Story of the last miller

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XIV – Le Moulin de Camandoule

Fifty years ago, I was twenty and I was starting to work.

Curious expression that “to return to the working life” it is as if before twenty years I had never done anything. But first real memories, those which remain engraved in the memory, I really have them from the age of six, that is to say since the occupation of Paris by the German army and I can say that from six to twenty years, for an inactive, I can tell stories. This is the one I promised you.

I once told you that I had always been interested in mills, whether they are towers, candlesticks or caviers, whether they are powered by water or by wind. This is not quite correct, I got interested, after running one for a few years. It was fascinating.

I was twenty then. This took place in Provence, in the Haut Var between Draguignan and Grasse, in Fayence more precisely. The village hung – I suppose it still is – at the top of a hill overlooking a plain where rose, jasmine, lavender for the perfume shops in Grasse, and vines were cultivated. The olive trees grew on “terraces”, delimited by dry stone walls which were stacked up to the top of the hill.

Fayence is a pretty Provencal village with its large square refreshed by the foliage of plane trees. The elders met there in the evening to play pastis at pétanque. There was a restaurant, a grocery store that was a mess, a butcher who cooked the abomasum wonderfully, a bakery where the morning fougasse just out of the oven melted in your mouth.

Fifty years ago, life was good in this small Provençal village.

Its name comes from a Latin name meaning, pleasant place. I went back there twenty years ago to show my son this place where I had lived and which I had told him so much about. I struggled to recognize the place, so what it must be now, I dare not imagine.

Taking the road at the foot of the hill, in the direction of Seillans, there was still, when I went there the last time, a dirt road which meandered in the plain and died when it collided with an abandoned chapel. One hundred and fifty meters from its beginning, on the left, an alley planted with mulberry trees led to a property bordered by a river.

The river is called the Camandre, the property the Moulin de Camandoule.

This name alone evokes all the scents of Provence, a subtle blend of thyme, rosemary, lavender, aioli and olive oil.

The avenue of mulberry trees ended in an aqueduct that was said to be Roman. Passing under one of its arches, we found the house in front of the entrance, a real Provencal farmhouse with a ground floor and a second floor. A tower with a sloping roof flanked the right side of the house. Like all the old Provencal houses, the main facade was facing south. The narrow windows were fitted with hinged shutters to protect themselves from the sun in summer and the cold in winter because, make no mistake, winters can be harsh in Haute Provence. The facade to the north was blind to protect itself, especially during the harsh months, from the freezing mistral. In the north, the facade was higher than that in the south and, therefore, the roof had only one slope.

In front of the house, a fairly large pool, protected from the sun by an old mulberry tree, was used for watering the vegetable garden down to the river, bordered by poplars.

The dwelling house was extended by various buildings At the Camandoule mill, olive oil was made.

In fact, there were two mills.

The main mill adjoined the farmhouse. There, they crushed the olives from which the best oil was obtained. Hidden in a tall, narrow recess, an imposing paddle wheel collected the water brought by the aqueduct and allowed the mechanisms of the mills to move.

In the other mill the oils of inferior quality were processed.

Inside, the main mill was remarkable. We thought we had been transported centuries back. On entering, the gaze stumbled upon an enormous granite stone which revolved around a thick oak beam in a vat whose bottom was covered with glazed tiles.

Opposite, nestled in stone alcoves, three large wooden presses under which were piled curious flat raffia pancakes and which looked like doormats, the escourtins.

At the bottom of the mill a stone vat, a sort of gigantic kettle, surmounted an open hearth where there were still the ashes of the last fire which had been lit to heat the water.

All this was dominated by a clever interlocking of cogwheels made of wood, levers and leather belts allowing the wheel to be operated to crush the olives and then press them to extract the oil.

On the poorly paved ground, a mess of cans and pot-bellied sandstone jars, some of which, very old, would have delighted antique dealers. The other mill was the same but smaller, and although it hadn’t been in operation for a long time, it still had a sickening smell of rancid oil.

At the Moulin de Camandoule the buildings were in poor condition. Around, there were four hectares of which a vineyard was fallow, but the whole had a crazy charm. I have never ceased to bring it to life.

In the fall of 1954, I moved to the Moulin de Camandoule, with a good dose of unconsciousness but a faith in moving mountains.

I had two concerns: The first, in chronological order, was to plant fruit trees on the entire land. It was easy for me, it was in a field that I knew.

My second concern, in fact the first in importance, was to revive the mill and there, I entered a completely unknown world. I shared my problem on the right and left in the village and I was advised to see a certain Arneodo who had worked at the mill. He had the reputation of knowing his trade very well but of having a pig character.

