Lavender, of the variety used to scent old ladies’ underwear drawers, is a genteel, pale perfume. It conjures up a pleasantly passé world of lace handkerchiefs and afternoon tea with maiden aunts, where fragrances are as polite as the rest of the household.
Not so in Provence, where lavender still grows wild in some parts and thrives everywhere it is planted. It is anything but a discreet and demure presence here. When it blooms in July and August, it takes centre-stage, putting on a flamboyant, one-plant show that temporarily reduces the splendid landscape around it to a supporting role. Even the deep-blue Mediterranean momentarily loses top billing. Lavender unfurls its own solid sea of vivid, purple-blue waves, rippling across the arid, rocky hills and mountain plateaus of upper Provence.
Prime lavender growing terrain is the high-altitude arrière-pays (back-country) of Provence, north of the Luberon hills. Bordered by the Rhône River Valley and its vineyards to the West, stretching towards the Italian border in the Southeast and reaching up to the French Alps in the Northeast, it produces 94% of the lavender grown in France. Still untouched by mass tourism, this region is the serene, inner heart of Provence. There is lavender lore aplenty to be learned in its farms and gardens, distilleries and museums.
To begin with, it is worth knowing that the word “lavender” describes two distinctly different plants belonging to the same family: true, or fine lavender, which grows only at altitudes of over 500 metres, and lavandin, a hybrid that is easier to cultivate and produces twice the essential oil of its nobler cousin. The two are easy to tell apart: true lavender is a small shrub, with single, slightly dishevelled flower spikes; lavandin grows in larger, rounded bushes and has two secondary spikes to either side of the main one. True lavender essence is mainly reserved for the luxury perfume industry, and for pharmaceutical purposes, while lavandin, which has a sharp-smelling camphor component, is used industrially to produce cleaning products, soaps and detergents, fabric softeners and air fresheners.
Originally, lavender grew only wild in the uplands of Provence, sown by the wind in scattered tufts in inaccessible places, where it was hand-picked by sure-footed shepherds. Over the centuries it became one of those home remedies that are considered good for just about everything. It has been used as a friction rub for sore muscles, as an insecticide, a cure for migraines, a tobacco substitute, a sleep aid and even an aphrodisiac! This poses an interesting dilemma when you are presented with a lavender pillow. Is it meant to help you sleep better, or is someone trying to wake you up?
It was as a perfume that lavender became all the rage by the late 1800’s. Supplies of natural lavender could not begin to keep up with demand, so at first true lavender, then the lavandin hybrid, started being cultivated. In the 1920’s, large lavender plantations, the lavanderaies, began to carpet the barren heights of Provence. Since 1981, the best lavender oils are classified like good wines, with a “controlled origin” label - an AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) The fields that qualify for the prestigious label lie within a restricted territory, at a minimum altitude of 800 metres. When those fields are in bloom, they are a sight to stop you in your tracks and make you reach for your camera. Anyone who enjoys getting off the beaten path a little and is happy to trade the summer swarm of tourists on the coast for the buzzing of bees drunk on lavender, will not regret it. A large bouquet of events is dedicated to the purple flower in July and August, and the welcome in the villages that host them is all the warmer for not having been worn out on too many visitors.
There is a wonderful guide to the Lavender Roads of Provence (available in English), published by the Association Les Routes de la Lavande: Tel: 04 75 26 65 91: Web: www.routes-lavande.com .