Fiona McIntosh

…and so to some details about Lavender

In a field of lavender at dusk in Saignon – alpine Provence.

Is there a flower – other than perhaps a rose – which evokes more emotion than lavender?  Lavender is one of those supreme species that boasts an elite acceptance and affection globally.  It’s as common in gardens around the world as mint or rosemary and its product from the purer strains – essential oil – as prized as gold.  I’m sure I heard somewhere that ounce for ounce, it’s as precious and expensive as gold.

Its fragrance, when you pick a stalk and smell the flowers or crush them in your palm, brings to mind grandmothers, softness, calmness, prettiness, security and peace.  Would you agree?  And it’s why putting lavender – as a plant, as an income, as a family’s way of life and particularly personnifying it in a man….plus giving it a sort of magical quality in my novel – made its positive images all the more  powerful for surrounding it with the negative images of war, fear, angst, death, blood.

As I wrote my story the lavender began to have a life force of its own in the novel.

True ‘lavender fin’ – or lavandula angustifolia– is the wild stock that grows in alpine Provence above 800 metres in stony soil.  For flourishing fields you need arid countryside with a hot dry summer and a cool, wet winter.

Wild lavender of the Luberon in stony soil

Lavender’s therapeutic properties have been known for centuries.  It is believed the plant was referred to as ‘spikenard’ in passages in the Bible so this herb has been a part of our lives for as early as man can remember.  It is essentially a plant of the Mediterranean and found its way into northern Europe – particularly Britain-  via the Romans I gather it was the Greeks who cultivated it first.  In the dark and middle ages, people would scent their houses with it through potpourri or using the stalks of lavender on their earthen/stone floors to be crushed underfoot with other aromatics to freshen the stale air as much as to discourage rats and mice!

Monasteries used it for medicinal purposes and, given that it was an herb, people would use lavender for culinary purposes, often to mask the flavour of rotten meat.

Lavender honey from the Sault region of the Luberon

Today’s cooks might use lavender – sparingly please! – to scent a meringue or perhaps even flavour a chicken casserole – I have  – but cooks from ancient times were familiar with a powdered variety that was regarded as a condiment for the table.  I can’t imagine dusting my food with such a floral additive, can you?

Eating a lavender-scented meringue at Sault – one of the best lavender districts in Provence … and very beautiful too

Today, it finds its way into our lives in many commercial ways, from perfume through disinfectant to medicines and even food.  We rub it on our skin, we spray it on our bodies, we inhale it when we sleep, we wash our hair in it, we wash our clothes in it, we even wash our dogs with product containing lavender!

What I discovered in my research though is that there is lavender…and there is lavender.  True French Lavender, gathered mainly in rural, southern alpine France is infinitely less astringent than its hybrid and its fragrance powerful (more on this in another blog).

Wild lavender gathering became more intensive toward the late 1800s.  It’s incredibly hard work as I discovered when I visited the Museum of Lavender – Musée de la Lavande – in Coustellet, Provence.  There I was able to not only smell the essential oil from both types of lavender – the true lavender and ‘lavandin’ as we know it – but I walked through the decades of commercial lavender growing and the advancements in everything from how it was cut and gathered to the great leaps in progress as to how the essential oil was distilled.

Museum of Lavender, Coustellet, Luberon in Provence

Something in the order of 100 tons of lavender essence was produced in Provence in the early 1920s, almost all of it achieved from wild lavender.  Contemporary estimates of production suggests Provence today yields just 25 tons of essential oil, and almost all of it from cultivated fields.  In the early 80s, The Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée came into being to offer protection of lavender essential oil from the Haute-Provence region against competition from other European sources.  Fields must now lie within specific boundaries and are subject to stringent testing in order to carry the AOC authority.    Competition is now strong, not just for the right to name new lavenders and to bear that all important AOC sigil but during the 1960s when perfume was exploding as a major industry, almost all the lavender was going to Grasse for the big French perfume houses to produce their beautiful scents, but now Grasse competes against other big producers of fragrances such as the US and especially Japan.

When my story begins in 1942, the village-folk gather the lavender using scythes.  For women it was a cuillette and for men it was a slightly heavier, larger version called a faucille.  Men wore baskets, women gathered the lavender into long aprons.  They’d toil all day.  Wealthy lavender growers would have their own stills but mostly those stills that heated up the raw plants and distilled the essential oil would be a rather grand copperaffair on a wagon that could be hitched to a horse and moved around the region for the farmers to rent.

Lavandiers…note the women's large apron sack and the scythes

By WWll, the hybrids that were deliberately planted out to help farmers return to the rural regions of France after the Great War, had begun to flourish and the new ‘ordinaire’ had begun to choke away the lavender fin.  During the war lavender was an important antiseptic for the marching armies and some French growers were considered ‘essential services’, many of them permitted to remain on the land and not be conscripted by their German masters to be sent to the Front and fight on behalf of the Third Reich. This is how my lavender grower comes to be working his fields in 1942 and not holding a gun.