I met Arnéodo at the Moulin de Camandoule. From what I understood during my talks with the people of the village, the mill, as long as he worked there, had a very good reputation, but he had quarreled with the former owner, an old grigou and he left him overnight. The old grigou tried to find other workers, but that did not work and the mill closed. Arneodo confirmed to me what I already knew.

During our interview, I explained to him that I was looking for a permanent man to help me develop the land and to run the mill because there I didn’t know anything. He looked at me for a moment without saying anything. Then he decided, “If I accept, I want to be the boss for the oil season. In the mill, I am in charge. “

We came to an agreement on this question, essential for him, the rest did not pose a problem.

It was difficult to give Arneodo an age, perhaps between fifty and sixty. For a Provençal, he was tall, as tall as me, with cold blue eyes. He was rolling his cigarettes with gray tobacco wrapped in corn paper. The butt he kept relighting didn’t leave his lower lip even when he spoke, I should rather say when he grumbled. His mustache was hard, yellowed by the corn paper and burnt by the too strong flame of his storm lighter. A cap riveted to her head, a flannel belt, gray striped pants and a waistcoat completed her outfit. I have never seen it otherwise.

From September to the end of November, the work consisted in rehabilitating the wasteland, harvesting the few grapes on the vines and taking them to the wine cooperative in exchange for a picket that did not have the name. The State gave a premium (yes already!) To eliminate the uninteresting vineyards and replace them with apple trees. Pulling up the vines, plowing, cleaning the land and planting apple trees kept us busy until the start of winter.

Arneodo worked conscientiously but without enthusiasm. Obviously, I could feel him impatient to start the olive season. For my part I could not but be satisfied with the behavior of my worker. The only thing that bothered me was at mealtime; we took them together like two old boys (it was stipulated in our agreements that he was fed and housed).

His conversation, which was limited to a few growls, was not what I would describe as stimulating. My only reason for satisfaction was to see him remove from his lower lip his eternal butt of corn paper, he had not found a solution to keep it while eating.

I didn’t know anything about Arneodo’s private life. Once or twice I tried to squeeze out some clues from him, but I ran into the coldness of his blue eyes and gave it up.

On Saturdays, at the end of the work week, he put on clean clothes, went up to the village to have a shave (at that time, hairdressers also played the role of barbers) and spent his evening playing belote.

Sometimes on Sundays he would tell me that he had to go see a sister in Draguignan and that he would not come home until Monday morning.
When he got back, I didn’t dare ask him about his sister. Was it his sister? Perhaps he had a mistress whom he honored from time to time with a visit; I do not believe it because of the position of the paper corn butt well in place on the lower lip.

At the beginning of December, Arnéodo declared that it was time to put the mill in working order and to tour the farmers to announce its reopening. We started our journey on the roads of Haut Var. The old Provencal peasants looked with suspicion at the young man, me in this case. He looked like a kid and then he had no accent or more exactly he had the sharp accent of the Parisians, which was worse. But Father Arneodo, they knew him well and, in general, they confirmed that they would bring their harvest to the mill.

At that time, the vine and the olive tree were the main source of income for the peasants, and I was happy to have hired Arneodo because, without him, it was obvious that no one would have come to bring me his olives.

In mid-January, the olive harvest began. It was fascinating to see the mill in action. I noticed that Arneodo’s reputation was not usurped. At five o’clock in the morning he would get up, light the fire under the water tank, check the condition of the belts and turn on the water to put the enormous paddle wheel into action.

From seven o’clock in the morning, the peasants arrived with their loads of olives piled up in jute sacks which were immediately emptied into the tank where the heavy granite stone was. Arneodo engaged the mechanism, the grinding began. The mill first filled with the sound of pits broken by the grindstone, and then slowly the smell of crushed fruit tickled the nostrils. It was the sun and good humor that entered the mill.

This first operation gave a little oil which fell into a large barrel filled with water under the tank.

When he felt that the quantity of oil supernatant on the surface of the tonne was sufficient, Arneodo gently picked it up on a sort of rimless frying pan and poured it separately into a tin.

It is at this very delicate operation that we judged the skill of the worker because there was no question of mixing the oil and water and even at the end when the oily film was very thin , Arneodo managed to pick it up without the slightest drop of water. The millstone went back and forth, crushing the olives. When he felt that the dough was very homogeneous he stuffed the scourtins with it, and stacked them under the presses nested in the stone alcoves. Arneodo then changed direction of the transmission belts and, again thanks to the force produced by the paddle wheel, the presses slowly descended, crushing the cakes and their contents. The oil flowed like a river of gold along the stacks of scourtins and fell into the large vats full of water. The recovery work was really starting under the suspicious eyes of the peasants.

