Sunday 29 July 2012

In the Footsteps of the Lavender Pickers

Lavender is the plant that sells Provence. Without it we’d have to fall back on Sunflowers or Thyme but you can find them elsewhere, not like the huge expanses of lavender on the Valensole Plateau or the Plateau d’Albion. There is a problem however, lavender is in flower for only 4 weeks, although I have read on many a so called “expert in travel” to France websites that it flowers from the end of May to mid-August. The truth is : end of June to third week of July, no more, no less.

I have spent many an hour in meetings for the local end regional tourist boards debating on the best way to market Provence, and lavender crops up very quickly every time. It’s an easy sell and therefore should be used, but at the same time there is a strong movement against it, as there is so much more to Provence than lavender.
Lavender field near Banon, Haute Provence
La Haute Provence with its emblematic fields of Lavender
For myself, I love it, and every year for four weeks it never ceases to amaze and enchant me, the different hues, the neat tidy (probably treated) fields, and the ones with about as many weeds growing as lavender plants and the vibrant green leaves of the wild almond trees growing at the ends or in the middle of the fields, witnesses to a not so distant past when almond orchards outnumbered lavender fields.

A bit of history

It wasn’t until the start of the 20th century that lavender was cultivated in fields. Up until then it was picked in the foothills of Provence by hand, but the growing demand from the perfume industry, and later the industrial sector for washing powders, shampoos etc. gave rise in about 1905 to the experimental planting of wild plants. It took many years to perfect the process and after experimenting with cross breeding and grafting with the strongest and most prolific plants, the first successful fields came to be around 1925-30. It was still picked by hand however, and even if taking on a row of lavender with a scythe is easier than picking individual stalks in the mountains, it was still a tough job in the July heat of Provence.

Lavender Field on the Plateau de Valensole, with wild Almond trees
Lavender fields on the Plateau de Valensole
with wild almond trees
In 1952 the first mechanical harvester saw the day, and things quickly changed. In 1920 the annual production of essential lavender oil was 70 tonnes 90% of which was wild lavender and 10% cultivated. By 1959 the annual production was 130 tonnes but this time 90% was cultivated and only 10% wild. The lavender production moved to areas easy to harvest and they are still there today, mostly on the Valensole Plateau, and on the Plateau d’Albion . Today the production is all cultivated and the annual production is 800 – 1000 tonnes of essential lavender oil.

The main production today is Lavandin whose essential oils are used in industrial products and the main production comes from the Valensole Plateau.  To find fields of True Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) used in cosmetics and herbal remedies you have to climb above 800 metres to the Plateau d’Albion around the villages of Revest du Bion and Sault.
Lavender fields near Sault on the Plateau d'Albion
Lavender fields on the Plateau d'Albion

Your own Lavender Experience 

Alternatively you can still find True Lavender growing wild on the hills of La Haute Provence, and I wanted to put together a simple, interesting travel experience that would take you back in time, and allow you to experience a day in the life of the Provençal Lavender Pickers, with a few modern comforts thrown in of course, this travel experience will soon be available on the Unique Provence web site for the 2013 lavender season.
Wild Lavender growing in Haute Provence
Wild lavender growing in Haute Provence

One of the components of the above travel experience is experiencing the lavender distillation up close, for this we have secured access to a marvellous still which we have been testing this summer.  
The still is supplied by the European University of Scents and Flavours, and our master of ceremonies in the photos is Olivier Bagarri, the director of the afore mentioned place of learning and a personal friend.
The process is simple water is heated in the bottom of the still, the steam rises and passes through the lavender capturing the essential oil, it rises out of the top, and condenses in the condensing coil where it comes out as lavender water and oil mixed together. The oil rises to the top of the water and is recuperated. The lavender water is also kept and can be used in the house as it is very rich in lavender oil. Below you can admire my stunningly detailed diagram on how it all works!
How to distil lavender
How to distil Lavender (click to enlarge)

The amount of essential oil produced during a distillation is not huge, especially using lavande fine (True Lavender) which was the case in our experiments. The ratio of weight of lavender to weight of essential oil produced is 0.5% and with Lavandin it is 1.0% to 1.8%, so you if you join us next year you will be taking home a very small amount, but this experience isn’t about producing gallons of oil but about the way it is made.
Here are some more photos of lavender distillation, with a little anecdote at the bottom.
Distilling lavender in Haute Provence
The Still in Action
Olivier with some of the ingredients
A live distillation always attracts attention
The Essential Oil floating on top of the Lavender water

