THE OLIVE FARM
Les Escavalins, or “Le Morsum Cavallinum” as it was called in the Middle Ages, is one of four ancient farmhouses, or bastides, in the little Provençal village of Belgentier. Olive trees, and other fruit trees like cherries, apricots and almonds, have been grown here at Les Escavalins for hundreds of years.
This is probably because there is an ancient water source which runs all year, even through the hot summer, and because the earth is good and deep, and finally because the house is sheltered from the Mistral wind by a circle of cliffs behind.
According to the local Chamber of Agriculture, some of the oldest olive trees round the house were planted over 1,000 years ago, and the dry stone terracing, called restanques, were built by hand slowly during the centuries afterwards. Legend has it gangs of prisoners from Toulon built these during the Napoleonic period.
You can see the Mediterranean 24 kms away from the little cabanon we restored near the house and from among the olives on the high ground where the farm borders land belonging to our neighbours at the Carthusian monastery of Meounes-les-Montrieux (this is the Order of La Chartreuse, the same house which produces that famous green and yellow Chartreuse liquor).
On another side of the farm, up above and behind the cliffs, there are 3,000 ha of Provençal forestry in a new Park with masses of walks and the GR9 Grande Randonnée long-distance footpath.
Belgentier is a charming, typical Provençal village of only 2000 people with real character in the Valley du Gapeau, the local river valley famous for its tradition of paper mills, leather and chocolate.
We came here in 2004 when the farm had been virtually abandoned for nearly 50 years since the terrible frost on 14th February 1956 which killed 80% of olive trees in the Var.
We set about clearing the land afresh, removing thick undergrowth, finding hidden terrace walls, and cutting down masses of big pine trees which had grown like weeds since the frozen olive groves were abandoned decades before.
We removed roots, tree-trunks and stones with which we made new restanque walls, and this work is enlessly ongoing: especially repairing restanque walls pulled down by wild pigs rootling for acorns, bulbs, snails or insect larvae.
After that, we re-planted 2,000 young olive trees on the new fields, using varieties and conditions which conform with the rules of the A.O.C “Huile d’Olive de Provence”. We subscribed to the AOC and made a small quantity of our first commercial “AOC Huile d’Olive de Provence, Vierge Extra” in 2010.
In 2010, part of Belgentier Commune including our farm was designated within the scope of Natura 2000, which now provides a Europe-wide structure to protect fauna and flora which matches our own commitment to improve bio-diversity on the farm. In fact, there is an impressive variety of animals, birds and insects here, many of them on protected lists: see some on our “Olives en Provence” Facebook page. This is perhaps not surprising as none of the owners here, going back in time as far as you can, have ever used chemicals like insecticides or fungicides.
When we first came here, both of us attended training courses run by the Department of Agriculture on all aspects of olive growing and, more recently, olive oil tasting. We have both participated in olive oil tasting competitions in Draguignan and Brignoles; fascinating and a great honour.
We also trained for the French hunting licence and passed the exam. This was very popular with hunters in the village with whom we get on very well. We actively encourage the wild boar drives but but they were possibly less impressed when we banned all shooting of wild birds on the farm! Locally, all birds except birds of prey – which means song birds, red breasts, tits etc – are ‘fair’ game, shot or trapped. The results are delightful: when we arrived in 2004, we heard very little bird song, whereas now we have birds of all sorts: Grand Duc owls at night, hawks, buzzards, all manner of indigenous and migratory smaller birds, and three Bonelli’s eagles which float above the cliffs making their strange high-pitched cry. Possibly the most evocative of all are the nightingales, singing on warm summer nights in May. Nightingales singing in May (at 1.30 am, click on the link and put your volume on max)
We allow wild boar hunting – which is in fact a beat or drive – because there really are too many boar: the diversity of flora in these wooded Mediterranean hills is so rich the wild boar population would explode unless regularly checked in the winter hunting season. Wild boar, fallow deer, and foxes are a treat to see round the house at night.
Les Escavalins is a most privileged place and we are lucky to be the owners for a short time in its long history. The country all around is untouched by modern “methods of agriculture”, particularly it is free of the use of chemicals, and we have always used organic techniques, such as fine clay powder on the olives to stop fruit fly damage rather than insecticides.
So, in 2014 we decided to invest in the 3-year-long process of getting the officially accredited Organic label. Given the organic approach we have always applied, this is a frustratingly long time but there can be no short cuts and it will in the end give us the right to describe all our products under the Organic label – olive oil, saffron, truffles and honey – something the olive oil AOC cannot do.
We are also working on these projects:
- finishing our agricultural barn which now houses our very own olive mill. From now on, our olive oil production will be entirely carried out here in the Domaine.
- the barn also houses our oil storage tanks and laboratory, facilities for bottling our honey, and a smart new gym for us and our gîte guests.
- we are renovating a large area of woodland above and behind the house to produce truffles.
- we are now growing saffron bulbs, building up the stock from some small bulbs.
- several bee hives, for honey and simply also to encourage bees which are under real pressure out in the commercial world. Our bees produce the most exceptional tasting honey, presumably from the rich variety of flowers and plants in this chemical-free part of the world.
Activities on the farm during the year include:
Woodland management – cutting invasive specimens, clearing underbrush, bonfires (except between May and October when all fires are banned in the Var for fear of starting wild fires); cleaning round the olive trees; pruning the olive trees (March); managing the watering system; grass cutting; treating the fruit organically with kaolin clay powder against the olive fruit fly (summer time); picking the brilliant orange saffron stamens and collecting the honey in August and September; harvesting the olives (mid-October to end-November); and renovating or mending dry stone terrace walls (these restanque walls are often pulled down by wild boar and need endless attention).
We moved in to Les Escavalins.
Annual summer fire ban in Provence lifts on 1st October and we start to clear the land and to restructure the centenarian olive trees around the farmhouse.
Restoration of the farmhouse
Planted 125 Olive trees around the farmhouse which looked tiny next to the 60+ 400-year-old trees we found when we cleared away the brush.
We took all year to clear 5+ hectares of forest to create & prepare several ‘fields’ either side of the track from the entrance to the property to the house.
Planted 1,800 trees following AOC (Appelation d’Origine Controlée) guidelines on varieties and planting distances.
We start renting out the Gîte.
We harvest over a ton of olives!
Restoration of the Cabanon by the farmhouse, from May to November
We harvest 3 ½ tons of olives(!) and buy our first 500l tank.
We begin work to restore and revive the woodland around and behind the house to encourage the return of truffles.
Disaster for the olive harvest in France and the Mediteranean (spring flowering spoiled by heavy rains and then unprecedented fruit fly attack). No harvest at les Escavalins.
We decide to withdraw from the AOC and start the 3-year conversion towards Organic status.
We install our own Olive Press on the farm.