The dusk light on the lavender is gorgeous. Ian in a field around Saignon, Provence

One of the important balances to achieve when writing a novel that has required  much research, is finding the perfect amount of information to dripfeed into the story that keeps it interesting for readers, while resisting the urge to pile in everything that the writer has learned.  It’s very easy to feel that you’ve had this enormous education in a short time and you want to share it with readers.  I found myself having to fight the desire to give all of you a lot more background to my lavender grower’s profession.

Driving around the Luberon – fields of lavender flanked our journey

I hope when you read the book you’ll find the snippets that I did leave in to be just the right amount to evoke the images you need so that you can walk the fields with him, smell the lavender, hear the bees darting around the flowers, and be able to picture in your mind the villagers in their back-breaking work during the hot summer months reaping the lavender.

 

 

In Sault, Provence.

 

 

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14 Comments

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  1. Nicola March 7, 2012

    Fiona, that last photo of you…the one holding the lavender…is just beautiful xox

    Reply

    • Fiona March 7, 2012

      Thank you, so sweet! I think I look like a lavender bride! :)

      Reply

  2. Lee-Anne March 23, 2012

    Oh my goodness, what a journey and wonderful insight into your research …I love the photo ..he..(Ian ) ? finaly got perfect for you with the bautiful bouquet of lavender…would look lovely on the dusk cover of a hard cover copy !! collectors edition?
    The photography in the field is lovely.the sun just kissing the tips of the laveder…
    I have not begun to read yet as I have my stock pile of fire wood now ready in the basket by the hearth, several days free from work comming up and I am savouring the moment… before the fire with my hot chocolate and ” the Lavender Keeper ” as I begin my journey with Luc, Lisette and of course Colonel Kilian…..thank you Fiona for the tantalising appetiser. I will saviour every morsal of my main course.

    Reply

    • Fiona March 23, 2012

      My absolute pleasure! You make me want to settle down and read it all over again myself! Ah Kilian. I can’t help myself. He gets under your skin. Enjoy Lee-Anne. And wear purple as you read! x

      Reply

  3. Elizabeth March 29, 2012

    Hi Fiona,
    I went to your wonderful talk at the Bowral Bookstore on Tuesday this week. Of course, I bought “The Lavender Keeper” and only wish I could read it in Provence! Mum and I both admired your gorgeous dark purple nail polish on the night and I would love to know what brand/name the polish is?
    Looking forward to a weekend of reading. I only hope the Toddler has plenty of naps for me so I can read as much as I would like!
    Elizabeth.

    Reply

    • Fiona March 30, 2012

      Hi Elizabeth…you were a warm and wonderful audience, thank you for all the support and very generous welcome to Bowral. I’m sure I’ll be back! Do hope you enjoy reading The Lavender Keeper.

      The colour I was wearing on my nails is a shellac brand colour called Purple Purple – rather predictably!

      Reply

  4. Veronica April 9, 2012

    Hi Fiona,
    I have just finished reading The Lavender Keeper, & loved it, as I did your blogs.
    I first became interested in your novel, after reading your travel article on Provence, in the Escape section of the Adelaide (where we live) Sunday Mail last year. I have always been very passionate about lavender (the plant, oil, etc) & in the last few years have become interested in Provence.
    In January, this year, I finally made it back home to Tassie, where I saw the Bridestowe Lavender Estate in full bloom. It was through my Friends of Bridestowe e-newsletter that I found out about your blog site
    I had waited in anticipation for your novel, & it was certainly worth the wait. I don’t normally read fiction but the Lavender Keeper was not only ,enthralling but educational as well. I also really enjoyed reading your blogs on the novel. A fantastic journey from start to finish. I’m looking forward to the sequel, Luc’s Promise.

    Thank you very much for a lovely read.
    Regards
    Veronica

    Reply

    • Fiona April 10, 2012

      Hi Veronica
      Loved reading this, thank you and I’ve replied privately to you via email as well. F

      Reply

  5. bev laing June 11, 2012

    How I loved ”THE LAVENDER KEEPER” was sad when it ended but glad when I read about luc’s promise, when will it be published, soon i hope.

    Reply

    • Fiona June 11, 2012

      How I love that you loved it, Bev. Thank you so much for letting me know. Luc’s Promise is scheduled for release in March 2013. I’ve just finished the second draft. And loving being with the characters again.

      Reply

  6. Judith Parsons October 20, 2012

    Hi Fiona,
    I’ve heard such good things about the Lavender Keeper so was wondering when it would be published in the UK?
    Judith

    Reply

    • Fiona November 4, 2012

      Hello Judith

      Thank you for your lovely note. Yes, it is being published in the UK I’m thrilled to say. I am begging your patience – it will likely be next year and I will find out shortly for you exactly when. I suspect March but let me ask the question. Nothing happens too fast in publishing but it is happening! All best, F

      Reply

  7. Nina Smithwick February 5, 2014

    I loved The Lavender Keeper so much I recommended it for my Bookclub. I have found it difficult however to find “discussion questions” for the book. Where can I find them? Many thanks and keep on doing

    Reply

    • Fiona March 17, 2014

      I will publish the notes, thanks Nina.

      Reply

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