Monday, November 27, 2006

The Olive Pickers

As a child of the sixties, the only olive I knew was black and salty, tough and hollow…if we were lucky - that is to say, lucky if they were hollow. (I wasn’t much into those pits.) There was a long-standing pattern of olives being stolen from my plate at dinner when a particular cousin who, several years older than I, took great pleasure in this little joke. (I should have been happy for those olives to be nipped!) Aside from being rather protective of the food on my plate (something that has stayed with me to this day), I was not the olive lover in my family. That role belonged to my sister. With a pitted olive on each finger, she would slowly nibble them off, savoring them as if there was something really special going on that I simply didn’t understand. Further proof of her love of olives was evidenced by the fact that she would regularly request those fat, sour green olives stuffed with pimento. Ahhh…such was life in the sixties with two little girls who were training their very different palates.

Then one year for Christmas, my very frugal (and very creative) parents put a can of California Graber olives in my sister’s stocking. It was a new product and the can opened to show plump globes of mottled green and brown – their pits still tucked in their middles – swimming in a clear liquid instead of the inky stuff that would be drained off of the olives we had known until then.

My sister bravely tucked right into the gift and was kind enough to share – probably feeling confident that the can would remain untouched by me as I had mild gag reactions to green olives. But I must have been feeling adventurous and pulled one from the freshly opened can. The tender flesh released an actual flavor that deserved attention. There was something different going on here: a noticeable richness, a soft green woody-earthy taste that immediately had me asking for more. I can’t remember just how generous my sister was in that particular moment, but I do give her credit for introducing me to something new in the olive realm. Those cans of olives continued to show up in her stockings at Christmas and our tables at holiday time.

Fast forward to many years later and my first trip to Provence: It was during that first "wander’" through the marché in the early morning light along cours Saleya in Nice that I was introduced to the pungent aroma of briny olives that are a staple in Provence. The scent that permeated the air as the vendors dipped into big tubs of olives with wooden ladles to offer samples to passers-by was intoxicating to me. The display from vendor to vendor was a visual feast: small, large, shiny, or earthy blacks, browns, greens...some mixed with herbs, others mixed with onions and peppers, and preserved in a bath of their own oil. This was a new world and a stash of fresh olives from the marché made it back with me from every trip.

This year, my affair with olives was taken to an even deeper level. I was invited by a new friend to participate in the annual olive harvest of the trees on her property in the countryside just outside of Aix.

Our long hot summer took its toll on the olives this year. With little rain and relentless heat, there were fewer olives on the trees than usual. With a week or so of a Mistral that blew through Aix with a force that I am still getting used to, it was decided that it would be best to go forward with the harvest, even though it was earlier than usual.

There is a regular group that shows up for this annual event made up of friends, neighbors, grown children and their spouses and younger children (one of whom turned out to be a very good “tree shaker”!)

Any and all newcomers are warmly welcomed. Under a “Will Work for Food” contract, they start in the morning with a picnic lunch offered by the “mother” of the trees (and owner of the bastide) at mid-day. After the day is finished and the work completed, there is a lively lasagne dinner for the hungry and friendly crew.

When I arrived, the work had begun.

People were working below and around the perimeter of the trees. Some were chatting quietly…others were working in silence. There was some sort of collaboration between the people and the trees. Olives that had been blown off the tree were collected from the ground before the nets were spread and the picking began from the olives suspended in the branches.

Some pickers dropped the olives to the net while others worked filling bags or baskets. Larger crates began to be filled with all of the olives collected in preparation for the trip to the olive mill (cooperative) where the owner will retrieve bottles of olive oil when the press is finished. I heard someone say that it should provide enough to last through the year. Mmmmm!

It was lovely for me to catch up with people I’ve not seen since before the summer began. As I worked, I overheard many French conversations between people catching up on each other and mutual acquaintances not present. One woman remarked on how lovely the olives looked as she plucked them from their suspended state within the leaves. “…comme marbre!” (like marble) she said, and I was struck by this lovely woman's appreciation for the simple beauty of these olives. I would have to agree.

All conversations were taking place as a slow-motion dance was performed around the olive trees. It was in this manner that the group moved through the grove. Against a brilliant Provençal blue-lavender sky on a mild October day, the task was happily taken on by all participants. It was my first olive “récolte” (harvest) and I would hope that it is the first of many! (Next time, I’m staying for the lasagne!)

(Merci, Sheila and Margaux, pour cette occasion comme ça! C'etait un plaisir!)

`a la prochaine fois!

And to put those olives to good use:

Anne’s Goat Cheese Gratin

(adapted from At Home in Provence by Patricia Wells)

6 shallow 6-inch (15 cm) round gratin dishes or 1 10.5 inch (27 inch) round baking dish

About 10 ounces (300g) soft goat cheese or a mix of rindless soft goat and cow or sheep’s milk cheese, cubed or crumbled.

2 Tablespoons of your favorite fresh herbs, minced (or dried herbes de provence)

1.5 to 2 cups (33 to 50 cl) your favorite homeade Tomato Sauce at room temperature

About 24 best quality olives, pitted

1. Preheat the broiler
2. Scatter the cheese on the bottom of the baking dish or dishes. Sprinkle with half of the herbs. Sppon on just enough tomato sauce to evenly coat the cheese. Sprinkle with olives and the remaining herbs.
3. Place the baking dish or dishes under the broiler about 3 inches (8 cm) from the heat. Broil until the cheese is melted and fragrant, and the tomato sauce is sizzling, 2 to 3 minutes…although mine always take extra time…watch them closely.

