James Davidson

  • Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit by Mort Rosenblum
    Absolute, 320 pp, £14.95, November 1997, ISBN 1 899791 36 1

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.

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