It is the month of green and red, of course, although our shades may be a little different: the bounty of delicious new harvest olive oil and the miracle that is the red winter fruit of the strawberry tree.
We have been rushing hither and thither, completing our annual Christmas shipment of fresh olive juice to our key customers, preparing the farm for winter, planning the year ahead as sales of our award-winning cooperative olive oil in the UK, Canada and America climb at an ever increasing rate.
The word is spreading.
Just get in touch.
It is so necessary too, though, to find moments to stand and stare.
I see things differently come December.
Mistletoe appears from nowhwere, like the robin, holly berry and rosehip, and a friend’s garden in the lee of a great mountain is decorated with that indefinable delicacy of arbutus unedo, the strawberry tree. It fruits a year after flowering.
And just yesterday – hallelujah – there was the flash of the kingfisher.
As the Iberian winter bites the tetchy cat has hijacked the little chair I salvaged from the rubbish tip. My plan was to perch on it while feeding the wood-burner, hence saving my creaking knees; but no.
So, just three days and counting….The Mayans ran out of chisels or stone when they got to December 21, 2012, and (as you are undoubtedly aware) the conclusion has been drawn that this signifies all of us have run out of time. KABOOOM.
I prefer to prescribe the ancient Greek definition of apocalypse – not a cataclysm but an unveiling, or revealing, in reference to a meaning of some kind previously hidden in an era dominated by falsehood and misconception.
Let’s hope so.
The sense of change is heightened, though, isn’t it? Maybe humanity is unsettled by the compacted burdens of so-called advancements that weigh so much and have forsaken so much, from braking the core of being, the atom, to robbing family and community and the individuals of priceless time.
Or do I sense a longing for change more here, in Catalonia, an angry “state” within sick Spain now far larger in the world conscience after linking arms with Scotland and striding towards independence?
Catalan president Artur Mas risks having a ragged Christmas, because a month after the election his Moses-like posters are still hanging from ever lamppost and the wind is getting up.
He called an early vote in the region to pump independence air into the tyres of his middle-to-right of the road bandwagon, but it backfired. He lost some ground if not his crown, while left-wing separatists found a new gear.
The majority of Catalans voted for one of the pro-independence parties, though, and it is such a single-minded place to be right now that there is a real chance of left and right forgetting their differences, forming a coalition and defying Madrid by calling a referendum.
The right-wing Spanish government of starch-rigid President Rajoy has declared any such vote unconstitutional, which has had people openly pondering on the likelihood of tanks rumbling through these villages.
I can’t see Europe letting it come to that, but why the clamour in the first place? The Catalans cite their ancient and unyielding claim of sovereignty, for reasons of language, culture and brutal history, and now even moderates have added their voices and votes, spurred by the economic mess.
Our village has already voted and declared it is not part of Spain.
Many Catalans think they would be better off going it alone because they pay far more in tax than they get back from Madrid, with this north east corner, the cornerstone of the “national” economy, constantly getting what they see as a raw and offensively dismissive deal from central government.
Certainly the mandate is clear enough for Artur and those seated at his round table, with nigh on a quarter of all Catalans flocking to a September rally to wave independence flags.
Fundamental issues of massive bureaucratic costs, EU membership, currency and the subsequent stability not only of a Catalan nation but what would be left of Spain form the meat course in this debate and we are just coming to it.
Spanish austerity was one of the topics discussed in my Norfolk home town of a couple of weeks ago.
A Spanish friend, a teacher, went to define to a gathering of anti-austerity UK residents the gravity of the situation here. She added her voice to a multi-party counter argument to the UK Government’s stringent economic policies.
How strange to see a photograph of a face from the heart of here standing in the high street of my youth.
For weeks now the day and night skies have been clear and calm, down to minus 5 beneath starlight. Every morning sunlight bounces from dew drops and jet specks in the sky.
On a 40-minute afternoon drive into the mountains to fetch Ella from a friend’s home the three griffon vultures circling overhead outnumbered the cars we passed along the winding lane of timeless charms.
The rains of late autumn have filled the reservoirs and brought our spring to life again. There is ample grazing for the horses. The chicken run has been reinforced and although a grey male goshawk has been sighted we have stopped the slaughter I recounted last month..
