The 1956 freeze ordeal

But in 1956, a natural disaster struck the local community. The intensely cold March destroyed no less than 90% of France’s olive trees. When Emile Noël recalls this event, a cloud darkens his forehead. “Making olive oil was a beautiful thing to do! It was my trade, my passion. After that, we had to stop because there weren’t any olives. There was panic, it was a really terrible time.”

After the big freeze of 1956, practically no olive trees were cultivated in France: Emile Noël’s future was in serious doubt. Fortunately, he did not face this testing time alone. Andrée, whom he had married five years before, was at his side. Emile Noël speaks movingly about meeting the woman who would share his life: “I got to know Andrée at the stadium when we were 14 years old. She was a very fine athlete, specialising in the 100-metre dash. Later on, we went dancing together. And when I did my military service, we wrote to each other every day! My family would have preferred me to marry a wealthier young lady. But that didn’t bother us… Andrée grew up on a farm, and neither of us had ever had any money. We made do with little. So we didn’t really ‘overcome’ the ordeal of 1956, we simply experienced it.”

Together, Emile and Andrée coped with the post-1956 difficulties. “We’d lost everything. All we had left was a Citroën 2CV, and we went camping by the sea at Saintes-Maries. We slept on the ground like hippies with our son and two daughters.” But their living conditions did not matter. The couple were driven by a common passion: oil. And they were never distracted. As the olive trees had been decimated, Emile Noël decided to shift this business to crushing local seeds, such as sunflower and rape (canola). “We began working with farmers who grew sunflowers. To start with, Andrée and I did everything with the 2CV. Then we had a truck, in which I fitted a small tank in the chassis, with a pump on the side. It was a handsome thing! Every day, even on Sundays, I toured the farms to collect their sacks of seed. Then I returned to deliver the oil they needed. The farmers let me keep their surplus oil to sell, and only pay for it at the end of the year. They trusted me – there was a real spirit of mutual assistance.”