Planting the trees of civilization
Olive trees, like those currently being planted at the entrance to the ITER Headquarters building, are not just trees. In Provence, they are considered almost as living beings; a symbol of longevity, wisdom and resilience.
Olive trees are also associated with high culture—they are the trees of civilization, brought to these shores by the ancient Greeks who founded Marseille in the 6th century BC.
People in Provence cherish their olive trees. They still mourn the loss of six million of them during the terrible winter of 1956, when the cold was so intense that the trees' sap froze causing the trunks to burst open.
The orchards of Provence never quite recovered from this tragic episode. In the mid-1950s, olive trees covered more than 50,000 hectares; they now cover only 20,000. Still, with a production of 3,000 tonnes of olive oil, the four départements that meet in Cadarache—Bouches-du-Rhône, Var, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and Vaucluse—account for almost 70 percent of total French production.
"Following the winter of 1956, 25 very bad years ensued," explains Christian Testanière, director of the Olive Oil Cooperative in Manosque. "Orchards were abandoned. Olive oil faced strong competition from sunflower and peanut oil. Then, in the early 1980s, a kind a craze developed around the 'Mediterranean Diet' and people started rediscovering the virtues of olive oil. New growers, who were not farmers, got into the trade. Most olive growers in our Cooperative own less than 20 olive trees and produce just enough oil for their family and friends."
Olive oil, like French wine, comes in many qualities (and prices!), from entry-level to "Grand Cru." And, like wine or cheese, it can be certified with an AOC label (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée, Certified Label of Origin). This is good news for our little orchard, which falls within the boundaries of the newly created "AOC Haute-Provence."
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