Olivier inspecting the result of the mornings distillation

The Thieving Tourist

Last week we distilled some lavender and the final quantity was 7ml, which was quite an honourable amount. A lady from a passing cycling tour group came to see what we were doing, and we showed her. She looked at the 7ml of essential oil, and shouted out to her friends “this is the stuff you can buy on the market!” pulled a small bottle out of her bag, poured in the oil and walked off!  We were so stunned by this “robbery” that we remained speechless, as the efforts of an entire mornings toil disappeared into the distance. But we can distil again, and she has a lovely souvenir even though she had forgotten to ask if she could take it, and she had also forgotten to say thank you after she did, which would have been nice…

Learn more about our travel experience - A Day in the Life of a Lavender Picker

Fantastic Provence with L'Occitane

Discover the Fantastic Provence with L'Occitane website full of insights, travel tips and ideas. Unique Provence by Kairos Travel is the travel agency chosen by L'Occitane en Provence to create exclusive tours and travel experiences which you can find on our website following the link to the right.
Coming soon will be a new series of exclusive travel experiences focusing on the world of L'Occitane and it's partners, perfect for creating your own made to measure tour of La Belle Provence.

Fantastic Provence website and article on Kairos Travel

Friday 27 July 2012

Plateau d'Albion Lavender 2012

Lavender near Revest du Bion, Plateau d'AlbionLavender fields near SaultThe beginning of the lavender harvestThe view from the town of SaultSaultLavender and the Ventoux
Chestnut tree in a lavender fieldLavender Plateau d'AlbionCreative hay bale sculpture, Revest du BionLavender Plateau d'AlbionLavender near Revest du Bion with the Mont VentouxLavender near Revest du Bion with the Mont Ventoux
The last photos of Lavender fields in flower for 2012, the harvest is well under way now... but soon our new lavender travel experience for summer of 2013 will be unveiled "en avant première" on the Unique Provence Blog.
These photos were all taken on the Plateau d'Albion near the towns of Revest du Bion and Sault*. It is here that the valuable "Lavande Fine" grows, used by the cosmetic industry and notably L'Occitane en Provence a Unique Provence exclusive partner.
Note the Mont Ventoux** often making an appearance in the background, adding a note of majesty to the already spectacular views.

*See our blog post on the Nougat maker of Sault
**See our blog post on the Mont Ventoux

Thursday 19 July 2012

Les Petites Tables, the perfect stop for a healthy Provençale lunch

In mid-July in Provence the heat can be pretty tough. If you’ve ever wondered where everyone is in the afternoon and why all the shutters of the houses are closed, the reason is simple, the heat. Air conditioning is a rare luxury in France and so the technique of opening the windows at night and closing them in the early morning guarantees a cool house for the rest of the day, and it works fine. 

The other dilemma in mid-summer is eating out at lunch time. If you indulge yourself in lavish menus and copious amounts of wine then your afternoon will be spent snoring under one of the many plane trees of Provence. This is a perfectly acceptable option once in a while, but if you want to make the most of your day then light, healthy and easy to digest options are what you are looking for. 
The menus at Les Petites Tables
As it happens I have just finished lunch in one such place, and have no desire to sleep under a tree or on the lovely leather sofa in my office. Today I had lunch at Les Petites Tables at the Eco Musée de L’Olivier in Volx, Haute Provence.
The Façade of the Eco-Musée de L'Olivier in Volx
Inside the Eco-Musée de L'Olivier
The Eco Musée is a fascinating museum on the culture of the Olive tree throughout the ages, and was created by Olivier Baussan who is also the man who created L’Occitane en Provence. Alongside the museum is a shop selling an incredible range of olive oils from across Provence, each one being personally selected by Olivier himself. You can also find produce ranging from locally made terrines to tapenades, flavoured salts, dried Provençale tomatoes, porcini flavoured pasta and even sardines from Port St Louis du Rhone and all of these are made by personal acquaintances of Olivier.
Just some of the wonderful produce in the shop

Soon you will even be able to book a weekend or a holiday through one of the best in the business, and meet some of the olive oil producers, and manufacturers of the countless delights on offer here. (All this coming soon) The travel agent creating the travel experiences with Olivier Baussan is me of course, though I assume you thought it couldn’t be anyone else! 

