Sunday, May 11, 2008

Purple Haze

 
 
As a child, I hated the smell of lavender. It reminded me of elderly ladies, furniture polish and that can of air freshener we always had in the bathroom. Now, however, it is one of my favourite scents which leads me to think that it is perhaps a smell one acquires as one gets older and more sophisticated, rather like acquiring a taste for olives or oysters or wine. Either that or I’ve been overdoing the aerosol sniffing again…

Lavender is a wild, aromatic shrub that loves the sun and thrives in dry rocky soil. It originated in Persia and the Canary Islands and has been in documented use for over two thousand years. The Egyptians used it as scent and as an ingredient in the mummification process; the tribes of Gaul used a lotion made from lavender essential oil called celtic nard and it is possible that the nard mentioned in the bible – the ointment with which Mary anointed the feet of Jesus – was also lavender. The plant was brought to Provence by the Romans who used it to scent their linen or their bathwater – hence the name ‘lavender’ from the Latin lavare – which means ‘to wash’.

Three types grow predominantly in the south of France. Lavandula vera or true lavender, which grows above 800 metres; lavandula augustifolia also known as ‘asp’ lavender because it is a favourite hiding-place for snakes and lavandula hybrida, a hybrid of the above which can grow at a much lower altitude and has a higher yield of essential oil. English lavender, brought over by monks when they fled the French Revolution, is lavandula augustifolia.

 


Lavender was (and is) used for its medicinal properties: Pliny the Elder mentioned it in his writings and Dioscoride, a Greek doctor and botanist who lived in the first century, advocated lavender tea as a cure for headaches and insomnia. In the twelfth century, the abbess and herbalist, Saint Hildegarde de Bingen, recommended lavender eye drops and believed that lavender promoted ‘pure knowledge and reasoning’ – whatever that means. In the fourteenth century, people carried around bunches of lavender as protection from the plague – and indeed, it may have helped as lavender does repulse fleas. In the sixteenth century, it was used as a treatment for mental disorders and chewing on it was believed to restore speech to those who had lost their voice – the sufferer’s first words presumably being ‘Yuk – what is this stuff?’. Later, it was discovered to relieve rheumatism, catarrh, vertigo and period pains, mood swings, digestive headaches – an intriguing condition that translates as flatulence on the brain – hysteria, asthma and ringworm…to name but a few. Lavender was indeed a panacea.

It had other uses, too. Rubens and his fellow painters used lavender oil as paint thinner and it is thought that this is why the colours have retained their brilliance over the centuries. It also had its place in superstition– lavender kept away the evil eye; rubbing the flowers on one’s forehead before going to sleep ensured premonitory dreams; a few drops of lavender in one’s toilet water prevented marital discord (hmmm – wish I’d known that before). In Provence it is said that a man who eats lavender flowers while standing in a vineyard that has been abandoned for more than twenty years has a sporting chance of seeing ghosts…and frankly, if he’s going to go to all that trouble, he deserves to see ghosts…


As if that wasn’t wacky enough, as recently as 1965 a 41- year old lavender farmer, Monsieur Maurice Masse, spotted a rugby ball-shaped object in the middle of his field on the Valensole Plateau. Moving closer, he noticed two small beings busy gathering lavender. Now Maurice, being quick-witted and not at all one stalk short of a posy, realised at once that he was in the presence of aliens (rather than two small boys who had just come to get their ball back.) What were they doing? Taking samples, perhaps? Was lavender an essential component of a new deadly weapon with which they would take over the earth? Were they going to genetically modify it? Or did they simply have a problem of lavatory odour on board? Maurice would never find out. The aliens saw him and zapped him so that he was paralysed and could only watch helplessly as they boarded their vessel and shot off into space. The mystery was never elucidated but for many years afterwards, no lavender or plant of any kind grew in the spot where they had landed…and Maurice is now in the Twilight Zone…



Lavender is a herb, like rosemary or thyme and is an ingredient of herbes de Provence. Chicken and lamb are particularly good with lavender and lavender cream, lavender ice-cream and lavender mousse are delicious. If you put a few sprigs of lavender with sugar in an airtight jar you can make wonderful lavender-flavoured cakes and biscuits. However, it is a pungent herb and must be used sparingly if you don’t want your food tasting of fabric softener. Lavender honey, on the other hand, has a delicate, fragrant, summery taste. Pale and golden, it is considered by many to be the best tasting honey in the world as well as having healing properties…talking of which, I feel a bit of brain flatulence coming on and I’m going to need to take my medicine…and what better way to take it than dripping off warm toast?
 



 

8 comments:

sablonneuse said...

How right you are about the scent of lavender 'growing on you' as you get older.
I hadn't realised there were different varieties so that explains why Norfolk can be famous for its lavender but my neighbours insist we live too far north (Ardennes) to grow it successfully.

Alison Ashwell said...

The local specialist home-made ice cream shops here in Nice sell lavender icecream [and violette which is lovely] I have been too chicken to try lavender icecream though

richard-r said...

At last, I'll be able to read regularly your articles. They're like a bubble of nice entertainment in this dumb-inhabited world. Thnaks for that.
Your best fan ...

Gigi said...

sablonneuse...I even put drops of lavender essential oil on my pillow at night - it helps me sleep...perhaps you could find a variety that would grow up there in the Ardennes?

alison...mmmnn...violet ice cream. Lovely! As for lavender,I must admit I did try it in a cake once and I wasn't that impressed!

as for you, richard-r - you shouldn't be reading my articles, you should be working! (just because you've got your own little office now...:-))

Louise said...

I was in England last week and as we had the car I did a massif shop-up in M&S (Mum, please bring back one of their BLT sandwiches!). I found a lavender-scented surface cleaner which smells wonderful - I might even become houseproud!! Ha, ha! Going back to England in two weeks so am going to buy a mega stock of it to bring home! Watch M&S shares go through the roof!

Roads said...

How I love the sight of lavender heating idly in the sunshine - somehow in England the effect is never quite the same.

To me, lavender simply isProvence, and especially the area around Carpentras beneath the slopes of Mont Ventoux.

I really must work out the plan for a bike trip to take on the mountain some day. With time to stop and breathe the scent in the air, of course.

steen said...

Hello French Windows. Love your name.
I read your stuff from time to time - and I enjoy doing so. Thank you for going to the trouble.
"As a child, I hated the smell of lavender." Me, too. It used to get up my nose, I could hardly breathe. Now, I don't know. No. It's not that I've lost my nose, it's just that I haven't smelled/smelt (help!) lavender for so long.
"Three beautiful daughters." You speak highly of your children. Still, wish I could say the same of my three.
Bye from Japan.

Gigi said...

Louise - er - houseproud? What's that? I'm more of a house-ashamed sort of person...

roads - your name is so appropriate! You never cease to amaze me - I mean, you've been everywhere! What wonderful memories must be tumbling around in your head...

steen - I'm glad you enjoy my blog. My children ARE beautiful, although I must say as teenagers they are not exactly easy to deal with :-) Thank goodness for chilled rosé wine...