What comes to mind when you think of Provence? Olives, rosé wine, cicadas and of course lavender. Every year, around the end of June and beginning of July, parts of the Provençal countryside are transformed with the colour of lavender fields in bloom. It is like someone has rolled out a giant blue carpet to cover the hills and country side around.
It is a beautiful sight and people come from round the World to see it. However, lavender growing is part of a long tradition here and is not grown just for aesthetic reasons or to lure tourists, but because of the many qualities that lavender, in particular the oil, has.
I accompany my friend Celia Lindsell on a trip to the lavender fields below Mont Ventoux. Celia uses lavender in many of her homeware designs, door stops, giant lavender bags and pillows as well as lavender oil which she sells on her website, www.celialindsell.com.
Our first stop is to meet Sylvie Barjot and her father at her home in the foothills of Mont Ventoux who grow their lavender organically. They have a lavender distillery and Sylvie has lived here all her life, as have her parents and their parents before them. It looks like an idyllic spot, a cluster of houses belonging to her family, surrounded by lavender fields. But life here is hard, the terrain is poor and the wind blows most days, however these are ideal conditions for lavender, as the plant loves the rocky, chalky soil of these parts.
Originally there were only sheep grazing on these hills and the shepherds and a few sheep farmers collected the lavender, but a growing demand from the not so far away perfumeries in Grasse in the 19th Century, meant that more people became involved with lavender cultivation and the production of oil. Sylvie and her father still produce the oil in the traditional method in their distillery.
In late June, early July, when the lavender is in flower, they cut the plants halfway down the stem and then lay the cut bunches on top of the stubble to dry out for a few days. Next they are gathered and placed into a huge drum and pressed down with a stone.
The used lavender stalks from a previous pressing are loaded into the furnace to create the fire to heat the lavender. Nothing is wasted.
I was never very good at physics, and so Sylvie’s father shows me this diagram that he has drawn on the side of one of the cooling drums, to help me to understand the process of how the oil is extracted from the plant. I hope it means more to you than it does to me!
He also explains to me how lavender is a general cure-all, and shares some of its uses with me; a few drops on a sugar-cube will keep a cold at bay or soothe a sore throat; it can be used as an antiseptic, as apparently it was during WW1. As a child he was given a drop or two on a sugar cube against worms, which apparently every child had in those days and I’ve heard it is effective against head-mites or nits. It can be used as an insect repellent against mosquitoes and also to alleviate itching after you’ve been bitten; it will keep the moths out of your woollens, a few drops on a handkerchief in the cupboard will keep them at bay. He also told me that a few drops in a small cup of white vinegar added to the final rinse of your washing cycle will act as a natural fabric conditioner, the vinegar helps against the ravages of the calcaire, calcium in the water, which is the bane of our Provençal lives and the lavender softens the fabric, making it moth resistant and sweet smelling at the same time. Whether it works or not, it makes the house smell lovely whilst the washing is on! Besides being an antiseptic, the oil also has anti-fungal properties and can be used to cure nail fungus and no doubt Athletes foot. In fact it seems that there is little that it doesn’t do!
There are two types of lavender grown in these parts, la lavande vrai, or fine, fine lavender, which is used mainly as a relaxing essential oil and in perfume and which is the most expensive, but when you think that it takes 1 hectare of lavender plants to produce 18 kilos of oil, you can understand why, and there is le lavendin, which is a hybrid of the fine lavender plant and aspic lavender. This produces 80 kilos of oil per hectare and is therefore cheaper, its essential oil is stimulating and this is what is used in the many products you can buy, body lotions, soaps, hair care, bath products, candles, massage oils, etc..
There is a Lavender Route which you can take, that leads you through the lavender fields and passed the shops and stalls that sell lavender products alongside the road and you can also visit participating farms and distilleries. These days lavender is produced much more cheaply in China and Central Europe than it is here and so it is important that these small artisinal farms can earn enough to keep up the traditions of lavender farming in Provence for us all to visit and enjoy. So make sure you stop by and buy something!
Meanwhile please visit Celia Lindsell’s website at http://www.celialindsell.com, as the lavender she uses in her products is sourced from these small producers. She has also very kindly donated a set of 3 of her gorgeous lavender bags as a giveaway on Provence Calling.
All you need to do is ‘Like’ my facebook page (in the right hand column) and leave a comment below, and a little bit of Provence could be winging its way to you. The winner will be drawn from the most amusing comment, using a random number generator on August the 8th.
Happy commenting and bonne chance!
This is a lovely post! Beautiful photos 🙂 I ‘like’ you on Facebook.
Diana Cotter says
What a beautiful Summer post! I can almost smell the lavender and feel those warm winds wafting the scent into the air. I didn’t realise growing it was so tough though – thanks for a really informative blog and gorgeous pictures.
celia lindsell says
We both did have an amazing trip up Mont Ventoux. It is breathtakingly beautiful and so natural. Lavender is a magical plant. No house hold sould be without a bottle of its oil and pillows in the bedroom. Angela got such a good grasp of the whole process & the benefits of lavender but should you want to know more look at http://www.celialindsell.com/articles-lavender.php or any number of other sites . Good luck with winning the set of lavender bags. I use a number of these in my bed.
