A Winters Tale: Vive la France!

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Not long after I arrived in Winters, a friend told me there are exactly two Frenchmen living here.  He wanted me to meet both of them, chiefly because each had experience in growing olives, which I intended to do.  But also because they were distinct and interesting personalities worth knowing. Each of the Winters Frenchmen hails from a different part of France, which means that had they remained on the continent, they would have had little in common. From the same nation, yes, but with different weather, different cuisines, different accents.  It would be like comparing an American from Texas to one from Boston. Abroad, they would have remained worlds apart, yet residing in Winters they are simply Frenchmen, and in that regard: Vive La République! Yves Boisrame, the northerner from Brittany, is a builder. His country home is a kind of paradisiacal dream–a swimming pool seductively sculpted out of concrete, a footbridge shaded by tarps. An aviary. A beautiful white house which he built by hand. Furthermore, everyone who has ever passed through downtown Winters has seen Yves’ handiwork–he built the pizza oven outside the Putah Creek Cafe. A friend likens Yves to Keith Richards. Both have faces deeply creased by years of chain smoking, and living life fully. I’ve never met Mr. Richards, but by reputation he seems a lovable rogue. Just like Yves. Jean-Marc Leininger is from the south of France–Provence. In the dry, hot summers of Winters he has found a parallel universe of sorts. As in his homeland, Jean-Marc’s property is dotted with a variety of olive trees, which he admits to have planted scattershot over the years. His advice to me was consistent with the advice I received from every farmer around:  If you do nothing, the olive tree will probably grow. If you give it plenty of water, it will probably thrive. Jean-Marc’s orchard has exploded with fruit this year, as have so many orchards in our zone.  Owing to our wet winter, his trees are bent over with fruit, begging to be harvested. And that’s another great reason to know this French expatriate. His annual harvest, or rather harvest celebration, is the stuff of legends. Hard work, yes, but with a generous dose of French conviviality.  That means good friends, good food. And a little something to drink. This year, however, because there was so much work to be done, a strategic decision was taken. No wine at lunch. This is important, for in years past many volunteers were more inclined to nap after eating, instead of heading back to the orchard. Note to pickers: ladders and wine are a dangerous combination. No matter, I had been waiting all year for this day. Saturday, I was the first to arrive, at precisely 7:30 a.m. Everything was ready for the day ahead. One by one, as volunteers appeared, we spread tarps beneath the branches and began picking. Lest you think there is some special technique to this activity, rest assured: anyone with two hands is eminently qualified. Grab hold of a branch with one hand, use the other to scrape down sharply.  The fruit will tumble to the ground. By mid-morning, there were fifty or so of us, all standing, pulling and trying not to step on the picked fruit (this starts fermentation, which is bad for the oil).   Some were Jean-Marc veterans, here for the umpteenth time.  Others were first timers like me. A few picked bare-handed. I was smart enough to have brought my Harbor Freight gardening gloves.   Yves was there, of course, nursing a sore back, yet standing and picking and laughing with the rest of us.  His old but sturdy F-250 was there to ferry the olives to the pressing mill in Fairfield. Working tree to tree, one joins in all sorts of conversations: Brexit, the cost of health care, vacation plans, a general disgust with PG&E. Thankfully, no one strayed into politics. Lunch was at 1 p.m., by which time the pickers were bone-weary and famished. Stewed goat was the highlight of the feast this year, along with chicken, pork, tamales and, to be fair, a little beer. I thought of many things on that bright harvest day. I thought of my Sicilian cousins performing this very same chore at this very same time of year. I thought about the need to have a connection with the land. And I thought about the way people can connect with each other in the performance of a simple, but noble task. I cannot wait to taste the fruit of our labor.]]>

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