The Mediterranean lifestyle

The Mediterranean lifestyle, or growing olives, grapes, truffles and things that taste nice in salads… [First published in Growing Today in 2001 – I think].

All things Mediterranean are deemed to be fashionable. The Mediterranean diet cures us of heart disease and lengthens our lives. A Mediterranean lifestyle is something we aspire to. But the Mediterranean is just a smallish sea between Europe and Africa. What people are really talking about is a lifestyle loosely based on the lives and eating habits of peasants on the north coast of “the Med”. You don’t hear too many people waxing lyrical about emulating the Libyan or Tunisian lifestyle. From Spain in the West to Greece and Turkey in the East, the various cultures have developed diets based on using large quantities of olive oil, fresh vegetables, fish and the unstinting consumption of wine. For modern New Zealanders (and many in Australia and the USA), that sounds like a pretty good life. Couple that with warm fuzzy memories of the European leg of your last overseas trip, or that Tuscan or Provençal holiday, and you have the motivation to set about turning your chunk of land into something a little more romantic.

First thoughts turn to olives. The great movement that has seen hundreds of thousands of olive trees planted in New Zealand over the last decade offers an easy way in for most people. Trees are easy to source, presses are springing up all over the country to take the fruit, and the business has a head of steam that makes “ a few olive trees in the front paddock” seem much less of a risk than they might have been a few years ago.

Then there’s grapes. Everyone likes drinking wine, and it must be cheaper to grow your own grapes than paying someone else to do it, right? And what about truffles? They’re a gourmet delight, the black pearl of Perigord, Provence and Umbria, and they sell for NZ$3,000 per kg/US$700/lb. That should help with the mortgage.

The Mediterranean lifestyle is really a “gourmet lifestyle”, based around a range of crops that can produce wonderful food, and perhaps produce some income. That was certainly what my wife and I had in mind when we planned what we were going to do with our property on the east coast of the South Island. Truffles came first (a small obsession of mine), followed swiftly by olives, and we’re now laying plans for a small vineyard. If everything works out as it should, then our property will be financially self-supporting, but just as important to our vision was the idea that we would be able to sit under our big old silver birch, enjoying a glass of our own fine pinot noir with a salad dressed with our own Tuscan-style extra virgin olive oil, with perhaps a few slices of truffle lending their remarkable aroma to a simple roast chicken (free range, of course). We didn’t know, when we started, that we were jumping onto a bandwagon, but I have to say that it’s been an interesting trip.

Lifestyle farming is essentially small-scale, where the realities of managing small plantings of trees and vines are meshed with what the traditional agricultural sector calls “off-farm income” and which you and I know as a career or business life. The economics of lifestyle farming are more “flexible” than fully commercial, large scale operations. Profit may not come top of your list of priorities, but whatever the scale of your operation you will end up having to sell something. There is, after all, a limit to the amount of olive oil that one family can consume, and you don’t need many trees before you go over that limit. The quality of the stuff you produce therefore becomes very important. Small quantities of second rate oil or wine will be very hard to shift in a highly competitive market. Make the oil or wine to very high standards, and while the world may not beat a path to your door, it will be a lot easier to get rid of. And if you are aspiring to the gourmet lifestyle, second best is not going to be good enough.

The Mediterranean lifestyle is inextricably linked with the Mediterranean climate. That means mild, wet winters and warm, dry summers — the climate loved by grapes and olives (and pretty good for truffles). Look at New Zealand’s wine regions, and you have a pretty good idea of where the Mediterranean lifestyle is practical. In most other parts of New Zealand, it’ll be a struggle. Approximations of the Mediterranean climate can be found from the east coast of Northland, through the Bay of Plenty, down the east coast of both islands and into Central Otago — not forgetting Nelson and Golden Bay. The north, being sub or semi-tropical is more humid than is ideal for olives and grapes, and down south lack of warmth in winter becomes a factor. Frost is not in itself a problem (except with very young olive trees), but the timing of the first and last frosts can be. Early autumn frosts can damage ripening olive fruit, and late spring frosts can wreak havoc with fruit set in grapes.

Excessive rainfall should not be a problem in most east coast areas, but the lack of it may be. Grapes, olives, and truffles will all need irrigation during establishment, and in most years you will need to supplement natural rain to get decent crops. With truffles, for instance, you will need to be able to give your trees the equivalent of 30mm of rain in late January or early February, as this is thought to be one of the critical factors in triggering the truffles to form.

Beyond the obvious large scale climatic factors, you have to consider what the French call terroir — the unique combination of soil, landforms and climate that determines how individual plants prosper. It’s terroir, the French say, that makes the difference between an ordinary Burgundy and the one from the neighbouring vineyard that has critics swooning and wine lovers happily paying hundreds of dollars a bottle. Understanding something of the terroirs on your block is a key step in planning your plantings. If you’re starting out, looking for a block to buy, you should make understanding terroir a priority. If you’ve already got a block you’ll have to work within the limits it sets.