Another fab post Ange and I can vouch for the fact that the house (and the washed clothes) smelt gorgeous when you you used the oil as a fabric softener.
Fabulous once again you create a great mood and a great smell to go
Nothing beats a trip towards Mont Ventoux or Plateau de Valensole on a mid-July day… Provence at its best! Lots of cheap or second-grade lavender products are sold out here but the real stuff comes from over there. Nice post!
Thank you for your well written informative article. If any of your readers would like to live close to any of the ‘provencal treasures’ then please look at my website. I have to return to the UK and I’ll really miss the glory of the colour and perfume of the lavender.
Angela, I love your blog! It is so pleasant to read all the details, like the lavender story here (and salade Nicoise, let’s not forget that one.) If I haven’t ‘liked’ your facebook page already, I will do so now, though I don’t need a contest to motivate me. 🙂
sally cameron says
We did the lavender field trip in 2009! Oh what wonderful memories, and beautiful photographs we have. Your post makes me want to jump on a plane and go back!
What an interesting post and conjures up such evocative images. My lavender died last year and I’m really missing it as I use it to try and keep the moths at bay in my wardrobe – many moths this year and no lavender to scare them away. So would love to win these lovely bags.
Have liked you on Facebook
ann beer says
Love the recipes – Anastasia and I are going to do the lavender shortbread – looks amazing. Fab photos – really brings back lovely memories. Loving the blog
see you soon???? Ann et les Beers
I so would like to replace my old lavender bags with new ones.
I liked it on Facebook
A little bit of Provence comes out of my washing every week with the lavender oil and how I love the smell wafting through my home.
Ann Snelling says
A little bit of Provence comes oui t of my washing every week with the lavender oil and how I lvoe the smell wafting through my home.
The sun is out on this glorious morning in hampshire, but reading your blog evoked (sp??) an even better feel good – thank you. On with the laundry with Celia’s oil in the conditioning compartment !!!
M aureen Clare says
Oh to be in Provence where Lavender is in the air, miss you so much but make up for it on this wonderful site Thank you a breath of fresh air.
Sarah Covell says
Loving your gorgeous lavender oil Celia, I use it in all my washing now and the house smells delicious! I feel I can bring a little French sunshine back to Dorset! Your site is fabulous!
mrs caroline dean says
i purchased some of celia lindsells lavender oil a couple of months ago as my one from holland and barrett was running out and i have to say am very pleased with it and this is where i will be purchasing my lavender oil in the future especially after reading your lovely e mail, to smell the oil, and see the photos that transports you to provence.
IDA RAK says
Hope to come one day and enjoy the great lavander site and products and meet you my dear.Your web site is wonderful so fresh and lovely.
All the best
Sara Kaczorowski says
I’m just imagining myself strolling through the beautiful lavender fields as I write this from Australia!
Hi, having regularly read and enjoyed your blogs I am finally adding a comment (I generally don’t do blogs, but this one I felt needed a rely). I really like the photos and description you give which are really evocative of that part of France. In fact I stayed on a lavender farm not far from there on a yoga holiday some years ago, so this blog brings back all those memories. Great stuff!
Alana Pryce says
Thank you for lovely evocative piece – odd really, as I was reading it, out came our little bloodsucking friends (the mozzies, as I call them) to feed on me – I charged into the kitchen, rubbed in the oil and sat down to read your article in peace. The oil worked a treat. Merci beaucoup.
Janice Jackson says
My daughter, an herbalist in California, and I just returned from a trip to Provence. It was amazing. We rented an apartment in Lourmarin and worked our way around the valley and the mountains. We came in search of the fine lavender oil and
Julie was in her element with all the herbalist while I ended up singing duet with an old hippie American guitarist during lunch at the Hotel Louvre! He got coins from the lunch goers and I got kisses on both cheeks. What a magical day for us.
The lavender fields were green but we knew they would not be in bloom when we came in May. Still, it was her dream to se these fields and visit these crafters/herbalist and it was my dream to share it with her. I will never forget Provence.
Janice Jackson, Haleyville, Alabama USA
Sharon deRham says
This is a really good article, and so yesterday I decided to visit this lavender farm. I was a bit disappointed.
The place is in very bad condition; the old, rusted equipment doesn’t inspire trust. The “tour” was a little talk given by a French teenager with poor presentation skills, and who spoke French poorly. This farm is not organic, nor do they claim to be. The use herbicides on the lavender plants.
Last week I visited “AromaPlantes” just a little further down the route de Ventoux, and I found it much better with a much better explanation (Neither place seemed to have explanations in English.)
I was looking for places to take clients.
The tourist season in lavender country is very short so we cannot expect these small businesses to be very sophisticated. However some are better than others.
Thanks for commenting Sharon. I actually like this farm because it is a ‘working’ farm, rust and all and is not set up as a tourist site, however that may put people off looking for a more ‘organised’ type tour. Above all it is a distillery as well as a farm going back many years and I felt privileged to be taken around it. I did have the mother and the grandfather of the French teenager as my guide and they were very friendly and informative, but I do also speak fluent French. I was told they were organic, so if they are not, I will gladly retract that fact.
Susan Johnson says
Love your recipes all a great hot with friends and family