And as I walk the land and think of what the future may hold I reflect on how Adrian Bell felt on his Suffolk farm. How we appreciate him. I quote -
“I thought, today, how the family and one small farm fill our thoughts from waking to sleeping. Yet the farm occupies merely a moment of a traveller’s time. What a concentration of concern there is all over the lands and cities of this island, and what an anomalously impersonal thing ‘government’ is by contrast. It will be superseded, surely, by something more personal, an intensification of the personal concern, not a denaturing of ourselves from it, which is present politics. It should be as personal an affair as the old heraldic rule of kings was; but adult in conception, a fusion and a sharing, not egotism splendidly strutting.”
That was his hope in 1946.
What do I hope for everyone in 2013? An open-hearted, hopeful discussion on how to counter the sense of overload. Now is the time.
Have a wonderful Christmas. Peace in abundance. Ready smiles and steady hearts. Keep warm. Keep well.
Oh – and remember, whether you are in the United Kingdom or North America, you can get a taste of this life. We would love to hear from you.
Our annual NEW HARVEST UNFILTERED olive oil shipment has now landed in England for Christmas feasts – and 90 per cent has already been sold!
Every year demand for the freshest, finest olive oil grows as, thankfully, more and more people appreciate that freshness is as equally important as provenance and a guarantee that the olive oil is 100 per cent extra virgin olive oil. That is why we always tell you where and when the olives were pressed and bottled.
If you have ordered this potent new harvest unfiltered oil, alive with fruit particles, it should be enjoyed within six months maximum.
But if you missed out, don’t worry, we are taking orders for a January shipment so get in touch (click here). This will be filtered new harvest olive oil that will be packed with flavour and goodness, as always from the groves that won the highest award on the 2011 Great Taste Awards – 3 gold stars. Get in touch.
And we can announce today that Mother’s Garden olive oil is now available in Canada.
We are working with Dos Cielos in Toronto where Maggie was born – a fledgingly business run by a family who have stayed at Mother’s Garden. As with our UK supplies there is a choice of larger containers (5litres) and 500ml glass bottles. If you are in Canada or America and are interested to learn more please drop us a line and we will put you in touch.
The olive harvest here on the farm has been early and a little disheartening. A very localised April storm crashed in from the west and pummelled the olive flowers, robbing us of all but a few precious fruits on our trees. Other growers have had better fortune – groves just half a mile apart tell different stories – and the cooperative farmers we work with have more than enough wonderful fruit for our customers, thank goodness.We gathered what we could, then shared in the harvest at our neighbours Marta and Benet, taking with us friends from Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, all members of the Prendergast clan.
As we savoured the sight of the youngest picker, toddler Mina, sitting with legs splayed on the nets, it was easy for the eye to drift to the autumn colours of the adjoining vineyard. The hues this year have been more warming than ever and the pastel days refused to yield.
More and more people are taking a fresh look at olive oil!With the help of Tina from Priorat Provenance in Yorkshire, and Tamsin and Andy from Offshoot in Cornwall, we built on our top 3 Gold Stars Great Taste Award by linking up with a host of leading delis and chefs from all over the United Kingdom who want bulk fresh olive oil.As the orders come in we will keep you posted on where you can buy our arbequina oil and we will continue to add to our list of top chefs for whom it is an essential ingredient.
Today we can announce our latest customer is Alex Rushmer, runner up in Masterchef 2010. His restaurant is the hugely popular Hole In The Wall at Little Wilbraham between Cambridge and Newmarket – see www.justcookit.co.uk.
Are you a chef or deli looking for something different, something wonderful for your customers? Just drop us a line and we will explain how you can get the very best for as little as £7 a litre.
It is days like these that I file in my storehouse of priceless joy.
We drifted through the olive trees, young and not so young, dipping our shoulders into the heat of the late-day sun, our feet labouring across the tilled, dry earth, our shadows moving along the ancient terrace wall as shadows have done for centuries.
They had come at half past six on the dot as asked, in a convoy of little cars and on a tractor of appropriate colours (green and yellow), snaking the mile along the dusty track from their homes to a grove with views to eternity.
The village cooperative members were at ease in familiar company, but with the soft voices of uncertainty as I stepped forward to address them.
Great news is usually the easiest to impart, but I was an Englishman without the buoyancy of a prepared speech, wading into the rip tide of Catalan grammar. Impart it I did, though, adequately it seemed, for smiling couples embraced and pulled their children to them, and ripples of happiness rolled through the grove.
And here they are, the Priorat farming families of Mother’s Garden Fresh Extra Virgin Olive Oil, the faces behind the wonderful fresh juice from the wisest of fruits that judges in the 2011 Great Taste Awards described as “absolutely stunning”.
