Turning ‘no-one likes olives’ into a business supplying Fortnum & Mason (via Take That)

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Giles Henschel, the award-winning ‘oliveer’, who came to his national artisan brand by way of school expulsion, the Army, being deported from Libya with his wife (twice), and Take That …

Giles Henschel

From a youth spent rebelling against the expectations of a world which insisted on comparing him to his disciplinarian headmaster father, Giles Henschel followed a circuitous route to become The Olive People with his wife Annie. “I was eventually expelled by my own father at the age of 16 – and kicked out of home too. I joined the Royal Engineers (who are known for building things then blowing them back up again. Which was exactly what I wanted to do). I was told I wasn’t bright enough to operate a giant digger, but perhaps I should apply to Sandhurst? I did, and then joined One Squadron, 30 Signal Regiment in Blandford – the very best posting. We flew all over the world; Hong Kong, Belize, Namibia, Bahamas, Beirut… “

Out on Civvy Street
“I left the army as a Captain, expecting simply to walk straight into another job. I obviously started to apply for £150k a year jobs… and didn’t get them. So I reduced my expectations a little and applied for more… down to £80k, £60k, £35k… the last job I was rejected from was a second hand car salesman in Clapham for £11k a year. I didn’t ever get an interview. Not one single interview.
“I was 30, and living in a bedsit in Walthamstow. My landlady Judy Walker worked for Renata John (Elton John’s wife), who owned a music management business, and Judy sat me down one night ‘I want to start my own business. I know the music. But I don’t know the administration – which you do.’ And so we started; we had some opera singers and jingle singers on the books, and then a guy called Nigel from Manchester called: ‘I’m putting a band together, and I need you to run the auditions, and then get them working together’.
“Judy did the first auditions, brought me a demo tape to which I said ‘yeah, they’re alright’. She spent some time grooming the band, took them all over the place, and eventually got them onto a kids Saturday morning TV show, and then on Terry Wogan the same evening. “On the Sunday morning Nigel called ‘Yes, I’ll take them from here, thanks’, and they were gone.
We had no contract, we were never paid – and that was it with the music industry for me. “Oh, the band? They were called Take That. The only thing I still have is the original demo tape, the first time they ever sung together, labelled ‘March 1991’.

Giles and Annie travelled extensively on their two BMW
R100 GSs which they still own to this day.

And then there was Annie
“I was working for a charity in Covent Garden when I met Annie who was flying for Japan Airlines. We got married on 4th July in 1992, living in a dilapidated houseboat. Annie was from Stur originally, and neither of us wanted to continue what we were doing. We both wanted to take a gap year out. So we sold what we could, and bought two motorbikes (we still have them; two BMW R100 GSs), and we travelled the Mediterranean. Down through Spain, up the coast to France, Italy, Greece… It was during the Yugoslav war, so we had to adjust our route to go through Turkey, Syria – an utterly amazing country to be in in 1993.
Back into Israel, Jordan, Egypt, all the way down the Nile into Sudan, through the Western Desert into Libya – where we got arrested and deported twice – and then bumped back to the UK and ended in a bedsit, flat broke, in Southampton.
“The one thing we’d found throughout that trip, every meal of the day, was an olive. Everywhere you went, bar, restaurant, roadside shack, there was always an olive of some description. On the trip we learned to use food as a social lubricant – we were an anomaly, these two people on two motorbikes in winter, but we found a ‘wow, this is delicious, how have you made that?’ got people chatting. We kept journals, noted recipes, but arrived back in the UK not thinking about food at all.

And eventually, the olive
“Our bedsit landlord was an old army colleague, and he was an ardent nudist. We were stuck at home, no money, deep in post- travelling blues, and this guy wandering around naked while we tried to set up a training business. Annie and I were so depressed. Eventually Annie said “Why don’t we just go into town, buy some good bread, wine, some nice olives, we’ll put the tent up in the back garden and we’ll pretend we’re travelling again”.
And so we did. Up went the tent, we drank the wine, ate the bread, and spat out the olives because they were so awful. We started to make them for ourselves, with a bucket of olives fermenting in the corner of the bedsit. “All our guests refused to eat them ‘no, no, we don’t like olives’, but after a glass or two they couldn’t stop eating them ‘these are amazing! Really good, they don’t even taste like olives! You should SELL them!’ “We resisted – after all, ‘no one likes olives’ – but eventually we put our last £500 into enough jars and enough olives.
On the 28th October 1993 we took ourselves to the Rural Living Show in Bath, and came back with £1,875.80p (we have no idea who gave us the 80p). So we did it again the following week, and the week after that, and eventually we found ourselves doing the Country Living Show in London the following March.

