Olive farming is an art form that requires great patience. A tree will only start to bear fruit in its fifth or sixth year, and doesn't reach maximum yield until it is at least thirty years old.
In brief, olive trees bloom between April and June, and the fruit is picked from October to February, depending on the region. Pruning takes place between February and May, depending on the temperature; and gives rise to many a heated debate between different schools on how best to prune the branches of an olive tree.
As the olives ripen they turn from green to black. There is no such thing as a black olive tree or a green olive tree - it's simply a question of timing the harvest as to whether green or black olives are preferred.
It is a reasonable assumption that anyone would want to live amongst the olives in the south of France. However, this is not one of the most profitable activities and most olive grove owners are blessed with a huge determination to have productive rather than decorative trees.
On 20 April, 2001, a political initiative took place with a view to saving the olive industry - the most ancient activity in the region. This was the introduction of two AOC designations for the Cailletier olive variety – AOC ‘Olives de Nice’ and AOC ‘Huile d'olive de Nice’. This move supported an increased quality of production and led to the conservation of many of the region’s the heritage dry stone walled terraces, which are the very soul of the agricultural countryside.
Since the 2001 initiative, we have noticed more olive trees have been planted in our neighbourhood. Our own trees, however have been here for many hundreds of years, and although we have transplanted four or five, we have not planted any new trees (these would necessarily already be of a considerable age in order to produce olives).
Since this time too, the farming of the olives in our grove has been in the hands of Monsieur Jean-Philippe Frère, a renowned ‘oleiculteur’.
In the Alpes Maritimes, the Cailletier olive variety accounts for the greatest percentage of all olives grown. 95% of the olives grown at La Mouissone are the Cailletier. It therefore follows that our produce carries the AOC labels.
The Cailletier, one of the largest olive trees, produces a small olive of a distinctive, light flavour in both the fruit and the oil. It is found in the Var and Alpes-Maritimes but also on the other side of the Italian border in Liguria.
Being recognised as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée - Olives de Nice means that the olives and the oil can be marketed as top-grade products (see note below). This designation stipulates that no more than 5% of other varieties can be added at the time of pressing and therefore the distinctive light flavour is maintained.
The oil of Olives de Nice is a small part of the total annual French production, but it plays a primordial role in the preservation and development of the agricultural areas of the Riviera which are always under threat.
Pruning is where the major effort and focus lies in cultivating olives and the oléiculteur considers pruning the highest of his skills. In terms of successful production, pruning accounts for 75% of the cultivation effort (and the remaining 25% is put down to correct fertilisation and pest control). Pruning is done annually in late April or early May, once the possibility of frost has passed.
On mature trees, the young wood, six years and younger, is the best producer of olives. After six years, it is maintained, a branch should be cut off and a new one encouraged.
Suckers at the base of the trees need to be removed every year. This can best be done on a waning moon, we are advised, by bending the suckers away from the tree, as soon as they appear. In addition, local knowledge has it that pruning should achieve a goblet shape where the tree is well aerated in the centre (so that a bird could fly through unharmed) and that the fruit branches should be encouraged to grow hanging from the lip of the goblet and stem from as close as possible to the trunk thus ensuring that the olives get the maximum benefit from the parent tree.
When trees are left untended over a period of years, as in the case at La Mouissone when we arrived, heavy remedial pruning needs to be undertaken to re-start worthwhile production of olives. This is quite alarming for the debutant olive tree owner!
Protection against pests
Fertiliser is applied and pest control carried out in spring and early summer. The olive can suffer attacks from the olive fly (Dacus Prays oleae), the olive moth (Prays Prays oleae) and the olive beetle (Saissetia Prays oleae). The anti-pest treatments begin soon after pruning during a rainy period. Truly organic olive production is only possible when the trees grow in an area that is too cold for the life of the olive fly. These are found at altitude, for example, at Sospel above Menton where the groves are also isolated and do not risk contamination from neighbouring trees.
An olive fly infestation of greater than one per cent of olives in a grove render them unusable for table olives and if greater than ten percent unusable for oil.
The fly lives all of its life stages solely in the olive fruit and emerges as a winged adult in the early spring from unpicked or dropped fruit. There may be a sharp peak in flies (as can be gauged by catching them in pheromone traps) in March or April if fruit is available for egg-laying.
In the area around Grasse the nets that catch the falling olives go down in November as the harvest starts. The harvest finishes in February. While the nets are in place the oléiculteur makes weekly visits to collect the fallen olives. Once enough have been collected for a pressing they will be taken to the olive mill. Like all agricultural processes and products, the timing and the yields will be subject to change due to climatic conditions and the prevalence of pests in any given year.
In a good year around five kilos of olives will produce a litre of oil. Around mid-February, the olive mill will close for pressing oil. Olives harvested any later than February are not used for pressing. This is when our oléiculteur turns his attention to producing pâte d’olive, tapenade and other olive food products as the fruits continue to ripen even up to pruning time. At La Mouissone during a year when the harvest is good, we will brine some thirty kilos of olives for our own use.
Of the most recent years, the winter of 2012 - 2013 saw a good harvest. The harvest during the winter of 2013 - 2014 was low, and the harvest over the winter of 2014 - 2015 was the worst in living memory. This was due to the wet summer that enabled the olive fly to undergo two reproductive cycles instead of the usual one.
In the winter of 2014 - 2015 there was no brining of olives and the local mill did not even open for business that year. Eleven kilos were needed to obtain 1 litre of olive oil that year!
However, the harvest of 2015 - 2016 proved to be good. Our trees were very full of fruit, and the olive man was harvesting up to the 6th May! The later fruits are nearly as large as damsons, and very black. They were hand processed for table olives, pate d’olive and tapenades in the Olive Man’s own workshop, which is very laborious work.
A month after harvesting, pruning takes place, and the cycle re-commences...
The Olive Man
Monsieur Jean Philippe Frère is our 'oleiculteur', or olive man. He regularly wins gold medals for his produce in the Concours Général Agricole, held annually in Paris. In 2015 his gold medal was awarded for Pâte d'Olive, an olive paste used as a spread or for seasoning sauces, and - we think - more delicious than tapenade!
He is quite a character and is also the local official wild boar marksman, who we call on a couple of times each year to hunt the wild boar who regularly destroy the gardens.