How good to know, how wonderful to be just one of two olive oils on sale in the UK to get 3 Gold Stars in these coveted awards – and how important as we continue to spread the Mother’s Garden olive oil message of freshness, provenance, flavour and goodness.
Ella took a multitude of photographs for you as we raised glasses of gold and toasted the moment, while laughing children ducked and dived and tucked into bread and olive oil. Maggie and I chatted with proud president Manel and many more, unable to gauge the distance travelled since we left England in January 2001.
It was, I reflected as everyone meandered back to their cars and to the steady rhythm of their rural lives, a deliciously gentle, community triumph of cooperation, pride, and ancient wisdom.
When we first walked the boundary of our future home in 2000 and looked at the myriad of Mediterranean challenges, we realised our first learning curve would be an olive harvest. Little did we know, though, how important the fruit would become.
In truth we rapidly became neurotically obsessed with the vines, thinking these would yield a greater harvest, but you live and learn.
Olive oil like wine is at the heart of life here (arbequina olive oil to be precise) and in those first years we grew to love the sharing of November harvests with neighbours, the moment of pressing and bringing home enough fresh juice to last the year; of the gold/green goodness in the pourer that sits in the middle of the kitchen table – gold and green for the colour of the fresh oil can magically change with the light. Friends from England tasted it, saying they could not believe the difference, the beautiful scent and the rich flavour. They wanted it at the heart of their diet too, so a fledgling business that was never planned took wing.
Our county of the Priorat is tiny – 192 square miles compared to Norfolk’s 2000 – with scattered clusters of houses huddled around churches on unforgiving terrain of slate and soil. Lanes snake through the valleys linking the 22 villages and one small town, Falset, all dominated by the Monstant ridge to the north and the Mola and Santa Marina mountains to the south.
It is an undulating tapestry of vines, olives,.almonds, hazels and swathes of forest, and is world-renowned for wine production with two denominations, the DOQ Priorat and DO Montsant.
Private investors have spent countless millions in recent years developing new vineyards and building grand cellars, but the olive groves mostly remain the domain of the small village farmers and their cooperatives; people like Manel and the close knit community of El Masroig with whom we work.
The cooperatives make outstanding wine too. During our decade here we have seen them face up to the modern world and, like Spain generally, begin to counter the marketing dominance of Italy.
There is a way to go, but life is coming back to the villages.
Among Ella’s photographs are some of the young people that run the mill – Carles, Rafel and the team who are striving to put the village and their produce on the international map.
Here the farming has changed little since the cooperative was formed in 1917, with each family owning one or more of the plots that ring the village, while the dramatic, rocky terrain with its narrow terraces means it will undoubtedly stay that way.
Spain is by far the world’s largest producer of olive oil, with groves covering an area the size of Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and most of Lincolnshire. On the narrow Priorat mountain terraces farmers cultivate the small and hardy arbequina olive trees alongside their almond trees and vines, in contrast to the different beauty and wonder of the rolling estates in other parts of this country, where other important varieties are also grown, notably Picual, Hojiblanca, and Manzanilla.
The majority of villagers here are senior, it has to be said, but some young people are returning to the land with its toil and risk. It is, indeed, arduous, dangerous work through fiery summers and bitter winters. Earlier this month a young man from the village was killed when his tractor rolled, a tragedy that is not uncommon on this extreme landscape.
Beyond our wish to widened appreciation of fresh arbequina olive oil and to support our neighbours, we believe firmly that the world still has a great deal to learn about this ancient food that’s credited continuously with health values, the most recent being a French study into the reduced risk of stroke.
It is better understood that the Mediterranean diet is associated with a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. Is this because, by definition, if you consume a significant amount of olive oil then you are eating a healthier diet in general? Because of the cost of olive oil are all regular consumers participating in studies likely to be able to afford a better diet in general?
If, beyond the wonderful flavour of fresh olive oil, we are going to clearly define the tremendous goodness of simple olive juice then we all need to push for more and more research. That is one of our aims, in tune with spreading the understanding that it is simply a juice, and that knowing when it was pressed is as important as knowing where and with what care.
Meanwhile we offer the story, the faces and the best olive oil, all of which I will be more than happy to talk about when we are back in September to be part of the Speciality Food Fair at Olympia on September 4,5 and 6. If you are a chef or deli/farm shop owner and plan to attend, come and see us on stand 2.