Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Moulin du Rossignol

I decided belatedly to harvest our olives. Up and down our lane people had put nets under their olive trees at the end of September, and, a few weeks after that, we started seeing ladders in trees and olives raining down. M. LaChaix arrived at the end of October and was horrified that I had not harvested the olives; I actually felt like I had been wasteful and idle, instead of just unknowing, after his scolding. I told Olivier about it and he teased: "Didn't you know? In France it is always the responsibility of the renter to harvest the olives." So I was laughed out of my guilt and spent a couple of weeks just watching Wendy eat olives off the ground.

Wendy's interest in windfall olives amazed the entire equipe. It amazed us, too, once we figured out what was going on. Our neighbors who had spread nets under their olive trees were catching the ripe olives as they fell. Our ripe olives fell onto the ground, and Wendy, each time she was outside, scooped up a mouthful and brought them into the house. I started stepping on olive pits, and when we vacuumed the rug under the kitchen table, the sound of the olive pits being sucked up the hose was a little like the sound of popcorn popping.

Everyone had an opinion about Wendy and the olives. The gardener down the hill maintained that they would make her sick. Olivier's son, Thomas, thought the oil in the olives would make her coat shiny. Luigi and Olivier shook their heads and agreed that they had never seen a dog eat olives before. If you go back to America, Olivier said one day, we will have to send you olives for the dog.

While A. was visiting, we decided that it would be interesting to harvest a few of the trees. Just one or two, we thought, and then we would brine the olives and make our own tapenade. I asked Luigi about it. He shook his head. These olives, they are no good for eating. They are for oil. I will help you. Oil was not what I had imagined; how much oil could the olives from a few trees make? But the light in Luigi's eyes made me ask more questions. How would we harvest them? What about after harvest; what happened then? Luigi explained the whole process: nets under the trees, bamboo poles to shake the branches, ladders to climb up into the trees to pick the olives that didn't fall. Then pick the leaves and twigs out of the olives and spread them flat to cure for a few days before taking them to the mill. We had two mills to choose from, and Luigi recommended the smaller one. You drive by it every day on your way to school, he said. The Moulin de la Rossignol, the Mill of the Nightingale. If you take the olives there, you will get the oil from your own olives.

I signed on. An hour later Luigi appeared with nets and poles and a ladder and we began. The girls joined us after school, and my one or two trees quickly became the entire garden, 25 trees. Luigi volunteered to come and help on a Saturday, and, horrified at the thought of his taking a weekend to help me, I finished the last trees on Friday afternoon. When I called to let him know that we had finished, his wife called him to the phone: C'est madame l'Americaine. He sounded vaguely disappointed. Make sure you spread them out flat to cure; they'll spoil if you don't. And take out all the twigs, otherwise the mill won't accept them.

We spread the olives on dropcloths in the basement, and I spent evenings picking out the leaves and twigs. Luigi looked in to offer more tips a few times; Violette came to clean and put in her two cents. She had harvested 140 kilos of olives herself, and took them to a mill near Cabris. I asked where I should take mine, the Mill of the River or the Mill of the Nightingale? Violette put down the iron so she use both hands to make her point: The Mill of the River, ils sont voleurs. Those people are theives.

When I finished picking out the twigs, I put the olives into two crates and carried them upstairs, ready to take them to the Mill of the Nightingale. Violette looked in the crates. Non. Non. Ca ne marche pas. That won't do. The noyaus have to come out. You must take out all the pits; otherwise, the pits will block up the machinery, and then the mill will charge you for repairs. We knelt together on the kitchen floor and began picking out the pits. The girls joined us, and Violette announced that this was children's work; she went back to the ironing, and I, not wanting to look soft, began making dinner. When the girls had finished--after Violette had supervised them and checked their work for accuracy--she told them to carry the crates up the hill and put them in the car. Off we went to the mill of the Nightingale.

Not able to allow this process to be entirely old-fashioned, I had googled the Mill of the Nightingale. Its website was polished, with photos of olive trees artfully fading into photos of olives, and then of olive oil in lovely bottles on dark wooden tables. The mill had been built in 1760, and had produced olive oil for almost 200 years without pause; in 1956, there had been a killing freeze in the area, mortal for many olive trees, and the mill had closed its doors. The Giorgis family had reopened the mill in 1980, and restarted the tradition. The mill not only produced olive oil, but it had a shop where you could buy oil, tapenade, and other artisanal products. I was ready to be a customer.

We pulled up the the mill late on a Wednesday afternoon. There was a rusting dumpster in front of the building; weeds were growing around it. Pots of cyclamen and pansies, and a full clothesline, decorated a balcony above a small unloading dock. As I parked the car, a face appeared in the doorway off the loading dock, and a man came out.

