Sunday, June 14, 2009

Lavender Fields Forever

I know what lavender is, really I do, although recently I accidentally told someone that rosemary was lavender. The woman who corrected me is probably wondering if I learned anything at all during my 6 month stay in Provence. I was distracted that morning and just not thinking. Nothing really out of the ordinary! They both smell good, though, that's for sure. I have both growing in pots on my deck. My herbs are doing well and have already furnished enough basil for a batch of homemade pesto. I've used some of the French tarragon in Chef Erick's recipe for tuna-chickpea-rice salad. I've dried some oregano and rosemary. I plan to add the rosemary to a loaf of homemade bread soon and the oregano will go into tomato sauce to top pasta this week. I've cut some stems off of one of my lavender plants and hung them to dry. I often sit out on the deck in the evenings next to the lavender and rub the leaves between my fingers so that I can inhale the scent. My heaven will be filled with lavender that blooms year round.
My first visit to a lavender field in Provence was in July 2006 with the Arles 6. Chef Érick overheard us talking about our desire to see it in bloom and before we knew it one day we were on our way, picnic basket in the back of the van. (I then began to suspect that he understands more English than he lets on...) We visited the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque, near Gordes and spent several hours wandering around the church, the lavender fields, visiting the gift shop and eating our lunch, spread out on a blanket in the shade on a hill overlooking the grounds. I have been back several times since that first visit, in my role as the assistante. I have never lost the feeling of awe I feel there, though, looking at God's creation.
While working last summer in Arles, an email came in from a woman in California who wanted to come to Provence for her engagement photos. She wanted to come in October and have the photos taken in lavender fields. I emailed her back to let her know that the lavender would be harvested by then since it is cut in early August. She still didn't quite get it, asking me if September would work. I gave up.
Not long ago, a friend of mine told me about a nearby lavender farm she had discovered at the Hillsborough Farmers' Market. She gave me a brochure for Sunshine Lavender Farms. I was a bit skeptical so I decided to go on-line and check out their website one night. The website is beautifully done and I felt compelled to email Annie, the owner, and tell her so. She immediately emailed me back and sent an invitation to their upcoming harvest celebration.
Steve, my very patient research assistant, and I headed out Sunday, June 14, directions in hand, to find our way to the farm. It was a picture perfect morning, blue skies, a slight breeze, low humidity. We took an old quilt and my camera. We were immediately greeted by Dale, Annie's husband. Their farm is indeed incredibly beautiful. They have chickens, a horse, several dogs, guinea chicks in the barn, and yes, a real lavender field. We joined in a tour that Annie was giving, starting in the field as she pointed out various types of lavender (there are over 500 varieties in the world- she has mainly grosso, provence and hidcote). Annie seems to be a self-taught expert and proceeded to take us to the barn where a friend was working with the dried stalks to tell us how to dry our fleurettes or flowers. She talked about how to plant, harvest and prune our plants (I must now repot mine because I planted them in Miracle-Gro potting soil and that's a no-no- they don't like that). After the tour, I ate Maple View Farms lavender ice cream and lavender shortbread cookies. Steve ate a sandwich supplied by The Picnic Basket. Lavender lemonade was also available. We bought honey from the owners of The Farm Fairy. They even brought some of their bees with them. They were selling breads and other goodies. Some of Sunshine Lavender Farms products were for sale-- soaps, lotions, sachets, lip balm and a cookbook, just to mention a few items. Guests could make lavender crafts- sachets, wreaths, and wands. The farm is not normally open to the public. They sell their products on-line and in a few shops in the area, as well at the farmers' market. This is just Annie's way of educating the public about lavender and sharing her beautiful farm. Early Monday morning will bring the harvest, cutting all the stalks and flowers to ready them for use.
Annie's husband did tell me that she has never been to Provence to visit the lavender fields there. Hmmmm, anyone want to go with me next summer?

Lavender Ice Cream - Glaço à la lavando
(from Chef Érick Vedel)

(Serves 12)
1/2 liter or 1 pint milk
1/2 liter or 1 pint cream
12-15 grams or 1/2 ounce lavender grains
3 egg yolks
120 grams or 2/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup lavender honey

Boil the milk and cream, add the lavender grains and let infuse for up to 12 hours. Strain the milk and warm it. Add the sugar and stir well. In a separate bowl, blend the egg yolks, then slowly add the warmed milk and sugar mixture to the egg yolks, whisking as you do so. Pour this mixture into a double-boiler and heat gently, stirring until thickened. Remove from heat, whisk in the lavender honey and chill for 5-6 hours (or overnight). Pour into an ice cream machine. Put in the freezer. Enjoy!

Bon appétit!

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