My love affair with lavender probably started around the time I was nine years old and used to spend weeks and weeks during spring and summer holidays at my maternal grandmother’s house in Provence. Little did I know that in those early years, just how privileged I was, and what wonderful, lasting memories that this would provide me with forever. I also learnt that lavender was not just something you put in cupboards to make them smell good, but that as an addition to food, it was invaluable.
Having said this, I was introduced to all the flavours and aromas of Provence, and my culinary career in the early days, as a chef, was very much based on this. The lavender season is quite short, probably only around 2 months between June and August. It really does depend on climate and particularly rainfall.
Summertime in Provence
For me, as a pint-sized little girl, their home and ‘estate’ (I use that word sparingly!), seemed huge. As well as lavender fields, there was the most fragrant herb garden, stretching as far as I could see. We grew rosemary, thyme, marjoram, coriander (not so much), basil, sage and mint – an absolute floral bouquet whose scent could be inhaled five minutes before you arrived at home. If ever there was an introduction to Provençale living, this was it in bucket loads.
My grandparents were rich with some of the finest qualities in life – good, fresh food, homemade produce and an atmosphere that made your heart sing. What they could not produce themselves, they exchanged with other families close by, almost like a co-operative – our tables were always full, as were our stomachs. Our social life was never quiet, there was always something going on every day, with people coming and going, meat and fish coming in one door, and herbs, vegetables and fruit going out the other door! Every day was a veritable feast of enjoyment – not just food, but families and characters, some of whom I still know to this day.
One lady, Madame Fouret, grew apricots in abundance, and every week apricot tarts would appear, with crisp sweet pastry and glazed with jam. When apricots were more scarce, she would use apples for ‘tarte tatin’ – how I loved the smell of both of them! Her reward for these would be our home-grown lavender, which was my first experience of tasting it – bread, cakes, lavender sugar and syrup were also what she would return to our home with regularity.
I so looked forward to her visits – not just for her delicacies, but her son, Christian – probably my first flush of teenage love! Both Monsieur Fouret, her husband, and Christian worked around the estate and would be there for our communal lunch, along with a multitude of other workers, chattering at the top of their voices. Christian was allowed wine, and I was allowed a little now and again, watered down! How I loved those long lunches, with tables covered in bread, cheeses, home-cured meats, olives and salads (it took me a while to enjoy the taste of artichokes, however!). Nobody other than my grandmother was allowed to produce the ‘soupe du jour’, which could be anything from the cupboards and vegetable and herb store that was available. This was my first experience of peeling, chopping and other skills that would stand me in good stead for the future – I absolutely loved it. I couldn’t lift the vast cooking pots that were on the stove, empty or full of delicious soup, until I was about 12 years old, but my grandmother used to lift them with so much ease, and she was just shy of 5 feet tall!
Ready for a taste of Provence?
Market days were a source of great excitement for me, getting up early in the Provence sunshine, loading up the truck (Christian was there, so that was always more beneficial) and driving the 15 minutes into the nearest village. We would sell whatever we had, from fresh herbs to dried herbs, goats’ cheese, jarred pickles, marinated pickles and sometimes terrines and pates – whatever my grandmother had time to make. It was always busy – sometimes we would sell out of almost everything, and come home (via a hot chocolate, croissant or similar sweet pastry) to finish off the repast for lunch. Even better, the market traders got to know me well and would always bring a little treat for ‘la petite anglaise’ (little English girl).
One of the most popular recipes my grandmother used to make was ‘soupe au pistou’. This was a rustic but full of flavour soup, and not by any means as traditional as some of the soups described today. But for me, it has a lasting flavour on my taste buds, and I still make it today (link to recipe).
I do hope this article has made you want to go to the Provence region; you will never regret it. Eat with the locals where possible and taste the true flavours of the area.