But back to my lunch… 

Josephine and Virginie hard at work in the tiny kitchen.
This little restaurant is run by Virginie and Josephine, from a tiny kitchen which is in the inside dining area. The principal is simple, each day Virginie creates salads, tarts, soups and cakes. You can choose to have the selection of the day for a mere 10€, which today was a risotto d’épautre (épautre translates as small spelt, a type of wheat, locally grown) a chick pea salad, a cucumber and melon salad, an eggplant caviar with cumin, a chilled courgette and coriander soup and green salad with shallots. 
The selection of the day
That’s quite a selection for such a small price tag and it was utterly delicious, copious without being too much and best of all you know that everything was prepared on the day, using exclusively local produce. Now I can hear some of you are saying to yourselves, that’s a great meal if you’re a vegetarian or a rabbit. You would of course have a point, although rabbits would never go for the eggplant caviar, or the soup. But Virginie and Josephine have the answer, as they also have on offer a wonderful selection of charcuterie, including dried hams, terrines, tapenades and local goats cheese (made by my good friend Thierry Yernaux*) also all locally produced. 
Our two plates, to be shared...
I was eating with a friend and we decided to take one selection of the day and the charcuterie to share, which was the perfect combination. You can also ask to have half and half on a plate as they are both the same price, 10€. For dessert I took a café gourmand, which is an espresso coffee with a selection of small portions of different desserts. It’s what you take to make you feel that you are not over indulging by having dessert and then a coffee, but the reality is you are, and often there is more on the plate of a café gourmand! Now I have several criteria for judging chefs, and one of them is desserts. Based on that, Virginie is a great chef! The selection I had was a slice of apricot tart, with melt in the mouth pastry, an almond and apricot cake, another little cup cake and two slices of a chocolate cake that was so smooth and moist and rich that I’m glad and yet sad that there was not more. 
Le Café Gourmand
The café gourmand was priced at 7€. All in all our meal came to 17€ each and on top of that we half a bottle of chilled rosé wine (necessary in summer) for 5.50€. For the quality and freshness of the produce and the culinary skills that transformed it I think it’s hard to find a better deal in the height of summer in Provence, or anywhere else for that matter. 
The outside eating area
So when you are traveling in La Haute Provence, come and visit the Eco Musée de L’Olivier, browse the shop for some fantastic genuine souvenirs and gifts, and take a seat at Les Petites Tables for lunch, assuring you a delicious break in your day’s discoveries at a very reasonable price, and the possibility to continue on in the afternoon without needing a nap. 

Monday 16 July 2012

Le Mont Ventoux, the Provençale Giant and Very Windy Place

45 years ago nearly to the day, the 1967 Tour de France cyclist Tom Simpson fell off his bicycle unconscious when he was nearly at the end of the days gruelling ride. He was in sight of the summit of the Mont Ventoux a classic of the world famous race. Sadly the intense heat, 35°C, the lack of water, the cognac given by “helpful” fans, and the massive intake of amphetamines got the better of him, and he died in the helicopter on the way to Avignon.

The memorial for Tom Simpson
just a short distance from the summit of the Ventoux
This tragic story is known to all Frenchmen, and women (my mother remembered it when I asked her yesterday and she's not exactly a Tour de France aficionado) and to all followers of the Tour de France. 
Luckily nowadays, the cyclists have water to drink, lay of the cognac and consume a much better class of drug, although apparently that last bit is a malicious lie. But the heat of the Provençale sun in July and the Mont Ventoux haven’t changed. 

Determined cyclists with only a few hundred yards to go
In 1902 Frenchman André Benoit sent a postcard to a friend after driving in his rudimentary motor car up to the summit of this legendary mountain, he said that it took 7 hours by car, 6 hours on foot and for a very fit cyclist 3 ½ hours. It took me just over 25 minutes by car (with water, no cognac) and most cyclists do it in 1 ½ to 3 hours depending on their form. The Tour de France record is 55 mins 51 s by Iban Mayo in 2004.
The shingle rock, that from a distance can lead
you to thinking the summit is snow covered
The name Mont Ventoux, comes from Venteux, meaning windy, the wind here blows at over 90km/h (60 Mph) for around 240 days a year, the strongest gust was recorded in 1967 at 320km/h (200 Mph). The summit of the Ventoux is bare, nothing grows here in the rocky shingle bar a few brave little plants that stay low to the ground to avoid being blown away to the Mediterranean. It is this naked summit that often leads to confusion in the winter (and even in the summer) about whether there is snow cover or not.

At top of the Mont Ventoux, the altitude panel,
and a variety of stickers from passing cyclists.
So you may ask, why would anyone ever want to go up a windswept, barren mountain whose claim to fame is the Tour de France and a deceased cyclist. (There are others but for dramatic effect I have purposely left them out)

Here are 5 good reasons, (it's very popular to make lists apparently) and you can add more in the comments if you like.

