The olive tree is considered to be sacred throughout Provence, and has become one of the most typical elements of the Provençal landscape and culture. It is also one of the most powerful symbols of the South and of Provencal gastronomy.
In the northern hemisphere, olive trees are happiest when grown between 25° N and 45° N. At 44° N, La Mouissone is approaching the northern extremity of the olive’s distribution.
It is maintained that the olive tree is immortal. It can live up to a thousand years and, if at this venerable age one cuts it, it will immediately produce a shoot from the stump, which will also grow into a tree that can live for another several hundred years.
The most ancient local occupation
The plantation of olive trees has been common in the Alpes Maritimes over centuries. The trees were introduced as far back as 2500 years by successive invasions of Phoenicians, Romans, and Greeks. The cultivation of olives took place up to an altitude of 700 metres in the hills and back hills of the region. Olive oil has always been used as a preserver of foods, but also had an important role in the manufacture of soap. The technique was developed from the 9th century onwards around Marseilles as a means for using the end of season oils which were pressed without bothering over the flavour.
In the middle ages, the whole region was covered in olive groves and olive mills. In some areas one can still see the remains of 12th century olive production. By the 19th century there were 138 olive mills in the Alpes Maritimes. However in the late 1800s and up to the First World War, olive production went into a decline, as immense olive groves were developed in Tunisia.
The greatest rift in the industry came in 1956 when a huge winter freeze finally wiped out ninety per cent of the region’s olive groves. Currently there are only about eight olive mills in the Alpes Maritimes region.
The olive (Olea europa) along with holm oak (Quercus ilex) is the most typical tree found in the Mediterranean. The Oleaceae plant family includes, amongst other plants, lilac (Syringa), privet (Ligustrum), ash (Fraxinus), and numerous shrubs such as forsythia and jasmine. Worldwide, there are up to 200 varieties of olive tree. Wild olives are still frequently seen in the garrigue regions of the Mediterranean
The olive’s productive lifetime:
- From 1 to 7 years - youthful and will not produce many olives.
- From 7 to 35 years - starts to produce olives while continuing its growth.
- From 35 to 150 years - full maturity and its production will be abundant.
- Beyond 150 years - the trunk will start to grow hollow, it will lose part of its bark and its production will decline, but not significantly.
As a tree well suited to the Mediterranean climate, during the summer months the olive must tolerate prolonged periods of drought, intense sunlight, and high temperatures. Prolonged periods of cold (of 0 degrees C and below) will cause damage and a drastically reduced harvest for many years. However, a definite cooler and wetter winter period is vital to the production of flowers and therefore the olives that follow.
Where soil requirements are concerned, it is an accommodating tree. Although productive in poor soils, the trees produce a better harvest when the ground is enriched and when a minimum of 220 mm of water annually is available. The olive can tolerate acid soils, but prefers a slightly chalky soil. Given the alkaline clay soil with its naturally retentive qualities and underlying chalk drainage, the soil at La Mouissone could hardly be more ideal. Even though the olive can withstand anything or almost anything, patience is required to cultivate this symbol of peace, wisdom and perseverance.
The olive is an evergreen tree. The blue-green leaves, silvery green on the underside, are arranged opposite one another on the branch. The lifespan of a single leaf averages three years. “Leaf drop” happens mainly in the early summer, which can cause much extra work! The leaves, though, are vital to the tree’s life. They have an efficient protection system against the extreme heat waves of the Mediterranean summer. The upper side is protected by a waterproof dark green gloss which reflects the sunlight away from the plant.
Having both female and male flower parts on the same tree, the majority of olive trees are self-fertile. Pollination is mainly by wind and it typically happens in the space of one week a year. This being the case, the weather during that week can influence the crop of any given year both positively and negatively! In good years no more than 5 – 10% of the flowers will produce an olive, but as flower numbers are so prolific, this is still sufficient for a good harvest.
A commonly held incorrect belief is that green olives and black olives are produced by different species. All olives are green when young and turn black once mature.
In the Alpes Maritimes, the Cailletier accounts for the greatest percentage of all olives grown. 95% of the olives grown at La Mouissone are the Cailletier variety.
The Cailletier has developed as a tall, almost weeping shape. It can grow to a height of fifteen metres if left unpruned. The weeping branches, encouraged to this form by skilled pruning, almost touch the ground. The olives are small and are harvested at the point when their colour is turning from green to black.