Soil is the first factor to consider. Olives and grapes both prefer free-draining soils rich in lime. Truffles are impossible without it. There are very few places in New Zealand that have perfect, unmodified truffle soils — in most truffières copious amounts of lime have been added to lift the alkalinity of the soil the required level (more than pH7.6, to be precise). Olives and grapes are not so fussy, but olives will certainly benefit from extra lime if the soil is very acid (below pH6.0). If in doubt, get a soil test done. With any crop, tree or vine, it pays to know where you’re starting from, and a few hundred dollars for soil tests will be money well spent. Remember that soils can be a patchwork, formed over thousands of years, and can — and do — vary widely over small distances. The soil profile is also important, both in terms of depth and its drainage characteristics. Dig a hole down a metre or two (hiring a digger helps) and look at the profile. That hole will also tell you something about the drainage and water table. If it rapidly fills with water you could have problems, as olives and grapes hate having wet feet.

The next element in the terroir is the local climate. Technically, there three levels on which climate can be described: the basic climate of a region, the mesoclimate of an area within that region, and the microclimate that plants experience at their growing site. In my neck of the woods, the Waipara climate is markedly warmer than the regional Canterbury climate, mainly because a range of hills keeps cool north-easterly breezes away. Those hills also help to create a “hole in the clouds”, increasing local sunshine hours. On the micro level, lots of other factors come into play. The colour of the soil and the presence or absence of stones can markedly affect the speed the soil warms up in spring, and the amount of heat radiated at night. Good shelter can ensure that wind doesn’t cool (or damage) plants, but badly positioned shelter can create frost pockets.

The lie of the land is also important. To maximise warmth, north-facing slopes are the ideal, but landforms can also affect wind directions and strengths. My olives, vigorous young trees that have astonished me by their speed of growth, are developing a distinct lean to the east. Anyone who knows about the Canterbury Norwester will know why — but there’s more to it than that. Southerlies blowing over the top of the hill behind the paddock end up belting the trees from the west as well. Poor blighters — they get no respite.

Information on microclimate may be hard to come by if you’re a newcomer to an area, and it has to be said that sellers are notably optimistic in their assessment of such things. Look at what your neighbours are doing. If they’ve been around a while they may have valuable information, especially about extremes such as floods and early or late frosts. Don’t be tempted to rely on global warming to see you right!

If you’re working with an existing block — one you’ve owned for a few years — then you should have begun to note some of the aspects of the terroir. Areas where frost lingers, or drainage is poor will stand out, as will hot, dry areas or windy ones. Factor all this into your planning, and be prepared to adapt your plans to your conditions. There’s no point in struggling to make plants grow in less than ideal conditions. If your grapes will one make good wine in one year out of five, they’ll be uneconomic in even lifestyle terms. Why put in all that work if the wine’s not worth drinking? Adapt your plans to your terroir.

This learning and planning process should not be hurried. Getting from first thoughts to actually planting the trees or vines should take around 18 months, not least because you’ll have to order plants from nurseries. Then there’s the soil tests, the ripping and poles and wires and irrigation and… the list is not endless, but it is long!

Olives

Before you do anything, decide what you’re going to do with all the fruit you hope to produce. Most people want to make oil, with a few trees to produce fruit for pickling. If so, you’ll need to plant recognised oil cultivars and one or two table olive varieties. Look at what people are growing in your area, read the books and take advice from local oil presses and nurseries. Aim to have a good mix of cultivars, including some recognised pollinators. There’s no easy answer — no universal prescription. If anyone claims to have all the answers, don’t believe them (not even me!).

The number of trees you plant will be determined by the land you have available, and by the amount of fruit you expect to be able to handle. Some basic figures: a ten year old olive tree should produce something like 35kg of fruit (could be less, could be more). So 100 trees will produce about 3.5 tonnes of fruit — a serious quantity to pick and press. If those olives yield 15 percent oil, then you’ll have something over 500 litres of oil to dispose of. Even if you can get through a litre a week, you’ll still have 450 litres to sell.

Once you’ve decided on the scale of operation you’re going for, you can start to plan the grove. As a rule of thumb, for trees you plan to pick by hand (and in a small grove that’s virtually the only option), a spacing of 5m between trees and rows 6m wide is a good compromise. When you plan the layout of the grove, take account of wind direction, and plan the positioning of your pollinators so that the pollen is spread to every tree. Plan the irrigation carefully, and with the help of an expert. There’s nothing worse than planting all the young trees and then seeing them die of thirst because the irrigation system’s on the blink. Good stakes are a must, as is some form of protection from rabbits and sprays. It also pays to “rip” along the rows — a sort of deep ploughing that loosens up the soil and makes it easier for the roots to grow. Do this the autumn before planting.