Do you have an appointment? You cannot just come, you have to call. Did you call? You have to call. You cannot just bring olives. He came down the steps to my car. Open the trunk. Where are your olives? You must make an appointment next time. He scooped a handful of olives up and smelled them. These are fine. Bring them in. My back is bad, I cannot carry them.

The man looked like Mr. Bean, the British comedian, if Mr. Bean were a Provencal moulinier: he was compact, sturdy, with a mop of dark hair and intense black eyes. He hardly took a breath between sentences, and his accent was so strong that at times I wondered if he were speaking French or some other language entirely.

The inside of the mill was taller than it was wide. The ceiling was several meters away, but the floor was almost completely covered in immense green machinery, and what little floor space there was was taken up by baskets of olives. The air smelled of olive oil; it even felt a little thick, a little oily. When you breathed in, the air tasted green and sharp. The mill's website said, Olive oil is a noble product which should be savoured, and which accompanies with happiness provencale cusisine. The olive tree being a humble tree, its products should be used in simple recipes.

The moulinier dumped our olives into wire baskets and weighed them. 27 kilos. Did you bring a bidon? You don't have a bidon? Not only did I not have a bidon, I didn't know what a bidon was; all I could be sure of was that I understood that he was asking me if I had something, and all I had was a car, a pocketbook, two children, and two bins of olives. None of those sounded anything like a bidon. He shook his head in resignation. No appointment, no phone call, and now, no bidon. All right. This is what you are going to do. You know the Agricultural cooperative? By some minor miracle I did. All right. You are going to go there, right now, and you are going to ask to speak to M. Girard. Who are you going to ask to speak to?

M. Girard, I said.

Right. And you are going to tell M. Girard that M. Giorgis from the Moulin du Rossignol sent you, and you need a bidon. A plastic bidon, five liters. What are you going to ask for?

A bidon of five liters?

Right. And then you are going to bring that back here, right now, and leave it on the steps outside, because I have to go out. Where are you going to leave it?

On the steps outside?

Right. Okay. I will call you when the olives are ready. Now what is your phone number?

I looked at him blankly. I had not understood his last words at all. He held his hand up to his ear, thumb and little finger extended to look like a telephone. I gave him my cell phone number.

I will call you. Do not call me. Leave the bidon outside. Who are you going to see at the cooperative?

Yes, okay, M. Girard. I went out the door and down the steps.

At the cooperative, M. Girard left his post behind the desk and walked past the aisles of rope, birdseed, canning jars, rubber boots, and wooden clogs. He came back with a plastic jug, the same sort of jug that C. keeps extra gas in for the lawn mower. I paid my three euros and went back to the mill. One of the girls hopped out of the car and left the jug on the steps; M. Giorgis senior, sporting an enormous waxed moustache, came out and stood on the balcony and watched as we turned the car around in the driveway and left. At the corner, Christmas lights were strung across the street, white bulbs interspersed with a yellow star, red bell, and a few green leaves. They blinked a little as we drove under them and turned towards home.

A few days later, Olivier came back from a trip, and I told him about my olive mill adventure. We were standing outside M. LaChaix's house, up at the top of the hill, and looking out across the valley towards Grasse and the sea. I know the family whose mill it is. P. H. Giorgis, Olivier said. Father and son.

I think we saw the son. Do you know the British comedian, Mr. Bean? Olivier nodded. The son looks like Mr. Bean would look if he had an olive mill in Grasse.

Olivier smiled. And the father, did he have a moustache?

Yes, a big one.

It's the last olive mill in Grasse. There used to be mills all through this valley, but that one, the Moulin du Rossignol, that's the last one.

I saw M. Giorgis fils at the market the next day, and asked him about my olives. His expression was blank. Remember, I prompted him, I didn't have an appointment?

Oh yes. Recognition dawned. Your oil is ready. You can come and get them this afternoon, after 5:30.

L. was visiting, and we went together to the mill. Mr. Bean was there and we had another impenetrable one-sided conversation as I paid him 13 euros for the nearly 5 liters of extra virgin olive oil that my olives had produced. As we left, M. Giorgis pere and his moustache came in. Let the oil settle for a few days before you bottle it, he said. But you can go ahead and taste some tonight, with a little salad. He smiled. His son asked how long we had been in France. Six months, I said. This is the first time we've ever harvested olives. The Giorgis, father and son, nodded and smiled as they shook our hands. Bonne continuation, they said. A la prochaine. We'll see you next time.

Violette says she'll help me filter the oil and bottle it, and I'm still looking for the right sort of bottles. But we did taste the oil that night on bit of baguette. It tasted green, and a little spicy, and strong, like eating it would make you live a longer and, chances are, a happier life.

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