A FINE HARVEST

An olive farm in Var cap­tured the hearts of Gerry and Mark Whitcombe-Power, where they now run gîtes and pro­duce their very own AOC olive oil. Deb­o­rah Curtis finds out more

Living France - - Contents -

One ex­pat cou­ple re­veal how they fell in love with an olive farm where they now pro­duce or­ganic olives as well as run a gîtes busi­ness

When Gerry Whit­combePower and her hus­band, Mark, first set eyes on Les Es­cav­alins, the farm in the Var depart­ment had lain derelict for nearly 50 years; de­stroyed by a ter­ri­ble frost which wreaked havoc across the area on Valen­tine’s Day in 1956.

The freez­ing tem­per­a­tures that night killed 80% of the or­chards and olive groves in the depart­ment, forc­ing many farm­ers to aban­don their land for good. To­day, how­ever, the for­mer fruit farm on the edge of the vil­lage of Bel­gen­tier, is a thriv­ing olive farm and gîte rental, thanks to Gerry and Mark’s vi­sion, de­ter­mi­na­tion and hard work.

The cou­ple be­gan their search for a prop­erty in France af­ter Gerry’s mother, who was French and lived in Lon­don, died in Jan­uary 2004. “It was a real wake up call,” says Gerry, who gave up her job as a Montes­sori teacher to look af­ter her mum in the last year of her life. “We were liv­ing in Lon­don at the time, and we knew we wanted to move to France, but it was re­ally mum who was the gal­vanis­ing force to make us go ahead and do it.”

Gerry knew the area well, hav­ing spent nu­mer­ous sum­mers near Cannes as a child: “Mum’s dad was in the SNCF all his life and re­tired to Cannes, so ev­ery sum­mer hol­i­day when I was lit­tle, I was shipped out to grandad’s to prac­tise French, and so the Var is an area I’ve al­ways known.”

The rugged land­scape, out­door lifestyle and chance to get back to na­ture were also im­por­tant fac­tors. “Both Mark and I are very sporty,” says Gerry. “We like climb­ing. We like rid­ing bikes. We like the out­doors and we like forests, hills and moun­tain­ous coun­try­side. Var has all of that.”

Their search took in an area from Haut-Var-et-Verdon down to­wards the Mediter­ranean coast and proved fruit­less un­til they came across an ad­vert for Les Es­cav­alins in the French prop­erty mag­a­zine De Par­ti­c­ulier à Par­ti­c­ulier.

“We came to have a look and as we were wind­ing our way up the rough dirt track to­wards the prop­erty, we stopped and got out of the car to take in the view over the green hills to the sea and the cliffs be­hind the house. We were struck by the in­ten­sity of the smell of warm pine, laven­der and thyme,” re­calls Gerry, with fond­ness. “That was it. We fell in love with it.

“Lo­gis­ti­cally, the lo­ca­tion is per­fect. Nice, Mar­seille, and the Côte d’Azur are just 25kms away, but in Bel­gen­tier you can ig­nore it all when it gets too busy. There are mar­kets all round, and the Haut-Var not far away with its truf­fle mar­kets; all that au­then­tic Provençal life that peo­ple love.”

They moved out to France in July 2004 and have spent the in­ter­ven­ing 11 years breath­ing new life into Les Es­cav­alins, which cov­ers nearly 100 acres and is one of four an­cient farm­houses in Bel­gen­tier that date back to the Mid­dle Ages.

“It has been a heck of a pro­ject,” says Gerry. “What it said in the ad­vert and what it ac­tu­ally turned out to be were two dif­fer­ent things en­tirely. It was a very di­lap­i­dated farm­house and what had once been a cherry farm, but it was to­tally over­grown. There were cher­ries, and apri­cots, old olives and figs, all derelict; over­come by the for­est which was right up to the house, so we couldn’t see any of that when we first got here.”

Many of the an­cient ter­race walls, known in French as restanques, had col­lapsed or had been dam­aged by the droves of wild pigs that roam freely in the sur­round­ing for­est. These walls have all now been re­stored and re­built along with the house it­self and a lit­tle cabin within the prop­erty grounds.

“The house is in a cirque with the restanques lead­ing up to the cliffs be­hind,” says Gerry. “It’s re­ally stun­ning. It’s a lit­tle cor­ner of par­adise. It re­ally is.”

As soon as the house was hab­it­able and the old or­chards had been cleared, Gerry and Mark be­gan plant­ing the new olive groves.

“Ac­cord­ing to the lo­cal cham­ber of agri­cul­ture, some of the old­est olive trees here were planted over 1,000 years ago,” says Gerry. “We’ve man­aged to keep a few of them around the house be­cause it’s im­por­tant for her­itage and it looks nice to have a few of these big old trees; but on the ac­tual fields, we were ad­vised to take out the few old, dam­aged trees which re­mained and plant from scratch.”

With the help of a mini-dig­ger and as­sis­tance from friends and fam­ily, they now have 2,000 olive trees planted across 17 acres.

“As soon as you come into the main gate, you can see the lit­tle olives trees, and

“Both Mark and I are very sporty. We like the out­doors and we like forests, hills and moun­tain­ous coun­try­side. Var has all of that”

they are lit­tle at the mo­ment,” says Gerry. “They are our ba­bies! We planted them in 2007, and they are just com­ing true now.”

