Extra Virgin Virgin

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When they crank the jolting Heath Robinson conveyor belts at the cooperative olive mill into action, the skies darken. Fact. Not sure why, but black clouds provide a dramatic tension, as does a bigger than normal jam of broken-backed trucks and trailers, lorries, dented Citroens and Seats (and Peugeots) stuffed with white olive sacks, all reversing anarchically in the direction of the grills to drop their loads. Nuestra Señora del Rosario Cooperativa is now a-buzz, the social hub, lit up at night like something industrial in America, and will be until January. You can hear it, and smell it – green, waxy, cloying, oily – a mile off.
Last year I stripped the olives from 400 trees myself using a stick which took a month (if you include time spent lying in the nets too tired to move, with a dog licking my face). This year I recruited a team and a shaker machine, and it took a week.
I was in Puglia some months ago covering an extra virgin olive oil fraud story, and had the luck to spend some days in the company of the deCarlo family. They compete to find a space for their exceptional, award-winning, artisan-produced Italian Extra Virgin olive oil in a global market awash with fake slop.
They pointed out that olive oil is a fruit juice, and should be pure, fresh, bitter, with, depending on type of olive, varying notes of grass, tomato leaves, artichoke. And they showcased the best by pouring two types of their own liberally over the best of southern Italian home-cooking during lunch at their family home.
Obviously I looked at my own fields with interest on my return. To ensure plenty of bitterness, which isn’t rated too highly locally, I was the first farmer off the block with the harvesting, picking the fruit while green and fairly hard – and far too early according to my neighbours. I sold the bulk to the cooperative (to join the rest of the area’s haul, to be crushed, filtered and bottled by them under their own label), but this year kept back 500kg, which thanks to a miscalculation was actually 830kgs, sent it down a different shoot and had it pressed separately, and bottled the stuff that came out at the other end of the system one hour later. Having 167 litres of oil for home consumption is excessive, but it’s genuinely, accidentally, very good. Getting it there is probably what did for the car suspension.

Incidentally, Extra Virginity, The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by the helpful and affable Tom Mueller is a superb, shocking and entertaining read.

A Right Thrashing

olives5Picking olives gives you a lot of time to think. It also gives you a backlog of life to get on with afterwards hence a late post, but I’m still pondering so thought I’d get olives done with before harvest time comes round again.

If you haven’t picked olives, it involves spreading large nets under a tree, and knocking the fruit down with a stick. At the point where you can not go on, you must get the olives (now marbles with a life of their own) out of the net into a sack. After doing that – in my case – just six times, for reasons to do with a broken truck and the limited capacity in the Peugeot GTI, (‘ESTE NO ES UN COCHE DEL CAMPO’ the mechanic correctly tells me every month when I turn up in the recovery truck driver’s cab, the Peugeot on the back like a carnival queen, but I don’t have the €6500 for the Landrover he’s found as an alternative) . . . so, after filling six sacks and dragging them, now each one weighing 35kg, across a large, uneven field, they are loaded into the boot. Obviously with a Peugeot with broken suspension, the boot is pretty much on the ground after the first sack so that makes it easier. After a 10km drive up and down mountains, you reverse onto a grill between the lorries and vans at Nuestra Señora del Rosario Cooperativa, and, under the approving eye of Paco the conveyor belt operator, drag each sack out and empty the load. You collect a piece of paper to say well done, you’ve earned a euro, and you drive home and start again until you have accrued 1937kgs of olives and decide to give it a rest.

Anyway, among the thoughts:

The goddess Athena gave the Ancient Greeks their first olive tree. Fact. You’d think in the thousands of years since someone might have come up with a way of harvesting the fruit that was easier and calmer than hitting each olive with a long stick. But they haven’t.

The whole work and pay system is wrong. I believe I should be paid as much for picking olives as leading a Which Font Says Trust? strategy session because it’s harder. Obviously I’m not being paid at all. And regardless of what job of work I’m doing, the value of my free time is the same. I think I’m onto something and mention it to Dave who explains it’s already been done – Marxism.

