Any visitor who goes to Provence hopes to see the lavender fields in bloom, acres and acres of them, reaching to the horizon. In the blooming season, which is late June through mid-August, you can see cars pulled off the side of the alongside the lavender fields, with people posing against the dramatic backdrop of intense purple. Trucks stacked high with freshly cut lavender ply the back roads, trailing the perfumed scent behind them.
Fresh lavender bouquets are sold in bundles at the open markets for a brief time, and dried lavender is always available. Lavender honey is stacked high on the tables of the honey sellers at the market and roadside signs entice the visitor with signs indicating “produits de lavande ici” and an arrow pointing the way.
The vistas of rolling hills and plateaus of purple lavender are an iconic symbol of Provence, but it wasn’t always so. Lavender only became a cultivated crop after World War I, and even then the gathering of wild lavender, which was abundant, remained commercially viable until the late 1940s.
Prior to the commercial plantings of lavender, wild lavender, which has long been extensively used in the production of perfume, was harvested on a first come, first serve basis by local people, primarily women, and then purchased from them by manufacturers and brokers. One of my neighbors in Provence told me of the times when, as a young girl recently emigrated from Calabria, Italy, she worked the lavender harvest on the Valensole plateau, near Riez in the Alpes d’Haute Provence. Harvesting was done with a sickle, and the cut lavender was tied up in big linen bundles. The workers sometimes slept out under the stars, and cooked food over a campfire, she told me. It sounds romantic, but it was actually arduous work, back breaking work. Today, the harvest is done mechanically.
As the perfume industry grew, so did the importance of lavender, and by the early part of the twentieth century, the gathering of wild lavender had an opening date and a closing date to control the harvest season. Small, portable distilleries were set up throughout the lavender producing regions, primarily the departments of the Alpes d’Haute Provence, Vaucluse, and the Drome, and lavender distilling became a family enterprise.
Over the years, gatherers had noticed that there seemed to be two kinds of wild lavender, one they called la lavande fine or la lavande vrai (Lavandula angustifolia) and the other la lavande aspic (L. latifolia.) A third type occasionally appeared as well called lavendin. The stems of the lavande aspic were longer, with larger and more numerous flowers that rendered more essential oils, but the blossoms were less fragrant and not as intensely blue as those of L. angustifolia. Laboratory analysis ascertained in 1927 that lavendin, or grosse lavender as they called it, was a hybrid of L. angustifolia and L. latifolia. It had to be propagated vegetatively by cuttings, as it did not grow true from seed. Hybridizing experiments were conducted, and by 1975, many of the commercial plantings were of one of the lavendin hybrids, especially on the Valensole plateau. Elsewhere, L. Angustifolia is primarily planted.
The gathering of the wild lavender from the hillsides disappeared along with many of the small family distilleries. By far the greatest portion of the crop today goes for making perfume, pharmaceuticals, and soaps. The remainder ends up in the floral market for drying. La lavande fine, which is cultivated at eh higher altitudes, is making a comeback, however, because of the high quality of its fragrance and oil.
Lavender has also made its way into the culinary world, sometimes as part of an Herbes de Provence mixture or on its own. Lavender is used for grilling, for infusing, in soups, for rubs and glazes.
At La Vie Rustic, here in Northern California our lavender is staring to bloom now, in mid-May, and over the next few weeks, until around mid-June, depending on the weather, we will be cutting fresh lavender to order, shipping to our customers the same day it is cut.
Our bundle of about 70 stems, leaves included because they are fragrant as well, is $10.00 plus shipping. You can use the lavender fresh, then as time goes by and it dries, you can use it dried. Visit www.lavierustic.com on the Les Champs ( the fields) page and the market place for information and to order.
Recette du Jour
Honey-and-Lavender Glazed Chicken
The powerful flavors and fragrance of the lavender and herbs create a woodsy tang, mingled with sweetness. The skin of the chicken turns a glistening dark mahogany, while the meat beneath remains tender and fragrant. This is my version of a dish I had at Les Santons Restaurant in Moustiers-Ste-Marie, in the Alpes d’Haute Provence.
4 teaspoons fresh lavender flowers, crushed, or 2 teaspoons dried
2 teaspoons fresh minced lavender leaves or 1 teaspoon dried
3 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves or 1 ½ teaspoons dried
2 teaspoons minced fresh winter savory or 1 teaspoon dried
8 black peppercorns
1 teaspoon sea salt, preferably grey
4 chicken breast halves, bone-in, skin on
¼ cup strong flavored honey, preferably lavender but others, such as chestnut or acacia work well
Preheat an oven to 450 degrees F.
In a mortar, grind together 2 teaspoons of the lavender flowers, the leaves, thyme, winter savory, peppercorns and salt to make a mixture. Rub each chicken breast with about 1 teaspoon of the mixture. Place the chicken breast, skin side up, on a baking sheet. Roast for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and baste the chicken skin thoroughly with the honey. Sprinkle all but two teaspoons of the remaining her mixture evenly over the chicken breasts. Return to the oven, reduce the heat to 35 degrees F, and roast, basting frequently with the pan juices, until the juices run clear when a breast is pierced with the tip of a knife, about 20 minutes longer. Frequent basting is important as the honey, once warm, pours off the chicken into the pan and regular basting ensures the honey flavor of the finished dish.
Remove from the oven and serve immediately, sprinkled with the remaining 2 teaspoons of crushed lavender flowers.