WildCook: Pastures New

by Garry Eveleigh, Photography by Caroline Eveleigh, www.wildcook.co.uk

By early May 2019, we had whittled our list of preferred rental properties down to just two; it was make your mind up time.

Just a 20 minute drive in our hire car from Palma Aeroport and, once again, our Air B & B hosts were waiting to greet us. We had stayed with Juan and Irini on many previous visits and they made us feel like family every time.

Our choice of location on the island was very central and very rural for many reasons – access to any one of the many beaches was easy and access to the abundance of varied mountain walks was even easier. The added bonus (as if we needed one) was the fact that we could travel an 18 minute train journey, costing €3.70 return, from our village station to the final stop – Plaça d’Espanya. A short stroll from the station, you quickly lose yourself in the maze of shops, tapas bars, art galleries, markets and street entertainers of Old Town Palma.

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HISTORICAL CENTER OF PALMA DE MALLORCA, SPAIN

Our first rental property viewing was at 10.00 the next morning.

As we drove through the opened wrought iron gates of house No 1, Caroline and I looked at each other and in unison said “Wow”. We both knew instantly that we wouldn’t be spending much time viewing property No 2. The driveway was approximately 150 yards long, our little finca that nestled in the centre of the plot was partly stone clad from ground level up, the rendered area above was colour washed in a faded curry powder yellow, the roof areas were traditional terracotta tiles with emerald green painted shutters on every window – this was going to become our home for six months … ahhhhhh.

Our new landlord Juan and his wife Marilen greeted us from the shade of the front terrace – waving and smiling as if we were long lost friends. The interior was as we had expected, very Mallorcan, right down to the decorative plates hanging from the walls. The front covered terrace faced east and at the rear of our little piece of paraiso was a huge covered area with a massive rustic table for meals and outside furniture for relaxing in the heat of the day. Beyond the shade of the terrace was a further 10m of tiled patio, the boundary of this suntrap and parallel with the house was the 10m x 4m crystal clear swimming pool. Little did we know then that by the time of our arrival in late summer, we would be swimming while also scoffing fat, sweet grapes plucked straight from the vines that grew in regimental rows away from the far side of the pool. Beyond the vineyard, there were countless, as yet unidentified fruit trees, along with numerous rows of evergreen citrus trees growing to the left of the old barn. On the first floor, the landing area and large en suite bedrooms gave access to the formidable balcony. I very swiftly imagined myself swigging an ice cold can of Estrella while watching another glorious sunset over the Tramuntana Mountains that were barely spitting distance to the north of our location – stunning – we were hooked – in fact, I was already in the landing net. As we were about to depart, Juan gestured with both arms opened wide towards the rows of olive trees on either side of the driveway; “By late autumn, we will harvest maybe 1000 kilos”. I couldn’t wait!

Roll on September!

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GREEN AND PURPLE OLIVES

I arrived solo on the 28th of August, the animals would be here in four days with Caroline arriving the day after. Juan and Marilen were waiting at the house to meet and greet, with the normal cheek to cheek kisses and hugs. Very kindly they had purchased some essentials for my arrival, including local red wine and some cold beer, already in the fridge. We did the quick tour of the house and Juan talked me through the water supply, the electric and fuse box; the gas was simple – it was bottled. Before they left, we exchanged telephone numbers and Juan insisted that I call him if there was anything I needed to know.

The four o’clock sunshine was still very warm and the pool looked inviting. I cracked open an ice cold beer and waded into the pool up to my neck. With a beer in one hand, I took a selfie while posing a cross-eyed, tongue-out smile – sent it straight to Caroline, saying “hurry up!!!”.

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TRAMUNTANA MOUNTAINS LANDSCAPE ON MALLORCA ISLAND, SPAIN

Olives are totally inedible when picked straight from the tree. The intense bitterness is caused by the oleuropien and phenolic compounds that the olives contain and must be removed, or at the very least, greatly reduced in order to make the olives palatable. Purple olives are marginally the healthiest to eat as they contain an extensive and impressive range of health-protective compounds, however, eating green or purple olives makes little difference as they are both stuffed with plenty of monounsaturated fats and minerals such as iron and copper. They are also rich in Vitamin E, plus antioxidant polyphenols and flavonoids which have anti-inflammatory benefits, yet olives have no calorific value.

My knowledge regarding olives is nothing by comparison to my knowledge of wild fungi; all I can tell you is they’re very tasty and come in green or black. My new found teacher, Juan, began my education by informing me that there are over 500 species and 1000’s of different varieties of olives – that was the end of my first and only lesson!! Ten years ago, Juan had planted a random selection of forty olive saplings and the grove has gone on to produce very decent crops for the last five years.

Many olive trees in the Mediterranean region have been scientifically verified to be 2000 years old. The drought friendly root system of the olive tree is virtually indestructible. Should the fruit bearing section become damaged or destroyed by fire, severe cold weather or disease, the rooting system will very quickly push up fresh young shoots and the olive tree will thrive once again.