Where it actually began
“A very pregnant lady wandered past the stand, and stuck her fingers in a bowl, ate one olive and moved on. I hate that, I was about to call out ‘do NOT use your fingers!’, but she’d already gone. Then she came back ten minutes later and did the exact same thing with a different olive – again I couldn’t catch her. “She circled back for a third go, and this time I was armed with a cocktail stick… I was ready to stab her in the back of the wrist, when she said ‘Do you supply the trade?’ “why yes of course” I said, suddenly feeling very friendly to this nice lady. “She pulled her card out and she turned out to be Food Development Director of Fortnum & Mason: ‘I have been looking for someone to supply F&M with olives. I have tasted olives all over the place, and I have never tasted anything as good as these. These are what I want on my shelves. Will you supply us?’ Up until then, it had just been for pin money. It was suddenly a serious business. That was 1994, and we’re still supplying Fortnum & Mason to this day.
“We started in Southampton in that bedsit, but circumstances meant we moved into a house owned by Annie’s parents back here in Stur – doing the olives in the shower room. We moved to Stapleford, to Wilton, to Mere, and we were going to go to Wincanton, but the deal fell through on signing day, and we had just six weeks to find new premises. I’d been driving past this place at Rolls Mill, which was just walls. No windows, no heat, light or power; we bought it on the condition it could be finished in the six weeks. We moved in on the Queen’s Jubilee in 2002 – 20 years this year.

And so to Giles’ eight music choices, along with how and why they stuck in his life:

Bakerman by Laid Back
First heard when serving in Harrogate with the Royal Signals running the External Leadership troop. I was spending a lot of time in the hills and it brings me back to those days. The lyrics do have meaning – the line Sagabona Kunjane Weni is Swahili for ‘Hello, how are you’ which is basically how we’d greet people in the hills (in English – not Swahili).

Sensitive Kind by JJ Cale
I’ve loved JJ Cale since the time I first discovered his laid-back style of blues played with such a casual ease and musicality. He always shunned the big time and his wife used to say if you want to hear the real JJ just come around to the Airstream one evening and listen to him on the porch. This particular track has special meaning to me as it just reminds me so much of Annie – original oliveer and my rock for the last 30 plus years.

Sodade by Cesaria Evoria
I came across this wandering through the streets of Cordoba; I was drawn to a café where this was playing one sunny Sunday morning while we were out there for the olive harvest. Her voice is so plaintive and speaks to the heart and was just perfect to let wash over us as we sat and watched the world go by. We discovered later that the song is sung in her native Cape Verde Kriolu – a blend of Portuguese and West African languages and speaks of loss and sorrow at leaving the islands.

Into the Night by Santana
I have always liked Santana and this collaboration with Chad Kroeger really makes the most of his voice and Carlos Santana’s amazing guitar skills. It makes me think of family holidays – driving with the windows down in a beaten up rental, hot air and sandy beaches with the kids singing along in the back.

Go! by Public Service Broadcasting
I was seven when the first moon landing happened and I was fascinated and begged to be allowed to stay up and watch as Neil Armstrong first stepped onto the surface. My favourite film is Apollo 13 – the story of the greatest space rescue. To hear the original radio transmissions from those on board and at Mission Control stitched together in this track still gives me goose bumps. Such an original and timeless piece and yes, as an avid Blue Peter watcher I did make the rocket from Fairy Liquid bottles …

Mul Mantra by Snatum Kaur
My mother, Norah Forbes Stewart, was a deeply spiritual and widely-read lady for whom no one religion, creed or faith was enough – this was one of her favourite pieces of music which we played at her funeral last year. She is sorely missed by so many and I’ll be forever grateful for all she opened my eyes to – from the occult to different faiths, poetry and forever seeing the beauty in everyone who was lucky enough to meet her and life itself.

Refugee by Oi Va Voi
Oi Va Voi is a British collective of musicians, celebrating many different genres but with a distinctly Yiddish flavour. The name is Yiddish for “Oh Dear”, and being of Jewish descent, this sings to roots I never really knew I had. Especially poignant given the current unjust war in Ukraine, and while this is not a political statement or choice – we are all refugees in some way, some more than others and there but for the grace of god go all of us – this song is a reminder of both where I’m from and where so many are headed.

Senegal Fast Food by Amadou & Mariam
I came across Amadou & Mariam while working at the Larmer Tree Music Festival as MC on one of the fringe stages. I loved the feel and warmth of their music, and this song from their fourth album Dimanche à Bamako is produced by and featuring another favourite artist, Manu Chao. This song combines them both and takes us back to a five-week road trip in an old Land Rover down to Morocco and the edge of the Sahara we took as a family for my 50th Birthday. This was on a playlist called Sahara Songs and we played it endlessly as we reached the very edge of the road in a town called M’Hamid El Ghizlane about 20km from the Algerian border. Amazing Chicken Tagine followed, by the most miraculous night spent camping under the full moon and stars way out in the dunes …

And if the waves were to wash all your records away but you had time to save just one, which would it be?
I’d save the JJ Cale track, Sensitive Kind – it’s probably the only one I can sing along to and keep in tune, as well as being a reminder of Annie!

My luxury item
Would be an acoustic guitar with unlimited string replacements. And before you ask, my book would be the best primer of how to play the damned thing properly as I’ve been playing for 45 years and still can’t do it any justice.

Click here to listen to Gile’s entire playlist on YouTube

Interview by Courtenay Hitchcock

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