At a party once in Highbury I opened a door, stepping into what I thought might be a bathroom and found myself in an olive grove. Two other guests had found it before me. The smoke from their cigarettes hung around the branches, like an emanation from the leaves. I would have liked to spend some time there, but it was clear I had interrupted a private conversation and the roof was small; a minute or two was the most I could manage of casual lingering. I said something about how warm it was and went back inside.
Olive trees are becoming quite popular in England, apparently, but whether they are sitting on a roof looking out over London, or planted firmly in the ground, they still seem stubbornly out of place, far stranger, for instance, than the monkey-puzzle tree at the end of our road. It is not that they are difficult to grow here. According to my A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants, they will survive temperatures of minus five, as low as rosemary or bay. You’ll be lucky to get any decent olives from them, however. For that you need a Mediterranean kind of light and heat. I suppose that’s the point. Unlike other exotic imports that find their way into British gardens, they carry the burden of an entire landscape with them, with no spectacular flowers to distract you from the fact, and not just a landscape either, but a philosophy of life. ‘Grow as a specimen,’ the Encyclopedia suggests.
Mort Rosenblum used to think olives were what you found at the bottom of a Martini glass, but then he bought a ramshackle farm in southern France and discovered they were what he had at the bottom of his garden, two hundred trees, already old in the time of Louis XIV, but now in a dreadful state. He decided to do a little research, which took him first to the local olive mills and then all around the groves of the Mediterranean, from Palestine to Spain. The result, Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit, resembles not so much A Year in Provence as a series of feature articles about the current state of the trade.
The first thing Rosenblum learns is to attack them with a saw. The tree itself insists on it, speaking through the mouth of local proverbs: ‘Strip me, I’ll dress you’; ‘Make me poor, I’ll make you rich’. He sets to work, cutting into the gnarliest tree on the farm, the one he nicknamed ‘Rock’. Before too long it has sprouted impressively and he has to think of another name, ‘Broccoli’. Throughout the book, trees are hacked at and pruned, shaken to the roots by the latest machinery or savagely beaten with flails – ‘you have to encourage them to give their fruit away,’ says a Spanish friend by way of an apology. The trees love it. Like the wagging tails of dogs rescued from cruel owners, olives never shoot so fast, according to Rosenblum, as when you pay them attention after years of neglect.
The resilience of the olive is one of the main features of its myth. They survive freak frosts of minus seven in France and grow huge on the edge of the Sahara, reconnoitring deep into the soil for water and ambushing the air for every drop of dew: ‘The olive is strong-rooted, resistant to bad weather,’ says Romano Prodi, the Italian Prime Minister, explaining why his new coalition took the name Ulivo or olive-tree. That it is also the phoenix of trees, rising magically from apparently dead wood, was perhaps more to the point, a nice piece of symbolism that would not have been lost on Italian voters. It certainly wasn’t lost on those Athenians forced to climb the burnt-out ruin of the Acropolis to appease the gods the day after the Persian sack of 480 BC. Picking their way through the charred rubble of the Erechtheum, they were amazed to discover a fresh green shoot already 18 inches long, growing from the smoking remains of the sacred olive, Athena’s gift to the Athenians in an ancient auction for the city, a successful counter-bid against Poseidon’s unimaginative spring and the mother of all trees. Cuttings from it were planted throughout Attica, as a kind of insurance policy against the day when this arboreal sacred flame finally went out. Even apparently dead stumps (called ‘sepulchres’) of these sacred olives were carefully preserved and regularly inspected by the Areopagus, in case the sap might rise once more. Miracles are supposed to surprise you, but you have to give them a chance.
The liquid olives produce is as fragile as the trees are tough. Too much heat and violence in the processes of squeezing, separating and filtering destroys the more volatile aromas. Moreover, the finished oil is highly impressionable and unless protected will quickly take on the flavour of the surrounding air, cigarettes, camel dung, the memory of whatever the ship was carrying before, a promiscuous tendency that made it a good foundation for ancient perfumes and modern marinades. Taking oil from an olive is like making love to a woman, says one miller after another, as if each of them has thought it up for himself. At Nuñez de Prado in Spain they seem to have the gentlest touch. Breaking with local tradition, they ‘milk’ the branches, picking the fruit off one by one instead of thwacking the trees with a stick. Then they crush the berries gently, allowing the oil simply to ooze. From this sweat they make what they call ‘the flower’.