The first press, the cold press, gave the virgin oil with a beautiful luminous color and its incomparable scent filled the mill.

There was a lot of oil left in the dough. Arneodo kneaded it in the scourtins with hot water and pressed again. The oil obtained in the second pass was a little greener, a little more acidic, but still quite consumable.

In remuneration for his work, the miller kept a tenth of the oil pressed in the main mill, so the peasants attended the pressing until the end to check that the accounts were respected.

The miller also kept for himself all the oil processed in the other mill and the residual products.

In the second mill, we produced so-called petroleum oil, very thick and sour, intended for refineries. It took no less than two additional presses to finally produce a product that looked like motor oil, and which after treatment was used in soap factories or transformed into cake by fertilizer manufacturers. This last job was called “Hell”.

It was all tough and thankless work, but profitable. It took no less than four presses, each time boiling the dough to extract everything that could be mechanically.

At the end of these successive operations, all that remained at the mill were the broken olive pits and there was no oil there. It was called pomace. Do you know what I was doing with this pomace? Well, I was warming myself with it. Admit that at that time, we were real environmentalists!

The atmosphere in the main mill was unforgettable.

First there was the roar of water falling on the blades, the crackle of cores crushed by stone, the friction of belts, the hiss of presses. And then there was the steam emanating from the boiler and the sweaty bodies and above all the incomparable scent of crushed olives as if all the good smells of Provence had entered the mill.

When the pressure was over, there was always someone to grill, over a fire of vine shoots or pomace, slices of coarse bread which were then rubbed with garlic and soaked in virgin oil coming out of the pan. hurry.

These toasts were accompanied by red or rosé wine and as the work was arduous, these watered breaks were welcome.

During the olive season, the mill was open every day and, often on Sundays, hunters would bring thrushes, string them on skewers and grill them on the vine shoots, always adding to the fire. twigs of farigoule and rosemary. The roasts received the fragrant juice of the birds; a real treat. On those days, the rosé wine helping, there was a joyful animation in the mill and even the taciturn Arneodo had a smile.

Thanks to Arneodo’s advice and explanations, I was able to recognize the best varieties and the best olive vintages quite quickly. As with wine,

The terroir is of great importance and the oil is all the more fruity as the olive trees grew on the adret of the slopes of Cabris or Cotignac.

After a month of learning, under the orders of my worker, I decided to go for it. I went to buy olives to complete the custom work of the mill. Discussions were close and the peasants, who fully intended to get the best price for their crops, naturally tried to take advantage of my inexperience and my youth; For a start, I wasn’t doing too badly. The day I realized that the olive was a real wealth for the Provençaux, it was after negotiating with a brave widow, who lived in the charming village of Entrecasteaux, the purchase of its production. She had a reputation for having high quality olives and, although a widow and an elderly person, she knew perfectly well how to defend her interests. On seeing a sample she had shown me, while offering me a small glass of walnut wine from her production, we agreed on the price. So I asked him where I could load the olives. The good lady took me to her room; she slept on her olives like a miser on her crowns.

At the end of February the mill closed its doors. The results of the season were good and I felt that I could start producing melons while waiting for the apple trees, which I had decided to plant thanks to the premium for uprooting the vine, to come into production.

Arneodo was also happy, because in addition to the agreed salary, I had interested him in the turnover and, above all, he had noticed that I had kept my word by letting him run the mill as he liked.

Once the apple trees were planted with Arneodo’s help, I pulled straight mounds between the fruit trees to receive the seeds of the melons. At the end of April, we sowed the Charente cantaloupes.

In Fayence, at the beginning of my arrival, they had watched with mocking curiosity this Parisian, this bourgeois son, struggling to stone the fields, to pull up the mulberry trees, but it turned into a frank laugh when the neighbors learned that I wanted to plant melons.

– Melons here, the Parisian is crazy, you have to leave that to the “gensses” of Cavaillon –

Everyone waited with sadistic impatience for the moment when failure would be obvious and even Father Arneodo who was no more convinced than the others, worked reluctantly and resented the reflections of passers-by who stopped when they saw him. work in the field.

“Oh Arnéodo, your melons are not yet ripe, do you think you will be able to taste them before the next olives, are you planting cavaillon or Parisian? “

Fifteen days after sowing, a time that seemed interminable to me, the earth swelled then cracked and the first cotyledons appeared. The lifting was homogeneous. Then it went very quickly. The well-groomed, well-watered plants grew quickly and soon large leaves, a beautiful dark green, spread out over all the mounds.

From May to July, Arneodo and I spent most of our time sulfurizing the plants to fight against powdery mildew, pinching and watering the long rows that were a hundred meters long. Pinching, which had to be done frequently to promote fruit growth was backbreaking work that kept your back bent for hours on end, but what was most exhausting were the nightly irrigation sessions.

