Provencal Lavender – off the beaten track
When the lavender is harvested in Provence at the end of July, a heavenly scent is carried on warm evening breezes. Alerted by the first wafts of perfumed air, from our terrace we can sometimes see the smoke rising from the other side of a small ridge. The distillation has begun.
In the small purple fields woven into the landscape of the hills around the town of Apt in the Luberon, the stills are sometimes placed in the very fields where the flowers have been grown. In this part of Provence lavender farming is a far cry from the huge commercial concerns of Sault and Valensole, more like smallholdings tended in the traditional way.
The lavender production that scents our summer sunsets is sold to a local co-operative, but a few kilometres further into the valley is the Distillerie Les Coulets, near the village of Rustrel. As you arrive down a narrow country track, time stands still, and you enter the world of Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. Although Pagnol’s enduring stories were set further south towards the coast at Marseille, the same rural idyll really does seem to linger in every stone and corner.
An old still, once used to extract the essence from the lavender – or the hardier lavandin -flowers, stands proudly outside the farm. This is a tiny, family-run business: Christian Borde & Fils. The lavender is grown in the surrounding fields and brought to an unassuming barn for the magic of scent distillation to begin. I drew on the setting for this scene from my novel The Lantern, in which the perfumes of Provence are a sensory presence.
“The water in the still was bubbling merrily. At the table, one of the much older women known to us simply, namelessly, as Madame, was thrashing the head of a sheath against a box to break off and collect the flowers. Then with one deft sifting motion, she showered the ground with any remaining remnants of stalk and leaf and an even more intense cloud of lavender scent exploded into the warm air.”
At Les Coulets the modern alembic still is heated. Steam rises through the lavender flowers and is pushed up through the pipe that comes out of the top, and then down through the cooling cylinder full of cold water that coils round and round. At the end of the process, the resulting liquid contains the essence of the flower, its oil and scent.
With this essential oil, the Distillerie les Coulets makes different strengths of lavender preparations, from the pure essence which must be diluted – with almond oil, perhaps – before it comes into contact with the skin, to soothing massage oils that Madame Borde makes up and labels in her workshop, which is barely larger than a garden shed.
It’s a truly charming enterprise, and the resultant natural oils have a deep and sweet, almost honeyed aroma, a world away from synthetic mass-produced fragrances.
The other side of Apt, high up near Buoux in the imposing hills of the Grand Luberon, the lavender crop is gathered and distilled in the traditional way on much a larger scale at Les Agnels.
Sheaves of lavender – and lavandin – are brought from the fields all around to the steam vats in an open barn for the extraction process. After vaporisation, the droplets of scented oil are used to make soaps and shampoos and shower gel. The dried flowers are also used in traditional lavender bags of Provenҫal fabric to scent drawers and wardrobes.
In The Lantern, my fictional perfume and soap-maker Madame Musset was a herbalist too, with a knowledge of the medicinal properties of natural oils. And here at Les Agnels, you can find the same old cures for ailments that she would have produced. A laurel leaf preparation for viral and dental afflictions, for example; lemon balm (Melissa) for migraines and digestive troubles.
Les Agnels also sells perfumes, lovely fresh scents made with lavender, and Luberon flowers, fig, amber resin, and a personal favourite for hot summer days, a Green Tea eau de toilette that manages to be light and fresh and sweet at the same time. Then there are the room scents, all given names that lift the senses and transport you just to read them: Under the Lime Trees, In the Shade of the Fig Tree, and A Wander through the Garrigue, releasing breaths of sun-baked thyme, sage, rosemary and pine. The essence of Provence off the beaten track.
Want to visit these lavender distilleries?
Distillerie Les Coulets
Hameau les Coulets
Route de Rustrel
Tel: +33 (0)4 90 74 07 55
Distillerie de lavande les Agnels
Route de Buoux
Tel:+33 (0)4 90 04 77 00