We bums find ourselves sought after at this time of year to lend a hand with the olive harvest. So this week I’ve been standing on a tarpaulin in a sunny field combing olives off olive branches. It’s a good year for olives. The trees are laden and the work is pleasantly monotonous. The minimal level of thought needed to accomplish the task shuts down the internal Red Army choir of negative thoughts that normally drowns out the competition, offering the mind a holiday. In the mornings we combed to the sound of birds twittering in the trees; after lunch to Fip music radio, state-financed, eclectic. On Thursday the smoky-voiced French woman DJ gave a big shout-out to all you olive pickers out there.
On the far side of the field, a local artist, lately gone figurative, was out picking his olives also. At close of play he wandered over to exchange group-think sentiments about the close-run US election. The postal votes were still being counted in Pennsylvania and Georgia, he said. However Biden was edging slightly ahead, he said, sounding relieved but still anxious. He was Armenian. Warned in French that I was for Trump, he stepped closer to scrutinise me as something that was unique in his experience. ‘So. You are for Trump?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘And you? Of the liberal elite?’ I said. ‘Yes,’ he said proudly.
By Friday we had 250 kilos ready to go to the olive mill for pressing. As we swung the crates into the back of the car, my romantic vision was of a small blinded donkey harnessed to a primitive system of granite millstones, plodding round and round. And of ragged, tree-worshipping Provençal peasants down from the hills in holiday mood and squabbling over homeopathic amounts of product.
The reality was a humming steel-encased plant operated by buttons and dials and set hygienically behind a glass partition. The weighed olives went into a hopper that sucked them into a centrifuge, and that was the last we saw of them. And not a peasant in sight. Just health-obsessed, mask-wearing bourgeoisie hoping that their hand-picked olive oil was an elixir that would enable them to live to 100. Simultaneously unloading olives from the back of the car was, in furry slippers, the daughter of the founder of a spiritualist cult granted charitable status because it has a library. Next, a leftist French teacher lifting a basket of olives from the spacious boot of a brand-new, latest-model Renault Clio. After the flushing of our harvest down the chute, we filed downstairs into an office and after half an hour we were presented with a stainless-steel keg containing 25 litres of green olive oil. See you next year.
We’d picked the olives green and not quite ripe. The bloke I was picking for said he preferred the slight astringency and artichoke flavour of pre-ripened olives. Then, on Saturday night, he held a little traditional first-fruit ceremony in his kitchen. He tipped a couple of tablespoons of the new green oil from a glass demijohn on to a white plate. We were four acolytes. Not yet drunk, we stood around this plate in an attitude, genuine or assumed, of solemnity. Someone had bought thinly sliced home-made sourdough bread. Another garlic. I’d brought a few vine tomatoes. We wiped the bread with garlic, took it in turns to soak the bread in the oil and put it into our mouths to contemplate the flavour. The astringency caught in the throat, but pleasantly, like a cigarette. Although highly prized, the first green pressing is too tart for the locals, who prefer to store it in the dark for about four years, after which the oil tastes smoother.
In the background the TV was showing CNN. The news channel had just played its part in the venerable US democratic process by awarding the election to Biden while the votes were still being counted. I last watched CNN on the day Trump was elected. Back then the partisanship of the Botoxed and blow-dried presenters had been a revelation to me. This evening it was plain that four years had done nothing to ameliorate the astringency of Donald Trump they felt at the back of their throats.
Of the four of us celebrating the green olive pressing, I was the only one disappointed by the result. Perhaps careful for my feelings, the other three refrained from crowing. Neither did they crow later when we were tipsy on wine. Nor later still when we were absolutely flying on home-made apple brandy. I suspect, too, that they felt a little guilty at the size of the media sledgehammer needed to crush what in their view had been such a negligible nut.
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