. The trees drape the slopes of the valleys and climb upwards until they finally loose the battle against the high altitude pines. They fill the fields of red earth so carefully cultivated and rolled to create a neat pattern of swirls around the trees. They line the roads and caminos and are even planted in parks. They vary from spindly youngsters to centuries old gnarled and split-boled survivors. They are beaten, shaken, plucked, pruned and robbed of the valiant suckers that sprout gaily from the roots each year. They are capable of bearing intense cold and heat and withstand droughts that would deprive a camel of its hump.
We have a huerto (a sort of veg garden with water) and our bottom terrace has seventy very young trees of variable conformance: from bushy trees of some three metres to sad sprouting which could hardly bear the name of a bush. Last year just one tree had olives, twenty of them, but when we returned to harvest them in the early spring they had gone. This year we tried to sneak up on the fruit and were delighted to find the very first tree laden with black berries. Then we became progressively depressed as we found many trees with none, others with meagre green fruit and a few with wrinkled berries as if prematurely aged. We also had to beat our way through weeds that are almost as tall as the trees themselves, and this after paying a man to cultivate our grove in spring!
Still, we took a small harvest; we bought a black rubbery bucket and filled the bottom of it with a hundred or so fine specimens. I am now washing them daily before placing them in brine. Some say that washing is unnecessary. Others that they should be place in a vinegar and solution. Some that they should be kept for a year, others a month. There are probably as many recipes for preserving olives as there are for apple pie – no, there are more. It’s all quite fun and we may be eating our own olives by Christmas. In the meantime we are eating some given to us by a Dutch couple who run a wonderful camping site near our village. Many people give us the things – is there any point of having our own?
One day we hope to have enough to make oil. The author of the book I’m reading on olives (see my bookshelf at www.robsbookshop.com) is obsessed by olive oil. He barely mentions eating the things. He travels from mill to mill around the Mediterranean basin talking to growers and millers about the production and pressing of olives. Each visit ends in a marvellous meal cooked in – would you believe it - olive oil. I can’t get too excited about the oil. For one we would never have enough to get our own back from the press, and for another the oil, it seems to me, is a means to an end in a meal: as a salad dressing or as an addition to garlic-rubbed toast or, most likely, as hot liquid in which to fry the food itself.
Today, as I took my lunch break away from my main obsession here (extending the stone casita on the huerto so that we can become seasonal migrants) I looked out over our little grove. The wind was fairly high sending waves of disturbed air through the silvery green leaves of my little trees (also through the reddish brown of the weeds) and it all looked very beautiful. At night the trees look ghostly in the lights of a car. In the sun they glint as light winds turn the narrow leaves. As you may notice I am coming under the spell of the olive, which may not be a bad thing. After all it is the symbol of peace and the name of Popeye’s girl.