Tortoise or Hare? Dave goes for tortoise; I go for hare . . . and I get a lot more done. People are always saying  ‘tortoise and hare’ knowingly. But who says Aesop’s right?  He just made it up.

The pleasures of working the land in time-honoured style. Apparently there are people in offices all over just dreaming of the day when they can dress up in something from a Toast catalogue and get down and dirty with a hoe or a stick or a chicken. It’s the new thing after Mindfulness. I say, come here. Also, that it’s great for the first ten minutes, and then it gets tedious.

I used to get mentally exhausted and think how nice it would be to be physically exhausted. I meant instead, rather than as well, so be careful what you wish for etc. Anyway, I have to say that physical exhaustion plays with your mind: joy, resentment, fury and Zen-like resignation . . . all at the same time. It’s like riding a bucking bronco; I understand there is a medical explanation.

Repeated actions inspire urgent, fleeting ideas. Among them move to a city, go back to films, open a cake shop, become a forensic linguist, sell cheese online, paint large paintings, revisit my inventions ledger (but abandon Jab and Go, in which you are anaethesised before flights, stacked in a container with your luggage, and delivered to your destination – something, friends remind me, is surprisingly close to what some governments already offer).

The olives were there to be harvested but would earn us very little, so was this effort rewarding or a waste of time? Turns out the years of doing non-productive things for quite a lot of money have given me a warped idea of success.

How far I’ve come from Bubbles Rothemere’s Christmas parties at Claridges. Is there any way back? Obviously, not all the way, but a little way back sometimes? Have I gone up in the world or down? Or just along? Will I ever run in heels again?

Olive-pickers’ elbow? Is that a thing? And if so, is it permanent?




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I meant to post ‘one year on’ pictures eight months ago, but didn’t.  It turns out it’s time-consuming, this farming, bricklaying, basic rural living stuff, especially when funded in part by time-consuming journalism, and you have a social life, and an alternating real deep need to sit around with a glass of wine and a book. So these – finally – are vintage shots of a very unfinished restoration job as it was in June 2015. Yes, relax friends: we do now have a toilet, and the black sackcloth spiderwebs are mostly down.
The other reason for putting it off is that I couldn’t find anything that conveyed the sweat, tears, hours, injury, blasphemy and sacks of cash shoved into the house hole. Nothing with a VOILA! Changing Rooms reveal.
Looking at the pictures – much like looking at the wall, or the ceiling, or the paving, or the drainpipe, or the garage which could be a bedroom, or the kitchen (medieval) and the actual farm in its entirety has me hyperventilating, and reaching simultaneously for a brown paper bag and the To Do ledger. I look at the bathroom, fashioned out of a derelict shed stuffed full of partridges, and all I think is that the shower glass needs cleaning (which of course it does).

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My Life with Colombian Drug Lords

This is the best title sequence ever (see it through) – Mexican-Colombian Emmy-winning novela meets Tarantino, the Coen brothers and a mariachi band – and it’s the theme tune to life in somewheresville, as El Señor de los Cielos is on every single night. (Unfortunately, since sitting on the remote, we can’t turn the subtitles off.)

