Emilie Borelberta

For olive oil to be labeled extra vir­gin, there is a list of inter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized qual­ity stan­dards that it must sat­isfy. However, for French pro­ducer Emilie Borel, cre­at­ing an extra vir­gin olive oil is much more than ful­fill­ing a set of cri­te­ria.

“Extra vir­gin olive oil starts with the per­son,” she told Olive Oil Times. “It’s some­thing you grow up with, look at, and touch. The olives are hand­picked. It’s a cul­ture, a Mediterranean cul­ture.”

“Then there’s the cul­ture of taste,” she added. “This is some­thing you develop by edu­cat­ing your­self. It’s not only about rules and reg­u­la­tions and lists to adhere to. I’m try­ing to main­tain this cul­ture because it’s part of our Mediterranean her­itage.”

I wrote the story of our olive farm because I had had enough and wanted to share our expe­ri­ences as pro­duc­ers of extra vir­gin olive oil and the real­i­ties we face.- Emilie Borel, pro­ducer at Oltremonti

After a child­hood spent on four con­ti­nents and an inter­na­tional career as a devel­op­ment aid worker, Borel decided that her place was in the Mediterranean, where she was born. In 2006, she bought land in the munic­i­pal­ity of Linguizzetta on the east­ern coast of the French island of Corsica and single-​handedly planted her first 1,000 olive trees.

Once her olive farm, Oltremonti, was born on this patch of land tucked between the moun­tains and the sea, it became an all-​encompassing pas­sion. She met her Italian hus­band Ivo Berta, an olive oil expert and mill tech­ni­cian — thanks to her olive trees — and their daugh­ter, Thea, is grow­ing up among the trees they have nur­tured together.

Today, Oltremonti is com­posed of 3,890 trees and has its own on-​site mill. The extra vir­gin olive oil pro­duced here has won a long list of awards.

See more: Olive Oil Culture

But Borel fears that the Mediterranean cul­ture of the olive she has labored to pre­serve is in dan­ger of dying out. She recently pub­lished a book in French, Les Secrets de l’Olivier, which tells the story of how her pas­sion for the olive tree was kin­dled and the many tri­als and mile­stones of her olive farm.

Emilie Borel (photo by Sylvain Alessandri)

Olive pro­duc­ers around the world face the chal­lenges of unpre­dictable har­vests, unsta­ble incomes, and bat­tles with the nat­ural ele­ments in the face of cli­mate change. However, Borel has also had to deal with hos­til­ity from mem­bers of this insu­lar island com­mu­nity as an “out­sider” and count­less admin­is­tra­tive hur­dles.

The biggest of these obsta­cles came with the pol­icy mea­sures intro­duced by the French gov­ern­ment since 2015 to con­tain Xylella fas­tidiosa on the island. Today the olive farm she planted and nur­tured for more than a decade is under threat.

The first case of a strain of Xylella fas­tidiosa called mul­ti­plex was dis­cov­ered in July 2015 in myrtle-​leaf milk­wort plants on the south­west coast of Corsica. Six months later, two more cases were detected in south­ern Corsica and by the end of the year, there were 194 con­firmed infec­tions on the island.

At first, a buffer zone of 10 kilo­me­ters (6.2 miles) was imposed in order to con­tain the spread of the bac­terium, but this was later extended to the whole island.

As a result of this agri­cul­tural cri­sis and the threat of new infec­tions, it has since become ille­gal to import more than 200 dif­fer­ent types of plants to Corsica, includ­ing the olive tree. Requests to be exempted from this rule can be made by pro­duc­ers and a com­pen­sa­tion pro­gram was put in place by the gov­ern­ment to indem­nify them for their losses.

However, Borel’s requests for autho­riza­tion to extend her olive plan­ta­tion and the let­ter she wrote to the French pres­i­dent about her olive far­m’s predica­ment have fallen on deaf ears.

“We have asked for per­mis­sion from the state to plant olive trees but were refused, so we have to repro­duce them on our own,” she said. “This takes years. The gov­ern­ment had promised com­pen­sa­tion for our losses but they haven’t hon­ored their promise. The indem­nity we expected never came. This is the worst thing you can do to farm­ers: cut the ground from under their feet by telling them they can’t plant and mak­ing them expect some­thing that never comes.”

Prior to the cri­sis, olive trees were imported from Italy but this is now ille­gal.

“I first planted Frantoio trees from Tuscany,” Borel said. “This is what’s gen­er­ally advised because Frantoio is believed to be equiv­a­lent to our native Ghjermana, but I later found out this is not true. When we called upon Claudio Cantini of the Italian National Research Council to come to the island, he ana­lyzed the Ghjermana vari­ety and found out that its DNA is com­pletely dif­fer­ent.”

“We thought our agri­cul­tural research insti­tute would be inter­ested in these find­ings but there was no response,” she added. “Although it may not have had the means to con­duct such analy­ses at the time, there was now a good rea­son to under­take DNA research. Yet, despite a recent state-​funded project to give Corsica its own plant nurs­ery, no dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion was made between the two vari­eties.”

In the spring of 2014, Borel and her hus­band planted a sec­ond par­cel of land with vari­eties native to the island: Ghjermana de Casinca, Ghjermana de Tallano and Sabina. Having estab­lished their own method of repro­duc­ing local cul­ti­vars, these were grown from cut­tings taken from ancient trees in a semi-​abandoned grove Borel had dis­cov­ered near the vil­lage of Monte, in the north­east of the island, and in the south­ern region of Sainte Lucie de Tallano.

Photo by Sylvain Alessandri

Since there was no nurs­ery in Corsica that could repro­duce the trees, they sent the cut­tings to Tuscany, where they were grown in a con­trolled and super­vised envi­ron­ment before they were sent back to Corsica to be planted.

“We lost all the trees we sent to Tuscany just before the 2015 cri­sis because now it’s ille­gal to bring them back to Corsica,” Borel said. “There have actu­ally been no cases of Xylella fas­tidiosa here, only the mul­ti­plex vari­ant, which has attacked shrubs. This is a vari­ant of Xylella fas­tidiosa that has­n’t attacked olive trees in our region.”

“In fact, two sci­en­tific com­mis­sions came to the island to inves­ti­gate the issue and declared that the mul­ti­plex vari­ant has been present on the island for 60 years, but no one had looked for it before.” she said. “On an island it’s nor­mal to take pre­cau­tions and fear dis­eases but we can’t just stop plant­ing. In other coun­tries there are plan­ta­tion dri­ves to com­bat global warm­ing.”

The Xylella fas­tidiosa cri­sis arrived in Corsica just when Oltremonti was begin­ning to thrive. A loan pro­vided the finance needed for the con­struc­tion of the on-​site mill and an exten­sion of the groves was planted with vari­eties native to the island.

“With all the prob­lems we’ve faced, includ­ing from the hos­tile local envi­ron­ment, we’ve come up short and are strug­gling to pay it back,” Borel said.

The cou­ple sold a par­cel of their land to try to make ends meet, but the author­i­ties remain silent with regard to their case and the com­pen­sa­tion that was pledged.

“I wrote the story of our olive farm because I had had enough and wanted to share our expe­ri­ences as pro­duc­ers of extra vir­gin olive oil and the real­i­ties we face,” Borel said about her recent book.

“Every civ­i­liza­tion has respected the olive tree. It’s part of our cul­ture and our way of life,” she added. “Today we need to get autho­riza­tion to plant an olive tree, and while new olive pro­duc­ing coun­tries emerge, we must put up with absurd laws and rules in order to con­tinue what tra­di­tion­ally we have always known to do.”


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