Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Olive Press

It's that time of year again when the olives are beckoning so I thought I'd let all my non South of France readers know how it works (as well as serving as a reminder of the process for me for next year!) We don't have a lot of olive trees (8) but we have enough to be able to call the last terrace in our garden, pictured above, an olive grove. I can't tell you how much pleasure that gives me, as a North London girl who now has an olive grove. Last year, the harvest was terrible, which was just as well because I was very ill and would not have been able to pick them anyway and would only have felt guilty letting them go to waste. This year it is a different story, the branches were literally bowing under the weight of the lush, plump mainly black olives. I saw olive nets being spread out in the valley in October but Rosine, my Italian neighbour and font of all food knowledge, said no picking until November at the earliest, and you can wait until as late as January or February providing they don't get hit by frost. After five days of rain, we had warm sunshine for days on end so the time was right. I asked the girls if they were interested in helping me pick, to be greeted with 'Nope, too much homework', uttered while watching back to back episodes of One Tree Hill and Gossip Girl. Handyman was too busy being handy and running the renovation of the top floor so it fell to me to head off to harvest toute seule. I don't have any fancy equipment (one friend has just bought an olive picking device for €900. Frankly I would rather gather by hand and have a new handbag/pair of boots, preferably both) but I have a rake and one set of nets, and these work just fine. I worked my way through a tree at a time, picking from the lowest branches by hand and bashing the rake at the highest branches to reach the plump bunches, which always seem to be just out of reach. The raining olives fell on the nets and then it was just a question of niftily gathering them up without treading on them and before Oscar the greedy pug had a chance to hoover them up, as he will eat literally anything, weeds, the grout between floor tiles, even half a dead rat a couple of weeks ago. I stopped short of climbing into the trees to go after the most elusive olives when I heard about Tony falling out of one of his last week, crashing through a fig tree below and narrowly escaping serious injury (I only laughed when I realised he was okay and not lying horribly maimed in hospital.) So bountiful was the harvest this year that it has taken me two weeks to finish the picking. Rosine came to help me marinade this week as I can never remember the quantities, and her method yields the tastiest olives we (and our impressed UK visitors) have ever eaten. First, sort the good from the bad (any pockmarked or slightly squishy ones can go in the moulin pile.) Then wash them in cold water and leave them soaking for two days, changing the water each day. Then drain them off and weigh them. We had a total of 55 kilos, not bad considering half of them are still on the trees out of reach, so we decided to marinade 20 kilos. You need a tuyau - a glass jar with a plastic cap - and the two I had were filled almost to the top. Then you top up with fresh water and add 80g of salt per litre of olives. We wandered around the garden picking bay and rosemary to make home made bouquet garnis to plug at the top before putting on the lids. Ta da!
They have to stay in a cool, dry place for seven to eight months before they are ready to eat. I have tried decanting into jars after marinading but as jars need to be sterilised and then kept cool, this means a fridge and wine fridge filled with olives and no room for food (or wine, perish the thought.) My new method is to leave them in the tuyau and decant as I need them. A rinse in fresh water (or not) and a squeeze of fresh lemon, a sprinkle of fresh garlic and rosemary leaves and they are ready to enjoy. Preferably by the pool with a glass of rose in hand. The remainder - some 35 kilos - I took to the Moulin de la Brague in Opio, where they weigh your quota and give you a proportion back in freshly pressed, cloudy green olive oil. My yield equated to five litres, enough to keep us going for a couple of months, and it really does taste different knowing that is freshly made from the olives in the local valley. The best way is to pick and chat with friends so if the harvest is anything like as good next year, I am going to throw an olive picking lunch, all guests need to arrive in time to do a couple of hours picking and the food and wine will be on me. As well as a jar of olives when they are ready. Lastly, and not on the subject of olives, I must mention some tea that I was kindly sent by Ali Silk at Tea Horse. I can't drink much coffee any more and have stopped drinking tea with milk so these Oriental teas are a great alternative, and even come with a cocktail recipe. Very tasty indeed. Try it.