L’olivier: the Olive Tree

I wish this was made of olive wood.

That was the thought that lingered in my mind as I stood at the sink, washing the stainless steel ladle I had used for scooping the evening’s homemade soup (organic broccoli and potato, in case you were curious). Despite my aptitude as a French-trained cook, the kitchen at my little writer’s cottage in California is quite modestly appointed—it’s a writing retreat, after all. Most of what I own, the tools and batterie de cuisine deliberately chosen over the years for both function and aesthetic appeal, remain in Hawaii. (Admittedly, a half-dozen key favorites actually travel back and forth with me, stashed in my suitcase.)

A couple of months ago, I realized that I needed a ladle, so I purchased a simple, inexpensive, stainless steel one at the local Sur la Table kitchen store in Carmel-by-the-Sea. It lacks on charm but adequately does the job it was intended for. Since its purchase, however, I have added two very nice cooking vessels to my little California abode—a copper risotto pan, and an enameled Le Creuset pot. So as to not scratch the respective tin or enameled lining, both of these pans require something other than a metal implement. I employ a couple of bamboo and olive wood spoons and spatulas as my preferred ‘non-scratch’ stirrers, but the metal ladle requires a bit of attention and care in its use. It is time for something better.

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Looking towards the Mediterranean

A deep fondness for olive wood developed several years ago while we dwelt in the south of Spain, where we resided in a whitewashed stone farmhouse amid the olive groves of Andalucía. Arid, rugged, and drenched in light, it was a landscape deeply alluring to my soul, stirring something ancient in my bones like a gypsy’s guttural song. Gazing towards the blue wedge of the Mediterranean in the distance, I felt expansive, open, and rooted to earth in a way that I never did beneath the clouded skies of England. Whether sitting on the wide, brick terrace sheltered by the grape arbor, or gazing out the kitchen window while I prepared our meals—looking out any portal of the house, for that matter—the eye encountered silvery green olive trees stitched across the land like a quilt.

Any direction one turns, the olives and accompanying almond trees flash and dance in the warm breeze, capturing the eye with graceful movement, and reminding me to stop and breathe as they silently generate tons of oxygen, their breath becoming mine,” I wrote in my journal.

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Entrance to the farmhouse in Andalucia

As a welcome to the farmhouse, our landlords (the husband was English, the wife was German) gifted us a large jug of unctuous, golden oil, pressed from the olives of the property and surrounding hills. What a fabulous present. Timeless, really. Not only was it practical, inherently useful, and utterly delicious, it established an intimate bond with the land we were inhabiting––the trees themselves. Like eating fresh vegetables harvested from one’s own garden, every time I used some of that precious oil, I felt a powerful, visceral sense of connection to earth and place. I found myself gazing out the kitchen window and quietly—sometimes audibly—blessing those countless olivos.

On my long rambles through the mountainous campo (countryside), passing amid the groves along a dusty track, I watched the ongoing harvest—an orchestration of workers, errant dogs, ladders, rakes, and nets stretched on the ground below the boughs. Just a few months later, the first new leaves and tiny, pinhead-sized, creamy buds of flowers appeared in mass profusion, signaling another cycle of life. At night in a cold house, the bones of old, cut trees fueled the wood stove and gave us heat, and I further appreciated yet one more of the olives’ many gifts.

On several occasions in this journal, I have confessed my ongoing love affair with trees, and I suspect that if I could peer inside my heart, I would find a tree growing there. It’s either an aspen, a windswept Monterey cypress, or an olive tree. Walking among them every day, I swiftly came to feel a deep affinity for those gnarled, generous beings. As I wrote in the closing narrative for the book manuscript I completed in Spain:

In an ancient land where countless others have dwelt before me, numberless and unrecorded journeys have transpired with the cyclical seasons of this place. Those of us in the New World seldom have the appreciation that ages have passed of ancestors working the earth, gathering harvests, tending the cooking fires, making love, burying their dead, and watching the stars. The whitewashed pueblo (village) in the valley below this house has been a settlement since Roman times, and there are even more ancient Phoenician tombs in the hills nearby.

