[EN] Provence Heritage #2 – Olives in Provence

Francois Abbe harvests olives in Roquebrune-Sur-Argens in Provence

Discovering Provence from the inside is the goal of « Provence Backstage ». Pictures will come from André Abbe’s collection: 100 000 photos from Provence and the rest of the world from 1970 until 2000. Others will be taken from friends and family.

For the #2 edition, we look at olives in the region! 

Provence is a region renowned for its picturesque landscapes, charming villages, and vibrant cultural heritage. Amidst its tapestry of vineyards and lavender fields, another silent marvel stands tall—the olive groves of Provence. 

The history of olive cultivation in Provence dates back to ancient times, when Greeks and Phoenicians were believed to have introduced olives to this region over 2,500 years ago. These early settlers recognised the ideal climate and soil conditions that made Provence a haven for olive trees. Nowadays, Provence alone has hundreds of different types of olive trees for the production of olive oil and both green and black table olives. 

Olive groves at the Abbe bastide

Francois Abbe harvests olives in Roquebrune-Sur-Argens in Provence
Francois Abbe Picking Olives at the Abbe Bastide in Roquebrune-Sur-Argens in Provence

The act of tending to olive groves and harvesting their precious fruit is ingrained in the cultural identity of Provencal communities. In the Abbe family, along with grape vines, olive trees used to scatter the land of the family home just outside of Roquebrune. In particular, we would cultivate the Cailletier olive, produced mainly in the Nice region, which is perfect for salting, eating as an aperitif, and for the production of olive oil. You will see André’s father Francois busy at work picking olives in multiple photos taken by André throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The particular set of pictures below were taken one sunny day in 1974. 

Abbe family and friends work together on a sunny day to harvest olives at the Abbe Bastide
Abbe family and friends work together on a sunny day to harvest olives at the Abbe Bastide

From grove to table

Olives are raked, separated and gathered into boxes at the Abbe Bastide
Olives are raked, separated and gathered into boxes at the Abbe Bastide
Francois separates the olives using an ancient technique in the Abbe Bastide
Francois separates the olives using an ancient technique in the Abbe Bastide

As you can see, olive cultivation is hot and hard work – and the journey doesn’t stop on the fields! Once the olives had been cultivated and gathered into boxes, Francois would sort olives using an ancient technique that involved rolling them on an inclined plane covered with bamboo rods between which the leaves are trapped. An invention from an insightful mind to facilitate otherwise tedious work. This was done inside André’s current dining room. At the time, the bastide had neither running water (we fetched it from the well) nor toilets. 

Once sorted, the olives that were used for oil would be washed, crushed and strained until we reached the required consistency. And it was delicious! Below you can see it being filtered at Mauro’s Oil Mill, in Draguignan in 1983. The oil is very green because it has not yet been filtered.

Olive oil is filtered at Mauro’s Oil Mill, in Draguignan in 1983.
Olive oil is filtered at Mauro’s Oil Mill, in Draguignan in 1983.

While the art of olive cultivation has been passed down through generations by many families in the region, the Abbe family no longer cultivate olives. However, many olive groves still exist in the region, including the Domaine de l’Olivette on the outskirts of Roquebrune village. In recent decades, there has been a renewed interest in traditional and sustainable agricultural practices. As the world grapples with environmental concerns, Provence’s olive groves offer valuable lessons in maintaining balance with nature. Many local producers are embracing organic and eco-friendly methods, championing a return to the roots of their cultural inheritance.

The olive groves of Provence are more than just trees; they embody the history, culture, and resilience of a region deeply connected to the land. The next time you traverse the sun-soaked landscapes of Provence and encounter its age-old olive trees, remember that you’re stepping into a living history that has shaped this enchanting region into what it is today.

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