Planting is best done in spring (after any risk of severe frost has passed), to give the trees plenty of time to get established. Once in the ground, you need to make sure they’re kept watered, and that you keep grass and weeds from competing with the new roots. Organically minded folk will mulch, others will use a glyphosate spray.

For the first few years, the most demanding activity in the grove will be mowing the grass, but after a few years you will need to plan on spending increasing time in late winter on pruning the trees to the right shape (another controversy). You should also monitor the trees growth, keeping an eye open for pests, disease and nutrition problems. Olives are usually pretty robust and problem free if you look after them properly, but regular soil and leaf tests will make sure that things go well.

After a couple of years, you will also start to get some fruit (80g from 250 trees in year two, in my case), and by year four you may have enough to pickle and perhaps to press. By year seven, your crop should be measured in hundreds, if not thousands of kilos, and your harvest will have to be a carefully planned operation. For a couple of years you may be able to get a few romantically minded friends to help out, in exchange for some oil, but as more people cotton on to the fact that the harvest always seems to take place in the middle of winter (earlier in the North), you may need to start paying people to help.

Grapes

A few olives in the front paddock may be no trivial undertaking, but a vineyard in the back paddock is definitely a challenge. Start by working out what sort of wine you want to make. Is your terroir going to produce a good Chardonnay or Riesling, or is it warm enough for a robust red? Don’t try to produce a Coleraine-beater if your site is better suited to aromatic white grapes. Get to know the winemakers in your area, talk to the viticultural experts who are working on vines day in and day out. Don’t be tempted to back a hunch unless you have really good grounds for trying it out. Nevertheless, a small vineyard of an acre or so (0.4ha) is manageable by a family. It’s done all over the Mediterranean, so it ought to be possible here. But be warned, grapes are a demanding crop, and can’t be left to their own devices for weeks at a time as trees can. You may have to spray them at inconvenient times, typically holidays!

A relationship with a local vineyard and winemaker is very important if you are to make any progress with a small vineyard. Someone will have to make your wine once you’ve harvested the grapes. If you can find someone who will hold your hand and take your excess production, so much the better. A key consideration when deciding what to plant is that the effective minimum unit of wine production is a barrel — about 220 litres. You should try and arrange that the numbers of vines you plant will produce juice in the right quantities. For example, the Mendoza clone of Chardonnay is reckoned to be one of the best for producing fine wine. It will yield perhaps 1.5kg of top quality fruit per vine. If 70 percent of the weight of grapes crushes into juice, you’ll need a little over 200 vines to fill a barrel. The yield equation is a bit more complicated than that, however, because quality grapes come from vines which are cropped at low levels. How much you get is dependant on variety, planting density, soil, local climate and weather, and varies significantly from wine region to wine region. That’s why you need to tap into local experience!

With those sorts of questions sorted out, you will need to order the vines well in advance, and get the site prepared. There will be a significant investment in poles and wires to support the vines, and once again, irrigation will be required, at least in the establishment phase. You should start to get commercial crops after about four years, but it’ll be a while before the young vines mature and produce their best fruit.

Managing the vineyard is fairly demanding. It begins in late winter, with pruning. In early years this is designed to get the vines into to the right shape, and then to get the right number of fruiting shoots for the support system and planting density you’ve chosen. In early spring, you’ll be starting your spray schedule. Designed by experts, these are essential to keep nasty fungi away from the plants, and usually run on a 10 to 14 day cycle. The chemicals are not necessarily nasty, in fact experts I spoke to claim that organic management is not too difficult, provided that you keep the plants as healthy and well-fed as possible. Later in spring, you’ll be tying the new shoots into the wires, forming the “hedge” along the rows. Then it’s toenailing — removing the suckers around the bases of the vines, usually with a butcher’s glove or something similar. Flowering takes place in late spring, and cool wet weather (or a late frost) can have a damaging effect on fruit set and therefore yields. By early summer, you’ll be removing shoots as a part of “canopy management”, letting the sun into the fruit. During high summer you’ll still be trimming the canopy, irrigating as necessary up to “veraison”, the point at which the fruit starts ripening. That’s when the bird problems start. You’ll need nets, either along the rows, or in large “lock-out” covers that go over whole blocks. If you like the idea of riding around the paddocks with a shotgun, banging away at birds, now is the time to indulge yourself.

By late summer, you’ll be testing the grapes for sugar content and assessing the flavours in them, keeping the winery informed of progress. Then its time to harvest, and consign your precious cargo to the person who’s going to turn it into nectar. All you can do then is to wait, visiting the winery to taste samples, to see how the wine’s progressing, designing arty labels and choosing bottles.

