Olives have always fascinated me. They have an air of sophistication: think James Bond cocktails or exotic Mediterranean eateries. Whilst also having a deeper meaning, think the association of peace with the olive branch. Yet despite my fascination for them, I don’t like them. There it is. It is out there. Think what you will.
Dont get me wrong, this is not for want of trying. My good friend Vincenzo once told me that if you try something 17 times, you will eventually like it: he was in fact referring to something far ruder (answers on a postcard to the Brown Star Cavalier, 15 Bourneville Boulevard), however, he assured me it also applies to olives. By my reckoning, I must now have tasted over 2000 olives of all shapes, sizes, varieties, colours etc but still nothing. I am determined to crack this failing and continue on every occasion to try, then grimace, then feel slightly queasy.
Anyway on with my tale. Several years ago we were on a family holiday in rural France and spending the day at a French farmers’ market. Now this was nothing like the faux versions of farmers market we get here with one cheese stall, another with a 3 foot pan of dodgy looking paella, and a gaggle of random stalls selling everything from sugary pick and mix and cutlery through to suitcases and knock off footy tops – a real celebration of our agrarian diversity for sure.
No, this farmers’ market was the real deal, almost a celebration of rural bloodsport and violence. You know the sort of thing: meat and fish stalls and everything still with their head and eyes in place looking at you with that same level of engagement as the ket-wigged, North Face wearing cherubs we see wheelying there way down our streets. So whilst I was perusing the row upon row of freshly slaughtered rabbits, sheep, cows and horses, the freshly caught fish and shell fish and the recently harvested fruit and veg, I came across this lovely stall selling a variety of nuts and dried fruits.
It had the added draw of having samples – we all love those samples and the sample ‘dance’ which every typically English person does and goes something like this:
- See sample.
- Wander up but try not to look like you are just there for the free sample.
- Nudge middle aged couple out of the way who are hogging the sample.
- Look slightly surprised there is a sample and try it.
- Do that “ohh that is lovely” look .
- Say to whoever is with you “you should try this it is lovely”.
- Nod as the stall owner goes on about “organic”, “gran’s recipe”, “vegan”, “available through website”……
- Panic over your exit strategy.
- Slowly start to walk away nodding and offering promises of “yes I will be back shortly to buy XXX tons of the sample.
- Walk miles to avoid meeting the stall owner again.
Well I was helped at this stall as my French is shocking and the stall owner was also proudly mono-linguistic. So we nodded and smiled at each other. I tried a dried apricot. Smiled and nodded at each other. Tried a few raisins. Smiled and nodded at each other. I then spotted some nuts (who doesn’t love nuts) and reached over to taste some: a handful of big quite juicy looking nuts about the size of a small grapes, but couldn’t quite work out whether they were cashews, almonds or something else.
Anyway I popped them in my mouth but was immediately disappointed; not salty or sweet, in fact they were quite bland. To make matters worse, as I tried to crunch them they felt rock solid. I looked up to the stall holder, trying to establish what sort of nod was required to express my mild disappointment when I saw his face had changed. Gone was the Gallic nodding indifference to be replaced by a mix of shock and, what I can only describe as disgust. It was at this point I then noticed the olives next to the pile of nuts.
Now you may well be ahead of me with this but, dear reader, you have had the time to read and digest. For me it was one of those moments where I really could feel the penny start to drop. That dawning realisation that these were not nut samples, but rather the spat out olive stones of other market shoppers.
It is hard to express the variety of emotions that flooded my mind at this point. Of course there was embarrassment and shock, but these were petite compared to the flooding shock at the thought of all that shared saliva, germs and oral detritus from every ‘Jean-Paul’ and ‘Amelie’ whose stones I had been chewing and sucking so vigorously.
Yet even at that nadir of nausea, my innate Englishness came through. No spitting them out on the ground, no scraping of my tongue or show of disgust. I simply nodded, smiled and walked away….promising to be back to buy some later on!