Monday, 9 July 2007

Lavender Blue

As cyclists on the Le Tour de France whizzed along Kent roads this week-end they by-passed a landscape feature more often recognized in Provence than Kent: fields of lavender in bloom.

The Romans originally brought lavender from the Mediterranean to Britain: it was prized for its medicinal qualities and, as it contains camphor, was used as an insect repellent. The name lavender comes from the latin, lavare, to wash, as it was used in laundry processes. For hundreds of years thereafter it was planted in monastery gardens and by the 16th century was found in most private gardens too.

By this time dried lavender was valued for many uses: as well its antiseptic qualities it was scattered on floors, cupboards and beds to deter vermin, used to purify the air, in washing and as a water to scent linen and clothes. When food was not always fresh, and spices were expensive, it was also used to flavour food and as a garnish for meat and fish dishes.

The historical importance of the plant is still apparent in the names of places throughout the south east of England - Lavender Hill, Lavender Court, Lavender Cottage – and those whose ancestors were laundresses (la lavandiere) still carry the family name of Lavender.

The plant requires free drainage and chalk soils provide similar growing conditions to that found in the south of France. A chalk seam runs through Kent and in the late 19th century there were thriving lavender fields in Seal, near Sevenoaks. In those days there was hardly a household without bottles of lavender water, lavender linen sachets hanging in wardrobes, lavender soap or perfume.

In the Seal lavender fields Victorian ladies in wide skirts, high necked blouses and hats picked the stalks by hand to provide these products. But, unfortunately, the lavender fields failed although the variety Seal Lavender (Lavandula x intermedia 'Seal'), which has green foliage and strong stems of pale mauve flowers, still survives.

Lavender fields in Norfolk were the most famous during the 20th century but now farmers in West Kent are producing lavender on a commercial basis again. Steam distillation is still the most widely used method of extracting the essential oils, inherited from the Arabs hundreds of years ago. However, technical improvements mean that the reliability and quality of the product has improved.

Lavender oil is still used for traditional toiletries but it is now big business as an ingredient in aromatherapy products, desirable for its calming and relaxing properties. It's also a natural antidote: yep, it's antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-depressant and anti-convulsive. In addition lavender has had a renaissance for culinary uses: cooking essences are used in breads, puddings and preserves and cold essences in ice-creams and drinks.

Driving or travelling by train to Shoreham in Kent there can be seen a wonderful purple haze across the landscape: lavender fields in bloom instantly transport the commuter to the south of France. Rows of lavender spikes create stunning mauve hummocks that run down a south facing slope right up to the sixteenth century farmhouse of Castle Farm.

You can see how beautiful these lavender fields are by visiting their website, (yes, you've guessed, they grow hop bines too), and can find out about the many activities provided for visitors. This week-end they had a Lavender Festival and visitors could buy lavender products, try lavender flavoured foods, visit the distillery and take a tour of the lavender fields.

Art courses at the farm tempt painters to try and create the quintessential Provence landscape, but lavender bushes and lavender scents are as English as English can be. If you don't believe me, on yer bike.


Book Note: long before Peter Mayle's book A Year in Provence (1990) was written there languished on my mother's bookshelves a slim purple covered book entitled Perfume from Province, by Lady Winifred Fortescue (1935). Finding it one day, I read the delightful record of the renovation of her small stone house near Grasse, surrounded by olive groves and lavender bushes, in which she gave a warm account of her experiences with the charming, if sometimes trying, local craftsmen.

The whole tenor was a more gentle – less scathing – version of Mayle's later book on the same subject, in the same area of Provence. However, a small consolation: Perfume from Province was republished after the roaring success of Mayle's book and it too - belatedly - became a best seller.


Hsiaoshuang said...

Dear Lucy,

Thank you for a most informative, interesting commentary on lavender. I was helping a friend to name a new Chinese restaurant in Singapore, and I suggested "Lavender Court" (Tzi Hsing Lou). The name in Chinese literally means "purple fragrance". Out of curoisity I did a Google search and came to your blog.

Since you mention the pretty scene of lavender farms in Kent, why not shoot a pic and post it on your blog?


Lucy Ann White said...

'Purple fragrance' sounds lovely, Hsiashuang. I should love to post photos but have not cracked an easy way to do so on my blogspot site: I'll have another go. Good luck with your friend's new restaurant. Lucy

Peter Riley said...

Excellent work - glad you admire Lady Fortescue and her books. You may be interested in my web site at Best wishes, Peter.