Bon Appetit!

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire...

Aside from the romantic aspect of that old Christmas song and the images it would create in my head, I could just never quite relate to the part about what was happening to those chestnuts or what you did with them once they were roasted. Just not a whole lot of chestnut-roasting going on back on the beach.

I now live in “chestnut roasting – ville”. As we slip into the “real” autumn (actually, we kind of “slammed” into it yesterday with a Mistral dropping our temps by several degrees and temps remaining in the low single digits overnight even after the winds had passed...and that is “low single digits” in centigrade, folks!) there are many signs that make the entry into autumn official. Among them is the appearance of the fellow selling roasted chestnuts. Sending a sweet smoky fragrance ahead of themselves, I became aware of their presence meters before the yellow stand came into view. A few steps later, I discovered that the fellow who carries gigantic "bouquets" of brightly colored balloons through the marchés to sell during the summer has now donned his jacket (it will soon be a down jacket and ski cap!) as he fires up his roaster to sell newsprint paper cones filled with the little smoky treasures.

I “met” this fellow during my first autumn in Aix while sipping a café under the green awning across from his stand. I was busy making a list of pros and cons for staying in Aix while waiting for someone to arrive for a meeting. Thinking I was keeping to myself with my list project, I brainstormed and weighed my options: the new opportunity of a fabulous apartment in Aix that had just become a factor in my decision-making versus a little tiny apartment in Nice just steps from the Mediterranean Sea with a sliver of a view of that same sea from the balcony off the main room. Lost in reflection before the meeting began, I would return to the moment occasionally to check my watch for how much time I had to continue...and apparently the chestnut roaster (it must have been a slow day) was watching me. From his stand directly across from the café I sat in front of, he called to me and made a comment about how it looked like I might have been stood up by the “man” I was waiting for. (These French: so romantic!) With a friendly smile, I assured him I had not been snubbed and shortly after that, the person I was to meet showed up. (In fact, this was the person who had made the apartment contact for me and was taking me in for one more showing before my decision was to be made.) An ending was created to whatever story he had woven and with a nod, he returned to tending to his roast.

I always kind of giggle at that first encounter. That “snapshot” of time has been an anchor of sorts in my memory when the roasting stand appears. I think back to that brief exchange and the “date with destiny” that I was making that day. The decision to stay in Aix was a very good one (even though I gave up a view of the sea!) And when the “marron grillés” appear each year, it is an opportunity for me to send gratitude to the Universe for how the adventure has unfolded.

As for the actual roasted chestnuts: I look forward to them being a part of the cold weather survival kit. Hot off the grill, they are served in paper cones and the sweet smoky fragrance that permeates the air of the marché is the first tease from this delicious treat. That first “sniff” is followed by the sight of variegated brown charred chestnuts toasting up on the fire and then the pleasant sensation of my cold hand wrapping around the moist warmth of the paper cone filled with steamy chestnuts. There is such pleasure in an experience that tickles all of my senses.

If you do not have ready access to roasted chestnuts, you can come by chestnuts for cooking this recipe at local markets (or Williams Sonoma – which is where I used to purchase a stash of them) around this time of year. Try them in this recipe, from my friend Jean-Marc Espinasse of French-Wine-A-Day. (Actually, he tells me this recipe is from his friend, Max, the chef/owner of Le Logis du Guetteur in Les Arcs sur Argens in the Var region. I've stayed at this lovely place several times and had some very special meals there.) Jean-Marc's recommendation for wine for this dish is a Mercurey.

Bon appetit!


Pigeon Chestnut Recipe (From Jean-Marc Espinasse)


Olive oil
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 red onion, finely chopped
8 pigeon breasts
Pinch of dried chili flakes
1/2 tbsp of chopped rosemary
2 fat garlic cloves, crushed
Salt and freshly ground pepper
200 Ml of Mercurey
200g vacuum-packed whole chestnuts
2 sprigs rosemary, bruised

Heat 1 tbsp. oil in a frying pan over a medium heat and fry the carrot and onion until soft and slightly coloured. Leave to cool completely.
Put the pigeon into a bowl or plastic bag with the onion and carrot, the chili, rosemary, garlic, seasoning, 2 tbsp olive oil and the wine. Cover or seal. Marinate for at least 6 hours or overnight.
When you are ready to cook the pigeon breasts, drain from the marinade. Pour the marinade into a pan, bring to the boil, then simmer gently for 20 minutes or until reduced by half. Skim the foam. Adjust the seasonings and set aside.
Meanwhile, put the chestnuts in a saucepan, cover with olive oil and add the rosemary. Heat up very gently until the oil is warm but not hot.
Remove from the heat and leave to infuse for about 15 minutes. Drain with a slotted spoon.
Heat a griddle pan over a medium heat until smoking. In batches, sear the pigeon breasts for 3 minutes on each side (they should still be pink).
Serve with the sauce and the chestnuts.

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