According to the agreements made with the residents of the Camandre, I was only allowed to use the water once a week from eight in the evening until the next morning at seven.

The irrigation being done by gravity, it was necessary to wait until the water brought by channels traced at the foot of the mounds reached the end of each bay before moving on to the next.

Equipped with hoes and electric torches we spent the night directing and monitoring the good flow of the water, but, from time to time, I did the work alone to save Father Arneodo, who was no longer very young. I had developed a technique to rest. I had calculated that in order for the water to reach the end of the row without flooding it, it would have to be changed lines about twenty meters before the end. I lay down on the ground with one hand in the ditch. ‘irrigation. The cold water when it reached my hand woke me up and I had just enough time to rush to the start of the field to change spans and start the maneuver again. Sometimes the water would come out of its channel and it was not the contact on my hand, but on my wet back that woke me up.

The fruits were growing visibly and the field was covered by small round balloons which protruded from the leaves.

August the 1st, I will remember, always, I found the first ripe melon. It was very round with a pretty gold color, the well-defined edges were separated by bluish indentations. The slightly cracked peduncle at the juncture of the fruit let out a drop of red sap like a ruby. The moment of truth had arrived! Arneodo lent me the opinel, which never left his pocket. With a trembling hand I handed him the first slice of our first melon. The flesh had a lovely orange color and the scent it gave off was pleasant.

After spitting out his corn paper butt and removing the seeds, he bit deeply into the fruit. ” So ? So he didn’t answer me, handed me the broken fruit and smiled. Very fragrant, both firm and tender, the fruit was full of sugar and sunshine. It was a success. Then it all happened. At seven in the morning the pick-up began.

I selected the ripe fruits, carefully cut the stems so that they remained hanging on the melons. Arneodo followed with the tractor and loaded the cantaloupes into the trailer then brought them to the garage transformed into a packing room. I had hired two young girls from the village. They worked from nine to noon and, after the sacrosanct nap, from four to seven. Under my direction, they sorted, graded and wrapped the melons in a pretty, slightly ocher paper and put them in crates filled with Frisian. Their last work consisted in sticking next to the peduncle, a pretty label recalling the leaf of the plant and on which was inscribed in gold letters and in relief “Moulin de Camandoule”. Then after the girls left and had dinner, we weighed and loaded the melons into the van. At three o’clock in the morning the next day I left for Nice to deliver my load to the Pallion market.

When I delivered to Cannes I left an hour later. At the beginning the sale had been difficult because the brand was not known, and then it was the high season, when the merchandise is plethoric, but quickly buyers asked for Moulin de Camandoule because these melons with firm and fragrant flesh and at regular quality were appreciated.

The chef at the Palm Beach had even asked the Cannes broker to reserve his best crates for him. I liked, once the van was unloaded, strolling around the market a bit, especially the one in Nice. I discovered there, in the little bistros bordering the Paillon, Provençal-style stripes. Believe me, and you know that you can trust me when it comes to the food, the tripe is cooked in a spicy tomato sauce that you sprinkle generously with Parmigiano Regiano At six in the morning, it’s a real treat.The harvest lasted until September 15th. I slept during this period no more than four hours a day. I finished this season exhausted but delighted because I had produced forty tons of melons, but especially because the Fayençois came to buy them directly from the mill. everything, he is not so crazy as it is the Parisian and then, Bou Diou, he went to great lengths with that one. “

For three years I lived at the mill a dream life, and then one day, in a few hours, that was the tragedy.

In the middle of the night, snow fell continuously on the Var. In Provençaux’s memory we had never seen this. When the snow stopped, it was the cold that came, the thermometer went down to minus fifteen. It only takes a few hours to freeze all the olive trees in the Var. Oh, it wasn’t a simple frost destroying a crop and recovering from! This one struck at the heart, killing the olive trees, wonders of nature that Cézanne so loved to paint.

The farmers of the Var lost the main source of their income and the mills were forced to close for lack of olives to be crushed.

One morning I saw Arneodo with a suitcase in his hand. I expected that.
For the first time that we “lived together” I felt embarrassed.

“You know the mill without the olives! “

“I understand”

I paid him his salary. He picked up his suitcase and walked slowly to the door

“Arneodo” He stopped and turned around slowly.

“I will miss you.”

For a moment, I thought I saw his blue eyes clouding over and his corn paper butt shake.

When I write this story to you fifty years later, I know that I will never again smell this incomparable smell of virgin oil, I know that I will never again see this river of gold cascading along the scourtins,

I know I will always regret it, the Moulin de la Camandoule.