Italian olives take root in Welsh valley

Tony Heath on an unlikely new agribusiness for Wales
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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S first commercial olive grove is being quietly nurtured in a little valley on the west coast of Wales.

It is a shock to come across Olea europaea in a setting that immediately evokes the cliche about the remoteness of madding crowds.

As the millions who jet off to the Mediterranean testify, the olive and its oil is everywhere in countries such as Italy, Spain and Greece. Botanists say that in the northern hemisphere olive trees only flourish between the latitudes of 30 and 45 degrees.

So what is the olive doing at the tiny Cardiganshire village of Llangrannog, where, in a 19th- century walled garden, it is being reared alongside the figs, apricots, cherries and apples grown by Hilary Pritchard, 46, and her husband, David?

Their acre of tranquillity is at the heart of a larger spread the couple have carved out of a wilderness since moving there 10 years ago.

"There's a strip of land less than a mile wide along this part of Cardigan Bay that is climatically unique," Mrs Pritchard says. "We seldom have frost or snow. And the garden faces south with 20ft walls trapping the warmth. Sometimes it feels too Italian to be true."

Being affected by the Gulf Stream helps. So does the rich soil imported from Ireland more than a century ago, when Llangrannog boasted a sea connection with similar small harbours in County Wicklow.

A Londoner, Mrs Pritchard took to the soil almost as soon as she could walk. "My grandmother once told me that I used to weed with my fingers when I was a tot living in Blackheath," she recalled.

A botany degree at Durham University and a PhD in plant tissue culture at Edinburgh are now being employed to bring a new crop to a country where, thanks to television chefs and the requirements of trendy dinner parties, the oil of the olive is in demand.

The Welsh grove will take a few years to reach full maturity, which is unsurprising in view of the olive tree's lifespan of hundreds of years.

The eight trees Mrs Pritchard is bringing on were sent from Italy by Johnny Madge, a sculptor living in the Sabine Hills above Rome, whose work went on exhibition at the garden last year.

"We got talking about olives and Johnny offered to have specimen trees sent over," Mrs Pritchard said. "When they arrived, I just looked at them in amazement."

A queue for the first bottle of virgin oil pressed from Llangrannog olives is forming. At the head of the list is Gwynfor Harries, one of Wales's notable singers, who relies on suitable lubricants to keep his baritone renditions of hymns and arias up to the level that wins him Eisteddfod prizes.

That may be the best way to distribute the first benefits of an unusual Italian-Welsh connection, not least because the walled garden has a history of romance for more reasons than merely producing exotic fruits.

Between the wars, it was owned by D Owen Evans, Liberal MP for Cardiganshire. Lloyd George was said to have been a frequent visitor and, mindful of his leader's love of privacy, Mr Evans built a discreet little conservatory beneath the high garden wall.