They pro­duced their first batch of AOC Huile d’Olive de Provence, Vierge Ex­tra in 2010, and are now in the process of achiev­ing or­ganic sta­tus, a frus­trat­ing three-year slog, and some­thing of a for­mal­ity as chem­i­cals have never been used at Les Es­cav­alins in its long history.

“We have al­ways used or­ganic tech­niques, such as spray­ing fine kaolin clay pow­der on the olives rather than in­sec­ti­cides to stop fruit fly dam­age,” says Gerry. “This place has never had chem­i­cals used on it, and that’s our phi­los­o­phy too. It’s why we’re here.”

The oil is selling well online and through a lo­cal mar­ket. “The lo­cal butcher also sells it, and peo­ple can buy it di­rect from me,” says Gerry. “Some lo­cal restau­rants are start­ing to ask for it which is very flat­ter­ing, and we are al­ways look­ing for big­ger out­lets.”

New for this year is the in­stal­la­tion of their own olive mill. They have also cleared an area to plant saf­fron bulbs, es­tab­lished sev­eral bee­hives and are rein­tro­duc­ing truf­fles to an area of wood­land be­hind the house.

The olive mill will en­able them to harvest in the morn­ing and press the olives in the af­ter­noon to en­sure top qual­ity and fresh­ness.

“We’ll also be able to pick what’s ripe, va­ri­ety by va­ri­ety, so we re­ally can work on hav­ing the high­est qual­ity oil,” says Gerry. “We’ll be able to pro­duce fruité vert: fruity green, fresh olive oil; the fruité noir, which is the other ex­treme: quite choco­lately, earthy al­most mush­roomy; and in the mid­dle fruité mûr, which is less pep­pery. Up to now, we’ve taken our olives to a mill 45 min­utes away and ev­ery­thing goes all to­gether in one press­ing, but now we will be able to be more se­lec­tive. We will be able to pick what we want, when we want, and do small batches.”

The oil is also prov­ing pop­u­lar with their gîte guests, who come from all over the world to ex­pe­ri­ence Gerry and Mark’s unique blend of lux­ury and es­capism.

“Our gîte has been care­fully re­stored to re­tain its orig­i­nal fea­tures,” says Gerry. “We wanted to repli­cate what we would like to see if we came to stay: good shower, fresh, crisp bed linen, pure white tow­els; a touch of lux­ury with­out the fuss.

“But it’s not all posh and pompous; it’s not all frills. It’s a re­ally nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment. Our gîte guests say to us: ‘It’s amaz­ing how

“The com­mu­nity have been re­ally on­side and very sup­port­ive of us. It’s fab­u­lous. We’re very lucky.”

many an­i­mals we’ve seen.’ And it re­ally it is. They see all kinds of birds here: Bonelli’s ea­gles, Grand-duc owls, buz­zards, hawks and nightin­gales; and wild boar, fal­low deer and foxes are a treat to see at night.

“It’s a com­plete dis­con­nect; pure es­capism; so dif­fer­ent from most peo­ple’s ev­ery­day lives,” she re­counts.

They have been warmly wel­comed by their neigh­bours in Bel­gen­tier, a typ­i­cal Provençal vil­lage with a pop­u­la­tion of 2,000 peo­ple in the Ga­peau Val­ley.

Their ex­cel­lent French, along with their plans to re­gen­er­ate the farm, im­me­di­ately won them friends in the lo­cal com­mu­nity, and meant that ev­ery­one has taken a keen in­ter­est in what they’ve been do­ing.

“The vil­lage thought we were mad but they’ve been on-board right from the be­gin­ning,” says Gerry. “When we first got here, the house was such a wreck that ev­ery evening, we would go down to the vil­lage af­ter work, just to get out of a build­ing site. We met a lot of the lo­cals and they took a keen in­ter­est in what we were do­ing and that con­tin­ues to this day.”

They also made the ef­fort to get in­volved in all as­pects of vil­lage life, with ac­tiv­i­ties such as train­ing for the French hunt­ing li­cence and pass­ing the exam, and volunteering with the lo­cal Comité Com­mu­nal Feux de Forêt fire-watch pa­trol.

“We joined the lo­cal hun­ters for a cou­ple of ses­sions. It’s not re­ally our bag but we live in an au­then­tic Provençal com­mu­nity and many peo­ple who live here are keen hun­ters, so it was only right as landown­ers that we should show will­ing,” says Gerry. “And we joined the lo­cal CCFF be­cause it’s im­por­tant to help out. The com­mu­nity have been re­ally on­side and very sup­port­ive of us. It’s fab­u­lous. We’re very lucky.”

In truth, it’s far more likely that it’s the heroic ef­forts this vi­sion­ary pair have made to bring Les Es­cav­alins back to life that have en­deared them to their neigh­bours, and here’s hop­ing they en­joy health and hap­pi­ness in their pic­turesque cor­ner of France for many years to come. www.olives-en-provence.com www.french­con­nec­tions.co.uk (prop­erty ID 155590)

Op­po­site, clock­wise from top: Les Es­cav­alins in the Var sun­shine; col­lect­ing the fruits of the olive harvest; sculp­tures in the gar­den; lo­cal cheeses

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