It’s like solidified ultra-violet rays. Lavender coats the hills of Provence in shades of blue, indigo and violet. Corduroy streaks the hills, pausing at cypress windbreaks, timeworn abbeys and native forest. The plants form a playground for impossibly cute animals – bumblebees as fluffy as persian cats, plump field bunnies and chittering, swooping swallows.
But blink, and you miss it – most of the harvest is in early July. Shrubs are shorn neatly, their branches stripped bare, clean and spiked like a college-boy haircut. Sometimes the flowers are immediately removed, taken to factories of stainless steel, pipes and funnels. But every now and then, you see it done the older, gentler way. Bunches are tied as they are picked, and left to dry on the alert yet bald bushes. This is the state I saw the Abbaye Notre Dame de Senanque. Dead and dying flowers laid on an open grave, as archaic as the monks quietly wandering the halls, as old-fashioned as the monastery itself. Beautiful in its rarity, a treasure to be retained.
Lavender has usually been married to old ladies’ underwear-drawers, a fragrance rarely sought out by anyone under the age of 103. Yet there is still room for it in our lives – it sneaks its way in various guises, and like names such as Esme, Joseph and Matilda, it is destined for a comeback as it seems is everything old and almost forgotten. Again, linen will be washed in lavender-water. Masseurs and aroma therapists embrace its healing qualities, and I am not the only one to use it in my cooking.
Lavender should be looked upon as a fragrant herb, and can be used almost anywhere you would use another along the same lines – fennel or caraway seed, coriander, or even basil. It can be used dried, fresh, distilled into essence or infused into oil. It’s not just the flowers that are used, the leaves are also edible, and a little like rosemary – if slightly less menthol, and not so physically stable when cooked. Lavender partners sweet and savoury, and its strength lends it to other strong contrasting or complimentary flavours such as salmon, lamb, honey, other leafy herbs, cream and salt.
In Provence, you will taste it in semi-sweet ice-cream – perfect with a scoop of violet ice-cream alongside. Lavender honey – either infused, or made by bees that only feed on lavender nectar will be in every providore, and at every summer market. Restaurant L’Aile ou la Cuisse in Saint-Remy makes a sublime choux stuffed with crème de lavande and iced indigo. You will find it in pastilles in collectors tins, shortbread biscuits, crème brulee and macarons. Le Mesculin in Seguret prepare a salmon gravalax with fresh lavender. Every now and then, you will find specks tossed through a salad, accompanying a cheeseboard, or peppering a piece of foie gras. If you look carefully, you will also find lavender beverages, and my favourite, lavender lemonade. And in herbes de Provence? Well, sometimes it’s in, but most often it’s out. Traditionally, the French have not embraced lavender for its culinary properties, but its cleansing aroma.
When cooking with lavender, treat it as you would a hard seed. The flavour is richest with used in this form, but not everybody loves the texture. Infuse and remove, or use fresh soft blooms sparingly, chopping finely if you prefer. It imparts very little colour when infusing, so either use it as that ‘secret ingredient’, or garnish with flowers or colour artificially to hint to diners what they will find inside. All lavender is edible, but it’s best to use the tastiest – English Lavenders, or the hybrid many know as Provence Lavender – Lavendula x intermedia. You are looking for a fragrant and sweet bud – and as with many flowers, usually the most beautiful do not hold the most precious nectar. It’s wise to follow the bees if you can’t tell the difference yourself. To avoid the nasties, preferable to go organic, or at least wash well before using. (more information on culinary use here.)
Below is a honey and lavender bundt I prepared for my children. They are dairy and gluten intolerant, so I have made accordingly – it would possibly taste better with softened butter to replace the oil, cows’ milk, and a light country wheat flour to replace my gluten free mix. The recipe can be found here.
Don’t you love a little Provincial inspiration?