To sum up the week so far: el Señor, Aurelio Casillas, is about to gun down doe-eyed, terrier-keen journalist Eugenia, off-on-off girlfriend of his nemesis Marco Mejia head of the anti-narcotics squad in Mexico City. Mejia’s only just heard about it because he was in bed with a troubled Colombian undercover cop, and now dammit he can’t get a signal on his phone. Aurelio’s brother is getting roughed up by a man called scissors, for the things he does with scissors, at a coke lab run by guerrillas deep in the Colombian jungle. Back at the ranch his saucy wife, Matilda, is looking high and low for her birth control pills having just had sex with Aurelio’s teenage son who, since assassinating his best friend, a celebrity singer and record producer who came to stay with a ditsy singer in tow who turned out to be the troubled undercover cop, is pushy, drunk and mean. In another wing, his mother, Aurelio’s wife is packing or unpacking her bags, pacing sadly. She reckons that for all his floppity hair, money and confidence, Aurelio is a bad egg and he might have something to do with the sudden death of her father, drug lord Don Cleto, yesterday (he did). She thinks she might be happier with her husband’s loyal (up to a point) right-hand man who really, really loves her but really mustn’t show it – not if he doesn’t want Scissors visiting him late at night. Back in Mexico City, Aurelio’s No.1 mistress, Monica, was thinking about stabbing him with a really big knife when he stayed over last night in revenge for the death of her entire family (the Villalobos cartel) but couldn’t quite. She has a man servant called Sad and a body in a freezer which is connected somehow with her aborted plan. And to make matters worse, a high-ranking police official suckered down and dirty into Aurelio’s murky cokey world is about to spill the beans. But someone keeps sticking notes in his prison dinners suggesting that unless he keeps his mouth shut, his wife, Doris, is for the chop, and he really loves Doris even though she is rather Lady Macbeth.

Series three of El Señor de los Cielos, an ordinary tale of gun-toting drug trafficking folk, has been on Spanish television (Nova) every single weekday night at 10pm since mid-September for 1.5hrs a night. Recently it has been shaved down to a mere 50 minutes, but the series still makes going out impossible.
The multi-award-winning series is brilliantly-acted gripping drama trash, and, although it would be nice to see friends over Christmas, I don’t want it to end. However it’s based on a true story, and as I worked off and on in Colombia during the 90s when the real events were playing out, I know how it pans out. Let’s just say, never trust plastic surgeons. The good news is that series 1 & 2 are available. Thanks Caracol, thanks Telemundo. Feliz Navidad.



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I’m now a signed up socio, along with around 700 other local farmers, of Nuestra Señora del Rosario cooperative olive mill. It’s a great Heath Robinson type affair, and since taking these pictures has once again become the bustling centre of all activity, lorries and vans getting all snarled up around the entrance gates, much back-slapping and high-fiving, and catching up. I’ve sent around 600kg of olives up the conveyor belt so far, but have around another 1400 kgs to pick. So I’d better get on.


Pomegranate Porn

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I can’t tell you how much I love my pomegranates. Last year they split before they ripened, so this year I gave each tree plenty of water, day and night, from July onwards. It was extremely hard work which required me to lie in the dappled shade on a lounger, doing an occasional whip crack of the hose, directing it to a new trunk. I read several books.
Late August, the birds came, Hitchcock style. It’s clear now that they came from the adjacent vineyard, having depleted the stock of grapes. They got through almost every fruit on the far side of the furthest tree before I discovered the desecration. I agreed to let them have that one, and focused my efforts on the rest. I hung coat hangers with dangling CDs and tin foil from the branches, and when I wasn’t crouching underneath the trees ready to jump up and clap, kept a watchful eye over them from my desk, interrupting work and work calls to rush down the hill waving my arms.
Anyway, even taking into account the birds’ portion, the harvest has been big, wondrous, and exotic – they are Persian in origin, after all. The fruit is scarlet, inside and out, and huge. Bite in, and the juice pours out.
Every Saturday I flip out the seeds from a great pile of them, listening to the Rev Richard Cole on R4, and most mornings I eat a bowl of them (not the size of the one shown, I hasten to add) with Sonya’s goats’ milk mint yoghurt. There’s about 40kg in the freezer, and I’ve dropped off around 50kg at the local shop where they’ve sold well under a ‘granadas del pueblo‘ sign. Next I’m going to make sorbet.
They are ranked high among the wonder foods – currently – beating avocados, cranberries, blueberries, and spinach, and so forth, full of anti-oxidants, and a top tool in the battle against high cholesterol and heart disease.
There’s about another 60-70kgs left, dangling from the trees like hefty baubles. Thank you trees. More water for you next year (depending on what’s left in the well).

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