Like most other fruiting trees, the olive tree branches occasionally need to be cut back, the process of pruning will enhance the quality and quantity of fruit that individual trees will produce. In their wild state, the olive tree will become a shrubby, bush-like plant growing to 30’ or more. This common, straggling hedgerow plant will produce 1000’s of olives that will ripen to the size of petit pois. Allegedly, so my teacher tells me – these small fruits when harvested will create the very best olive oil … I’ll have to pick a couple of hundred kilos one day to find out!!!

Several weeks and a couple of noisy local fiestas later, it was suddenly mid-October. Juan had said that we would be picking olives before the end of the month. We then had the mother of all thunderstorms; the banging and crashing lasted thirteen hours and with it, enough rainfall to fill every well on the entire island. The wet clay soil in the olive grove sticks to your boots extremely well – within five steps each welly boot weighs in at about 10 kgs … the olives would have to wait. The autumn sunshine quickly baked a crust on the muddy surface of the olive grove and on the 5th of November, we started picking. Two huge bundles of fine mesh netting were suspended from the beams in the old barn, then ceremoniously lowered into the wheelbarrows waiting below. Brightly coloured plastic hand rakes with finger-like, flexible tines were the only tools required. Oh, plus an enormous round of sourdough loaf, cheese, handmade local cold sausages, red wine and agua gaseosa – this was tea break!!

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OLIVES READY FOR HARVEST

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TOOLS TO HARVEST

The large green coloured, fine-meshed nets are stretched out on each side of the trunk of an individual olive tree; where the seams meet they are overlapped to stop your quarry escaping. Then, using the brightly coloured hand rake, you begin to comb your way through the branches, the finger-like tines easily dislodge the ripening olives along with a good quantity of leaves and twigs. Between the two of us, we could comb clean an individual fully laden olive tree in 30 to 40 minutes. The green netting contained the fruits and leaves of our labour. With one of us at each end of a net, we folded it in half lengthways to trap the olives in the crease and then carefully work them towards one end; this created a trawl-like cod end that contained a ball-shaped mass of olives, each cod end would be emptied into the wheelbarrow before the large green nets were put in place under the next tree.

When the wheelbarrow was full, the olives were carefully tipped into the boxes and crates that were ready and waiting for delivery to the press. Having stripped the first eight trees, a good couple of hundred kilos was loaded into the back of the vehicle and we were heading for Juan’s favoured cooperative. Our destination was a fifteen minute drive through the spectacular scenery in the foothills of the Tramuntana Mountains.

In my head, I had visualised the olive press as an antiquated giant milling stone contraption, probably powered by a donkey or two and maybe we would finally see some olive oil next week after we had gathered and delivered the rest of our olives. How wrong was I! This really was 21st century stuff – we were third in the queue for the weighing scales. To our left was the olive washing and grading machine with conveyor belts at each end; olives and debris going in and freshly washed clean olives heading to the masher, hurtling out of the other end. This was efficiency! We parked next to the scales, a quick “hola” and it was get your olives on the scales – there were now four cars behind us!!

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OTTO, ‘EVERYTHING’S A GAME!’

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ANOTHER TREE PICKED CLEAN…

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FILLING THE BOXES

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THE 3 AMIGOS’ – GARRY, OTTO & FINN

The computerised scales spat out our chit – it read Juan Oliver Pozas 237kgs. We loaded up our empty containers, moved the car and made our way inside the cooperative building, not a milling stone or donkey in sight!!

We made our way through the processing area toward the office passing some impressive looking machinery that was purring away quietly; an automated bottling machine was filling two 5L containers every five seconds!! Then the manual workers screwed on the lids and loaded the sturdy looking trolley cages with the freshly filled 5L containers; each four tiered trolley contained 400L of green, liquid gold. The receptionist had already printed six sticky-backed labels Oli d’Oliva Verge, Proprietari Juan Oliver Pozas, Litros 26, Garrafes 6.

As we drove away, I was still in disbelief, my donkey powered olive press imagery was a million miles from what I had just witnessed. The back of the vehicle was full of empty boxes and crates plus six bottles containing 26 litres of the finest hand raked olive oil. The 5L bottles of freshly pressed olive fruits were understandably cloudy, however, the intense olive aroma was mindblowing. Juan had told me the oil would clear and be ready to use in a few days. He was bang on, again! On our return to the finca, Juan presented me with a 5L bottle and said, “we’ll do the same tomorrow, heh”. I replied “venga mañana, adios”. Juan was still laughing as he drove away.

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OLIVES HEADING TO THE PRESS

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GREEN LIQUID GOLD

MY LANDLORD, VARIADOS PARTNER AND FRIEND FOR LIFE, JUAN

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OLI D’OLIVA – STRAIGHT FROM THE PRESS

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