Truffles

The Perigord black truffle has been a commercial crop in New Zealand for the last five years. Pioneer grower Alan Hall in Gisborne has been demonstrating to local gourmets that we can produce this incredibly aromatic mushroom just as successfully as the French — and that it can sell for very good prices indeed. Last winter, three other truffières joined Hall’s in producing truffles, and the 50 or more pioneers who already have trees planted are looking forward to the business expanding rapidly over the next few years. With luck, we’ll be selling them back to the French at exorbitant prices.

The truffle is an underground mushroom that grows on the roots of specially inoculated trees — principally oaks and hazels. These trees have to be raised from seedlings, so the lead-in to production can be anywhere from five to ten years, but yields can then potentially move into six figures per hectare, so it’s worth the wait. Sadly, mature trees cannot be inoculated successfully.

Before planting, you must ensure that the soil is at the required pH, and if that means adding tons of lime, then get spreading at least a year before you plan to plant. You also need to ensure that the soil the trees are going to grow in is well cultivated and sprayed free of grass before the little trees go into the ground.

Unlike most crops, in the truffière the aim is grow dense, active root systems, because that’s where the fungus lives. The more roots, the more truffle. Once the trees are growing, the annual maintenance involves late winter pruning (hazels are prone to suckering), a spring cultivation of the soil on either side of the rows of trees before bud burst to keep the soil loose and stimulate new root growth, and continual control of grass and weeds. Fortunately, once the trees are growing well, they should form a brulé, or region of bare earth around the tree — a sign that the fungus is doing well.

From mid-summer, watering becomes important, and the soil should be kept reasonably moist throughout the autumn. Truffles should begin to ripen from May onwards, and then its time to get your highly trained truffle hound into action. A properly trained dog is essential for any truffle grower, because the aroma of a fresh truffle, while strong, is a bit difficult for humans to smell through damp earth. Once harvested, the truffle will keep for over a week, so there’s plenty of time to airfreight the aromatic little beasts to top chefs in top restaurants in London, Paris, Tokyo or New York, or to stuff a few slices under the skin on the breast of a good chicken, and roast it.

The working year

An olive grove and truffière both involve the same sort of annual routine; harvesting in winter, pruning in late winter, and general monitoring (and mowing) through the summer. The truffière will also need a spring cultivation, to keep the soil aerated. The workload with either crop is well within the reach of the average moderately fit family, though you’ll need help with the olive harvest when the trees are mature. Both crops can be managed at weekends, provided that your plantings are modest.

Grapes are a different matter. Work is much more spread out through the year, and involves a schedule that can intrude on holidays and other work commitments. If you only have weekends “on the farm” you’ll almost certainly have to have someone local to help out. It might be possible, for instance, for several small vineyards to pool resources, labour and equipment. Another good reason for talking to your neighbours.

Other crops

The list of potential Mediterranean crops is a long one. If you’re after a Provençal feel, then lavender is essential. A little to the West, the Cevennes inland from Montpellier are covered in chestnuts, and figs do well just about everywhere. Aromatic herbs are essential — the rosemary hedge or pot of basil to scent every meal, and citrus — especially lemons — are a very Italian enthusiasm as well as a Kiwi tradition. Artichokes are traditionally grown in the olive groves of Tuscany, and walnuts are important in both French cuisine and Italian liqueurs such as nocino. Pick your favourite foods, and add them to your edible landscape.

Costs

The big question: “How much does it cost?” The answer, unfortunately, involves the length of a piece of string. There are too many variables for me to offer anything other than the broadest of broad guidelines. Getting into olives is the most straightforward. Trees are readily available at reasonable prices (provided that you buy from a reputable specialist nursery), and all the infrastructure such as irrigation, sprays and so on are standard orchard stuff and easy to find. Truffle trees are much more expensive (over $50 each), and production mostly pre-sold, so you may have to wait a few years to get hold of them. Once in the ground, their running costs should be low. Grapes require the biggest investment in infrastructure — poles, wires, and water, and the young vines, being grafted, can be costly. They also need most labour and looking after. On the other hand, you ought to be able to make excellent wine for under NZ$10/US$5 a bottle. On the equipment front, you will almost certainly be able to do without a small tractor — they can be hired for most tasks more cheaply than buying — but a four wheel bike with a sprayer on the back will be essential, especially if you’re planning a vineyard. And a good robust mower…

More than anything, the Mediterranean lifestyle is about a state of mind and a vision. It demands a relaxed appreciation of the pleasures of the table and a refined understanding of how the food gets its qualities, as well as a readiness to enjoy life. You also need the vision to see how little olive trees or tiny truffle oak seedlings will transform into elements of the landscape. For me, it’s not about recreating any one part of Europe — New Zealand has too many of its own strengths for that — but it is about living a life that many in the world aspire to, but few can afford. We are lucky to live in a part of the world where dreams are still affordable.

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