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Ancient olive trees near Riogordo, Spain

Not far from the village, just above the Rio de la Cueva, is a stand of olive trees with massive trunks thicker around than five or six men, twisted into spirals like the corkscrews of titans. Even in a land of old, gnarled olives, these venerable trees are remarkable for their age. I call them the Grove of Ancients, a wise and wordless council of beings so aged that I am humbled by their very existence. People have piled stones, sea shells, and small objects at their base, as if making offerings. Since discovering them, when I pass that way, I stop and scramble up the rocky slope to lay hands upon their roughly furrowed bark, immersed in their powerful energetic field, and imagine their silent stories that span the centuries.”

The remnant of olive oil in clay containers has been carbon-dated at 8000 years. The oldest living olive trees in Lebanon, Israel, and Crete are dated variously between 4000 – 7000 years old; along with the bristlecone pine in the American Southwest, this makes them among the oldest organisms on earth. That is an astoundingly long relationship between tree and humans, one that I find humbling to consider, and it always shifts my own little life back into proper perspective.

Last year in Provence, while accompanying my partner to the Cannes Film Festival, my main splurge was in a charming little shop of local food stuffs—épiceries Provençal. There I purchased some herbes de Provence (a staple in my kitchen that never lasts long), a hinged-jar of fleur de sel (a gourmet French salt) infused with black truffle, a new shopping basket with leather handles (to replace the one purchased in Paris fifteen years previous), and a beautiful mortar and pestle carved from local olive wood. The trip to Cannes was my first return to Provence in many years, and I went with the quiet hope of finding a traditional, ceramic, Provençal mortar and pestle (a unique style and shape). Yet I was so taken with the beauty of the bois d’olivier (olive wood), along with the shopkeeper’s insistence that for daily, regular use I want a wood mortar, not the less durable ceramic which can chip, that I happily discarded my original intent.

I recently carried the olive wood mortar and pestle to my California writer’s abode (my heavier ceramic and marble ones remain in Hawaii), where it sits on the kitchen counter like the practical work of art that it is—one that gets used weekly. I never fail to be captivated by the beautiful, swirling grained wood, the elegant shape of the bowl, and the pleasing way it feels in the hands when I work with it. (Add to this that it is unsurpassed for making aïoli.) For me, it is also a connection to the Provençal landscape—a place on earth that I adore—and a lasting gift of the remarkable olive tree, which has sustained humans around the Mediterranean for millennia.

Like the copper couscoussier and the clay tagine that I wrote about in a previous SAJ (“Copper and Clay”, click the title to read), I have a deep appreciation for functional works of art—things that do an unparalleled job with what they were designed to do, while offering a tactile, sensory delight and beauty in the process.

Which brings me back to the stainless steel ladle and how it falls short.

If you read this journal regularly, you know that I’m easily captivated by the small pleasures in the day. Those little human moments, ones where I’m suddenly deeply engrossed in the sensuality of the moment and how it feels—including what is in my hands—are simple celebrations of life. The items that I use, and those with which I’ve surrounded myself, are well-made, solid and durable; their visual and kinesthetic aspect, their heft and texture in the hand, brings pleasure. I will make an occasional bow to practical—the ladle at my Carmel cottage, for instance—but the aesthete in me ultimately wins over and wants something more appealing.

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,” said William Morris.

In a week, I will be arriving on the Côte d’Azur, returning with my mate to the yearly film market and festival in Cannes. Though I don’t recall seeing such a thing last year as I wandered through the various shops around town, this trip I will be scouting for a ladle carved from local bois d’olivier. It would be the perfect sort of memento, offering practical delight and beauty for years and years to come.

Soul Artists know that little rituals of the day nourish the soul, that they are important—imperative, even—for doing so. Those ordinary moments when we are fully present in what we are doing, savoring the moment—chopping an onion, sweeping the porch, reading a book, walking the dog, making a proper cup of tea—and appreciating whatever is in our hand. A wine glass. Handmade cup. A fine pen. Garden spade or paintbrush. A ladle.

As I have wished before, gentle reader, here’s hoping that you possess a few special objects or tools that deliver a simple pleasure when using them—offering something more than mere functionality, and inviting you to mindfully appreciate the moment, however briefly. Part of the beauty of natural, handmade objects is that often they can stitch us to something larger, whether that is the artisan’s life and energy, a certain place, or the elemental material itself from whence the thing came—like the munificent olive tree.

To root down in seemingly harsh environs, to find the nourishment and water one needs, to be integral to a landscape and the web of interconnected relationship, to quietly shimmer with gnarled and unique beauty, to generate fruit to give away year after year—may we humans learn a thing or two from l’olivier.

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