Oil­ing the wheels of coun­try life

Farm­houses with their own olive groves proved ir­re­sistible to Bri­tish buy­ers. By Zoe Dare Hall

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Property -

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

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