Postcard from Provence

Carol Drinkwater on life in the sunny south

I frequently extol the virtues of the olive tree and its fruits, but rarely mention its remarkable wood. In the early spring, after the harvest has been completed and before any buds appear, we prune our 300 olive trees, lopping entire branches from the upper canopy and from the centre of each one. This admits light, keeps the trees healthier and lessens the risk of humidity and fungal diseases, which helps to maintain the groves’ sustainability.

The trees’ hewn limbs are sawn into 35-centimetre lengths (or thereabouts!) and then stored in our monumental wood shed – where the dogs sleep – until the following winter, when they are carried indoors to heat our farmhouse, burning brightly in two fireplaces. Olive wood burns slowly, so it makes ideal fuel once the fire is under way. It emits a gentle perfume that is very soothing.

I love listening to the whirr of the chainsaws slicing through the hardwood branches and the warning calls of the men piercing the sharp, early-season air as the wood begins to crack and creak. I love the thud and crunch as the great thick rods hit the earth and start to roll southwards. The smaller, more slender twigs, are clipped off, to be used for kindling or stored in hillocks elsewhere on the land to fuel our summer barbecues.

My husband Michel has a rule that all barbecues are fired by produce from the estate, such as conifer cones, magnolia grandiflora and vine cuttings – we never buy coals or firelighters. He believes that the smoke from natural woods and scrub add to the flavour of chargrilled meats and fish. I thought it was the handfuls of garden-grown herbs we throw on the fire, but I never argue. Michel is the boss in our kitchen, even the outdoor one.

Olive wood is not a rarity, but it is precious and can be expensive. In ancient Greece, cutting down an olive tree was punishable by death. In 21st-century France, we are not quite so strict, but the felling of an olivier remains illegal. In Italy, all mature olive trees, aged 50 years or more, must be registered.

When I was filming in the West Bank territory for our documentary series on The Olive Route, I spent memorable days in Bethlehem with a Palestinian wood-carver who, each year, buys lorry-loads of pruned branches from neighbouring farms or olive groves as far north as Jenin. Occasionally, he even manages to find trimmings and smaller cuts from Nazareth.

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He stores the wood out of the light so that it doesn’t crack or split as it dries; an ageing process that takes at least two years. Once thoroughly dried and aired, its colours are more clearly defined. Nazarene olive wood is light in colour while the cuts from Bethlehem have a rosier tint. His stocks are used to carve elegant rosary beads and crosses – 59 beads for one rosary.

Spending time with these wood-workers opened my eyes to the sheer beauty of natural wood and to its many uses. Our kitchen and dining tables are now graced with chopping boards sawn as slabs from our groves. Once they are sanded, I polish them with one layer of their own olive oil. Although the boards are hopelessly misshapen and not even flat, I am extremely proud of the result and value them far more than any factory-produced kitchen utensil.

Olive wood resembles a fingerprint in that no two pieces are the same: the colour and grain are always different, even if cut from the same branch. Yet another of this tree’s mysteries.