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Olive Jottings: Patrice Newell

Olive Jottings

olives growing on branch

The air is so dry, the grass so dusty, it’s hard to breathe. Moisture is a memory. Summer won’t give up, instead it seems to be gaining strength. It’s throbbingly hot, so numbing and ruthless to vegetation that I’m furious at the wide, blue-white unfriendly sky for crushing all life – mine included.

The olive trees on the hillside grove have green jewels all over them, so (fingers crossed) we’ll be harvesting a small crop. Thus far the trees seem happy with the weather, but after leaving the olives for a few days unattended, I discover the fruit has shrivelled. This is easily rectified with a turn of the tap, by getting the drip system working, but I’ve been sternly admonished. Don’t be careless. Keep your eye on the ball. The first job in farming is to observe, observe, observe.

At least we still have our farm and our olive trees. A friend talks of the plight of olives in the Middle East. Hundreds of thousands of productive olive and fruit trees have been uprooted in the disputed territories by Israel’s occupation forces, allegedly to prove that the land is ‘uncultivated’. In Gaza alone, by April 2001 the tally was 114,000 trees uprooted, with more in the West Bank, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Nablus, Tulkarm, Hebron and Jenin.

Here in Australia, we are planting groves in every state, whilst in the Middle East they are being systematically destroyed. International welfare groups seek to fund replanting projects, and a letter arrives at Elmswood requesting donations for a grove on Palestinian land: the olive branch, the symbol of peace. And olive oil is expected to salve the wounds of a brutalised region.

Olive trees are burdened with symbolism, and throughout their long history they’ve been watered by tears as much as by rain. The olive sprig in the beak of the Old Testament dove reappears in a sketch by Picasso to become a powerful protest against war. And the olive is also a symbol of endurance, of defiantly clinging to life. You even hear the argument that Australia, with all its droughts, is too benign a place to grow the best olives – which survive, even thrive, in far harsher conditions. Our trees are unlikely to be uprooted by armies, or deserted by global corporate pragmatists. Ours have to deal with El Niño, the kangaroo, the cockatoo and grower fatigue.

In 2001 an excess of rain had destroyed much of our olive crop. We learnt from that experience to better judge the optimum time for harvesting, so we check the fruit every day for any hint of changing colour. I want to hold out until the fruit in all sections of the grove turns black and ripe, given increasing evidence from other harvests that picking too early makes processing difficult and less productive.

picking olives

I’m not alone in the guessing game. Many groves are harvesting sections each week, sending the oil for scientific assessment of acid and peroxide levels, to ensure optimum oil. Labs have backlogs of samples. And every oil tested or tasted is subtly different. It isn’t just a question of timing; regional differences are also emerging. The east coast, with its greater humidity, is producing oils that are different in taste and colour from the products of South Australia, Western Australia and Victoria.

We still have some oil that was processed at Elmswood in March 1999 from the wild olives we’d picked from ancient, abandoned trees. As I decant some from the stainless-steel vat in the cellar it remains powerfully aromatic, but the flavour quickly fades. (It looks fresh, but being green doesn’t guarantee that it’s good.) Nonetheless even the last drop is better than the oils available on supermarket shelves, which are largely the bottom of the European barrels foisted on unsuspecting foreigners. I learn that storing oil requires airtight containers and cool, dark places. Even then, buying bulk is a false economy.

Olive oil, like bread, is best fresh.

extract from The River (Penguin 2003)