  1. At the height of Summer, when the temperatures in Provence are regularly in the mid 30's centigrade, the temperature at the summit lowers significantly, providing a welcome blast of cool air (remember the wind) and escape from the stifling heat below.
  2. The views are simply stunning. On a clear day you can see the Alps and the Mediterranean, the Montagne du Luberon and all of Provence spread out below. 
  3. Pretend you're Raymond Poulidor, or Lance Armstrong or any other famous cyclist and set of to establish a new record for the ascension of the "Provençale Giant". You can rent a bicycle in  Bedoin or from your hotel (I particularly like L'Hotel Crillon le Brave, and their mini spa is just the thing upon your return to ease the muscles after your ascent)
  4. Just to meditate. There are many places to get away from the photo taking crowds around the summit to just sit and relax and meditate.
  5. Simply because there is nothing else like it. Individual summits like the Ventoux have something magical about them. In the Alps it's the Eiger or the Matterhorn, and in the mountains of Provence the Ventoux is often the part of the skyline that draws the eye. 

Below are a few more pictures I took of the Ventoux, click on them for a full sized view.

Leaving the village of Sault 
One of the impressive final
bends before the summit
Summit in view
The lunar landscape of the Mont Ventoux
Yep, and you can buy some of these on the summit too!
La Montagne de Lure in the distance,
another Provençale mountain worth visiting
The stunning views from the Summit of the Ventoux are worth the trip.

Friday 13 July 2012

The Nougat Maker of Sault

The village of Sault set at the foot of the Mont Ventoux is situated at 800m on the Plateau d’Albion. Until recently this plateau was famed for its missile launching facilities, as it was from here that a large part of France’s nuclear response in case of an attack would have been launched by our cold war enemies.
Now the missiles have gone, the enemies are our friends, and the only military presence that remains is a base occupied by the French Foreign Legion at St Christol.

A view of Lavender fields with the Mont Ventoux
ever present in the background

So now the Plateau has regained its former place as the primary location to find fields of Lavande Fine or True Lavender with the ever present backdrop of the majestic Mont Ventoux. But the Lavender, beautiful as it may be is not the subject of this article. The village of Sault has another claim to fame, and one that I have driven past numerous times, promising myself that one day I will stop and investigate, the Maison André Boyer, master Nougat maker. So on Monday I phoned them up, and arranged a rendez-vous, and today I set off to find out all about Nougat.
The Village of Sault
The Maison André Boyer was established in 1887 by Ernest Boyer, originally a patissier, he started making Nougat Blanc and Nougat Noir which were two of the 13 desserts of a Provençale Christmas. (I’ll tell you about the others in December) he then went on to make Provence Almond Macaroons and biscuits using Petite Epautre flour which is a type of wheat commonly grown in Provence. His reputation grew, and soon Nougat de Sault became very sought after. The business remained in the family passing from generation to generation as did the recipes and their little secrets which make this Nougat so special.  Today the business is still run in the exact same way as before, but no longer belongs to the family.

The façade of the Maison André Boyer 

All the Nougat is made in the back of the shop, using wonderful looking machines from a bygone era. The process is simple, or at least when explained it seems so. For the soft white nougat, first you mix egg whites with honey in a bain-marie for 2 hours, then slowly add a sugar syrup and continue mixing for another hour. Meanwhile take fresh almonds and roast them to bring out their flavour, then let them cool and add to the sugar, honey and egg white mixture, pour onto a tray, and let it set for a day.  The next day using a specially designed circular saw, cut it all up, wrap well in cellophane to keep the moisture out and there you have it. For the Black nougat, mix honey, sugar and almonds in a copper pan stirring constantly, until it caramelises, and pour out to cool, but this one is cut before it gets too hard.

One of the many Nougat making devices
In the summer there is a free guided tour on Tuesdays and Fridays at 3pm, but only in French, it’s a short tour, showing the workshop and there is also a 7 minute video which is well worth watching even if you can’t understand it. It shows the different stages of Nougat making and is presented by André Boyer whose wonderful Provençale accent, and the background music, a sort of medieval medley, give it a very homemade feel.

Bags of flavoured Marshmallows waiting to be eaten
The visit finishes in the shop of course, where as well as the Nougats macaroons and biscuits there is also marshmallows flavoured with lavender strawberry and rose water, callisons, chocolate covered almonds and even a house made Pastis. There is also an ice cream section which boasts tens of flavours including lavender, nougat and macaroon, all of which I was offered and thoroughly enjoyed!
So if you decide to go on a trip to discover the Lavender fields of the Plateau d’Albion, or go to visit the Mont Ventoux (I’ll tell you about that tomorrow) plan a stop in the village of Sault and take home some of the famed Nougat from the House of André Boyer.

Private visits are available with Unique Provence, for more information contact us here.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Moustiers and the Valensole plateau

A few pictures to illustrate the previous article, the town of Moustiers Ste Marie and the Friday market, and of course even more photos of the lavender fields of La Haute Provence up on the Plateau de Valensole...
Enjoy and share, but if you use the pictures please mention the credit "Unique Provence" and tell me where you use them. You can contact me here