LAVENDER IN AND OUT OF THE KITCHEN

A LAVENDER CHRONICLE IN HAUTE PROVENCE

For Rosa Jackson, celebrated food writer and founder of cooking school, Les Petit Farcis in Nice, the discovery of lavender remains one of her most treasured memories. Join Rosa as she takes a trip through the rolling lavender fields of Valensole and explore some of its many uses in and outside the kitchen.

WORDS BY ROSA JACKSON

PHOTOGRAPHS BY FOUAD ZARROU AND ROSA JACKSON

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Return to Valensole

My first glimpse of the lavender fields of Valensole was by accident, driving home to Nice from a holiday in the Alpes de Haute Provence. In the distance I could see dramatic swathes of purple interspersed with vivid yellow strips of sunflowers, painting the fields as if with strokes of an Impressionist’s brush. I promised myself that I would come back one day to admire the scene close up.

It wasn’t until several years later that I was able to return, this time with my friend Fouad from France Azur Excursions, who offers day trips to the lavender fields from Nice during a fleeting few weeks in summer when the plants are in blossom. Our tour also took us to the Gorges du Verdon, a dramatic canyon where we stopped to find the perfect place to picnic by the river. Though it was tempting to fall asleep on the shady riverbank after a dip in the bracing water, we didn’t want to miss the tableau that draws thousands of visitors from around the world each year.

After a stop at the elegant village of Moustiers Sainte Marie, best known for its faïence, we began to approach the plateau de Valensole, which in the 1950s took over from Grasse as the centre of French lavender production. Suddenly we were surrounded by neatly groomed fields stretching to the horizon and I realized that nothing had prepared me for the intensity of this experience. The intoxicating scent of lavender wafted into the car while clouds of bees buzzed around the tight bunches of purply blue flowers, creating a background hum.

We stopped the car and made our way through the waist-high rows of bushes as the bees danced around us, feeding on the dizzying nectar that they would turn into a subtle honey. As I rubbed the flowers between my fingers to release their perfume, I realized that lavender offered many more possibilities than I had imagined.

Lavender's Place in the Kitchen

Cultivated in France since the Middle Ages, lavender has made its way into nearly every household not just for its fresh, cleansing aroma but for its beneficial properties: the essential oil is believed to relieve headaches, cure insomnia, calm the nerves, repel insects and treat skin conditions, to name just a few of its uses. Because the plant is so potent, many cooks — myself included until recently — hesitate to add it to food. But, as demonstrated by the lightly floral ice cream we tasted in Moustiers, lavender has its place in the Provençal kitchen.

A Visit to a Sage

Before adopting lavender as an ingredient, I visited the recently opened herbalist NO Nice Organic (24 rue Pairolière, Nice), which focuses on the finest quality French plants for its infusions and essential oils. I wanted to learn more about the different varieties of culinary lavender, and owner Gregory Unrein was happy to enlighten me.

First, when buying any lavender products it’s important to know the difference between true lavender and lavandin, a variety that is easier to grow but that has fewer properties. When intensive lavender production began around Valensole, lavandin became the dominant plant, though Gregory told me that true lavender is also grown there. You can tell the difference by looking at the flowers, which are smaller and more compact in true lavender. When buying essential oil, look for “lavande” rather than “lavandin” on the label. Wild lavender grown in the mountains of Provence is considered the ultimate in quality, but the quantities are small.

For culinary purposes any lavender may be used, Gregory says, as long as it’s organic. “You have to be careful as the plants are often sprayed with chemicals.” He sells only untreated true lavender, and for my cooking he recommended the “super bleu” variety, which has a particularly vivid color. The first thing I did was sprinkle it on some peaches that I was roasting with a mixture of delicate Nice olive oil and lavender honey, creating a heady aroma as they cooked. You can do the same with apricots, or make an apricot jam with a few sprigs of lavender for a magical touch.

Lavender's Many Culinary Uses

Many students in my cooking classes know lavender as an addition to herbes de Provence, though locals have told me its inclusion in the mix is “for tourists”. Nonetheless, lavender can be combined with herbs, particularly rosemary, as a rub for meats: lamb, which is so flavourful at this time of year in France, makes a natural match.

A classic use for lavender is in crème brûlée: after infusing it in the cream there is no need to strain it out, as the flowers will float to the surface to create a crunchy crust along with the burnt sugar (an alternative is to make lavender-scented sugar by adding the flowers to a jar of sugar or blending them together in a food processor). You could also add a drop or two of lavender essential oil to egg whites as you beat them; I have made a layered Pavlova with rose and lavender-scented meringues.

Lavender’s use in the kitchen isn’t restricted to food: homemade lavender syrup makes a summery addition to cocktails or lemonade. Now that I’ve let loose with lavender, I find myself wanting to use it everywhere, but as with many potent Provençal flavourings from garlic to rosemary, I remind myself that less is more and use it with restraint. 

Ever tried Lavender Koeksisters? Why not make them yourself?