Letter from France: Of olives and hard work

  • Article by: STEVE HOFFMAN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 20, 2012 - 11:50 AM

Those cured briny orbs come from somewhere, of course, and it's not the Midwest, other than their presence in a jar or display case.

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AUTIGNAC, FRANCE -- If figs look like foreign interlopers in this dry place, dusty green olive trees, with their voluptuous fruit and dark tropical greenery, look right at home.

Which, of course, they are. One proposed definition of the limits of the Mediterranean region is simply "where olives grow."

But beyond aesthetic or geographical correctness, there is something almost symbolically fitting about olive trees that yield the luxuriance of olive oil from pitted, hard and bitter fruit in a parched and stony place that nevertheless finds a way to produce wine, figs and pomegranates,

As we walk or drive through the countryside here, any number of visual cues -- from vineyards, to red tiled roofs to the local scrubland called garrigue -- make it clear that we are no longer in Minnesota. But nothing quite says "Welcome to the Mediterranean" like watching a sage-colored olive grove slide past the driver's side window, or walking up to the knuckled gray trunk of a solitary olive tree on the shoulder of a dusty side road.

It was in the shade of one such venerable loner that we found ourselves this morning -- the only tree in sight other than a shaggy almond growing above a drainage ditch a football field away.

Beneath the tree stood a ladder and our neighbor Jean-Luc's pants. The rest of him was somewhere up among silvery foliage. He made muffled sounds of greeting before climbing down and unbelting his improvised collection basket, fashioned from the bottom half of a plastic tub (which previously had contained, if I interpreted what was left of the label correctly, a commercial herbicide).

With the courtesy of every dirty-handed worker we've encountered here, he offered his elbow to shake: "Salut, Steve." And then the obligatory double kiss for Mary Jo, while I did the same with Nicole, his wife, who was returning from their truck with an empty bucket.

Nicole set her bucket on the ground. Jean-Luc poured a thudding stream of fat green olives into it, then tied his belt back on, and we were off to work.

A choice of olives

There is a local favorite olive, the Lucques, which we eat almost every night while we're here, and as often as we can get to Surdyk's when we're home. It's meaty and mild, shaped something like a squat boomerang, or a kinked rugby ball, and the flesh has the convenient trait of pulling neatly away from the pit, unlike some smaller olives that require gnawing and even then leave behind shreds of flesh.

Today we would not be picking Lucques, however. We would be picking Amellau, an even larger, firmer variety that would be used all winter for Nicole's baked fish fillets with tomato sauce and olives.

The Amellau tree sat beside a fallow vineyard, which Jean-Luc and Nicole are resting for a few years before planting new vines. Because the tree was right near the road, Jean-Luc was anxious to pick it clean, now that the grape harvest was over. Loaded olive trees next to roadways "risk changing owners abruptly."

And this tree was indeed loaded. Loaded in the way that cherry trees are sometimes loaded, with branches pulled low by the weight of several dozen dangling fruits each. This has been a year of low grape production, but olives have thrived. Their production usually fluctuates on a two-year cycle, but they also have benefited from recent warmer weather that means less chance of a spring cold snap that can kill their delicate blossoms.

An easy task

It must be said that olive picking, even more than grape picking, falls short as an intellectual challenge. The olives hang there, quite unmistakeably olives. They mature only on downward-growing branches, so they are not hidden somewhere in the top of the tree. There is not even any triage required as is occasionally the case with grape vines. You just reach up and pull the olives off, either one by one with fingertips, or in little cascades by "combing" or "milking" the branches with your cupped palm. They are so hard and dense that there's no risk of injuring them if a few happen to drop to the ground.

The challenge is purely physical. You have to be tall enough to reach them, or you need a ladder. This was good news for the 6-foot-1-inch American who had spent the better part of September folded in two trying to pick grapes at his knees.

"Il est doué [He is talented]," remarked Nicole as I reached several feet above her head to pull down a branch low enough for her and Mary Jo to pick.

We worked in silence for a short time, to the sounds of rustling leaves, snapping stems and our own breathing. But set four people next to each other in southern France, give them something to do with their hands, and it doesn't take long.

"Steve," began Jean-Luc, with just a slight strain in his voice from reaching high for a branch.

And we passed the rest of the morning deep in conversation.

A successful effort

A pleasant and leisurely several hours would fill three buckets with about 12 gallons of olives. Think three large drywall-compound buckets mostly full. In the afternoon, back in Jean-Luc and Nicole's dim, stone garage, we would brine the olives in a lye solution, regularly cutting sample olives in half, through the afternoon and into the evening, in order to track the progress of the brine through the flesh toward the pit. When the brining was complete, we would rinse them thoroughly and Jean-Luc would spend the rest of the week changing their soaking water every 24 hours. In eight days or so, they would can them in saltwater, and there would be olives to eat.

Jean-Luc does not have a computer. He has never seen the Eiffel Tower. He measures time in seasons. Grape harvest season is past, and fig season is fading. Hunting season is around the corner. But now it is la saison des olives, and he has just picked a year's worth, plus a little extra for brother, sister, houseguests and a next-door neighbor from Minnesota who spends a lot of time back home on his iPhone, thinking of himself as a very productive fellow.

Steve Hoffman is a Twin Cities tax preparer and real estate broker who always cleans his plate. Reach him at hoffmans.france@gmail.com.

  • Editor's note: Steve and Mary Jo Hoffman of St. Paul are living in a small village in the Languedoc region of southern France with their two children this fall. Steve writes a monthly letter about their experiences, illustrated with Mary Jo's photographs.
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