Oiling the wheels of country life
Farmhouses with their own olive groves proved irresistible to British buyers. By Zoe Dare Hall
When writer Martin Kirby and his wife Maggie Whitman, a classical musician, left their Norfolk home in 2000 to begin a new life in northern Spain, they had just £10,000 in savings, two young children — and no idea how they were going to make a living.
“We wanted to spend more time together as a family and give the children — Ella, now 13, and Joe-Joe, eight — a more natural upbringing, surrounded by space,” says Martin. Their answer lay in a 200-year-old, fourbedroom farmhouse, L’Hort de la Mare, in the Priorat mountains near Tarragona, which cost £110,000 and came with 10 acres of olive groves with 100 trees.
“We started producing only enough for ourselves, but we now work with farming families in the nearby village of El Masroig, who press oil for us to export,” says Martin.
The family business, Mother’s Garden (www. mothersgarden.org), has now become so successful that their oil is stocked in 50 British delis, is the only olive oil listed by Delia Smith in How To Cheat At Cooking and has won a gold star in the 2008 Great Taste Awards.
“Olive oil is our life now as the business has grown so fast,” says Martin. “It’s hard work. You have a romantic notion that you will live from your olives, but you can’t. I also write books and we have a holiday cottage that we rent out through HolidayLettings. co.uk,” he says.
George and Edith Cockbill described themselves as “olive virgins thrown in at the deep end” when they bought their Umbrian farmhouse with 200 olive trees for £120,000.
“The olive grove was part of the allure of the property, but the picking season was upon us when we moved in, so a village couple helped us buy equipment, showed us how to pick and took us to the best olive press in the area,” says George, a retired accountant. “I tried to emulate the villagers’ method of pick-and-prune, only to be told that I was pruning the wrong way and liable for arrest by the Forest Police,” he adds. “One may not cut or injure them — and ignorance is no excuse!”
He and Edith spend most of their time at Casa Fontana, six miles from Lake Trasimeno, where they rent out a fourbedroom holiday apartment (www.casafontana.net), and where guests take part in olive-picking in late November.
“We’ve calculated that, after paying for local help, we could buy the most expensive oil in Harrods for less, but that wouldn’t be the fresh 100 per cent extra virgin new oil,” says George. “There is nothing to compare to the taste.”
As a crop that “doesn’t require a huge amount of work and is hard to get wrong,” according to Knight Frank’s Italian agent, Bill Thomson, olives lend themselves just as well to holiday homes. Tuscany is the preferred region among British owners.
“Buyers see an olive grove as a bonus,” says Thomson. One hectare of olive grove in Italy boosts the property’s value by about £25,000.
When Ned Trier is not running The Gluttonous Gardener (www.glut.co.uk) gift company from London, he tends to his olives on the Croatian island of Brac, where he, his brother Mark and three friends own a fivebedroom house with 45 olive trees. It was the location that drew them, overlooking the sea. “We spend holidays there with our families and split costs five ways, which makes for a far less stressful holiday home,” says Ned. “In November we go there for the olive harvest. The locals give us advice about how we’re pruning wrong. It gives them something to laugh at.”
Their olive grove produces 50-120 litres of oil a year. “If we put more effort in, we could guarantee a more constant crop,” says Ned. “But it’s just a by-product of a holiday home, not a way to earn a living. We’re all keen cooks so we keep it all to enjoy ourselves.”
Trees of life: harvesting by hand in Italy, above; Ella Kirby, below left, with a bottle of the family’s award-winning olive oil; Ned Trier pruning in Croatia