The Art of the Olive

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In search of a quiet Greek retreat, artist Deborah Macmillan and radio presenter Natalie Wheen became accidental organic olive farmers. Edwina Baines reports

Extra virgin quality just-picked olives
Image: Deborah Macmillan and Natalie Wheen

It was Homer who coined the term ‘liquid gold’ for olive oil – Ancient Greece was where the olive tree and fruit achieved the importance they still enjoy today.
I interviewed Deborah Macmillan with a view to talking about her life as an artist – but on visiting the recently-acquired home in Hammoon that she shares with her friend Natalie Wheen, I was intrigued by a very different liquid gold story.

Natalie Wheen (left) and Deborah Macmillan at home
Image: Edwina Baines)

Old friends
Deborah was born in Queensland, Australia into an “affectionately argumentative” family who encouraged her artistic talent. ‘They left the walls of my bedroom bare so that I could draw on them, which all my friends thought was outrageously eccentric!’
After gaining a scholarship to the National Art School in Sydney she moved to London and in 1972 married dancer and choreographer Kenneth Macmillan. Director of the Royal Ballet, knighted in 1983 and arguably the finest choreographer of his generation, Sir Kenneth died in 1992.
Deborah has exhibited her own works in London and Glyndebourne and also spends much of her time supervising revivals of her husband’s ballets in major theatres around the world. When we chatted, she was just back from Australia where the Queensland Ballet Company was staging Manon and was soon heading to Paris for his celebrated ballet, Mayerling..
Natalie Wheen was born in Shanghai, as were her father and grandfather, but in the turmoil of post-war revolutionary China they were evacuated in 1951 to Hong Kong, moving to England in 1957. Natalie, a talented student of violin and piano at the Royal College of Music, “hated practising.” After her music degree at London University, she joined the BBC, working first as a radio studio manager, then producer and finally as a presenter. For many years she was an instantly recognisable voice on BBC Radio 4’s Kaleidoscope arts programme and Radio 3’s Mainly for Pleasure, and latterly on Classic FM – chosen by Radio Times readers as possessor of one of the most attractive voices on radio.

Deborah Macmillan with her painting of Sir Kenneth Macmillan
Image: Edwina Baines

A Greek escape
In 1996 the two friends pooled resources to buy a ‘rundown shack and a little piece of land 50 metres from the sea’ on Greek island of Lesvos, somewhere to escape from the stresses of their professional lives. Later they added several adjoining parcels of land, on all of which olive trees grew.
As they watched the olives grown and harvested (unlike other vegetable oils, olive oil is extracted from a fruit and not a seed), they were horrified by the “slippery practices” of many local farmers: fields poisoned by chemicals, trees wrecked by aggressive harvesting, newly harvested olives dumped and crushed into massive sacks and processed in filthy mills.
So they started a new business, Avlaki Superb Organic Olive Oils, immediately taking control of every aspect of production. They converted the land to strict organic farming, with olives harvested by hand in December and blemished fruit removed, before the crop was taken, in shallow crates to avoid bruising, to the private, clean mill.

Euphorbia and rock roses on Lesvos
Image: Deborah Macmillan and Natalie Wheen

From Lesvos to Wetherby
The regulation of organic food production operates efficiently in Greece and their soil is tested regularly. Each olive farmer on Lesvos takes their harvest of the day to the mill for processing. The olives are not mixed with others. In many countries, small farmers add their olives into a general co-operative for milling.
Once processed into airtight containers, the unfiltered oil begins its long journey by ferry to Athens and then overland to Wetherby in Yorkshire, where it is bottled by a family business of organically licensed farmers. From there, the Avlaki oil goes to a distribution depot in Aylesbury. When lockdown started in 2020 and all flights were cancelled, Deborah and Natalie stayed in Greece. They were thrilled to see how their now chemical-free land had allowed nature to come ‘roaring back’, as Deborah says.
Now the fields bloom with orchids and wild flowers and teem with wildlife in the many bushes and trees that are deliberately left for cover.
The friends are passionate about their olive oil, which has a long history of beneficial health properties. But there is a similarly long history of nefarious practice in the olive oil industry. It is known as one of the most adulterated of agricultural products. Deborah calls it ‘the oldest fraudulent food production in the world.’ Amusingly, even in Roman times the populace was warned to “beware the olive oil trader”!
Deborah and Natalie, as relative newcomers to olive farming, say it is essential to read any olive oil bottle label carefully to check it is ‘extra virgin’. Anything else is of lesser quality, and could even have been extracted with chemicals – especially if it’s called “light’”. Slimmers beware!

Picked olives waiting
to go to the mill
Image: Deborah Macmillan and Natalie Wheen

Diversifying
Olive oil is a key ingredient in many beauty products and Avlaki is now making top-quality organic olive oil soap, with no additives, preservatives or perfumes. Negotiations are continuing with a Dorset producer and there are plans to make a household soap with added eucalyptus.
Both Natalie and Deborah are now happily ensconced in Dorset and are ‘madly planting’ in their garden, planning woodland groves in the fields.
‘It has been exciting to bring things back,’ says Natalie. This confuses friends from their previous lives in London: ‘They are clueless about country life and find it difficult to understand why we moved.’ says Deborah. ‘What has been lovely is to involve ourselves in countryside events.’

Avlaki organic olive oils

They enjoyed a summer of country fairs, particularly the ferret and terrier racing at the Gillingham & Shaftesbury Show. They are also working hard with local farmers and the Countryside Regeneration (formerly Restoration) Trust at Bere Marsh Farm in Shillingstone to restore the water meadows skirting the Stour.
So, the next time you carelessly toss a bottle of olive oil into the supermarket trolley, make sure you read the label and remember that not everything named “virgin” is immaculately conceived! As Avlaki proclaims ‘We keep the olive in the olive oil!’.
OliveOilAvlaki.com

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