…and so to some details about Lavender
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.