Monday, November 24, 2008

L'huile authentique

We gathered 55 kilos of olives from our trees--actually, 57, if you include the ones we didn't take to the mill for oil, the ones that are downstairs in glass jars curing (or possibly spoiling) in brine. Last year I took the olives to the Nightingale Mill, which I pass every day on my way to and from the Collège des Vignes. This year, the Nightingale isn't turning on the presses until December 11. All the other mills in the area will only take 200 kilos or more of olives; they don't have time to mess with the weekend harvesters like us. Except one, which would weigh your olives and exchange them, for a small charge, for the amount of oil the fruit would yield. I pass that mill every day, too.

The River Mill has a mixed reputation in the neighborhood. On the one hand, it's got a fantastic shop that sells provençal tablecloths, napkins, those funny little square fabric-covered bread baskets, salad bowls and cheese boards and serving spoons and pepper grinders made of olive wood, local pottery, soaps and lotions, bags of herbes de provence in every denomination you can imagine, and, of course, olives and olive oil. It is one-stop shopping for all of our visitors: everything from 2 euro lavender sachets for the preschool teacher to olive wood baskets for your sister's wedding gift.

On the other hand, there are dire rumors about the oil. Violette, our sometime housekeeper, has said of the mill: those people are thieves. I've heard, too, that someone saw a truck with a Spanish license plate unloading olives at the River Mill one evening. My informant leaned in and lowered her voice when she told me, it was such a scandalous rumor. Olive laundering. Taking olives from one country--implicitly, of course, inferior olives--and passing them off as French, local--implicitly superior--olives. It would be, I am sure, actionable even in a French court, were I to publish these accusations, name the mill, name my sources.

So it was with ambivalent hearts that C and I loaded up our olives and took them down the hill. Three weekends, more or less, of harvesting, and we knew our olives would go into the common stock and we would get the common oil. C put the bins on the loading dock when we got to the mill, and one of the workers put them on the scale. 55 kilos. He handed us a receipt and we took it into the office, where we paid about 3 euros per liter of the 9 liters of oil that the mill's formula estimated our 55 kilos would yield. The man in the office gave us another receipt, and we took it and our oil cans into the mill itself. There, one of the workers filled our cans with oil that came straight out of the presses. He let each of us have a turn filling the cans and we took pictures--it was all very friendly and warm--and then we came home.

For dinner that night we had baguettes and chèvre and poured out little dishes of the mill's oil. Not our oil, maybe not all of it even provençal oil, maybe some of it not even from French olives. But it tasted good, green and spicy and smooth.

Violette came by this morning for coffee. She says that if we harvest 180 kilos--which she swears would be the work of a day or two at most--then we could take it to the mill she uses, up in the mountains, and they would press our olives and we would get from them our oil. Liters and liters of it. I am tempted.

It's a funny thing, the quest for authenticity. We harvested our own olive trees; we exchanged them for oil from olives pressed that day. We paid--if you don't count our labor, which I tend not to--far less than I would pay at the hypermarché for oil that came from god knows where. Still, it's hard to let go the sense that we went the easy route, that we missed the road that was more French, more local, more authentic. Another 130 kilos, and we would have had our own oil, and from a mill that doesn't also sell bath salts. We want to squeeze every drop out of our experience, to store up liters and liters of what it feels like to harvest French olives in our French garden and dip French baguettes into French, into our oil, so that someday, when we are sitting in traffic and all we can see is brake lights and strip malls and suburban sprawl, we can draw a little of this experience out and savor it. Spicy and green and true.

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