November is the start of the season here in Provence. From November through January, anyone who has olive orchards are busy picking!
So, if you are lucky enough to have a beautiful orchard of olive trees to enjoy all year around, you are now obligated to pick them! Not to mention the delight of having your own delicious olive oil to enjoy for the next year!
Whether you have 30 trees or even 200, friends are invited and their friend’s friends, too, to come and pick. It’s an occasion to get together, to see friends you haven’t seen in a while, to chat, have fun, enjoy the sunshine and fall nip in the air and pick olives. In exchange for all this free labor, the owners are obligated to serve the most scrumptious meals they possibly can.
Last year I attended my first olive picking at the home of a new French friend I had recently met through a mutual friend… Ariane. Well, it was a fabulous experience. Set up in the hills beyond a small village very close to where we live, Ariane’s father had planted 200 trees over 100 years before. But the number is deceiving as most of the individual trees were a tight group of three or four. Reason being is that a terrible frost in 1956 in this orchard had killed most of them. But instead of just dying, these stubborn olive trees sent out new young shoots around the mother plant as a way of saying, ‘I’m not through yet!’ Nature is such a strong force. My point being… there were one hell of a lot of trees to pick.
Here’s the process:
First, a large net is spread around the base of the tree, then everyone grabs a plastic rake with a short handle that has teeth just wide enough to scoop down the olives. Or you pick by hand (which I prefer) for, as Ariane says, your hands benefit from the oil. The young volunteers climb to the top, while the older ones attack the bottom. And, amazingly, in just a very short time, the tree is picked clean. The net is gathered by many and all the olives are put in crates or large bags which will eventually be put in the trunk of cars to be taken to the co-op. And so it goes, as the team moves slowly down the rows of trees. For me, it was a good way to practice my French, listening to stories and chatting away with the others.
Around one, we break for lunch. And… quel repas. The French sure know how to eat. Always wonderfully simple, very fresh and delicious and, definitely, with some wine of the region.