It seems like a cliché – lavender and sunflowers in Provence…

IMG_2557It seems like a cliché – lavender and sunflowers in Provence. I think we’ve all become jaded by endless reproductions of Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings and, year after year, calendars featuring a summer month with a shot of blooming lavender fields. Nonetheless, vast fields of solid purple next to brilliant yellow fields set against a bright blue sky is a stunning sight as I was reminded this past July when I drove across the Plateau of Valensole in the Alpes de Haute Provence, climbing north out of Quinson on the way to Riez to meet friends at the market.

The lavender harvest had just started and in the photo you can just see, on the far right side of the photo on the left,  a truck being loaded with cut lavender to go off to the distilleries. In the old days, portable distilleries, first drawn by horses, then tractors, came directly into the fields, but no longer.

The sunflowers are grown for oil, not floral purposes, and although the nearby plateau was covered with sunflowers, I saw only a few stems for sale at the flower stands in the market. I suspect, however, that people do stop along the roadside and surreptitiously cut a few stems for themselves, just like they do with the lavender.



Here are some different varieties of sunflowers I grew in California. These, unlike those in the French fields above, are bred specifically for cut flowers and grow on multi-branched stems. I’ve put the collection here in  clear glass wine bottles, just a few stems in each.


Riez, located in the Alpes of Haute Provence is an ancient place, where prehistoric man was well ensconced, followed by Celto-Ligurians, who were then conquered by the Roman legions. The Romans established the town here in the 1st century, and by the 5th century, the Bishopric of Riez was one of the most important in the region. The 5th century baptistery, built near the banks of the Colostre River, is one of the oldest in Christian Gaul, and the grounds surrounding it are currently the focus of an archeological dig. Every time I visit, the dig is deeper and deeper. On a grassy plain nearby stand 4 Corinthian columns, the remains of a temple to Apollo.In Roman times, Riez was an important trading city as well as a key point in the movement of troops, sitting as it does on a connecting road to the Via Aurelia that connected Frejus on the Mediterranean to Arles on the Rhone River. It’s strange to see these remains of grandeur in what is now a rather sleepy, small Provencal town renowned now for lavender and for black truffles.

IMG_2515On Saturday mornings, when the market, set up along the main street, is full of shoppers and vendors, and the streets are jammed with cars, motorcycles and tour buses, you can still feel a bit of the bustling past of those ancient days. Vendors’ stalls, with their bright umbrellas, selling everything from wind-up toys to fish, are set up in the vast parking space just across the grass from the columns.

IMG_2519If you park at the far end of the parking lot, near the highway, you walk past the baptistery and the columns to get the market and the main street itself , which is lined with cafes, boulangeries, charcuteries, and restaurants.

Riez remained important through the Renaissance, and many of the Renaissance mansions, which had fallen into disrepair during the last century, are now undergoing a massive restoration project, which promises to enhance the town’s sense of history.



La Vie Rustic News

Bay Leaves in Smart New Packaging – at a smart new (lower) price
IMG_2637We are now packing our dried, sweet bay laurel leaves in cellophane bags – with a new price. Only $6.00 for these hand-picked, hand-washed and dried true bay leaves. You’ll find them online at and at Rancho Gordo stores in the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Building and in Napa at 1924 Yajome Street. These bay leaves are the perfect, just right seasoning to use in Rancho Gordo’sdelicious heirloom beans. Among my favorites are the Christmas Limas and the huge Royal Corona beans which plump up to bite-size when they are cooked, and which render a broth as good as the beans themselves. For more on Rancho Gordo beans and cooking dry beans, visit my April post at La Vie Rustic

Coming Soon
Just in time for holiday gift-giving, a Kraft Boxed Potager Garden Set with Maps, zinc garden markers, and a baker’s dozen of French seeds – 11 vegetables, plus Charentais melon and Vining Nasturtiums. There are 3 maps, one each for spring, summer, and fall, and of course, complete growing instructions. And, a simpler set, just for spring in a sturdy Kraft envelope.

Ceramicist Elaine Corn has almost completed a new round of her La Vie Rustic prep bowls, so do watch for those as well.

Recette du Jour
1616Sausage and Potato Gratin
Fall is on the way, and gratins,  full of hearty flavor, like this one, are a good way to welcome the season. The secret ingredient? Bay leaves. For a complete meal, serve the gratin with a green salad. (and, take a look at La Vie Rustic’s handmade French style gratin dishes.

2 bay leaves
2 to 2 ½ cups whole milk
3 tablespoons butter, plus 1 teaspoon
2 tablespoons flour
½ teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 cups thinly sliced potatoes
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
2 uncooked sausages, sliced, such as chicken fennel, Polish, etc, sliced into ½-inch thick slices
¼ cup grated Gruyere cheese

In a saucepan, heat the milk and the bay leaves to just below a boil. Turn off the heat and let stand for 1 hour, infusing the milk with the flavor of the bay leaves. When ready to use, reheat the milk to a gentle simmer.

Preheat an oven to 375 degrees.

Butter a gratin dish with 1 teaspoon of the butter. In a saucepan over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons of butter. When it foams, remove from the heat and slowly whisk in the flour to make a roux, or paste. Return to the heat and gradually whisk in 2 cups of the milk. Reduce the heat to medium, stir in the salt, pepper and cayenne. Continue to cook until thickened, about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the heat.

In the gratindish, arrange a layer of potatoes, sprinkle with fresh thyme, make a layer of sausage, and top with a second layer of potatoes. Pour over the sauce, lifting the potatoes and sausages gently so the sauce fills in. Top with the grated cheese and dot with the remaining butter.

Place in the oven and bake until bubbling and golden, and the potatoes are tender when pierced with the tip of a knife, about 40 minutes.

Remove and let stand 10 minutes or more before serving.

Serve hot.

Serves 4