Carol Drinkwater on life in the sunny South…
When we first bought our olive farm – a land of jungled climbers and throttled trees as it was back then – the seasons here were clearly defined. December, through Christmas and New Year, was sunny. The temperature was douce, gentle. We ate lunches outdoors, overlooking a glistening Mediterranean and, once the sun had set and the day had grown chilly, we relaxed by roaring log fires. January, February were the wet months. Late February, early March brought the bees out of their hives hungry for the fodder secreted within the pastel pink blossoms on the almond trees. April was a riot of colour on plants fast pushing upwards, embracing the spring light. May is the Film Festival; always deliciously warm or temperamentally wet. It is also the month when the lacy white olive flowers fall, swirling and drifting like lost snowflakes, making way for the green pinheads that will later be purple fruits and eventually golden oil. Yes, the seasons were definable, but now after more than two decades here, after many hours of hard sweat on our terraced hillside, I am less sure what to expect, what any month will bring. I thought I would have learnt to read the weather, to foretell what lay ahead and make decisions accordingly. Alas, not.
What has caused this confusion of weather patterns, of the rhythms of nature? Climate change? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I am not a scientist, but I can verify that a shift in the timing and mood of the seasons has taken place. The olives now ripen a month earlier than was the tradition; 25 November, feast of Sainte-Catherine, has for centuries been the official opening of the olive season. A softly lit time when dozens of families and neighbours congregated together – women, men, children – at the groves, arriving by cart or automobile; baguettes, thick slices of ham, soft local cheeses, bottles of wine in their bags, all set for the back-breaking work of gathering the fruits by hand from the laden branches. These days at our farm, we have completed our harvest, la cueillette, and pressed our drupes by late October. To leave them longer jeopardises the quality and taste of the oil and risks their safety should bad winds arrive to whip the precious darlings from the trees, to deny us our hard-earned crop. Nature has grown temperamental, unsettled. Monumental storms seem more frequent, bringing fifty-foot high pine trees crashing to the earth, exposing ribbons of roots that rise as high as a one storey house, while tucked within the trees’ broken canopies I find last year’s expertly constructed eagles’ nests. Summers are harsher. These days, we can expect five months without a single drop of rain while temperatures soar relentlessly. This makes the challenges of irrigation time-consuming and costly. As the decades roll on I am learning the hardships of being a farmer even though, unlike others, our livelihood does not depend on the returns from these modest olive groves. Still, it has taught me huge respect for those who work in agriculture and toil the land to feed us, those who keep the farmers’ markets and the supermarkets replenished.
It has given me an almost irrational joy that comes from the tiny gifts of this Proven�al earth: the arrival of wild narcissi peeping through the rust-toned decomposing leaves, the sighting of a rare bird, the taste of a furry green-coated almond eaten directly from the tree, the succulence of a ripe fig and, when spring arrives, as it inevitably must, and baby lambs are born, we relish the journeys inland to the shepherds, to buy the freshest of succulent cheeses.
Illustration: TIM WESSON