THE OLIVE FARM
Les Escavalins, or “Le Morsum Cavallinum” as it was called in the Middle Ages, is one of four ancient farmhouses, 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 was an ancient water source which ran all year, even through the hot summer, and because the earth is good and deep, and because the house is sheltered from the Mistral wind by a dramatic horseshoe 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 terrace walls, 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 olive trees in the highest plantation. These olives border land belonging to the Carthusian monastery at Meounes-les-Montrieux, part of the Order of La Chartreuse which produces that famous – and very strong – 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 Regional Park of Sainte Baume set up to protect the environment with masses of walks and the GR9 Grande Randonnée long-distance footpath.
Belgentier is a charming, typical Provençal village of only 2,000 people with real character in the Valley du Gapeau, the local river valley once famous for its 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.
In 2006, 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 tree-trunks, roots and stones with which we made new restanque walls. Repairing these walls is endless; especially those pulled down by wild pigs rootling for acorns, bulbs, snails or insect larvae.
In 2007, we re-planted the new fields with 2,000 young olive trees using varieties and conditions which conformed with the rules of the A.O.C “Huile d’Olive de Provence”. Three years later, we made a small quantity of our first commercial “AOC Huile d’Olive de Provence, Vierge Extra”.
In 2010, part of Belgentier Commune including our farm was designated inside the scope of Natura 2000, an EU project which provides a Europe-wide structure to protect fauna and flora. This 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 stunning variety is not surprising as none of the owners here, going back in time as far as you can, have ever used chemicals, insecticides or fungicides.
Both of us joined various training courses run by the Department of Agriculture – who have been really helpful – on all aspects of olive growing. More recently, we have learned all about olive oil tasting and now regularly participate as judges 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 fine. We actively encourage the wild boar drives 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 of this rule chez nous 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)
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” and free of chemicals. 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 quit the AOC – which imposed numerous restrictions on harvesting and marketing and only ever visited when we told them we were quitting – and began the 3-year-long process for Organic Certification. We were officially certified Organic in May 2017. This means all our products are Organic – olive oil, saffron, truffles, honey, jams and chutneys.
In 2015, we finished our new agricultural barn and installed our own olive oil press, a superb machine from OMT Spa in Florence. Now we have complete control over the whole process from growing the olives to bottling our own organic oil.
The barn also houses our oil storage tanks and laboratory, facilities for bottling our oil and our honey, and a smart new gym for us and our gîte guests.
We are also working on these projects:
- we are renovating a large area of woodland above and behind the house to produce truffles.
- we are growing saffron bulbs, building up the stock from some small bulbs, and had our first modest harvest in November 2017.
- several bee hives, for honey and to preserve the black Provençal bees which are under real pressure because of industrial farming methods. Since 2016, our bees have also had to contend with Asian hornets which have invaded Europe. These hornets are here to stay and attack the hives relentlessly. We enclose all the hives in a net so the bees can get through but not the hornets. 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, selectively clearing underbrush, bonfires (except between May and October when all fires are banned in the Var for fear of starting wild fires which were terrible in the long dry summer of 2017); 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); collecting the honey in August and September; picking the brilliant orange saffron stamens and harvesting the olives (mid-October to end-November); while renovating or mending dry stone terrace walls pulled down by wild boar is endless!
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.