Far from the tough old trees of Athena, the Koran uses olive oil as a simile for the light of Allah himself: ‘oil so luminous it seems to shine, though no fire has been touched to it. A light upon light.’ On the West Bank, Rosenblum tries to wheedle some from new-found olive-friends. By this time, so late in the olive year, it’s as rare as snake-oil. But the host takes a hint and digs out a bottle of Johnny Walker refilled with a deep green liquid. ‘Gold,’ he says. Rosenblum can’t wait to try it but has to catch a plane. At the airport he is delayed by suspicious Israelis and searched. As he hurries to the departure lounge, the bottle falls out and smashes on the ground. There is symbolism here, he thinks, but he can’t quite pin it down. The prize for impalpable delicacy, however, belongs neither to Nuñez de Prado, nor to the Koran, nor to the metaphor of broken gold, but to the precious oil produced by those dead souls of trees which appear in claims for European subsidy and nowhere else.
It is a small step from delicacy to preciosity. Scorn is poured here on the pretensions of the butter-eaters of the North, the English connoisseurs who recommend tasting accompanied with slices of apple and Americans who seek out little bottles of ‘Italian’ olive oil which may well have originated in Spain. In Lucca, a producer comes across a gaggle of amateur aficionados sampling on her farm, gargling and slurping and spitting on her floor as if going through the rituals of some dark Satanic cult. In Tuscany, they want to be recognised as the absolute monarchs of the oil trade, both its Burgundy and its Bordeaux. They start their campaign with high prices, selling half a litre for £20, but their methods, their packaging and their pretensions receive short shrift from the author, who knows a thing or two by now. He commends the views of a Spaniard who likens the search for the best oil to a search for the best cheese. It doesn’t take great skill to make good olive oil, just a great deal of care. He himself prefers Nuñez de Prado, made from picual, the Muscat of the olive world inasmuch as it tastes of the fruit it came from – olivey – although some think it tastes of cat’s pee, which I suppose would make it the Sauvignon blanc. Kalamata oil, from the southern Peloponnese, can be even better, but you have to go to Kalamata to find it. It isn’t made from Kalamata olives and doesn’t grow on the Kalamata tree. Tuscan is something else entirely, very assertive and peculiar, best poured on vegetables that can take it without being completely overwhelmed.
Around these two poles of delicacy and toughness, bourgeois affectation and rustic phlegm, the elusive symbolic and the stubborn ‘real’, you can construct the entire mythological structure of the plant and its product, although often you will find yourself switching from one extremity to the other in the blink of an eye. Thinking he has found a co-religionist in the groves of Southern Spain, Rosenblum waxes lyrical about his own ancient trees and the pain of watching them die. Olive trees are past it at eighty, says his host, and shrugs. ‘The richer people are, the dumber they are,’ says Juanito, a ‘bald dynamo’ with ‘a pleasant leer’, who has no truck with talk of anti-oxidants. ‘A woman is a virgin or she is not,’ he says, probably not for the first time. ‘How can she be extra virgin? What matters is taste.’ There are many such professional characters throughout the Mediterranean. Even the down-to-earth campesinos seem to be playing a role. It is a long time since the olive has been a mere cash-crop or a tree: over-burdened with signification, it always seems to stand for something else. Small wonder, then, that the bureaucrats in Brussels find it so hard to keep track.
Sometimes it is hard to see where Rosenblum’s stereotypes end and the self-presentation begins. The Spanish are all laid-back, friendly and talkative until you start asking for details about their trees, at which point, fearing for their subsidies, they quickly dry up. They have endless lunches and present themselves as simple souls, useless as salesmen and always outwitted by the crafty Italians: ‘the biggest liars in the world,’ says Jesús Cuervas García. ‘They know that you know they are lying; it’s their world, their life.’ But the truth is that the money is good. One fat cheque from Italy buys gallons of vaunted Spanish pride. Rosenblum approves of Spanish lassitude – ‘olive country down to its deepest roots’ – but on Lesbos the Greeks are taking it too far. On being told that the press can be ruined by a single batch of lousy oil, he imagines a little scenario about a Greek farmer with good intentions who gets distracted by a bottle of ouzo and a sunny afternoon, leaving his fruit to rot for twenty days. But in this cast of Mediterranean characters it is the Italians, it seems, who always take centre-stage. They emerge as the Peter Mandelsons of the olive world, able to sell everything but themselves, bad-mouthed for bad-mouthing rivals, while buying up the cream of their crop and selling it as their own. They may grow fewer olives than the Spaniards, but they have cultivated something much more valuable, a near-monopoly on the notion of Mediterranean style.
