of La Balme farmhouse was lined with old free stones and described a large S through groves of olive trees. It was an ancient property in the foothills of the Alpilles, with a fine solitary dwelling for the owners and large buildings for the farm workers.
De Palma had had to scour the region to find it. In Mouries, he was told to take the road to Les Baux, but then he had driven too far. So two bends before the entrance to the village he had turned back and asked the way once more from a laborer who was tinkering with the motor of a chainsaw in the shade of an olive tree. The man, as knotty as the tree he was threatening with his saw, shot him a suspicious look.
âLa Balme? Go straight down toward Maussane, then turn left onto R.D. 78.â The man gestured broadly, the better to indicate the direction. âThen, after about two kilometers, youâll see three pine trees, three tall ones that isâround here we call them the Fairy Pines. Then take the track that leads toward the mountain. You canât miss it.â
âThank you very much.â
âDonât mention it,â the man mumbled, leaning back over his chainsaw.
From the Fairy Pines, a few meters off R.D. 78, the Steinert place looked like something from Tuscany. A few sunbeams broke through the ceiling of the sky which was muffled in darkness, and cut the gloom with broad, gilded shafts.
The property covered over 100 hectares, smoothly sloping down at first, then rising gently up toward the buildings that stood with their backs to the Alpilles. This solid earth, with stones as large as fists, had been constantly plowed through the centuries; it was never sticky or black, and rose in dust beneath the stifling sun.
The homestead of the farm was thirty meters long by fifteen wide, and stood at right angles to the outbuildings. Four huge plane trees framed a fountain and stretched their pollarded branches over what used to be the stables.
From a distance, the sight was impressive, but only the turquoise rectangle of a swimming pool almost as large as the stables suggested that the owners had greater means than the soil would usually support.
As it happened, the Steinert family had maintained most of the buildings in their original functions: the barn door was open on a giant tractor, parked like a crab in its hole; next to it there was a vine tractor, which looked like a scale model with its narrow chassis.
De Palma parked his car beneath a plane tree. To his right, he could see the pool, which was a good twenty meters long, and, beyond it, a green artificial tennis court complete with changing rooms.
Further on, where a green meadow stretched as far as the first white rocks of the Alpilles, three horses were killing time by chasing off the flies that pestered them.
There was no gate or fence. And apparently no bodyguards. If the farmhouse was under surveillance, then it was highly discreet.
Ingrid Steinert was in the midst of three groups sitting around like obedient schoolchildren at small tables on a vast paved patio half covered over by climbing vines and flowering wisteria.
The lady of the manor was radiant, passing from one group to the other, making her light dress swirl with its ProvenÃ§al motifs. Each group was gathered in front of small phials full of olive oil. The various members were holding tasting glasses and scribbling on notepads.
When she noticed de Palma, Madame Steinert did not look surprised. She gave him a formal smile and graciously beckoned him to join her.
âWeâre defining the new collection of our oils,â she said, shaking his hand energetically. âWe taste them again and again. Theyâre last yearâs oils.â
âYouâre â¦ youâre tasting oil?â
âOf course â¦ it should be savored like a fine wine! In fact, let me introduce you to Eric Bartel, one of Franceâs greatest wine experts.â
Bartel, a little fellow with a turned-up nose, barely