To celebrate Eden’s Harvest Festival this September, we’re bringing you a selection of recipes, ideas and creations to celebrate this special season. Today actress turned writer, Carol Drinkwater, tells us about her love for olives.
Carol is probably best known for her role as Helen Herriot in the BBC series All Creatures Great and Small. Also an accomplished novelist, she has achieved bestselling status with her much-loved memoirs of life on an olive farm in Provence. She’ll be giving a talk on olives at the Eden Project’s Harvest Festival on Saturday 15 September 2012.
I have spent the last few months sitting in editing suites and post-production meetings, drinking endless cups of coffee as we worked into the small hours. We have been completing a five-film documentary series entitled, The OLIVE ROUTE. These films, a co-production between several TV channels across Europe, are inspired by two of my travel books, The Olive Route and The Olive Tree.
On a daily basis, I have been reeling off facts, useful tidbits of information for the films’ narration texts:
- The cultivated olive tree is native to the Mediterranean basin but may have originated in a wild form elsewhere.
- Italy produces 432,000 tons of olive oil a year, Greece’s production reaches 350,000 tons while Spain, by far and away the world’s largest player in the olive oil game, produces a staggering 1.6 million tons and production is rising.
- The oldest olive trees I have found grow in the heights of Mount Lebanon.’
Such facts and figures are usually unknown to the lay person who might simply enjoy their martini adorned with a small green olive and think no more about it, and why should anyone be interested?
‘Carol,’ interrupted the director, ‘you are an actress, a writer. How did you become so fascinated, so passionate about olive oil? You are a female Indiana Jones questing the Secrets of Homer’s ‘Liquid Gold’. Not a bad observation, I laughed.
Romance in the south of France
How did I become fascinated by the olive tree and its history? Well, olives, olive farming in the south of France, have become the backdrop to several bestselling books I have written, now known as the Olive Farm series. These stories, a multi-layered love story, began when I was playing in a children’s mini-series in Australia and the executive producer, after our first meeting, invited me to have dinner with him. During that meal, he asked me to marry him!! Was I to take him seriously?
To cut a long story short, Michel, who was based in Paris while I was living in London, invited me to Cannes, to the television festival. While he spent his days in meetings, I decided to see whether the ‘House by the Sea’ I had dreamed of purchasing for years might be awaiting me somewhere along the French Riviera. When I told the estate agents my budget, they scoffed, ‘nothing available for that money, Madame.’
At the end of the week, Michel and I took a trip inland to see what was on offer for my modest savings. Little took our fancy until we were shown a ruin with spectacular views set on a jungled hillside overlooking the Bay of Cannes.
Carol falls in love with olives
‘It’s an olive farm and vineyard,’ claimed the young agent. He could have told us it was a space station and it would have been equally credible. The land was so overgrown, it was impossible to confirm what lay beneath the forgotten vegetation.
The place was eight times my budget. Still, we had fallen for the ‘farm’ and so Michel and I pooled our resources, begged, borrowed, scraped together the deposit and took possession of our elegant ruin.
It was two years before we managed to cut back the land. There, then, we discovered, growing on our hillside of drystone-walled terraces, sixty-eight, four-hundred-year-old olive trees. I walked those groves in every light, every season, every weather, and I became enchanted, fascinated by the olive tree, by its beauty, its serenity. The Tree of Peace, the Tree of Eternity. I had yet to really understand why it had been honoured with these nomenclatures.
Her first olive harvest
For various reasons, it was several years before we harvested our first crop of blushing mauve olives, aided by a silvery Provençal local whose veins flowed with olive oil. Already, we were climbing the learning curve: how to lay the nets, when to pick, how to pick, how soon after gathering must the fruits be pressed… Our first harvest loaded into crates, we took our olives to a local mill where, after washing and pressing, our green-gold oil began to trickle into an ancient vat. I could see exactly why Homer described this magical food, this cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet, ‘Liquid Gold’.
We gained an AOC, an Appellation d’Origine Côntrollée, for our oil – the French benchmark for quality foods and we planted another two hundred trees. As I nurtured those young saplings, I began to ask myself, where does the olive tree come from? Who first cultivated it? Who first understood its medicinal properties, its use as a cosmetic? And I discovered that there are no historically documented answers to these and many other questions.
A journey of discovery into olive history
I set up a meeting with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris, with the Cultural Director, and proposed myself for the role of ‘seeker of the ancient journeys’, ‘she who will find the answers’. I wanted to unearth this tree’s stories. I had made up my mind that I would go in search of the plant’s mysteries, its ancient heritage and track some of its original routes from wild tree to cultivation. Of course, the UNESCO director was sceptical and I had no idea back then the depth, the breadth, the risks involved in my challenge, nor where these discoveries might lead me.
I spent sixteen months on my solo journeys around the Mediterranean, in war zones, wearing burkhas where necessary, carrying a backpack weighted down with camera and laptop. The seeds for my two books and, now, our television series were sown during that time. I was knitting together a tapestry, a network. I was meeting modern-day folk who have put the olive tree at the heart of their lives, who were born within its wooden cradle, whose ancestors have forgotten more than I will ever learn. I sincerely hope that I have succeded in sharing in my books and our films just a few of these discoveries and extraordinary encouters, a little of all that has been revealed to me.
Why olives are so special
The olive tree is a mystical, magical plant, indeed, but it is a great deal more. It is an essential pillar of the Mediterranean. It feeds us, it shades us, it heals our bodies, it furnishes and heats our homes. It offered man light after sunset long before we flicked switches and it is honoured in all three of the Middle Eastern monotheisms, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as a sacred tree.
I have stood humbly in the company of gnarled, sprawling specimens of Olea europaea, cutivated olive trees, scientifically dated at six thousand years old. Trees that are still producing fruit, fruit that is still being pressed into litres of liquid gold. How could I not be passionate about such a gift of nature?
Win a set of Carol’s books
To be in with a chance of winning a set of six of Carol’s wonderful books about her fascination with olives, simply tweet your favourite olive dish to @eden_harvest and include the hashtag #faveolivedish
The competition will close at noon on Wednesday 29 August 2012. We’ll choose our favourite entry and send the winner a direct message via Twitter to organise delivery of the prize. The set comprises:
- The Olive Farm
- The Olive Season
- The Olive Harvest
- The Olive Route
- The Olive Tree
- Return to the Olive Farm
The books are published by Phoenix in paperback, hardback and ebook format, and are available through all good bookshops and online vendors such as Amazon, TheBookDepository.co.uk.
Find out more on the Carol Drinkwater website.
Find out more about olive trees on the Eden’s olive plant profile page.