Rosenblum himself doesn’t escape the stereotyping. An archetypal can-do American, who keeps his promises, rolls up his sleeves and harvests a tree in record time. Inevitably, what excites him most about olives is that they are so old. Botanists assure him that seven hundred years is the maximum, but he is not satisfied until he has dated trees at least to the age of the Romans, if not to the time of Christ. It is here perhaps, around the idea of longevity, that tree and oil can come together again: ‘Look at us, strong,’ the bald dynamo says, giving his long-suffering wife a rap on the shoulders, a vitality he ascribes to drinking a quarter of a litre a day. A friend in Miami, a bon viveur, eats thirty or forty olives a day and drank the extra-virgin straight from the bottle when he tasted it for the first time: ‘the very blood of the warm rich earth’. The first time he saw the oil, Ettore, a grower in Umbria, wanted to fill a bath with it and immerse himself, but managed to hold back. The author doesn’t fall for the most exaggerated claims, conceding that there is more to Mediterranean life-expectancy than what they pour on their tomatoes. It helps if you go to work on a donkey, for instance, and if you are able to take – long, hard-working American sigh – a long lunch.
It is not all sweetness and light, however. There is a bitter side to olives, as you will soon find out if you are ever foolish enough to eat one straight from a tree. On the southern side of the Mediterranean, European subsidies and quotas are having an effect, protecting poor Europeans from those much worse off than themselves. In these disadvantaged regions the tree seems less bountiful: ‘One year there is a good crop, another year it is bad; it is better to get some other work.’ In Palestine they used to have a whole repertoire of songs to sing during the harvest – ‘Olive, my aches and pains are your fault; I will pluck you and squeeze your eye’ – but now they listen to the radio instead. Here they prefer their oil bitterer, too, with acid levels approaching those required for soap, so that when you drink it, you can feel it burning the back of your throat. In Croatia, meanwhile, the trees are abused, not so much by soldiers as by the children, who have forgotten what they are for. They use them as battlegrounds for three-dimensional war-games, with the fruit as ammunition. A well-aimed olive, thrown hard enough, can produce an effective stain.
The trees may have gone through several generations over the past few thousand years, but you get a strong impression that the landscape and the modes of production have more or less remained the same. Unlike other cash-crops – sugar, tobacco, coca, tea – the olive seems a force for conservatism rather than change. Whatever revolutions it effected in the countryside happened a long time ago. There may be olive-trees in China, even Angola, now, but 90 per cent of all the olives in the world still grow around the Inland Sea, a precise measurement of the power of the association: not only does the olive dominate the Mediterranean, it has never really taken root anywhere else.
The Palestinians use the olive tree as a unit to measure Israeli appropriations, as if it is not just space they have been stealing, but deeply embedded time. On the other hand, Rosenblum claims there are trees at Gethsemane (which means ‘olive press’), that were growing long before the ‘Muhammadans’ came along, trees planted by ancient Jews. Less controversially, it seems that Seville was already surrounded by millions of trees when it was called Italica and was part of the most Romanised province in Roman Spain. Even then it was satisfying the bulk of Italian needs: the patterns of trade seem strangely static, although the nations of merchant-carriers, Phoenicians, Venetians, English, Greeks, have come and gone.
The most immediate threat to these patterns continuing is demographic. The decline of the Provençal industry was hastened by the deaths in the First World War of young French olive-pickers. Now, all over the Mediterranean, people are leaving villages and moving into town. It can take a couple of generations before nostalgia tugs a few of them back. Regional governments are chasing new industries, but olives are more deeply impressed in the Mediterranean imagination than four-door saloons. The Spanish are fond of a story which confirms all the stereotypes of the laid-back South. After much lobbying, a brand new car factory was built not far from Seville. One day in winter the Japanese quality-controller arrived to find it empty. The olives were ripe and the workers had taken a couple of days off, venting their frustrations by thwacking trees. It is a far cry from the more gentle Japanese custom of sitting under the cherry-blossom, perhaps, but if the owners are wise they should turn a blind eye to the absenteeism and the tree-abuse, and call it staff development. It won’t happen every year.
All things being equal, olives work to a slow pulse, alternating years of plenty with years of dearth, a pattern which cannot be broken by double planting, since the trees of a region synchronise over time. The trade is now so tight that the pulse operates like a pendulum over the entire Mediterranean. When the rain misses Spain, as it did year after year in the early Nineties, Greece celebrates, as prices soar. The rain has come back now and the Spaniards can breathe again. This year it came down in torrents, which causes problems of its own. But behind the annual vagaries there is evidence of more permanent climate change, as years of drought arrive more often, bunched up like London buses, and showers become more rare. On the Greek islands in August, they have begun to notice cloud-formations they have never seen before, not stopping to offload their cargo, passing through to the North. The Mediterranean is in danger of losing its ancient monopoly. Within a century or two, the sight of an olive grove in England might not seem so strange. What a dilemma for the Tuscanini of North London: save the planet or grow your own.