Friday, November 13, 2009

Cocktail Drinkers' Guide to Gardening #2

In a post dated September 25th, I introduced you to James Clay and his new monthly column. And then I forgot to post October. So we'll pick it up again with November, and call this column #2. If you're dying to know what James wrote about in October, drop me a note or post a comment below and I'll happily send it to you.

First, a bit about James: Born in Hampshire, England, he's an artist and sculptor who settled down (somewhat) in St. Remy close to 20 years ago. Over the years, he lovingly created a gorgeous one-hectare garden, filled with fruit, palm, pine, and olive trees (he has 60 olive trees, all of them transplanted), plus many varieties of bamboo, flowering plants and shrubs. James knows everything about gardening in Provence. Plus, he likes to drink. So in this monthly column, he'll serve up essential month-by-month garden tips...with cocktails. It's a great idea, no? Without further ado, James tells us what's happening in his garden--and his glass--this month.

November: Olives and Martinis

Of course it was the Romans who brought olive trees to Provence (Provincia Romana) and how lucky we are that they didn't forget to pack them! Trees are my favourite thing on this planet (apart from my partner, who may or may not actually be from this planet). I believe olive trees to be mystical, magical and so reassuring. I say this as they live so long. Some are reputed to be 700 to 800 years old; the one picture above, in Greece, is said to be 1500 years old.

Here in Provence, I find olive trees are a much discussed topic. Everyone seems to have an opinion about the planting, pruning and harvesting to the extent that, when I first arrived here, I found it all very bewildering and somewhat off putting. If I had ever thought about olives then it was only as decoration for a martini!

Have you noticed the olive trees in our area and how many seem to be made up of four or five smaller trunks forming a circle at the base? This, in fact, is unusual, as like most trees they should start growth from a single trunk. The reason they are like this is because in 1956 there was a tremendous frost and at the same time a mistral; the temperature plummeted and thousands of trees were killed over just a few days. Fortunately, all was not lost and over the next few years these trees began to produce shoots around the dead trunks (which were then cut down to ground level). As a result of careful pruning, these shoots are now what we see today, 50 years or so later, happily producing tons of olives every year.

Before I start on about Saint Cecilia (Ste. Cecile), it's time to knock together quickly a dry martini. Pour one and a half ounces of gin and the same of dry vermouth into your shaker (or very large glass) already full of ice, leave for a few moments to chill, then serve into a V-shaped cocktail glass, adding an olive to finish.

You can't escape Saint Cecilia and neither can I, as she is the patron Saint of music and my partner always honours her with non-stop music throughout the day. But also her name day falls on November 22nd and this, by tradition, is the date when one is supposed to begin harvesting olives. Have you ever picked olives? Doing so on a cold, bright, sunny November day, it often strikes me what an ancient, timeless occupation this is. There is a feeling of time standing still and forming a mystical link with our ancestors. I do wonder at times whether it is the beauty of Provence that makes me a poet manque or just many years of cocktail drinking.

Once your crop is in, then it's off to the mill. Some mills actually ask you to make a reservation. I found a very good one some years back (no appointment required): Moulin Saint-Michel in Mouries (Cours Paul Revoil, 04-90-47-50-40). They're very friendly and well organized. It's a great experience to take your crop along and line up with all the other harvesters to have the olives weighed in. Last year I arrived late in the evening and there was a crowd waiting, everyone chatting away and swapping advice. You can collect your virgin oil after mid January.

If you're thinking of planting olives at this time of year, it's possible but better to leave it ‘til the spring as at times there can be early frosts. It is said here that you "plant olives for your grandchildren" (considering the time they take to grow) but if like me you are somewhat impatient you can buy more mature trees. I often see trucks carrying huge olive trees, which are being transplanted, and would like to follow them to see their new homes. (I wonder if I am alone in this?)

I hope now, while enjoying your dry martini, stirring it gently with an olive on a stick, that you’re able to remember all this trivia that I've imparted!

Chin Chin!


  1. So THAT's what happened to make the trees all twisted and tortured...I knew it had to be something catastrophic in the distant past...

    I LOVE olive trees to, as you say they are reassuring. Love this post and the picture is magical.


  2. Thanks for the martini and the information on your olives. You live in such a wonderful part of the world and in perhaps my favorite village as well. Enjoy your weekend.
    A bientot,

  3. This is 'the partner' commenting. I must disaggree with the recipe for a dry martini.

    Tonight in Berlin he (James) had a classic martini which he pronounced 'perfect'. The recipe... the best gin for a martini is either Bombay Sapphire - preferably 47% which only seems to be available at airports! or Tanqueray, which they say was created specifically for martinis. Forget 50/50 - tonight's martini had only a few drops of Noilly Prat. Winston Churchill famously 'passed the bottle' across the gin without intoroducing a drop.

    I generally go for a 6 parts gin, 1 part Noilly or Cinzano - avoid Extra Dry Cinzano as it gives a very nasty bitter taste.

    Some people like a 'dirty martini' - me, for example. This means introducing a touch of the brine from the olives into the mix. But it is a specialised taste.

    Ohterwise... yes, picking olives is a mystical experience. I LOATHE gardening but love picking olives.

  4. love the olive trees... so fabulous...

  5. The tree at the top of the post looks amazing. I'd love to see what it looks like without the Photoshop effects though. I'd like to plant an olive tree, but it's not on the approved list of trees for my neighborhood. I'm not even sure it would grow here in Colorado.